The following post (first of several) is part of an account of revivals which occurred in the north of Scotland in the eighteenth century. The account is found in the magazine of the Original Secession Church.
It was well on towards the middle of the eighteenth century that the best days of the religious life of the North Highlands began. After the Revolution Settlement , Church Courts struggled on amid manifold difficulties to supply Gospel ordinances, but the labourers were few. Along the shores of the Moray, Cromarty and Dornoch firths some very eminent ministers were settled, and by them ‘prayer was made without ceasing’ for a revived work, and times of refreshing.
One of the first parishes to share the abundant blessing vouchsaved in answer to united prayer was Nigg, in the Presbytery of Tain. The worthy Mr John Balfour, a licentiate of the Presbytery of Caithness, was ordained minister of Logie-Easter in 1716, and was translated to Nigg in March 1729. He found the people sunk in gross ignorance and iniquity. Sabbath was devoted to athletic games. ‘They had a leader, a strong, bold man, to whom all looked up. Mr Balfour watched for his opportunity. Having to attend the General Assembly he sent for the champion of the Sabbath sports, and told him that, as his duty called him from home, he left the east end of the parish in his charge, and would hold him responsible that the people spent the Sabbath, not in games and rioting, but in prayer and reading and hearing the Word. ‘You are surely aware, sir,’ said the athlete, ‘that of these games, I myself am the leader, and the first to begin; how then can you ask me to stop them?’ ‘I charge you before God to do so,’ said the minister; ‘let the guilt of a refusal lie upon your conscience.’ ‘Well, sir, if it must be so,’ replied the man, ‘I’ll try what I can do.’ He was as good as his word. The Sabbath games were discontinued, and the ringleader himself became a devoted Christian’ (Sage, Mem.).
With what prayerful zeal he laboured thereafter may be learned from his own words published in Robe’s Monthly History for 1744: ‘The revival of religion in the parish of Nigg has been on the advance since the year 1730, though for most part in a gradual, slow way, and with several stops and intermissions at times. As to new awakenings, the most considerable concern appeared in 1739. Then several persons awakened (and who had never done it before) applied to the minister about their spiritual interest, each day in the week, for one week, Saturday not excepted.’
He goes on to show that the awakening ‘has continued still in some desirable measure’, attended by ‘the accession of such as did not before profess or declare a religious concern’; and that there were ‘no unusual bodily symptoms’ as narrated in other places. ‘Very few, not one in forty, who have been awakened have fallen off from a religious profession, or given open scandal to it. The general meeting for prayer and spiritual conference, which sometimes consisted only of the members of session, and a few others, became at length so numerous that, about three years ago, it was necessary to divide it into two, each of which is since considerably increased.
‘Besides these general meetings (which convene in two places in the parish at a proper distance every alternate Monday, and presided over by the minister) there are ten societies which meet in as many places in the parish every Saturday for prayer, and other religious exercises. Care is taken that, in each of these societies, one or more of the elders, or some Christians of distinguished experience, be always present; and nothing as yet appears about them but what has a tendency to promote the most valuable ends and interests of religion. Besides those who have applied for access to the meetings, and who are not admitted till after giving some account of their concern to the minister and also to some of the elders, and other Christians in their neighbourhood, the body of the parishioners seem generally to be under serious impressions of religion.
‘Worship is kept in all the families in the parish, except three or four. The Lord’s Day is very solemnly observed. After the public worship is over, there are meetings in all parts, where neighbouring families join in prayer, reading, and repetition of sermons; and yet care is taken that such meetings and exercises do not interfere with, nor hinder the more private exercises of religion in each family apart. Ordinances are very punctually attended on the Lord’s Day; and diets of catechising, in whatever part of the parish they are kept on weekdays, are much crowded by people from other parts.
‘The civil magistrate has had no crimes here to animadvert upon for many years; and the kirk session has very little else to do, but to inform and consult about the religious concerns of the parish, and to concert how these may be looked after and managed to greatest advantage. And it is specially to be remarked that the people are very diligent and industrious in their secular callings, and more forward in the business of their husbandry that their neighbours in other parts of the country.
‘There is the like appearance of success to the Gospel in other parishes in this country, particularly Rosskeen and Kilmuir-Easter, of which the ministers may give information, as they are known to have the advancement of the great interest of the Gospel much at heart…
‘As notes have not been taken in writing of past occurrences and cases, it is judged the safer way to give this general account of matters only at this time; though it is not doubted if particular cases and instances were recollected, with their special circumstances, a narrative of them would be entertaining and edifying to all that have a relish and value for such subjects.’
In the following summer (June 20, 1744), Mr Balfour writes: ‘Since February the work of awakening has proceeded upon subjects more currently that in any former period, and still continues to the praise of free grace. With several it appears to be more distinct and lively than formerly. The far greater number that profess religion in this parish are illiterate, and understand only the Gaelic language. All that I shall say of this language is that it is no disadvantage to their education and instruction in religion. I never conversed with more intelligent, savoury, and distinctly exercised private Christians than some illiterate men in this district, or that challenged and got more respect on a religious account from all sorts of persons of their acquaintance. It is surprising to observe with what industry many, especially of the younger sort, endeavour to acquire reading. Some read the Psalms in Gaelic metre, and teach others in the same way, without knowing or attending to the power of letters, or the use of syllabication, by considering words as complex characters which are always to be pronounced in the same way. Some of the elder sort likewise recover their reading which they had been taught young, but neglected and forgot afterwards. But as the generality are still illiterate, that disadvantage is much made up to them by hearing others read the Scriptures and other good books, which they translate currently as they read, and without any stop.
‘This ready way of reading is one of the exercises performed in the several weekly meetings for prayer, as also in many families. By these means the knowledge of the Scriptures and practical religion is greatly increased. It is really astonishing to me to observe what a copious and pertinent use of the Scriptures many illiterate persons have acquired, and with what a readiness and fluency they pray in Scripture language. I love not to make comparisons nor at all to exaggerate things, but I must be allowed to declare ingeniously, they often make me blush when I am among them and hear them praying, as well as speaking to religious cases. Thus in the most literal sense “faith comes by hearing”. The unlearned rise and take heaven by force. The men of letters dispute heaven -- these live it.’
The almost universal change produced in the parish -- evidenced in high-toned morality, strict Sabbath observance, earnest desire for instruction, unwearied attendance upon ordinances, and hungering and thirsting for the bread of life -- contrasts marvellously with the old prevailing barbarism. The worthy Mr. Lewis Rose, who wrote the statistical account of Nigg in 1836, bears striking testimony to the undoubted genuineness of the revival under the ministry of the godly Mr. Balfour.
‘A chosen generation then appeared, men of God and of prayer. These were a Donald Roy and an Andrew Roy, a John Noble and a Nicholas Vass, and others, whose names may be forgotten on earth, but whose record is on high. Vital godliness prevailed, the Day and House of the Lord were revered, the commandments of God were obeyed, and the character of the people afforded a wonderful contrast to the common abominations that characterised the preceding generation. The records of the kirk session for the thirty years succeeding 1705, while they afford abundant evidence of the zeal and faithfulness of ministers and elders in checking vice of every description, are disgusting in the extreme, as exhibiting a frequency and a grossness of vice among the people, which the succeeding generation would shudder to contemplate. And yet, be it added, the favourable change was produced by the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon the heaven-appointed means, which an authoritative ministry and eldership were indefatigable in employing.’ As Mr. Rose was the highly respected minister of the parish from 1818 to 1835, when he was called to Glasgow, he had full and accurate knowledge of what he described.