Something remarkable took place in the years after the Second World War when the Scottish island of Lewis became the storm centre for a spiritual awakening. The stories that were written in the lives of ordinary people, with no previous contact with the church, reverberated across Scotland, Great Britian, Europe and the World. This is the story of the Hebridean Revival. A couple of weeks before Christmas in 1949, a preacher called Duncan Campbell began to speak about the saving power of Jesus. But this was not about religious services, most of the people encoun God in the fields, on the heathlands and in the houses and barns across the Isle of Lewis.
At that time, the churches were very reserved and strongly aligned to their traditions. In fact, when Campbell first arrived on the island, he was reprimanded by church leaders for wearing brown shoes and not the traditional black ones. Not the best way to encourage new people to attend perhaps. Musical instruments were banned in church because they were considered to be from the Devil and congregations were told not to engage in entertainment on the Lord’s Day. Not surprising then, that ordinary island folks stayed away, especially the young.
So often the church has been associated with the expression ‘though shalt not’ rather than having anything much to say about what God is actually like and the life, message and actions of Jesus that are recorded in the Bible. A well-known stand-up comedian once said “Christianity can be summed up in one word, and that word is ‘No!” Ironically, it’s often been church people who have resisted times of change not really the people in the factories, the pubs, the offices, the hospitals and the shops. The religious establishment seems to struggle when God doesn’t work within the straight lines of its excepted practises.
Duncan Campbell was used powerfully, partly because he broke with those traditions. He wasn’t your average pious preacher that’s for sure. He told the people he imagined Jesus in working man’s clothes, not in business suit and certainly not in clerical robes. Jesus is not a made up character from old stories but somebody real and connected to the real issues in society. Campbell was a very dramatic communicator of the Gospel. On one occasion, he thumped the pulpit so hard to make a point that he fractured his wrist, but he was no showman. Those who knew him said he was the most down-to-earth man you could meet, but when he spoke about the God of the Bible, something happened to him.
It’s obvious from the accounts of Jesus, his messages, his meetings and his miracles, that ordinary folk listened to him, loved him and left everything to follow him. Even when he was betrayed by Judas and arrested, he had to be pointed out because he looked the same as everyone else. Duncan Campbell is the one everyone talks about when the story of the Hebridean Revival is recounted but there were others. In particular two women in their 80’s who were sisters. Peggy and Christine Smith were very influential despite one of them being completely blind and the other bent double with arthritis.
Peggy and Christine had a particular passion to see the young people of the island reached with this message of transformation and new life. At that time, there were none of them in church, not a single one. So they began to pray in their home, asking God to do something extraordinary. One day, a lorry load of teenagers rocked up outside the church while a prayer meeting was in full swing and were causing a bit of a scene. But instead of asking them to keep the noise down, Duncan jumped into the back of the vehicle and joined in.
And so it was, that young people were at the epicentre of this amazing Jesus movement. One night as the preacher was finishing his message to a packed crowd in the eighth church he had spoken in that day, a dance was going on in one of the village halls. I guess it was the equivalent of a packed nightclub in today’s language. Inexplicably, a hundred young people fled the dance as if they were running from the plague, burst through the doors of the church and packed the aisle. While speaking about that amazing night some years later, Campbell said he had to push through them to climb into the pulpit.
That same night, 600 islanders arrived from neighbouring villages and were seen kneeling on the roadside outside the police station. One of them had heard that the officer in charge of the station had become a Christian and they wanted to meet him. A few of the church members walked the mile from the service to lead an impromptu meeting right there on the street. The Hebridean Revival was marked by something God did rather than anything Duncan Campbell did, or anyzone else for that matter. Three quarters of the people who became Christians over that period were converted outside of any church and before any man or woman spoke a word publicly.
Decades after those powerful days on that Scottish island, we find ourselves in troubled times where people are devoid of hope and struggling to make it through life. Even more concerning is that people see the church as irrelevant with nothing to say to ordinary working people and their families. I believe that we will witness a move of God’s power once again and I pray it will happen soon.