Early Evangelical Revivals in Australia

A Study of Surviving Published Materials about Evangelical Revivals in Australia up to 1880.

Dapto Revival 1838

The year 1838 saw the arrival of a layman, John Vidler, in the Illawarra area, to work as a farm labourer.

“He held his first service some time before Christmas, 1838, in his own hut, built of blankets on a rough framework; his congregation being his wife, himself, and his brother James.

Holding occasional services at Dapto, he met Mr. William Bursall and Mr. Robinson, who had been praying for the arrival of a Wesleyan, so they said, for seven years.

Next year he took a farm at Dapto, preaching regularly in his own house.  A revival soon broke out, when thirty persons were converted and formed into a Society which Mr. Vidler met.”

Persecution soon developed from the Anglican minister in Wollongong, who complained that Vidler was stealing his congregation.  The minister prevailed upon the owner of the farm that Vidler rented to terminate his use of the property.

Another landowner offered Vidler one of his farms free of rent, but his generous offer was declined, and Vidler moved across to a farm in the Campbelltown area, near the Cow Pastures, for seven or eight years.  This is where we will meet him again, a little later in our story.

Revival at Parramatta 1839

This revival introduces us to a young man, born locally, named John Watsford.  In later years he became a famous missionary, pastor and evangelist.

Watsford was born at Parramatta on 5th December, 1820.  His conversion occurred in 1838.  He attended a prayer meeting and became powerfully convicted about his sins.  After the meeting, someone followed him.  It was a leader from the church, who said he had felt moved to ask Watsford to attend a new young men’s class.

This event, at a  “psychological moment”, caused him repeatedly to spend nights reading his Bible, and earnestly praying for forgiveness.  His distress deepened, until, in desperation, he prayed,

“I cannot live another day like this.  The load of sin is crushing me down to hell.  Have mercy upon me, and pardon all my sin, for Jesus Christ’s sake, who shed His blood for me.”

In an instant, he saw the plan of his salvation. His sin had all been laid on Jesus.  He trusted in Christ as his present Saviour, and the burden of his sins rolled away.  His joy was very great.

Soon after, a copy of The Life of John Smith by the Rev. Richard Treffry, Jr, came into his hands, and through this he learned of the necessity of his life being totally surrendered to God; of him being fully sanctified, and that he must work for God.

“Baptised with the Holy Spirit, I had a great longing to bring others to Jesus.  I began by distributing tracts.”  He became a Sunday School teacher, and by July 1839, was received as a local preacher, and began studying for the ministry.

His autobiography is a mine of interesting information about church life in Australia in the Nineteenth Century. He tells of the first revivals that he saw in and near where he lived.

“Some of the local preachers and leaders in Sydney and Parramatta were men of great spiritual power, men who believed in prayer and fasting, and who did not depend upon a stranger coming now and then to hold special services and bring sinners to Christ.

They believed in the Holy Ghost and pleaded for His coming in connection with the ordinary services. As a result, there were “showers of blessing”, glorious revivals, wonderful displays of the Holy Spirit’s power in convincing and saving men.

We used often to see a whole congregation broken down and unable to leave the church; and numbers, night after night, coming to the house of God and finding salvation, and this no matter who was conducting the service.”

He then proceeds to give some information about some of these events.

“The first revival in Parramatta that I know of was in 1840.  Religion had been in a low state.  The minister of the Circuit was a good man, but old and nearly worn out.  He was greatly opposed to noise and marked the men who were very much in earnest.

It was the custom then to call by name a few persons to pray in the prayer meetings, and any who were at all noisy were never asked.  Two of our most excellent and devoted local preachers, who were always seeking to save souls, were placed on the list of persons not allowed to take part in the prayer meetings.  Very soon I was added to the number.

One day the two brethren to whom I have referred said to me, ‘We are going specially to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the revival of God’s work, and we want you to join us.  This is our plan: Every morning and evening and at midday to spend some time in pleading with God to pour out His Spirit; to observe every Friday as a day of fasting and prayer; to sit together in the meetings, and, though not permitted to pray aloud, silently to plead for the coming of the Holy Ghost.’

I think they were a little afraid of me, as they gave me this caution: ‘Now mind, you must not say a word against our minister, or have any unkind feeling toward him, because he does not allow us to take part in the meetings.  He knows what he is doing and has his own reasons for it.  If we complain, or speak against him, the Lord will not hear our prayers.’

We carried out our plan for one, two, three weeks, no one but God and ourselves knowing what we were doing.

At the end of the fourth week, on Sunday evening, the Rev. William Walker preached a powerful sermon.  After the service the people flocked to the prayer meeting, till the schoolroom was filled.  My two friends were there, one on each side of me, and I knew they had hold of God.  We could hear sighs and suppressed sobs all around us.

The old minister of the Circuit, who had conducted the meeting, was concluding with the benediction, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God’…. here he stopped and sobbed aloud.  When he could speak, he called out ‘Brother Watsford, pray.’

I prayed, and then my two friends prayed, and oh! the power of God that came upon the people, who were overwhelmed by it in every part of the room!  And what a cry for mercy!  It was heard by the passers-by in the street, some of whom came running in to see what was the matter and were smitten down at the door in great distress.

The clock of a neighbouring church struck twelve before we could leave the meeting.  How many were saved I cannot tell.  Day after day and week after week the work went on, and many were converted.  Among them were many young persons.”

[Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash]

By |2021-05-24T15:41:53+10:00May 25th, 2021|Australia, Faith|3 Comments

About the Author:

Robert Evans was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1937. His family's religious background was in a tiny hyper-Calvinist Baptist denomination. He trained for the Methodist Ministry, and was ordained by the New South Wales Conference in 1967. He served as a Circuit minister, and subsequently also in the Uniting Church, retiring in 1998.

He graduated from the University of Sydney, majoring in philosophy and modern history. In his private researches he has specialised in studying modern evangelical revivals, the great awakenings, and the literature relating to these movements, assembling a large private library about these subjects. He is currently the President of the Uniting Church Records and Historical Society in New South Wales.

3 Comments

  1. Philine Khaw May 28, 2021 at 7:36 am - Reply

    Amazing, love to get your book to continue with the rest of the story .
    Thank you for sharing.God Blessings

  2. Michelle Manavahe May 28, 2021 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    ✝️❤️✝️📖☝🏽🙏🏼THANK YOU FOR THIS BEAUTIFUL STORY OF FAITH IN SYDNEY AND IT SURROUNDING AREAS THE FAITH &FASTING WILL BE VICTORY IN HIS WORD ALWAYS AMEN 🙏🏼

  3. nelly May 29, 2021 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    thank you for sharing this story we are so blessed to live i this land i understand why the Lord brought us to Australia 💕❤️😇

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