The term ‘Evangelicalism’ is wide-ranging in that it covers very diverse Protestant groups. The term originates in the Greek word evangelion, meaning ‘the good news’, the ‘gospel’. During the Reformation, Martin Luther adopted the term. The name is still generally used the Lutheran Church in Germany and Switzerland to distinguish it from Calvinist churches. In the English-speaking world, however, it refers to religious movements and denominations that sprang from a series of revivals that swept the Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The most important characteristics of Evangelicalism are justification by faith in Christ and his atonement for humanity’s sins; the belief that the Bible, taken literally, is the only source of religious authority; conversion; deep personal piety; and the New Birth. Evangelicalism’s origins in Ireland stretch back to Protestant religious societies in Dublin and elsewhere in the first half of the eighteenth century. The relatively lethargic and negligent Church of Ireland clergy gave it an opening. Only with the arrival of English evangelists, such as John Wesley (1703–91), who made 21 trips to Ireland, and George Whitefield (1714–70)—both of whom really belonged to the Methodist movement—that its missionary zeal first became evident.
Other missionaries have been active earlier, but the Evangelicals launched a sustained mission in the 1820s and later to convert Irish Catholics. This met with more success than is generally admitted, but its effect was not long lasting. The First Evangelical Revival was fired by the zeal of John Wesley (the founder of Methodism). Wesley thought Ireland the most spiritually benighted place he had ever been; he heartily disliked Calvinistic Presbyterianism; and he deplored Irish Catholicism. By the time of his death, there was a large Methodist community in Ireland (over 15,000) and Irish Methodism later spread to North America. Irish Evangelicalism also spread globally in the form of a non-denominational movement which began at Powerscourt in 1821, known simply as ‘The Brethren’.
In Dublin in the second half of the nineteenth century, the impact of the Second Evangelical Revival was obvious. Inside and outside the principal Protestant denominations, thousands felt a renewed faith in Christ. The mail-boat arriving at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) was the scene of spontaneous worship and Christian tears as passengers and crew felt the power of the Holy Spirit. In Abbey Street, thousands flocked to prayer meetings at the Metropolitan Hall. Hundreds gathered at York Street to hear the preaching of Henry Grattan Guinness. The city’s architecture already reflected the revival: a huge auditorium seating 2800 (now the Davenport Hotel) was built solely for the preaching of J. Denham Smith. In Cork 2000 attended united prayer meetings, despite the opposition of the Church of Ireland bishop. The Revival spread to Carlow, Kerry, Sligo, Mayo and Limerick (where Smith preached to large meetings). In the north, it is said that 100,000 new members were added to the churches. Hundreds of Irish men and women joined Evangelical missions to pagans worldwide.
In the nineteenth century its greatest gains were confined to the North where conversionism produced a great religious drama in the form of the Ulster Revival of 1859. Evangelical religion undoubtedly played a part in stiffening the anti-Catholicism of a significant number of Irish Protestants and has contributed to the distinctive religious and political colour of Northern Ireland in the twentieth century. The religious peak of Evangelicalism in Ireland is probably past, but new forms of enthusiastic popular Protestantism, from Pentecostalism to charismatic renewal, continue in Ulster.
Bibliography. Desmond Bowen, Souperism: myth or reality (Cork 1970). Desmond Bowen, The Protestant crusade in Ireland, 1800–70: a study of Protestant-Catholic relations between the Act of Union and Disestablishment (Dublin 1978). Samuel J. Rogal, John Wesley in Ireland, 1747-1789 (Lampeter 1993). Desmond Bowen, History and the shaping of Irish Protestantism (New York 1995).