When the sign reading ‘Lewis Revival’ went up above a Cromwell Street shopfront in Stornoway , I’m sure it stirred a similar train of thought in the minds of many onlookers. It was not lovely vintage cups, or upcycled furniture I pictured, though, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
There are certain episodes in this island’s past which inform its cultural identity.
As we approach the centenary, of course, people are well aware of the ‘Iolaire’ disaster, when so many men of Lewis and Harris lost their lives within sight of home. That marked this community deeply.
Only a few years after, many more would leave forever on other ships – the ‘Marloch’, The ‘Canada’ and the ‘Metagama’: names that would resonate down through the years.
Lewis was not easy to live in. It struggled to support its native population and, frequently, the answer offered to the poor was ‘go elsewhere ’.
We hear their story often. The Lewis diaspora. They went to the ends of the earth and made the best of it. Some prospered. And some didn’t. Eventually, their deaths would be reported in the ‘Stornoway Gazette’, because, no matter where they were in the world, they belonged here. It was circumstance that sent them away.
Or, to give it another name, providence.
And that same providence kept others at home. Gradually, they honed a community from what was left. Even another war did not finish them.
Far from it.
The generation of young men who fought the war against Hitler, they were the old men of my childhood. There was something about many of them – a kindness, a patience and a quiet, dignified strength. They had seen horrors that my pampered mind cannot conjure. And they came back to this quiet place to make a life.
Only four years after their return, a spiritual awakening began in Barvas. Such events can seem sudden to us, looking as we do through the lens of history.
But God prepares the ground before he plants. Mary Peckham, a reluctant convert in 1950, explained to an American audience many years later what the Lewis of her youth was like. She described how ‘gabhail an leabhair’ was the norm in every household – family worship morning and evening. Unconverted people, that is, as well as Christians. Everyone. And the children were educated in Scripture and in the Shorter Catechism. Little children were learning some very big truths.
And as a result, she said, when God sent His spirit down, ‘there was fuel to burn’.
You cannot make a fire by simply lighting a match, after all. There has to be fuel, and something to make it catch.
I was confined to the house recently because of a stubborn flu. And while I was, I listened to a Gaelic sermon I’d missed in our own church. It was about revival as prayed for in Psalm 126.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
The psalmist is not indulging in wistful daydreams about better days long ago. He evokes an older time of bondage from which God released His people, asking – and believing – that He will do so again.
Being aware of our history and of our spiritual heritage as an island people is not an academic exercise, however, and nor is it a foray into nostalgia.
The writer of psalm 126 is not asking God to make things exactly as they were in the glorious days gone by. That wouldn’t benefit anyone, attractive though it may seem.
No, the reason we need to remember these times of revival is so that we pray in earnest that He will send His spirit down again. Nothing short of that will bring the spiritual growth we so desperately desire to see.
This time, though, the fuel is more scattered. While we meditate on God’s goodness in past days of revival, and ask Him in His mercy to remember us once more, there is something else we need to do.
We need to gather together, building up in prayer and fellowship what will become His fire when He chooses the moment to send forth the spark of life.
The history of Lewis is worth keeping in our consciousness because through it, God’s faithfulness frequently shines. As a people, we bore with providence and held fast to Him. I have written elsewhere of how the twin demons of war and emigration were faced down with the singing of psalms. God’s providence is our inheritance, the motto of the old town council, says it best.
He has shown Himself faithful through it all; what reason have we to think that He will fail us now?
He hasn’t; He won’t. We must bear with His timescales and His plan. Think of what he has brought us from and what He has brought us to. Think of who He is and what He has done.
That’s who we are counting on – not governments, or economists, not churches, and certainly not ourselves.
His providence is our inheritance, and our heritage is established by Him. It is an unquenchable flame, and He is not finished with us yet.