Fellowship Meetings in the Carloway Revival (1934 - 1940)

"Latha na cheist" - the "Day of the Question", or the Fellowship Meeting - is a remarkable feature of Highland Evangelicalism. Traditionally, the Lord's Supper is celebrated twice a year in a Highland parish; these Communion seasons are generally held in spring or autumn, and to this day the Thursdays and Fridays are observed as local-authority recognised public holidays in Lewis & Harris.

Thursday is the "Fast Day"; the services reflect the theme of humiliation and prayer. Saturday is the "Day of Preparation"; services prepare the lord's people for the Lord's Supper. Sabbath sees the "Action Sermon" - a service devoted to the Passion of the Divine Redeemer, followed by the dispensation of the Lord's Supper. Sabbath evening centres on a sermon directed to the unconverted (or, in some areas, one on the Second Coming). Monday is the Day of Thanksgiving; the chosen theme being Christian fellowship and the life hereafter.

But Friday is the Day of Self-examination, as John Newton wrote...

"'Tis a point I long to know;
Oft it causes anxious thought -
Am I saved, or am I no;
Am I His; or am I not?"

The Friday evening exercise is a service on that theme. But Friday morning, traditionally, is the "Fellowship Meeting/ Question Meeting/Men's Day".

It takes this form. After singing, prayer, and the reading of a portion from the Word, the presiding minister invites any professing Christian man present to give out a text of Scripture relating to the experience of those born again.

A text is usually offered by one of the men attached to that congregation; who invites other brethren present to "speak to the Question" and give out the marks of grace... the signs that a woman or man is, indeed, born again.

The presiding minister (in most districts, the most senior minister of the three customarily in attendance) then "opens the question" . He reads the whole chapter in which the text is contained, and outlines its context. He then (from a list provided by the local pastor, meantime) calls on the good men present to speak on this verse.

I might add that the presiding minister has absolutely no word of warning of what verse might be given out, between Genesis and Revelation. It is also customary, in most districts, that the ministers have by this point of the service quit the pulpit and descended into the elders' enclosure.

The origins of this custom are lost in the eighteenth century: they are probably born in "Highland Separatism", a lay-movement which was profoundly anti-clerical, and the Question Meeting was adopted into the Highland Church, perhaps, in a bid to avoid something in Gaeldom resembling the Plymouth Brethren.

When all "the men" have spoken, another minister - usually the junior one; sometimes the local pastor "closes the Question", by commenting on, and gently correcting, the various points made by the brethren.

"Once, on a Monday evening of the Bernera Communion - - there being no evening service in Bernera then - Mr Maciver kept a fellowship meeting in Tolsta Chaolais, and many of the young converts were there, probably unaware that they would be called upon to speak to the Question. Even some of the first converts came out in a sweat when they heard their names being called, and whatever thoughts they had of saying something quickly vanished when they attempted to speak, and so they did not get very far. One of those called upon was Norman MacLeod... who shot up suddenly when he heard his name, and blurted out, "The people here..." and stopped suddenly, getting no further with what he intended to say. as soon as they came out from the meeting his cousin Calum Chiribhig began teasing him, "You going to speak to the Question! No one was to compare with you, but you did not get very far!" This, of course, was all taken in a friendly spirit, and such criticism was not unusual amongst us. Mr Maciver called on Aonghas Iain Ghraidhean, who spoke of his own extraordinary experiences, flying high, until he had to say to the Lord to withhold His hand as he could not stand amny more of His presence. Turning to his friend Neil Macleod, 23 Dounce Carloway, he said, placing his hand on Neil's shoulder, "I saw Christ as clear as Neil's face here." ...

Shortly after this, Mr Maciver held another Fellowship Meeting, again in Tolsta Chaolais, and this time called on malcolm Maclleod, Upper Carloway (Calum Chiribhig). Calum did not get on too well. He told two "notes" (edifying anecdotes) he had heard, mixed them up, and in his excitement made a real "brochan" (porridge) of them. So when he came out, Norman, ready to get his own back, looked at him and said, "Is that speaking to the Question?" Later, Norman told Donald Macleod... when they would be in Calum's house, to ask him to tell those "notes" to those present... When the opportune time came, Calum's house was full and in the midst of the discussion, Donald asked him about the "notes" he told in Tolsta Chaolais. Calum replied... "I told them two very good 'notes', but they were not good there." Later on, at a Question Meeting in Carloway, when Calum Chiribhig was called upon, the first thing he said was that the people were telling him that, even if he had something to say, he did not know how to say it!

Donald Macleod... Callanish, was also called upon at the same Tolsta Chaolais meeting and those who knew him were most anxious as he could hardly remember the text of the sermon when he got outside the church door. But "Dolligan" surprised them all, and it was clearly manifested that the Holy Spirit had come to his aid in his infirmity, enabling him to declare in an orderly manner those things he had personally experienced in being translated from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of His Dear Son. When Duncan MacLeod, 20 Garenin, was called upon he said that he did not experience any strong strivings of the Law [ie. conviction of sin] as he heard others mentioning, and this worried him. Mr Maciver in closing said that one got sufficient of the Law if one knew one was a sinner, and saw the need of the mercy of God in Christ.

At that time a large Bernera fishing-boat used to ferry visitors from Carloway to the Bernera Communion on Friday, Sabbath and Monday. One of the loveliest scenes we can recall was this boat in the early autumn full of visitors coming in the Loch to Carloway Pier with those on board singing Psalm 122: 6-9...

Pray that Jerusalem may have
peace and felicity:
Let them that love Thee, and Thy peace
Have still prosperity.

Therefore I wish that peace may still
within Thy walls remain,
And ever may Thy palaces
prosperity retain.

Now, for my friends' and brethren's sakes,
Peace be in Thee, I'll say.
And for the house of God our Lord,
I'll seek thy good alway.

... at the close of an enjoyable Communion season."

House Meetings

House meetings played a most useful part in the Carloway Revival on the Isle of Lewis – 1934-1940 – and Mr Macaulay ably outlines their significance. That time now seems remarkable both for the flexibility of the minister, Rev. John Maciver, and the self-confidence that allowed him to put such trust in the wisdom and hospitality of godly, experienced laymen. A hint of the warmth of the time is apparent in Mr Macaulay’s memoir – as well as the fraught feelings of novices engaging, in the Lewis culture of spiritual rhetoric and articulacy, for the first time in public prayer.

"Houses formerly used by the young converts were now used for prayer meetings, preceded and followed by a discussion of the truth or by singing Psalms. The office-bearers were quickened in the inner man, some more than others, and this was very noticeable in their public prayers. The often had to take charge of family worship in their own villages, and in these gatherings they had to cope with all sorts of questions on a variety of difficult scriptural texts and experiences. This often constrained them to search the Scriptures for themselves to enable them to give a more satisfactory explanation to the inquirer. As has often been the case when sin or the Evil One tripped new converts, they were apt to conclude that they had sinned against the Holy Ghost. It was beyond these office-bearers to give a satisfactory explanation of the nature of this sin. I remember one such office-bearer who, when questioned as to its nature, seemed somewhat reluctant to give a straight answer. "Was it sinning willingly against light?" he was asked. "Oh, there is more than that in it," he replied. "Was it then presumptuous sin?" "Oh, there is more than that in it," he said. "Was it any particular sin, or were the sins mentioned in Matthew 12: 31-32 and parallel passages the same as that in Hebrews 6: 4-6, Hebrews 10: 26-27 and 1 John 5: 16, or was it final impenitence?" Questioned on all sides, he finally told them to read Guthrie’s "The Christian’s Great Interest" (a copy of which he produced) and told them they would find their answer there. I, at least, found this little book extremely helpful at the time.

"These house meetings with prayers, worship and discussion were most beneficial to all. Sometimes unguarded statements might well result in some of the weaker brethren going "into the dumps", but generally speaking most retired to their homes enlightened in mind, quickened in spirit, stirred their affections, and with their hearts aglow after the experience of such a fellowship. It was also customary in these gatherings, especially on Sabbath or Thursday evenings after the public services, to go over the sermons and lectures they had heard and this firmly grounded them in the doctrines and experimental preaching they had heard. This, through the blessing of the Holy Spirit, caused many to blossom into excellent witnesses, so that it filled the hearts of older Christians with joy to note their conversation, their enquiring minds, their daily walk and fast spiritual growth. Indeed some seemed to be growing so fast as to terrify the weaker brethren into thinking that they lacked something which these possessed.

"Mr Maciver guided them as to how they should conduct their meetings. At first they all went on their knees at each prayer, but as the number increased he advised the men praying to stand, while the others remained seated, and this was certainly more appropriate when ten or twelve people prayed with reading and praise in between. The young male converts found it a trial to learn to pray in public. We well remember some first efforts having to be curtailed for lack of words, ending with a sigh and a shaking of the head without even the customary "Amen". We saw others obtaining such conscious liberty as to end in tears unable to continue. This led some to use a vacant cottage where they could pray privately. None of the office-bearers or even of the more advanced converts was permitted to gather with them, and there were no members of the opposite sex present. Occasionally they would invite some sympathetic and more advanced Christian to conduct the meeting. Many were unable to read Gaelic when converted, but within a short time they became very proficient in their reading. Texts of sermons were learnt by heart, and soon the stringing together of appropriate texts formed the backbone of their prayer, adding to these as they improved in their knowledge of Scripture, as well as noting the petitions of the ministers and office-bearers as they engaged in public prayer.

"We remember one evening in particular when, after the first man prayed in what seemed to be a somewhat eloquent utterance for a beginner, one of those present, as soon as the other sat down, blurted out spontaneously, "Who do you think is going to get up after that?" Yet these private gatherings were most beneficial to all who attended them.

"Norman Macarthur (Tormod Beag) relates how he went up to 27 Carloway with Tormod Chalum after the Thursday prayer meeting, while a number of others went into 26. Mr Maciver came into 27, and, after waiting for a while for those in 26, he said he was going to conduct worship. Tormod felt quite at ease knowing that the minister and Tormod Chalum would engage in prayer: but instead the minister suddenly pounced on himself. He says, "I bent my head towards the wall knowing that I had no prayer unless I repeated my mother’s prayers, some of which I knew by heart. After a word or two, Mairi Mhor, along with all who were in 26, appeared in the door and my prayer came to a sudden end. I felt instantly relieved at their appearance as I was more afraid of the minister than of God..." "

(Excerpted and slightly edited from "The Burning Bush in Carloway: Its History and Revivals", by Rev Murdo MacAulay.)

"Murdigan" and "An Cor"...