Last year saw a considerable amount of events organised by Methodists in the greater Craigavon area to celebrate the 250th year of conversion of John Wesley.While the credit of the religious revival which led to the development of the Methodist church rests with this extraordinary preacher, it must not be forgotten that cementing of the foundation of the church in the area rests with a number of men who dedicated their lives to the promotion of Wesley's idealism in preaching the Word.
One who followed closely in the path of Wesleyism was the Rev Matthew Lanktree. This preacher like John Wesley kept a journal of his work and travels in the Methodist Circuits of County Armagh, at the beginning of the 19th century.
In his biographical narrative, under the date December, 1799 he writes: "From the North I had the following account of the triumph of the Gospel from Mr. Ridgway; To comply with your request respecting giving an account to the revival of which our common Lord has blessed us with in these parts would afford me much satisfaction: but, so as many were employed in it both on this and other circuits, I cannot relate the sixth part of it.
"The work of God broke out first at Newry. I went there, hoping to catch some of the holy fire; and saw eight converted the first night and four the night following. Every week brought fresh accounts of the increase of work in Newry, and we were all looking and longing for the fallen to reach us.
"We agreed, therefore, to set apart a day for fasting and prayer, which was faithfully observed by the neighbouring circuits. I invited Messers Hurley and Wood to come to our Christian quarterly meetings in Armagh and Charlemont, and also the Tandragee preachers. None came but brothers Hurley and Crozier.
"December 28: In Armagh the former preached a lively sermon, and with sacred awe we opened the love-feast. Not more than four persons had spoken their experiences, before the holy influence, which appeared to rest on all present, burst forth on all hands.
"When the leaders saw a few souls converted, they were filled with zeal and holy boldness, and embarked with all their might in the common cause. Such a day Armagh never saw before. We had, on a moderate calculation, thirty conversions.
"The next day being the Sabbath, Mr Crozier preached in the morning: he intended to go to his place after preaching, but the power of the Lord rested on the congregation in such an extraordinary manner, that he could not depart. Nearly the whole day was spent in the preaching house.
"ln the evening we had it crowded with saints and sinners, and everything seemed to fall before the power of the Word. We appeared at night as if worn out with hard labour and fatigue; but the day was our own. We concluded that not less than twenty souls had obtained mercy.
"On the 30th we went to Charlemont, which had long been cold and formal. Brother Hurley preached and at the opening of the love feast, before the bread was distributed, the congregation was affected in such a manner as I have not before witnessed. We had forty, at least, converted in three hours.
"The next day, we the four of us preachers went to Newry together. We arrived there in time to commence the quarterly meeting. My dear brother, Thomas Brown, preached a powerful sermon whilst the whole congregation presented a most affecting appearance. There were silent weepings, hearty amens, shouts of joy, and burst of praise.
"The meeting continued until after twelve o'clock at night. We had twenty souls that day converted, the young converts joining with the great congregation to usher in the New Year of 1800 with songs of holy joy and triumph. On that occasion six preachers were solemnly engaged, in strength and grace, to spread the revival throughout the land. These were Wood, Hurley, Brown, Crozier, Sturgeon and Ridgway.
"Next morning before day, Messers Hurley, Brown and Crozier and I, set off for Bluestone quarterly meeting, Tandragee circuit, where we met Gustavus Armstrong, John Malcolmn, and A Sturgeon, but none of us were able to preach, by reasons of colds, fatigue, etc. Mr Brown went into the pulpit, to try if he could address the people but, through the mercy of the Lord there was no need; for under the first prayer, the power of God fell among them in such an immediate and remarkable manner, that there was no time for a sermon. That day we converted fifty.
'All this time the weather had been remarkable fine, or we could not have travelled as we did day and night, as if the Lord had withheld the storm until this great fire was kindled: a weighty snow fell that night, so we had hard travelling home next day. That night, on the side of the mountain, we had six converted and three more next morning at family prayer.
"Next morning, within two miles of Armagh we had a wonderful time. Sixteen were converted, and from that time to this, the work goes on prosperously. It is not uncommon to have from one to ten converted in a night.
"We got many new members; though the work has been confined to our own people. We have appointed several large meetings for the middle of the quarter, for the avowed purpose of reviving the work of God. We have held some already, one on the Dungannon Circuit and one in Tandragee, the best my eyes ever beheld. We had not less than sixty converted.
Shortly after this Matthew Lanktree left the area and went to preach in Carlow and Dublin. However, in 1808 he told the Conference. "I am young and willing to labour. I will not choose for myself. Send me where I shall have a good congregation and plenty of work, and I will go wherever you judge proper". He was sent to Armagh.
At this period the Charlemont Circuit had the city of Armagh as its centre, and preacher's residence though the town of Charlemont and its neighbour Moy was the heart of the circuit. The contrast between Dublin and Armagh as the residence of the family of the preacher, was extremely great.
According to Matthew Lanktree, the preachers residence in Armagh had scarcely any furniture and was out of repair. There was no provision for the preacher "to diet" at home, the chapel was in a state of dilapidation, and the Society had not many members.
Mr Lanktree tells of the institution in November 1808 of an association for the occasional relief of the sick, poor and distressed strangers in the city of Armagh.
Before the Conference they were able to repair the chapel and dwelling house. And at the close of the Ministerial year there were 835 members of the Society in the circuit.
At Armagh Matthew Lanktree was assisted by a Mr Kidd who joined the circuit a year previous, along with John Noble "our general steward, worthy of his name." In commencing his ministry in this populous country, Mr Ianktree tells that "two great objects were presented to our view - the edification of our Societies and extension of their work; and our God will witness that we faithfully applied ourselves for their attainment.
First, by attention to the ordinary places; preaching morning and evening, and noonday; meeting the Societies, instructing children etc. In addition to these duties we took every opportunity of preaching in the large market of Armagh, and holding field meetings in sundry noted parts of the country. As a helper in these meetings, Mr Kidd was, perhaps, unequalled - his fine, commanding musical voice, and his copious elegance reached the hearts of the people.
Several descriptions of these field meetings are contained in the journal such as that at Tullyhoran where ''a respectable young woman who had been seeking the knowledge of salvation, was so deeply affected, that she fell to the ground: at the same instance, a great part of the assembly, consisting of many hundreds, felt the sacred overwhelming influence, and prostrated themselves before the blessed God in adoration.
The most extraordinary of these redeeming powers that Matthew Lanktree witnesses was near Cockhill, then the residence of a Mr Lock. It was at Cockhill that John Wesley was also entertained in his day by the Lock family and was seized with serious illness.
After Mr Kidd had preached in the orchard, we returned to a large empty house for prayer. Among this group was a Harrison Lock. This young man had been on his way to a public house but had been persuaded by a friend to attend the meeting. When the prayer meeting commenced, he retired behind the room door, and pleaded with God for pardon.
Salvation, Mr Lanktree relates "came to his afflicted conscience, similar to that of the Phillipan jailor. He rushed forward crying aloud 'Ye all may obtain mercy, for God had pardoned Harrison Lock'. His sister was seized with deep conviction, whom the father supported in his arms for some time, until she obtained consolation. Just then a little lad, another member of the family, received a sense of the pardoning love of God, and burst forth into a transport of praise.
After relating incidents of the 1809 Conference, Mr Lanktree says "My lot was to return to the Charlemont circuit with Mr Archibald Campbell, and Richard Price; the former a plain preacher with a large family which was settled at Moy; the latter a very pious promising young man, with the most benevolent disposition, bur tender constitution.
"Added to the multiplied labours of our enlarged circuit I now, with the permission of the Conference had to procure the money by subscription to redeem and furnish our chapel in Moy; to rebuild Clonmain preaching house, which had fallen into decay, and to build a chapel at Tullyronan. This indicated me to travel and preach in different circuits.
"The pleasing assessian to our number of respectable preaching places was that at Mr Lanktree's of Richhill. I was most kindly invited there in that lovely family every facility was afforded for preaching and for the tenderest hospitality was shown to myself and the brethren.
At the 1810 Conference, Mr Lanktree tells us that the circuit was divided, and with the addition of two or three small societies formed into the Charlemont circuit.
Dr Clarke, who was a native of County Armagh, was president of the British Conference that year. He preached in "the large Presbyterian meeting house in Armagh which was opened to us" I availed myself, also, of the privilege of hearing him in Charlemont and Portadown, where I say, some thousands attended his ministrations.
"In the latter place, a large company of friends were invited to tea. Contrary to the Doctor's custom, he joined the company but did not partake of the beverage, and was led to speak on an important theme, which was most gratifying to the whole company: namely the leading doctrines of Methodism, their connections with experimental religion, with the direct tendency of our whole economy to promote holiness and happiness among ourselves, and diffuse the same felicity over the habital world".
It is interesting to note that Matthew Lanktree's son Matthew junior, was subsequently a preacher on the Charlemont circuit. He died at an early age. Shortly after this Matthew Lanktree was on the move and after a few eventful years in Derry, he went to the Ards. He was one of the central figures in the dispute as to whether or not preachers should hold Communion services - and in which Thomas Shillington of Portadown took a leading part - which ended in secession of many followers.
On September, 16, 1818, Mr Lanktree has this entry in his journal:- "Went to Lurgan, where had my first interview with Mr Johnston. Next day he brought me in his gig to near Richhill, entertaining me with the account of his most extraordinary salvation from former intemperance habits. Spent the night with the hospitable family of Lanktree Belview; Mr L and his son Henry having both died since I was there last.
"Next day I attended the 'Dungannon Committee' in Portadown There were twelve or thirteen preachers, and more than as many brethren from many parts. A painful report was delivered respecting the division and distractions which are breaking out on different circuits.
"Returned with Mr Johnston to Lurgan and took a bed in his hospitable mansion; then hastened to Belfast. The Dungannon Committee, of which Mr Shillington was chairman, took a big part in recovering preaching houses from seceders, who had closed the doors of the buildings to the preachers.
January 7, 1818 - "Attended the meeting of the Dungannon committee at Portadown. Twenty preachers and many other friends present. The former meeting reported grievous matters; many things were now announced which afforded consultation and hope. That notwithstanding Mr Averell's exertions, none of our preachers, as far as was known had joined his party. The lawsuit respecting our chapels, though protracted, is likely to end favourably."
In 1819 Matthew Lanktree records that he had "several respectful applications to remove to other circuits, particularly Newry and Portadown; but did not see my way clear". He returned to the Ards Circuit.
Here he concentrated on the erection of a chapel at Bangor. "Through the kind interference of Mr Thomas Shillington and Mr Johnston of Lurgan I was in a great measure relieved from the burden of Bangor chapel", and devoted himself to his "new habitation" at Comber.
Space forbids any further reference of his labours. Suffice to say that period in Lisburn and a number of years in Bangor concluded his itinerary. Everywhere he gave his best.