Anthony D Buckley
'W. P. Nicholson—Preacher, 1876-1959'
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Year Book 1981-1985, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, 1986.
ONE strand in the tangle of riot and revolution in Ulster's nineteen twenties was religious revival. This revival was unlike the more spontaneous outpourings of 1859 for it was overshadowed by the leadership of a single man. This was the portly and bespectacled preacher, W. P. Nicholson. Remarkably little has been written about Nicholson and his ministry. Many source materials are documented in Murray's useful booklet, W. P Nicholson, but an untapped source are the personal reminiscences of those who heard Nicholson preach. Tape recorded conversations with people who were converted by him or who worked with him are now to be found in the sound archive of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. By listening to these tapes and also to the published recordings of Nicholson's later sermons which are also in the archive, it is possible to recapture the flavour of this genial and forthright preacher.
Nicholson was famed for his fearless plain-speaking. Inevitably, the venom of his words was directed against those whom he saw as enemies. A stickler for 'orthodoxy', his evangelicalism owed perhaps more to Wesley than to the Calvinism of his own presbyterian faith. As might perhaps be expected, he inveighed against 'that blasphemous oul' bachelor on the banks of the Tiber', but his enemies included Unitarians and 'modernists' of all description. Noticeable in his later sermons is an almost pentecostal feeling for 'living' religion, and this perhaps explains why he attacked the Brethren and even the Presbyterian church itself whenever he felt that doctrine killed the 'life of the Spirit'. 'The walls of Hell', he proclaimed, 'are paved with the skulls of Presbyterian ministers.'
Nobody was immune from attack. Women, he complained are 'forever painting and powdering and puffing'. 'Some of you old women—God help you—you're supposed to be brides of Christ and you get decorated with all the adornments of old Jezebel the whoremonger.' He could cause offence to members of his congregation—as for example when he derided the Orange collarettes as 'rags'. And should a member of his congregation stand up to leave he might shout after him 'You're going to hell!'
Nicholson's barbs drew in the crowds, but he was not merely offensive nor even a clerical comedian. Beneath his harsh words lay kindliness and good humour, and he was a powerful rhetorician. His tongue unfailingly sought for alliteration and meter. He was a master of the remorseless question and the repetitious phrase. 'You can do as you like and live as you like and act as you like and believe as you like. Unless you repent of your sin and accept Him, you'll die and be damned sixth fathoms in Hell after you're dead!' Nicholson commanded his congregation's emotions from humour to tears or anger to joy. The avuncular homely example could be transformed into the terrible accusation, 'You are totally, totally, totally, depraved!'.
One man, now a clergyman, converted through Nicholson, spoke of his own experience. 'He used to point his big finger and say, "You're doomed! You're doomed!" and I thought he was talking to me you know . . . I though I was the only one in the whole place.' Unashamed of his skill, Nicholson employed it with clarity and certainty.p3
Nicholson's impact was spectacular. The crowd's enthusiasm at one Belfast church trampled down the gates. In Carrickfergus, a six-week mission converted twelve hundred souls and in the mornings, men sang hymns on railway platforms while they waited to go to work.
Appropriately. the best known Nicholson story concerns the Belfast shipyard, for his straight talking and sharp humour were directed at working men. Nicholson did not merely demand repentance. He asked for restitution. In 1923, following a mission, goods which had been stolen by the workers were given back to the shipyard. Quantities of paint and tools, wardrobes and pianos were so great that a new store had to be opened to house them. It was impossible to sack the men responsible because they were so many
Nicholson, it is alleged, saved Belfast from social disaster in the 1920s. Whatever the truth of this, the recordings in the sound archive of his sermons and of the conversations of his admirers and associates make it easy to see the appeal of this rough diamond of a man.