On 24th June, 1742, twin boys were born to a couple named Cunningham who lived in Co. Antrim, not far from Lisburn. One of these children was given the name Patrick. Mr. Cunningham, being a well-read person himself, was anxious that his sons should have the advantage of a good education and he spared no necessary expense to further their knowledge. The boys made satisfactory progress and were considered to be clever scholars by all who knew them. Their father was a severe disciplinarian, not only in respect to their studies but also concerning their moral conduct. He would not tolerate bad language, and was careful that they did no harm to their neighbours.
The Cunninghams were strict Roman Catholics, and from an early age the boys were carefully taught the observances and practices of their Church, especially by their mother and grandmother. Patrick had a tender conscience, and if he did anything he knew to be wrong he immediately felt a sense of guilt. He recalls the first time he swore. It happened at a racecourse (probably the Maze). His father's horse was running in a race, and Patrick had placed a bet that it would win. As he saw it coming in first he gave way to great mirth and swore an oath. In a moment he was filled with remorse, and the thought of having won money gave him no pleasure. He noticed others, young and old, who could swear and they didn't seem to care, and was shocked to see aged men drinking, singing, and swearing. He wondered how they could be so happy in their sins since they had so short a time to live.
As he grew older he tried to stifle his conscience. After some time he persuaded himself that the observance of rites and ceremonies would substitute for holiness of living, and this suited his inclinations very well. He became hardened and his desire to do good almost vanished. By indulging in sins they became as chains and he felt led captive by the devil. Drunkenness more than anything else contributed to his rapid progress in iniquity. On one occasion his grandmother reproved him for swearing, and he told her he did not expect to be saved. This was not his opinion but was said to frighten her. Although drunk at the time he felt great mental anguish at his rash words, and would have given anything to recall them. Usually when intoxicated he was happy and had no worries about his eternal future: indeed, when sober if such thoughts came into his mind he would often seek relief at the public house. He did not know that at these times the Holy Spirit of God was speaking to him. Many centuries ago St. Augustine said: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee." Patrick often experienced the truth of these words.
His brother emigrated to America and Patrick began to think that perhaps if he were married he would be able to lead a better life. He found someone with whom he believed he could be happy, a widow (Mrs. Wright), and they were married in his twenty-fifth year. However, his ways did not improve, and he tells us that for a time he was even more outrageously wicked. Sometimes at the thought of his wrongdoing he trembled and fell on his knees before God. In this manner of sinning and repenting he continued for some years.
Around 1774 the news came of the death of his
brother, and he was greatly distressed. He felt that at any moment
his life, too, could end. Many good resolutions were made, but these
proved of little use when temptations came. Often after sitting up
late at cards he could not sleep, worrying about his eternal
destiny. He began to have a great desire for religious knowledge,
and this caused him to prefer preaching to going to Mass. In July
1775 he heard that John Wesley was coming to preach at Halftown, and
he went along to hear him. John however had become seriously ill. He
was being cared for in the Gayers' home at Derriaghy, and Mr.
Perfect preached in his stead. It was shortly before the Maze races
and during his sermon the preacher warned against going to "that
barbarous diversion which occasioned the practice of so many crimes,
and gave rise to so many calamities, for the end of these things is
death." His words made a powerful impression on Patrick and he
almost decided not to attend his favourite sport. Then he remembered
that his father had some business at the racecourse and would
require his assistance, and he felt duty-bound to be there. He
resolved to keep sober and peaceable, and not go on Sunday as was
his custom. Instead, on the Sunday he attended a Methodist meeting,
and on the Monday morning before setting out for the racecourse he
went into his own garden to pray.
At that period the races were held bi-annually in July at the Maze, and on alternate years at Downpatrick, and they lasted for several days. On the first day there was confusion and uproar which ended in calamity. The men of Broomhedge and Hillsborough were engaged in a quarrel (reputedly over turf at a local bog) and they rushed at each other with whatever weapons they could get. Patrick had never before witnessed such rage and clamour. One man was killed on the spot, and several died afterwards of their wounds. For the rest of the week he could find no pleasure in being there, but was obliged to stay on his father's account.
That year when in the harvest fields he experienced a most dreadful thunderstorm.14 Enormous hailstones fell, lightning flashed in all directions so that the sky appeared to be ablaze, and the earth seemed to shake with incessant peals of thunder. Patrick was fully convinced that the last day had come. He fell on his knees and implored the Almighty to stop the day of judgement, and vowed he would attend Mass the following Sunday. He thought that a promise to go to Mass was the most effective plea he could make. He states: "People might wonder at my ignorance if they did not consider the Church in which I was brought up. I now began to make it a matter of conscience of going regularly to Mass, for I had been taught to consider it the most religious thing in the world, and would meet with the greatest reward in the world to come. A person one day in my father's barn, where Mass was sometimes celebrated, observed, in his exhortation, that every step of ground we travelled over, going to Mass, would procure us so much land in Heaven." In October he made arrangements to visit a friend's house on a Sunday. Realising afterwards that this engagement would prevent him from attending Mass he was grieved, but would not break his word to his friend. Throughout that Sunday the thought of having broken his covenant with God made him most uneasy, and as the week progressed his feeling of guilt increased. The following Sunday he told the priest about his troubles. Several means were tried to help him overcome his distress, but all to no avail. Patrick had a stepson, James Wright, who lived at Moyrusk, and he went to visit him. He had led James into some evil practices, but he now advised him to flee from sin and told him how he was suffering through breaking the Sabbath. His words of warning made a deep impression on James, and after Patrick had gone he prayed with more earnestness than he had ever done before. He began to realise the evil that was in his heart, and suffered such mental agony that he would roar aloud, no matter how many were in his company, and his groans on such occasions were terrifying. It was soon reported throughout the neighbourhood that he was losing his reason, and that Patrick was the cause of it.
Hearing that James was no better, Patrick went over to visit him and found his home like a house of mourning. His whole family, even the servant girl, were weeping as if he were dead. Patrick went into the bedroom and found James in bed crying. He tried to comfort him, but "felt very ill qualified for such a task," and after some time they went out to a private place to pray. James began to feel a little better, but his distress soon returned and continued for a few months.
The experiences of these two men are very similar to that of Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. They each felt a great burden and didn't know how to rid themselves of it. Also, when they started to 'flee from the wrath to come' their own families and neighbours called after them to return, some threatened, and some mocked. When Christian met Goodwill he was told: "As to thy burden, be content to bear it until thou comest to the place of deliverance; for there it will fall from thy back of itself."
In January 1776 James made his case known to the
Methodists in Broomhedge. At that time they were few in number and
very much despised; but he found them a loving people. They often
visited him and prayed, and endeavoured to show him God's plan of
salvation. He soon desired to become a member of their society, and
as they believed him to be earnestly seeking to be saved from sin
they gave him the right hand of fellowship. Mr. Bredin, the preacher
who had been appointed to the Lisburn circuit, was the person to
whom he applied for admission. As James was telling him the state of
his mind he had another severe conflict with the enemy of souls.
Like the man who dwelt amongst the tombs, as he was coming the devil
threw him down. Mr. Bredin prayed and endeavoured to point him to
the Lamb of God. It was some time later when he had the joy of
knowing his sins forgiven. James's family and friends were dismayed
when they heard he had joined the Methodists. His sisters were
ashamed of him, and his wife threatened to leave him. When he went to
tell Patrick what he had done Patrick was upset and told James that
he would be as good a Christian without becoming a Methodist.
The burden on Patrick's mind increased, and he feared that his despondency would end in suicide. His home was at, or near Broughmore, and when at the riverside he would often step back or hold on to the bushes lest he should throw himself into the water. James Wright invited Patrick to a preaching service which was to be held at his home.15 The sermon concerned the doctrine of salvation by faith, and Patrick did not understand: he was still of the opinion that severe penances were the only means whereby he could have deliverance from his sins. Someone invited him to attend a class meeting. He states: "After I had tried it, I was convinced that it was the duty, and privilege, of such as feared God, to speak often one to another. (Mal. 3, v. 16). But though I met in class, I still continued to go to Mass."
In a short time he began to think of leaving his Church, but this caused great struggles within him. He dreaded the sorrow he would bring upon his parents: he had been taught that none could be saved but Roman Catholics. Also, he and his family were indebted to his parents in many ways, and he knew their material help would cease if he left the Church. He prayed that God would point the way out to him, and promised to walk in it, whatever it might cost him. Whilst his mind was in this turmoil he thought he would try the Meeting House and the Established Church. He went first to the Meeting House at Lisburn, and the next Sunday he attended the Parish Church at Hillsborough. By this time he was fully determined to leave the Roman Church. His decision caused a great stir in the district. Those of his Church abhorred him; some of the Protestants called him a turncoat; he was shunned by his parents; and what was an even greater trial, he still bore the weight of his sins.
On 20th March 1776 he made application to Mr. Bredin to be received into membership of the society. He now began to make prayer the chief aim of his life. One night he felt strongly that he should start praying with his own family, and although he felt inadequate, by Divine grace he was enabled to do this each evening. In June of that year he went to Lisburn to hear Rev. Edward Smyth, a Church of Ireland curate who had become a Methodist preacher. As Patrick listened, he found that Mr. Smyth had a message from God for him. He states: "As he (Mr. Smyth) had not been used to extempore preaching, his sermon was a little confused; but this defect was more than compensated by his plainness, faithfulness and zeal. He preached not himself, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and the Gospel from him came not in word only, but in power in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance. . . . Under the sermon a ray of heavenly light began to break through the cloud which had so long involved me in darkness. The divine impression was made, went home with me, and that night at family prayer God set my soul at liberty. I was enabled to believe with my heart unto righteousness, my burden of guilt was removed, and I could exult in the liberty of God's children, saying
My God is reconciled,
His pardoning voice I hear,
He owns me for His child,
I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh
And boldly, Abba, Father, cry.
I felt a hatred to sin inspired, the love of God shed abroad in my heart, and a flame of holy zeal kindled within. I felt the witness of the Spirit, and a peace that passeth understanding. The light of God's countenance was lifted upon me. . . I was now ready to think that my troubles were mostly over, but was soon convinced of the contrary. . . . Those who have entered the strait gate of conversion to God should not expect that their subsequent path will be all smooth and pleasant, for it is often through tribulation that believers enter the Kingdom."
In a short time Patrick began to consider that
making restitution was the indispensable duty of every Christian,
and in consequence he started to recompense anyone he had wronged,
even if it had occurred more than twenty years previously. Since at
times he appeared to be taking a great deal of trouble over matters
which seemed unworthy of notice he became a laughing-stock amongst
the neighbours, but he tells us, "This I did not regard, so long as
I felt peace in my own conscience."
Hugh Murray of Moira, and Joseph Cherry, "men of good sense and piety" were the leaders of the Methodist class meeting which Patrick attended. After some time they thought the group were able to manage for themselves and Patrick was appointed leader. He felt that at that time he "was unfit for such an office, but as they were in great need they had to appoint such as they could get." He conducted the class for several years until a change of circumstance occurred in the house where the meetings were held, and the preaching had to be discontinued. The class was removed to a place where it was inconvenient for the people to attend, and members began to fall off.
Some time later Patrick and Thomas Carnaghan were appointed to lead a class alternately, and this they continued to do for several years. His colleague, though blind, had a very vigorous and well-informed mind, and was an eloquent and powerful speaker. Patrick believed that he too possessed the gift of exhortation (or preaching), though to a lesser extent than his friend. He was aware of what the apostle Paul said about using God-given gifts (Romans 12, 6-8), and was mindful to exercise his without attempting to go beyond its limits. When preaching he did not enter into methodical discussions, but addressed the people in a simple straightforward way to show them that they were fallen creatures under guilt and condemnation, and then would declare that there was a remedy for them in Christ Jesus. He believed that "none can pass through the new birth without some painful struggles. Men must feel something of the bitterness of sin, before they can be made happy in the divine favour; they must feel their condemnation, before they can be justified freely through the redemption there is in Christ." In Christian work he warns us to be on guard lest pride steal in, and states: "There is nothing more injurious to the soul than pride, nor anything more insinuating. We have need to watch against temptations, even on our knees, and in every part of Divine worship; for when the sons of God present themselves before the Lord, Satan comes also amongst them." (Job 1, v. 6).