Portrait of Billy Nicholson on top of a scene from Harland and Wolffe

Billy Nicholson

In Articles, Faith, Heroes Articles by Jamie Wreford1 Comment

'The Tornado of the Pulpit'

portrait of Billy Nicholson

A presbyterian preacher and evangelist born in Bangor, Co Down. WP Nicholson was nicknamed ‘The Tornado of the Pulpit’

William Patteson Nicholson (1876-1959) was a Presbyterian preacher and evangelist born in Bangor, Co Down. Nicknamed ‘The Tornado of the Pulpit’, Nicholson spent his early years on his father’s cargo ship, but began to preach in 1899 at the age of 23. He was known for his ‘men-only’ meetings and straightforward language. In the Belfast shipyard of Harland & Wolff, a ‘Nicholson shed’ was erected to house stolen tools that newly converted workers returned as a result of Nicholson’s preaching!

In the year 1900 a ‘massed band’ of four people marched out-of-step down the main street of Bangor in Northern Ireland. The two members with uniforms were Salvation Army lassies; the other two were young men. One of these men had a mind as keen as a razor’s edge; the other (according to the first) “hadn’t enough brains to give him a nucleus for a headache.”

The young man who headed this little parade was beating a tuneless tambourine. He had recently vowed that for Christ’s sake he would go anywhere and do anything, at any cost. Then this silly thing in the streets of his home town had turned up. He had been walking down the street when this Salvation Army lassie had asked him to stand with the other three at the street corner to witness for Christ.

It hadn’t the faintest smell of the heroic about it. Theories he formulated in his armchair looked heroic. But in the heat of the battle, a swivel-chair theologian’s theories perish. For this young man it was tough to get things in line when he actually faced his Goliath.

“Daft Jimmy,” the nitwit who stood with the Sally lassies, wore a red jersey. On the back of it in white letters was written the startling non-scriptural text, ‘Saved from Public Opinion.’ Maybe the nitwit hadn’t enough wit to be scared of anybody, but the young leader was scared. Moreover, wide-eyed cynics showered the band with unsubdued catcalls. What a baptism! His public enemy number one was public opinion. His meeting with God had been a mountaintop experience. Now he was in the valley of humiliation.

The Harland and Wolffe shipyard in Belfast

In the Belfast shipyard of Harland & Wolff, a ‘Nicholson shed’ was erected to house stolen tools that newly converted workers returned as a result of Nicholson’s preaching!

To make bad worse (as the Irish say it), it seemed by some pre-arranged signal that every friend, every relative, and every enemy of his passed the corner as he stood there bashfully. Notice that I said ‘passed’ – thus marking the meeting’s total ineffectiveness.

Seeing the dilemma, one of the Army lassies suggested that the four kneel down and ask the Lord to “take over.” Poor Billy! As they knelt there, a brother offered a ‘telegram’ prayer which Billy wished had been as long as the 119th Psalm. Then something happened. When Billy arose from his knees, he was through forever with any sensitivity to public opinion. His reputation died and had a public funeral in that street meeting. (To die and be buried publicly doesn’t take long!)

To the jeering spectators, this street meeting may have looked like comedy. But to this young man it was sweeter than the ‘Triumphal March’ in Verdi’s opera Aida. It was a glory march to celebrate a greater victory to him than that of Nelson at Trafalgar or King William III at the Battle of the Boyne. Billy was triumphant. He had just lost what he never wanted to find again and had just found what he never wanted to lose. He lost his reputation and fear of man, and found the joy and peace of the overflowing fullness of the Spirit. Hallelujah!

That meeting was his inauspicious, comic introduction into a world of evangelism. Who was this young man? None other than WP Nicholson (better known to millions as just WP). He was as Irish as the turf, and as rugged as the hills of Donegal.

WP’s middle initial might well have been ‘C’ for courage. At 15 he sailed away from home as an apprentice seaman. His was a harsh training. He had been at sea in old sailing vessels as long as five months at a time without seeing land. He had weathered Cape Horn in a hurricane. He had fought overweight men bare-fisted. His fighting was ‘all-in and no-holds-barred’.

WP was saved in 1899 and he knew it. Months later (and only a few hours before his famed street meeting episode in Bangor) he had had an old-fashioned liberation from sin. Presbyterian though he was – full-blooded, pedigreed, and blue-stockinged – after the Spirit liberated him, he began to weep and sing and rejoice like any old-fashioned Free Methodist.

Because of his meetings, many men are in the ministry today, battering the strongholds of Satan and snatching souls from the burning. One of these is my friend Andy Mays, the old drunk who was saved in Billy’s meeting.

The first night Andy Mays attended the meeting, he itched on his chair. “Nicholson won’t get me in there again,” he vowed as he left the service. But the next night Andy was there. As he left, he repeated his vow. The third night Andy sat up on the ‘top deck’ of the seating. But the higher you are, the further you fall. That night Andy fell right into the hands of a merciful God.

About the Author

Leonard Ravenhill

Leonard Ravenhill (1907-1994) was an evangelist and author who focused on revival and prayer. He is best known for his book ‘Why Revival Tarries’, which sold over a million copies worldwide. Ravenhill wrote this article in 1957.

Leonard Ravenhill

This isn't the end of the story!

This article was taken from the October - December 2019 issue of Heroes of the Faith.

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  1. Good to read about this man of courage! Thankyou!

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