Nicholson, William Patteson (1876–1959), evangelist, was born on 3 April 1876 in Cottown near Bangor, Co. Down, one among seven children of Capt. John G. Nicholson, merchant seaman, and his wife Ellen (née Campbell). The family was devoutly presbyterian; two sisters and a brother became missionaries. Nicholson was brought up in Belfast and educated at Fisherwick presbyterian school and the Model School on the Falls Road. He went to sea aged sixteen, spending four years on the barque Galgorm Castle. He reacted against his upbringing and lived a life of drunkenness and debauchery, but remained haunted by fears for his salvation. His unease intensified when he left ship at Cape Town and worked as a miner and railway builder in the Kalahari Desert, seeing associates die of blackwater fever.
Nicholson returned to Bangor in May 1899. On 22 May he was ‘born again’. For seven months Nicholson remained haunted by timidity and spiritual emptiness. Then he came under the influence of the Rev. J. Stuart Holden, who taught ‘holiness doctrine’ (that after conversion believers should experience a second spiritual transformation, ‘receiving the Holy Ghost’). Nicholson felt God wanted him to proclaim faith; he joined the weekly Salvation Army procession, an object of widespread ridicule. He always thanked God this cured him of respectability.
Nicholson became a railway clerk and lay evangelist. In December 1901 he entered the Bible Training Institute, Glasgow (inspired by the revivalist missions of Dwight W. Moody). After graduation in 1903 Nicholson became an evangelist with the Lanarkshire Christian Union, preaching to working-class audiences. Here he perfected his brash, uncompromising, humorous oratory and his techniques of self-advertisement. In 1907 Nicholson married Ellison D. Marshall of Bellshill, Lanarkshire, a gospel worker. They had two daughters and a son. In 1907 he preached in London, subsequently travelling to Australia and America with the Chapman/Alexander mission.
On 14 April Nicholson was ordained by the Carlisle (USA) presbytery of the United Presbyterian Church. This was undertaken to bolster his credentials as a travelling evangelist rather than from strong denominational attachment. His missions were interdenominational, linked to all the principal protestant churches. Nicholson believed those dissatisfied with their church should derive extracurricular sustenance from orthodox evangelists rather than seceding. He later acted as pastor in a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church without formally abandoning presbyterianism. In 1918 he was recruited by the fundamentalist Los Angeles Bible Mission as an evangelist for its extension programme. Thereafter Nicholson's principal residence was in California, although he resigned from the Institute in 1924; as in unregenerate days, he felt he was born to wander and could not settle in one place. (His son later worked with the Mission, retiring in 1967.) In October 1920 Nicholson revisited Bangor during a mission in Scotland. His preaching aroused mass enthusiasm reminiscent of the 1859 revival. He returned in January 1921; a series of missions across Northern Ireland produced thousands of converts. Nicholson preached a hellfire gospel, denouncing alcohol, tobacco, cinema, cosmetics, ‘long-haired men and short-haired women’. His provocative language and showmanship resembled a particularly outrageous stand-up comedian.
Nicholson was unusually effective in appealing to working-class men (he also addressed women who ‘manicure your nails on the washboard’). Churches filled to twice their capacity, apparently irrecoverable debts were paid, crowds of shipyard workers went across Belfast (even outside it) to hear him. Responses were intensified by contemporary political instability, bloodshed, and turmoil. Nicholson's 1920 Shankill Road mission was conducted to the sound of gunfire; his early 1923 missions in east Belfast allegedly reduced sectarian violence. He returned to California in June 1923. Even critics noted a sustained rise in communicants. ‘He is filled with vulgarity and with Holy Spirit’, commented one clergyman, ‘and how a man can be filled with both at the same time I do not know.’
In 1924–6 Nicholson gave another series of missions in Ulster (he also spoke in Dublin). These proved extremely divisive. Nicholson provoked criticism in some church circles by his vulgar humour and uncompromising language. He retorted that the mission did well when publicans and Pharisees attacked it; T. C. Hammond (qv) commented that if Nicholson was vulgar, so were Isaiah and Elijah. Nicholson attacked theological modernism as believable only by ‘fools and theological professors . . . calling Mary a Jewish prostitute and Jesus a bastard’. This provoked fundamentalist–modernist controversy within the Irish presbyterian church; several Nicholson associates accused Professor J. E. Davey (qv) of heresy. Davey's acquittal led to the secession of the Irish Evangelical (later Evangelical Presbyterian) Church, while the fundamentalist Bible Standards League campaigned within the church throughout the interwar period.
Ellison Nicholson died in 1926 during a mission in Australia. In 1927 Nicholson married Fanny Elizabeth Collett, a nursing matron. He continued to travel the English-speaking world as a preacher. He gave further missions in Northern Ireland in 1928, 1936, 1937, and 1946. His last series of Northern Ireland missions (1958) was a self-conscious farewell tour. He had developed a heart condition in the 1920s; by 1958 his health was so weak he was warned against preaching. In autumn 1959, while the Nicholsons were returning from America to retirement in Bangor, he suffered a heart attack and was put ashore at Cork. W. P. Nicholson died 29 October 1959 in the Victoria Hospital, Cork, and is buried in Clandeboye cemetery, Bangor.
Nicholson's career fits well-established contemporary patterns of working-class evangelism and of fundamentalism as a consciously indecorous populist appeal against middle-class intellectualism. Mainstream presbyterians looked back on Nicholson with respect; evangelists and fundamentalists saw his revival, like its 1859 predecessor, as a particular source of inspiration. Ian Paisley (qv), whose Martyrs Memorial Church lay in the area of east Belfast that witnessed Nicholson's greatest triumphs, modelled his preaching on Nicholson; Nicholson called down a blessing on Paisley in 1946 and prayed he would have a rough tongue ‘like an old cow’. In 1953 Nicholson allegedly endorsed Paisley's separatist Free Presbyterian Church after J. E. Davey became moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland: ‘I can't see how any minister or member can remain any longer in the denomination, especially when they have a real presbyterian church to go to’ (Maxwell). The Bangor congregation of Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church became ‘W. P. Nicholson Memorial’.