The Welsh Revival
As the twentieth century began, all was not well with the Welsh Church. Higher criticism had produced a culture that was suspicious of orthodox Christianity. The theory of evolution and the advent of psychology as a way of understanding religious experience had taken their toll. In the Spring of 1900 the North Wales Association of the Church of Presbyterian Church of Wales reported a loss of 12,844 members. Decline was everywhere.
Yet at the same time there were those whose hearts longed for a movement of God’s Spirit. At the Keswick Convention of 1902 some caught a vision for a similar gathering in Wales. Under the influence of Dean Howells of St David’s, the Welsh Keswick Convention began. It met for the first time in August 1903, and brought together clergy and laity from all over the Principality. Many went home from that week with a longing for revival in their hearts. It is estimated that there were at least 40,000 believers seeking God for revival in Wales before 1904.
The Spirit had already begun to move. Under the ministries of people like Joseph Jenkins and Seth Joshua small numbers were discovering a new way of being Christian. For the first time they came to realise that surrender was the gateway to renewal. One such was a young man called Evan Roberts. On 13 September 1904, together with his friend Sidney Evans, he began training for the Calvinistic Methodist Ministry at the college in Newcastle Emlyn. He did not stay long. In fact when he returned home his mother thought he had just popped in whilst passing through on a preaching engagement. Before long she discovered the purpose of his visit. One by one he searched out the leaders of the local church, and shared his experience of renewal with them. He asked the minister, Thomas Francis, to agree that he hold a series of preparation meetings prior to a mission the following week which he would conduct. When he told the Francis that to refuse his request would be to grieve the Spirit, the minister agreed! Recounting the incident, Roberts writes: ‘On Monday night … I explained to them the purpose of my mission … and I urged them to prepare for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit'. First on the Thursday evening and then on the Sunday morning he taught the people a new prayer. It was often repeated in revival meetings: ‘Send the Spirit now. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.’ Subsequently they would pray: ‘Send the Spirit more powerfully. For Jesus’ sake. Amen'.
He explained the conditions for the coming of the Spirit. For Roberts there were four:
Confess all known sin.
Have done with all secret and doubtful things.
Confess Christ openly.
Obey the Spirit’s promptings instantly.
Before the preparation week was ended, the Holy Spirit’s work had begun. Speaking of the Sunday evening meeting, he says: ‘I led in prayer; then, from seat to seat, I felt the place being filled. Before the prayer had gone halfway round the room, I heard some brother weeping and sobbing, saying “Oh dear! Oh dear!” Others began to break and to lie on the ground crying for mercy, or saying “No more, Lord Jesus, or we die!"”
There is some uncertainty about what time the meeting began on the Monday evening, but we do know that at midnight Roberts had protested that he was not satisfied, and that the meeting would continue until ‘we get the blessing’. The blessing came, and the meeting did not end until 3.00am Tuesday morning. Yet by 6.00am they were back at the church in Loughor for the early morning prayer meeting. The revival had begun.
On the following day Roberts preached at Brynteg, as he did on the following Friday. In the congregation was a reporter from the Cardiff Western Mail who wrote a short article about the meeting with the headline ‘Great crowds of people drawn to Loughor’, and with the opening sentence: ‘A remarkable religious revival is now taking place in Loughor’. Without doubt, this and subsequent reports fuelled a sense of expectation in the hearts of many. If it had happened there, why could it not happen here too? Before long, the Western Mail produced a ‘Revival Supplement’, the first of six produced in 1904-5. By the end of November the movement was ‘sweeping like a wave over the mining valleys of Glamorgan’. 200 converts were reported at Tylorston before Roberts arrived. Sidney Evans, who had joined the work, reported 300 converts at Morriston by December 4. 500 converts had been recorded at Maerdy in the Rhondda by December 11.
The life of Wales was being changed.
The statistics associated with the Welsh Revival are staggering in their proportions. More than 100,000 people professed conversion during the six-month period when the revival was at its height. 70,000 of these occurred within two months. The movement affected all classes of people, and all ages. Every major denomination felt its impact. The life of the nation was touched. The Church was renewed. The quest for holiness became the passion of the man in the street. As the revival gained momentum in November and December 1904 several meetings would sometimes be held simultaneously in the same town. The visitor would be immediately impressed by crowds of people flocking to the chapels. Had the visitor attended a meeting and asked, ‘Who’s in charge?’ he would have asked in vain. The meetings seemed to have been beyond human control. Not unusually the revivalist, Sidney Evans or Evan Roberts arrived with a singer, some considerable time after the meeting had begun. Spontaneity was the key word. Individual members of the congregation would stand to share a word of encouragement or admonition. Others would lead in prayer. Others would start to sing, whereupon the whole congregation would join in the familiar hymn. There was no order of service, no pre-arranged pattern, no hymnbooks. It just happened, and those present felt that a greater Power was in control. We would be surprised at the lack of preaching. There is hardly any record of biblical exposition as we understand it; for which a price was maybe paid later. Yet one must not underestimate the power of those meetings. There was a deep sense of the presence of God. Prayer was natural, and the singing could never be forgotten by those who participated in it. Here is a typical example of one of the meetings.
Mr Roberts could not speak much, but when he was given an opportunity he spoke of the necessity of prayer, and then the people sang softly, tenderly, … The service was by this time most impressive, remarkably so, for pretty well the whole congregation was praying … Often, indeed, the prayer would imperceptibly glide into the singing of a stanza or two of Miss Crosby’s hymn ‘Pass me not O gentle Saviour’. But such singing – singing in which there was a soul full of prayer.” – Neath, January 12 1905.
The effect the revival had on the fabric of society is equally remarkable. There are numerous examples of individual lives being changed, gamblers who refused money won by bets which were placed before their conversion; prize fighters who became evangelists; thieves who restored stolen goods; enemies who were made friends. Convictions for drunkenness in Glamorgan, for example, fell from 10,528 in 1903 to 5,490 in 1906. The claim was made that ‘three months of the revival has done more to sober the country than the Temperance Movement effort of many years’. Miners’ Associations decided no longer to meet on licensed premises. At Llanfair in Anglesey all the public houses but one were closed. On several occasions magistrates were presented with white gloves signifying that there were no cases to try. Many homes underwent a complete transformation. An NSPCC Inspector reported that he could see the profound effect of the revival in the mining valleys of Glamorgan. Miners would go to the pit half an hour before their shift so that they could hold a prayer meeting underground. An account of such a meeting was printed in the Western Mail, and speaks of ‘earnest men whose faces bore the scars of the underground toiler … strong frames that quivered with a new emotion.’
Nor must we forget the lasting impact of the revival in the lives of many who were touched and changed, brought into a new encounter with God, and filled with his Spirit. The Jefferies’ brothers and Smith-Wigglesworth, founding fathers of British Pentecostalism, all testify to the important place of the Welsh Revival in their own spiritual pilgrimage. Indeed, any study of the Welsh Revival and the British Pentecostal Church reveals an interwoven framework through which God did a new thing in Wales and beyond.
Some have criticised the Welsh Revival as a ‘flash in the pan’. There was a clear lack of biblical teaching, and leadership qualities were expected from people who had not had the experience to gain them. But when we have said it all, we acknowledge that here is a movement of God’s Spirit which changed the lives of individuals, and the social fabric of the nation. Would to God that 100 years on he might do the same for this nation.
The Rev Paul Smith is Superintendent Minister of Plymouth Central Hall and the Chairman of Headway.
Headline, Winter 2003/4 pp 8-9.