Primitive Methodism and the 1904 Welsh Revival

Robert J Higginson

When we compare what happened in the 1904 Welsh Revival with some aspects of our Methodist heritage, what may we learn of God’s ways from the similarities and differences? We can see some factors that reflect Methodist belief and practice. Not all those involved in the Welsh Revival were Methodists, nor was the Revival due to Methodism. We must remember that Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, which had a more direct influence, was the fruit of the labours of Howell Harris, who started to evangelise Wales before John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed. Like Whitfield, Howell Harris later leaned towards Calvinism, hence these Welsh ‘Calvinistic Methodists’. Methodism was mostly of the same mind, especially in preaching for Salvation and Holiness.

Nothing in the life of the Church arises out of nothing. The Welsh Revival drew on the Keswick Movement, and expanded the ministry of several evangelists. A significant number were Calvinistic Methodists, others were Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Eifion Evans (The Welsh Revival of 1904) sees Keswick as less important, saying, “… Evan Roberts’ spiritual lineage lay in the direction of a deep-rooted Welsh Calvinistic Methodist tradition rather than a novel English holiness movement”. In 1904, Evan Roberts was in training for the Methodist ministry.

Mrs Jessie Penn-Lewis who was involved in the 1904 Revival was also active in the Welsh Keswick Movement. She later edited a magazine called The Overcomer, closed in 1914 by wartime paper shortages. There is some excellent material in this final year, but also an insular focus on their intercessory ministry. This necessary and valuable prayer ministry risked losing touch with society and even the wider church. For a century, Primitive Methodism bore fruit in social welfare which continued to touch society for good, though perhaps this took the eyes of Methodists away from their spiritual roots.

Writing in The Overcomer in 1914, Evan Roberts downplayed the Revival and viewed it as having an eschatological significance, preparing the Church for a decade of prayer before the Rapture of the Church which he believed would be in 1914. In an autobiographical article, Mrs Penn-Lewis include only one paragraph about the 1904 Revival, which she saw as lasting only six months to the spring of 1905.

Eifion Evans records more widespread and continuing fruits of the Revival, as well as a range of social benefits including drunkenness becoming rare and old debts being paid. The ‘children of the Revival’ sustained the Church during the decline following World War I. In both the Revival and Primitive Methodism all levels of society were touched, especially the lowest, and whole communities were changed for the better. A famous anecdote says that after 1904, the pit ponies could no longer understand the instructions given by the miners, because they longer swore! David DuPlessis, I think, was vexed by an accusation of immorality, youngsters at Revival meetings using the back seats for courting: “How can you prove a negative? Newspapers do not report something that did not happen”. But he found a dramatic fall in the illegitimacy rate in birth records. The Revival had resulted in changed lives and practical holiness.

Two of Methodism’s parallels with the Welsh Revival were the emphasis on heart and practical holiness, and the organisation of both Society and meetings. Primitive Methodism was built upon the foundations laid by John Wesley. During the 19th century the Primitives brought these to the ordinary people while many Wesleyans lost the early fire in their search for respectability.

When Hugh Bourne found salvation in 1799, he began to evangelise in spite of the intense shyness which was his life?long handicap. But his life was transformed in 1804 when he entered into ‘full sanctification’ as taught by John Wesley and ministered by some ‘revivalists’ from Stockport. We would probably call this his ‘Baptism in the Holy Ghost’, but this must be understood in holiness terms, not modern charismatic experience. Compare this Baptist Confession of Faith of 1660 in which, concerning ‘baptism under the laying on of hands’, the English Baptist leaders said: “It is the duty of every believer, baptised, to seek the laying on of hands for the receiving of the Holy Spirit that we might walk worthy of our calling”. Howell Harris had an experience of ‘Holy Ghost power’ in 1735, the year of his new birth, which motivated his evangelism.

The whole thrust of Primitive Methodism under Hugh Bourne was for a ‘Present Salvation’, a changed life, inner holiness and outward behaviour as a witness of this. Local and Travelling Preachers preached salvation through the cleansing blood of Christ, and full sanctification. Aiming to bring seekers to a conclusion in their spiritual search, the meetings had three hymns, about an hour’s sermon full of biblical exposition and practical application, followed by a prayer meeting. Bourne entered his experience of full sanctification in a prayer meeting after a love feast. Thousands received blessing from God in these prayer meetings.

This meeting pattern is reflected in Duncan Campbell’s reports of the 1959 revival in the Hebrides, where much of the blessing came in prayer times that extended through the night. The Primitive Methodist prayer meetings not only followed preaching. Reports in the P.M. Magazine like one on St. Ives in the Redruth Circuit (October 1830) speak of prayer meetings at 6.00am which were scenes of revival blessing. This report reads like a history of the revivals of 1859 or 1904. Some meetings had congregations of thousands. People cried out in anguish of conviction, or wept as the Lord spoke to them. Some found release while others went away still labouring under conviction. Backsliders were restored. Christians found release in a deeper work of God in their lives.

In the early decades of Primitive Methodism, preaching was characterised by conviction of sin in the hearers. There were visible manifestations of this in the tears, laments, groans and cries and the physical postures including falling to the floor. Sometimes it seems that such seekers were in distress for some days or weeks before reaching any assurance of salvation. The result was that they were not merely converts to a cause. They were truly saved. They praised the atoning blood of their Lord Jesus Christ, and lived changed and holy lives. Their communities were changed, and whole towns and villages were affected. There are many claims of revival in recent years, with much talk of manifestations of the Spirit, but how much of this is true revival? Where is the conviction of sin, the emphasis on the blood of Christ, and the teaching of inner and practical holiness which characterised not only the Primitive Methodist revival, but 18th century Methodism, the 17th century English Baptists, the Reformation, or the Revivals of 1859, the 1904 Welsh Revival, the Hebridean Revival and similar moves of the Holy Spirit? Where is the desire to be at the Prayer Meeting? Where is the desire to hear the Bible expounded in all its richness? Where is the desire for that inward holiness which characterised John Wesley’s preaching?

Ask yourself when you last sang Charles Wesley’s hymn


I want a principle within

of jealous, godly fear;

a sensibility of sin,

a pain to feel it near.


Methodism was raised up by God to spread Scriptural Holiness throughout the land. Whereever Methodists have ceased to do that, true Methodism has ceased to exist.

In the concern for conviction of sin, salvation and holiness, Hugh Bourne also recognised gifts of the Holy Spirit such as healing, and wrote about miraculous healings he had seen. We read this in The Primitive Methodist Magazine which he edited and printed. The edition of December 1824 includes an account of two examples of healing of people who had been using crutches for several years. An editorial in another issue has teaching on other spiritual gifts. Some modern historians have suggested that speaking in tongues was a feature of some Camp Meetings. In many respects, Primitive Methodism carried the Pentecostal torch through the 19th century. But it would not have thought to take this name, as their ambition was that message of salvation and scriptural holiness given to them by John Wesley.

Like Primitive Methodism, the 1904 Revival was characterized by a ‘Holy-Ghost power’ and special times of prayer. But in the Revival, normal routines were set aside in a way that was less practical in the normal life of early Methodism.

Bible-based preaching was the strength of early Methodism. By contrast, according to Eifion Evans, preaching was neglected by Evan Roberts and some other leaders of the Welsh Revival. Thus Primitive Methodism was still fruitful after half a century. The Welsh Revival lasted months, though its influence was felt for longer. Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, in their book Seduction Of The Heart, warn of the dangers facing the 21st century Church through ignorance of the Bible. They include Methodism in a summary of 19th century trends leading to this lack of Bible knowledge. Then they add, “Many sincere preachers get off the theological track because they don’t know enough theology to realize their errors”. Even by 1904 the foundation of Bible teaching which might have sustained the Revival was already in decay.

Historian Gwyn Davies (A Light In The Land) describes the Welsh Revival in the longer perspective of Welsh Christian history. It blossomed in 1904, but had roots in the soil of various influences that caused Evan Roberts and others to seek God. Methodism was typical of the soil from which the Revival flowered. We see many similarities between them, but the history of both carries a warning that the blessing of God may be lost, whether quickly or slowly.

Robert J Higginson has a special interest in Methodism's heritage in Staffordshire.

Headline Spring 2004 pp 9-10.