The 1904 Revival in Wales
At the London Westminster Conference in December the last of the series of lectures and special meetings that has characterised this centenary year of the Welsh revival of 1904 was given by Stephen Clarke of Bridgend.
Evan Roberts was born near Swansea in 1878 the ninth of the fourteen children of Henry Roberts. At twelve he began to work in a coal mine until 1902 when he was apprenticed to his uncle who was a blacksmith. He was accepted as a candidate for the ministry by the Calvinistic Methodists in 1904 and began to study in a preparatory school in Newcastle Emlyn thinking he would go to seminary in 1906. Deeply serious about serving God he was a man of prayer and devotion.
In the years leading up to 1904 there were many indications from most of Wales that a time of awakening was taking place with crowded gospel congregations, professions of faith and a new earnestness in public and private Christian living. There were special meetings in a church near Cardigan in Blaenannerch led by Seth Joshua. Evan Roberts had travelled there to attend them with other students from the school and was deeply affected and requested on Sunday at the end of October that he might return home from his Newcastle Emlyn studies to share his blessings with the younger generation of his home church. As soon as the first meeting began, that very Monday night, many were moved by what they heard. The meetings continued and soon were crowded. Roberts and his companions later went elsewhere, mainly through Glamorganshire, sharing their ministry of exhortation, praise and prayer. The main Welsh newspaper, the Western Mail, began to report on the proceedings day after day, and people travelled to hear Evan Roberts from far and near. There was international hope that the 20th century would be characterised by latter day glory and that the Welsh revival was the earnest of this. The other preachers intensified their labours too, so that throughout Wales during 1905 a figure approaching 100,000 men and women professed faith in Christ. But by the spring of that year Roberts had a break down and for the rest of his bachelor life rarely preached again, dying in Cardiff in the early 1950s.
Church life in Wales, far from showing a revived spirit, began to decline; the loss of evangelical theology, the temptations of power, the denominations becoming confidently established and focusing on their own life and ‘personalities’, the spread of humanism and socialism and nationalism and state educationalism as considered to be redemptive movements, the decline of the language, the absence of notable leaders to resist liberal religion, the effects of two world wars, the spread of material prosperity, the teaching of Darwinism and Freudianism, ready access to constant entertainment – all such factors made their demonically assisted impact upon the nation. But most of all the absence of the powerful working of the Spirit of God, as European culture came under God’s judgment, brought about the frame of utter apathy about the person and work of Jesus Christ which confronts the church everywhere today in Wales.
Preachers must never failed to honour the Word of God by marginalising it, always placing it in a central place for those who throng to hear of Jesus Christ. Roberts’ message was rarely preaching; when he finally addressed his packed congregations after an hour or more of singing and prayers, it was this fourfold theme he brought to them:
1. Confess all your sins
2. Remove all doubtful things from your life.
3. Submit to the Spirit.
4. Publicly stand and confess Christ.
These things were to be done in order to receive the fulness of the Spirit. In fact they are themselves the marks of Spirit fulness, the outworking of living discipleship made increasingly evident as the years go by in effectual sanctification through the increasing enlightenment of Word (for example in determining what is doubtful and what is not). How relatively easy it is to stand up in a meeting or walk with others to the front; how hard to stand out in a colliery or office block by a Christ-centred life, year after year.
The effects of semi-Pelagianism, decisionism, the Keswick doctrine of receiving holiness by an act of faith, and Finneyism had become entrenched in Welsh evangelicalism a century ago. The older leaders in Wales looked with tenderness on the Roberts meetings but none of them took on board those methods – the inordinate emphasis on singing, chaotic unplanned meetings, women taking the leadership, unchallenged reliance on feelings, announcements that people had been saved there and then, emotional intensity, the protracted nature of the gatherings well into the small hours of the morning. None of these features was taken on board by the main gospel ministers of Wales. What they all did was to keep on preaching the word of God. Leaders like R.B. Jones the Baptist, Nantlais Williams the leading Calvinistic Methodist, Seth Joshua of the Forward Movement were too aware of the possibility of quenching the Spirit and dividing the church to publicly criticise the Evan Roberts’ meetings. They sought to preach the word with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven.
Peter Price of Dowlais, in many ways a conservative man who believed in revival, did decide to criticise Evan Roberts in an explosive letter to the Western Mail that filled a whole page of that paper which had been uncritically pro-Roberts until then. It is a sad letter because Price lacked the theological insight and knowledge of church history to point out the true weaknesses in the revival, and he didn’t know it; he did know he had his degrees which he listed at the end of his letter for Wales to see. He and his theology were part of the problem, while he thought he had the answer. It is doubtful whether there was anyone in Wales capable of analysing the phenomena of the Roberts’ meetings or the theological decline that dated back to the closing years of the life of John Elias 75 years earlier. These were pre-Lloyd-Jones times.
Three groupings came out of the 1904 revival, the apostolic church under Dan Williams; secondly, the mission halls consisting of saved people pushed out of their churches when they ‘came into the blessing’ and agitated for their fellow church members to know it too; and thirdly, the so-called ‘children of the revival’ who were the backbone of Welsh churches for the next decades. When God favoured Wales again he ignored all those groups and did something new, meeting with a young London Welsh doctor named Lloyd-Jones. He came out of none of those parties and he went back to the founders of Calvinistic Methodism in the 18th century for his inspiration and education. God always does a new thing in the earth, but whatever it is it never fails to centre on the ministry of Jesus Christ in the Word of God and bringing the whole Saviour to bear on the entire church.
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