Christmas Evans – The One-Eyed Bunyan of Wales
Christmas Evans was a man of lowly birth, and little education. But in the hands of God he became one of the most eloquent and powerful preachers in Wales from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries. Great crowds would gather to hear his vivid, imaginative sermons.
HIS EARLY LIFE
On the evening of 25th December 1766, Samuel and Johanna Evans welcomed their second child into the world. Because of the day on which he has born, they decided to call their son Christmas Evans. Christmas’ mother, it seems was a godly woman, who often urged her little boy to think of his eternal welfare. However, tragedy was soon to strike in the Evans household, as Christmas’ father died, plunging the family into terrible poverty. Johanna’s brother, a farmer from Bwlchog, offered to take little Christmas under his wing. He promised the child food and board in exchange for help on the farm.
But Uncle James was a cruel man, given to drink, and a harsh task-master. In the six years that Christmas spent with his uncle, he was starved of affection and deprived of even the most basic education. At the age of seventeen, the poor lad was illiterate.
Evans left the tender care of his uncle and sought work as a farm labourer. This was a lonely and difficult time in Christmas’ life. But God had plans for this young man. He began attending the Presbyterian chapel in Llwynrhydowan. The minister was David Davies. He was a learned man and something of a poet, but his views on the person of Christ were decidedly unorthodox. Around 1783, revival broke out in the area and many of the young people, including Christmas Evans, were awakened. He later testified,
The fear of dying in an ungodly state especially affected me (even from childhood), and this apprehension clung to me till I was induced to rest on Christ. All this was accompanied by some little knowledge of the Redeemer, and now, in my seventieth year, I cannot deny that this concern was the dawn of the day of grace on my spirit, although mingled with much darkness and ignorance.
Evans separated himself from his old worldly companions and began learn to read, having just bought a copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Evans and a few other young people from the church would meet together in a barn with candles and Bibles, for impromptu reading classes. They all had a real thirst for knowledge and understanding. Within a month, Evans was no longer illiterate. He could read his Welsh Bible and began to borrow books in English too. From and educational point of view, Evans was a late developer. But his conversion gave him a life-long love of study and learning. Intellectual gifts that had lain dormant were awakened. He later became proficient in Hebrew and Greek and was deeply familiar with the theological works of the Baptist John Gill and the great puritan divine, John Owen.
For Evans, there was no doubt that the Bible itself is the best of books,
The Bible is the Book of books, a Book breathed out of heaven . . . I am very grateful for books written by man, but it is God’s Book that sheds the light of life everlasting on all other books.
Although his minister’s views were unorthodox, he was a kindly man, who encouraged Evan’s quest for learning. He arranged for him to study at his school for six months, free of charge. This was the only period of formal education in Christmas Evans’ life.
Evans’ former friends resented his sudden conversion experience. Six of them attacked him as he was walking home one evening. They beat him unmercifully and one of their number hit him in the eye with a stick. This resulted in the loss of the eye. Hence Christmas Evans would be known as’the one-eyed preacher from Wales’. One contemporary account of his appearance as a grown man puts it somewhat quaintly, ‘He had lost one of his eyes in his youth, but the other was large and bright enough for two.’
As Christmas grew in understanding and discernment, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the preaching of his minister. He began to listen to preachers who taught sound doctrine with power and authority. One of his friends, named Amos, had left the Presbyterian Church and joined the Calvinistic Baptists. At first, Evans criticised Amos’ Baptist convictions. But his friend was not to be moved. This forced Evans to search the Scriptures to bolster his own infant baptism views. But the result of his quest was not quite as he expected,
I went home and I therefore fully examined the Scriptures to mark down every passage that mentioned infant baptism, for I believed there were hundreds of such there. But after careful perusal I was terribly disappointed to find none of that character there. I met with about forty passages, all giving their suffrages in favour of baptism on a profession of repentance and faith.
It says something for his humility and honesty, that Evans renounced his former views and joined the Baptist Church. At the age of twenty he was baptised in the river Duar by Timothy Thomas, the Calvinistic Baptist minister. This was a time of revival in the fellowship with scores of people being added to the Church. Evans benefitted greatly from the warm, orthodox preaching of his new pastor. He became more and more established in the doctrines of sovereign grace.
HIS CALL TO PREACH
On the night that he lost an eye, Evans had a vivid dream of judgement day. This gave him a deep concern to preach the Word of God. He first attempted to preach in a Cottage meeting, while still a member of the Presbyterian Church. It is fair to say that his sermon did not go down too well. In fact, it was not even his sermon. He had borrowed it from Bishop Beveridge’s Thesaurus Theologicus. His ruse was spotted by a farmer in the congregation, who just happened to own that very book! Nevertheless, the farmer expressed the hope that Evans had some potential as a preacher, because his ‘prayer was as good as the sermon’. Unbeknown to the farmer, the prayer was not exactly Evans’ own either – it was lifted from a collection of prayers by Griffith Jones of Llanddowror! I can’t be too hard on Christmas Evans at this point. My first attempt at preaching was more than a little reliant on a message that I had just read by Martyn Lloyd-Jones! I even used to begin my early messages with, ‘Now I would like to draw your attention . . . ‘, just like the great man himself.
If we can ‘fast-forward’ about ten years, we can see how God was able to make a powerful preacher of this unpromising young man. The year is 1794. A vast open-air congregation has gathered at Felinfoel near Llanelly. It is the event of the season – the Association meeting. But to everyone’s embarrassment, the preacher for the occasion had not turned up. Various ministers were approached, but all shrank from preaching to thousands at a moment’s notice. Timothy Thomas, the man who baptised Christmas Evan, was urged to preach, but he too declined saying, ‘Ask that one-eyed lad from the north!’ (by this time Evans was ministering in Anglesey). As a last resort, the unknown, lanky, badly dressed and disfigured Christmas Evans was pressed into service. The people who saw him ascend to the platform wondered if a mistake had been made. Here was no ‘big name’ preacher, worthy of addressing the great Association.
Some in the congregation even began to wander away, seeking refreshments. Others stayed on, hoping that the preacher would not detain them long. Evans announced his text:
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight. (Colossians 1:21 & 22)
He began a little awkwardly, but soon warmed to his theme as the preacher eloquently proclaimed the gospel of reconciliation. Wanderers returned to the congregation and the people were gripped by the one-eyed preacher’s powerful message. Many were moved to tears and some cried out, ‘Gogoniant!’ (Glory!) and ‘Bendigedig!’ (Blessed!). They wondered ‘Who is this preacher?’ ‘Where is he from?’
Christmas Evans had developed a unique imaginative preaching style. His sermons were so full of pictures that he was nick-named ‘The Bunyan of Wales’. Let me give you one or two excerpts from his sermons.Here he is preaching on the conversion of Saul of Tarsus:
Saul of Tarsus was once a thriving merchant and an extensive ship owner. He had seven vessels of his own, the names of which were, (1) circumcised the eighth day. (2) of the stock of Israel. (3) of the tribe of Benjamin. (4) a Hebrew of the Hebrews. (5) as touching the law, a Pharisee. (6) concerning zeal, persecuting the church. The seventh was a man of war, with which he once set out from the port of Jerusalem, wel1 supplied with ammunition from the arsenal of the chief priests, with a view to destroy a small port at Damascus. He was wonderfully confident, and breathed out threatenings and slaughter. But he had not got far from port before the Gospel Ship, with Jesus himself as commander on board, hove in sight, and threw such a shell among the merchant fleet that all his ships were instantly on fire. The commotion was tremendous and there was such a volume of smoke that Paul could not see the sun at noon. While the ships were fast sinking, the Gospel commander gave orders that the merchant should be taken on board. ‘Saul, Saul, what has become of all thy ships?’ ‘They are all on fire.’ ‘What will you do now?’ ‘Oh, that I may be found in him, not having mine own righteousness which is of the law, but through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.’
Another example would be his ‘Graveyard Sermon’.1
Robert Oliver comments dryly, ‘As a preacher Evans was unique. It would be wrong to imitate his method, although some tried to do so and made themselves look foolish.’
HIS LABOURS IN THE MINISTRY
Now I’ll take my finger off the ‘fast-forward’ button, rewind the story to 1790 and consider the beginnings of Christmas Evans’ work in the ministry.
At the tender age of twenty-three, he was urged by several ministers go to the Llyn peninsula as a missionary among the Baptist churches. Off he went to begin his work as a minister of the gospel. But at this point, he was still struggling with doubts about his own spiritual condition. He felt too that something was missing in his preaching. But in the early 1790’s the Lord met with Evans and brought him to full assurance of salvation. He testified,
I then felt that I died to the law, abandoned all hope of preparing myself to apply to the Redeemer, and realised the life of faith and dependence on the righteousness of Christ for my justification.
He began to preach with new power so that in his first year many people were converted and fifty were baptised. In the second year, eighty converts sought church membership. The theme of his preaching was the mighty, sovereign grace of God in the salvation of sinners. He could say of his preaching,
The eternal power is here, and with one hand it conceals me in the shadow of redeeming mercy, and with the other it points out the glory of the great and wondrous truth that God is at once a just God and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus
It was in Llyn that Evans was to find a wife – Catherine Jones. She was, by all accounts a godly and resourceful woman – and she needed to be to get by on her husband’s meagre stipend. Evans’ biographer remarks, ‘it is astonishing what she contrived to make out of oatmeal, buttermilk and potatoes – their staple diet.’
Christmas Evans supervised five preaching places on the rugged peninsula. He would often travel twenty miles on foot on a Sunday and preach in five services. Evans nearly wore himself out with his constant labours. But this did not stop him attempting an arduous preaching tour, walking from Llyn to South Wales. He preached with unusual power in the towns and villages on the way and large crowds would gather to hear him.
In 1792, Evans received ‘a providential intimation’ that he should leave the scene of his labours and move to the island of Anglesey. The Baptist Churches on the heathenish ‘Dark Isle’ promised him Â£17 a year for his services. Evans’ salary, which amounted to 33p a week, was never once increased in nearly 34 years of his ministry on the island.
He arrived on Anglesey on a frozen, snowy Christmas Day to take up lodgings in a dilapidated old cottage. The ten congregations he was to serve were in a very poor state. They were divided and demoralised. A previous minister had fallen into open disgrace. The Baptists consequently suffered from a very poor reputation among the islanders. Evans called for a day of prayer and fasting and the Lord began to bless the work. The new minister divided the island into four districts so he could preach regularly for each group of churches. Many were converted, and in two years the ten congregations had become twenty. To fund the building of chapels to house the new fellowships, Evans would undertake preaching tours in South Wales. He believed that the wealthier Churches in the South ought to support poor Christians in the North.
Christmas Evans closely supervised the Baptist work on Anglesey. Co-pastors were appointed to serve in the churches, but they were ultimately accountable to Evans as the senior minister. Some of the churches wanted more independence and a number began to resent Evans’ centralising tendencies. In 1823 his wife Catherine died. In the same year, he suffered from eye trouble and had to spend several months having medical treatment in Aberystwyth. With tensions mounting between Evans and the Baptist congregations, the preacher accepted a call to Caerphilly in South Wales.
In 1826, aged sixty, Evans began a remarkable two-year pastorate in the small castle-dominated village. Crowds flocked to hear the famous preacher and one hundred and forty members were added to the church. It is reckoned that some of his greatest sermons date from that revival period. But here too, Evans faced difficulties. Maybe the church deacons, who had been used to ruling the roost, could not come to terms with their minister’s somewhat autocratic style? Not one to stay where he wasn’t wanted, the preacher accepted a call to Cardiff and spend four years there, accompanied by his second wife, until moving to his final pastorate in Caernarvon in 1838.
HIS STRUGGLES IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
As we noted earlier, Christmas Evans struggled to find assurance of salvation. The other great struggle in his Christian pilgrimage was caused by his adoption of Sandemanian doctrine while ministering on Anglesey. This teaching takes its name from Robert Sandeman of the Church of Scotland. He and his followers taught that faith is mere intellectual assent. To Sandemanians, feelings and emotions do not matter – assent to orthodox doctrinal propositions is the thing. William Williams the hymn writer accurately described this tendency, ‘it sets naked faith as the chief thing, believing without power, making little of conviction and of a broken heart.’
Sandemanianism is the enemy of vital godliness, ‘True religion is more than a notion/ something must be known and felt’. Evans’ ministry was adversely affected by his new-found Sandemanian teaching,
The Sandemanian heresy affected me so far as to quench the spirit of prayer for the conversion of sinners, and it induced in my mind a greater regard for the smaller things of the kingdom of heaven than for the greater. I lost the strength which clothed my mind with zeal, confidence and earnestness in the pulpit for the conversion of souls to Christ. My heart retrograded in a manner and I could not realise the testimony of a good conscience. On Sabbath nights after having been in the day exposing and vilifying with all bitterness the errors that prevailed, my conscience felt displeased and reproached me that I had lost nearness to, and walking with God. It had disastrous results among the churches. I lost in Anglesey nearly all my old hearers and we thus almost entirely took down what had taken fifteen years to raise.
You see what happens when we downplay the importance of religious affections and feelings? The Spirit is quenched and the Christian life becomes cold and mechanical.
Evans read Andrew Fuller, the Baptist pastor-theologian’s critique of Sandemanianism.2 This made him think. Then he heard a sermon by Thomas Jones, who preached against the heresy. On his way home from this service, Evans had a remarkable experience of God that got Sandemanianism out of his system for ever. He relates the story himself,
I was weary of a cold heart towards Christ and his sacrifice and the work of his Spirit; of a cold heart in the pulpit, in secret and in the study. For fifteen years previously I had felt my heart burning within as if going to Emmaus with Jesus. On a day ever to be remembered by me, as I was going from Dolgellau to Machynlleth, climbing up towards Cader Idris, I considered it to be incumbent upon me to pray, however hard I felt in my heart and however worldly the frame of my spirit was. Having begun in the name of Jesus, I soon felt as it were, the fetters loosening and the old hardness of heart softening, and, as I thought, mountains of frost and snow dissolving and melting within me. This engendered confidence in my soul in the promise of the Holy Ghost. I felt my whole mind relieved from some great bondage. Tears flowed copiously and I was constrained to cry out for the gracious visits of God, by restoring to my soul the joys of his salvation and to visit the churches in Anglesey that were under my care. I embraced in my supplications all the churches of the saints and nearly all the ministries in the principality by their names. This struggle lasted for three hours. It rose again and again, like one wave after another, or a high, flowing tide driven by a strong wind, till my nature became faint by weeping and crying. I resigned myself to Christ, body and soul, gifts and labours, every hour of every day that remained for me and all my cares I committed to Christ. The road was mountainous and lonely and I was wholly alone and suffered no interruption in my wrestling with God.
Evans old pulpit power returned to him again. A new spirit of prayer came upon the believers in Anglesey and within two years, six hundred people were added to the Churches.
Are we sometimes so afraid of the emotional excesses and disorder in some churches that we fail to feel anything at all? When was the last time that you were really moved by the great truths of the gospel?
Reflecting on Christmas Evans’ barren Sandemanian period, Lloyd-Jones challenges us,
This is our only hope, ‘All coldness from my heart remove.’ What do we know of warmth of spirit, warmth of heart, warmth in prayer, warmth in preaching, to be moved to the depth of our being and feel the love of God flowing into us and flowing back out of us to him? Is Sandemanianism merely a matter of antiquarian or historical interest or is it our major problem today?
HIS FINAL SERMON AND DEPARTURE TO BE WITH CHRIST
Christmas Evans preached his last sermon at Mount Pleasant chapel, Swansea on Monday 16th July, 1838. He spoke on ‘Beginning at Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:47). He felt weak, but the message is typical of Evans’ dramatic gospel preaching,
‘At Jerusalem, Lord?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why, Lord, these are the men who crucified Thee; we are not to preach it to them?’ ‘Yes, preach it to all’ . . . ‘Suppose we meet the very man that nailed Thy hands and feet to the cross, the very man that pierced Thy side, that spat in Thy face?’ ‘Preach the gospel to them all: tell them all that I am the Saviour; I am the same Lord over all who is rich unto all that call upon Me.’
As he descended the pulpit steps, the old preacher was heard to murmur, ‘This is my last sermon!’ And so it was. On the Friday of that week, Christmas Evans said to those who surrounded his bed,
I am leaving you. I have laboured in the sanctuary for fifty-three years, and this is my comfort, that I have never laboured without blood in the basin [a reference to Christ as the Passover Lamb]. Preach Christ to the people, brethren. Look at me. In myself I am nothing but ruin, but in Christ I am heaven and salvation.
‘Then’ writes his biographer, ‘as if done with earth, he waved his hand, and exclaimed, “GOODBYE! DRIVE ON!” Was he again, in his thoughts, travelling alone with his faithful pony over the lonely mountains?’
‘Goodbye! Drive on!’ But now Christmas Evans embarked on his final journey – from earth to heaven. Aged seventy three, the one-eyed preacher passed into the presence of his Lord and Saviour.
The life of Christmas Evans reminds us that God can take seemingly unpromising people and use them mightily in his kingdom. We should make full use of all our gifts and energy in the service of the Master. Evans was not perfect. He knew periods of spiritual barrenness. But the Lord broke into his life, melted him and shed his love abroad in his heart. The revival blessing that Evans experienced makes us long that the Lord will rend the heavens and come down in our day too.
- B A Ramsbottom, Christmas Evans (Harpenden: Bunyan Press, 1985). Chapter 11 (pp 57-64) is entitled ‘The Graveyard Sermon’.
- See ‘Strictures on Sandemanianism’ in The Works of Andrew Fuller (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), pp 256-294.
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