His was an uneventful life. School and play, play and school; that was his daily programme. “Have you been ‘mitching’ from school to-day, Evan?‘‘ said his mother one day, when the boy returned home earlier than usual. “Oh, no,’’ he replied quietly; ‘‘ I have nowhere else to go but to school.” He was always fond of books, and the bookcase in his home at Loughor to-day contains many a story-book which he bought with his weekly pennies.
The characteristics which he displayed at school he exhibited at home. He was ever the first to assist his mother in her domestic duties. ‘‘He was always a good boy,” said Mrs. Roberts to me, when I visited her at Loughor quite recently. “ Whenever I wanted him to do anything for me he never refused. And he was always so kind and sympathetic. He always had a lot of friends as a boy, and was never tired of assisting them in anything. Although always fond of studying, he used to play as much as the other boys.
His schooldays were nearly over, and the lad was anxious to be earning something. But his mother’s heart was sad, though he knew it not. “I have another son to serve God now,” she said, after Evan’s birth, and she had silently nursed the hope that some day he would become a minister. How, she knew not; but she hoped and hoped, and prayed oft and long. Her prayer was not to be answered for a score of years.
Evan’s father was employed at the Mountain Colliery, Gorseinon, about two miles distant. One day there was an accident at the pit, and Roberts, who had charge of a “district,” had his foot crushed. Evan heard the report while at school, and rushed home to see if it were true. Yes; it was true enough, and the doctors said it would take four months before Roberts could return to work.
He had been laid up for a little while, when the manager of the colliery sent to ask him to endeavour to get back to the mine, and bring one of his sons to assist him. Here was Evan’s chance, and father and son set out together. Not being able to walk about much himself, Mr. Roberts simply gave the orders, and Evan did the running about. In a month or so the injured foot got all right, and Evan then became “door-boy,” opening and shutting the doors in the pit. Later he became a “knocker“ at the bottom of the shaft, and ultimately a full-fledged collier.
With the pride of the unselfish lad that he was, he took home his weekly earnings to his mother, and out of the ‘‘pocket—money‘‘ he had given back to him he purchased books. Even while working in the pit he was very religious, and was always praying, reading his Bible, or singing hymns. Everyday he took a Welsh Bible down the mine with him and in his spare moments read from its pages. When not in use, the Bible was placed in a niche in the workings.
On January 5th, 1898, an explosion occurred at the colliery in which Evan worked, and his precious Book was blackened and scorched by the fiery blast. That Bible is to-day one of the revivalist’s most valued possessions, and as his sister opened the brown paper in which the broken pages are stored, and gave me a few burnt leaves, tears welled up in her eyes.
It was just seven years before that the explosion happened, and the sister’s tale of Evan’s escape—for he was quite unhurt—was singularly touching. Another souvenir of his early days that was shown me was his shorthand Bible.
“He learnt shorthand without any teacher,’’ said Mrs. Roberts, with a touch of pardonable pride. “He bought the books himself, and spent many an hour in this room with his Bible.” And as I scanned the unique Volume, marked “Evan Roberts, Island Villa, Loughor,” I detected the traces of its having been much used.
Just at this time the youth became an active worker in the Methodist chapel, and one incident alone is enough to prove his real interest in things religious.
In order to provide for the spiritual wants of the miners’ children, a Sunday-school was opened in the colliery offices, and Evan became the secretary of what was called “the ragged school,’’ owing to the children who attended it being for the most part ill-clad and poor. This office he held for some time, and some of those who attended that school are living in Loughor to-day, and look back with pride and pleasure upon those bygone days. Even then the young man shed an influence which has not ceased to this day.
Evan was also a tower of strength in the chapel. Out of his scant earnings he gave liberally. He and a few others purchased a railing that was deemed necessary around the chapel, and together they fixed it in position. He had prayed the night before that they might have sunshine to do the work, and the prayer was answered.
And thus it went on, nothing much happening to disturb the usual monotony of the young man’s life.’ He was gradually growing weary, and still more weary, of the hard work in the mine, and his longings to enter the ministry became more accentuated as the days rolled on. “I used to forget the seam upon which I worked,” he says, “I thought so much of religion.”
One day he was discovered a mile or more from his “district.” and upon being asked the cause of his wandering, he said: “How strange! I had quite forgotten where I was going.” One of his old fellow-colliers says that he well remembers how young Roberts would hew the coal to the accompaniment of same Welsh hymn which he used to hum.
It was no unusual sight to see the young man on his knees in the dust and dirt of the coal-mine, offering up prayer, and when not thus engaged he would, when he could snatch a moment, be reading the Bible, of which I have already spoken.
After leaving his work he used either to study or play with the boats on the tide. He was fond of the chapel, but sometimes would miss an occasional service. “Remember Thomas,” said an old deacon to him one day. “Think what he lost. And should the Spirit descend while you were absent, think what you would lose!” These words produced an imperishable impression upon the young man’s mind, and for years after that he used to attend a religious service in his chapel nightly.
“I will have the Spirit, he said to himself.” “And through all weathers, and in spite of all difficulties, I went to the meetings. Many times as I went I saw other boys with the boats on the tide, and was tempted to desert the meeting and join them. But, no. Then I said to myself, ‘Remember your resolve to be faithful,’ and on I went.”
And this was the youth’s weekly programme; Prayer-meeting, Monday evening at Moriah Chapel; prayer-meeting, Tuesday evening at Pisgah Chapel; society meeting, Wednesday evening; Band of Hope, Thursday evening; class, Friday evening; and chapel all day on Sunday. Throughout the weary years he spent hours in communion with God, praying for a revival of religion in Wales. Sometimes he and a friend would sit up for hours and hours at night talking about a revival, and when not talking he would be reading about revivals. “I could sit up all night,” he said, “to read or talk about revivals. It was the Spirit that moved me thus.” Nor was this desire of a short-lived nature. He had prayed and read and talked for ten or eleven years about revivals.
Evan Roberts was what is called in Wales a “union” man, and a strike of unionists in the colliery wherein he worked threw him out of employment. Nor was he altogether sorry. He had grown tired of the wearisome work in the mine, and now thought hard about his future, for he was always ambitious. He wanted to be a missionary; but, no, he could not be, and ultimately he decided to become apprenticed to his uncle at Pontardulais, near Swansea, who was a blacksmith. This was in January, 1903. Having some hard-made savings by him, he paid £6 thereof for the privilege of becoming apprenticed, and bound himself for two years.
“A remarkable thing happened to Evan one Sunday.” said the revivalist’s mother to me, a little while ago. “As was his custom, he had attended the Sunday services, and was, as usual, very tired. But there was something peculiar about him. At first he did not appear to be willing to talk much, but he later told me that he had been face to face with God. For years he had prayed for a baptism of the Spirit, and his prayers were partly answered that night.’’
Did he pray much at home?” I ventured to query.
“Oh, yes!“ replied Mrs. Roberts. “ He used to spend hours in his own room alone with God. Sometimes, I believe, he spent whole nights in prayer.”
He had been a year at the forge, and by this time had become a very useful blacksmith; so his master was extremely sorry when he was informed that it was the young man’s intention to leave the smithy. But persuasion was of no avail. The “tide” of the youths opportunities was at the flood, and he decided to take advantage thereof, and go to school.
And an incident of peculiar interest took place just then. As is customary in Wales, when a young man makes application that his college fees, &c., should be paid by the church, the members of the particular chapel have to decide as to whether the candidate is to be supported or not. On the Sunday evening when young Roberts’s application came before the communicants at Moriah Church, Loughor, some of those present were some-what tardy in supporting it. The minister thought that the young man had the fullest sympathy of the congregation, and could hardly understand the apparent coldness. “Now, then,’’ he said, “why are you so slow? If you want the young man to go to college, why don’t you stand up?’ And immediately all present rose to their feet, and Evan Roberts was given the necessary permission to go to college to prepare for the ministry. At length he could see the answer to his oft-repeated prayers.
Throughout long weary years he had been a diligent student, and now he could devote the whole of his time to preparing for the entrance examination of the Preparatory School at Newcastle Emlyn.
The young man’s joy knew no bounds, but yet there was sadness. There was an obscurity which he could not penetrate. He longed to be doing something for his fellow-man. He felt there was a great task before him. During the day he was all alone, and at night some friends would occasionally drop in. And then the only subject he cared to discuss was revivals.
“I could sit up all night to read or talk about revivals,” He says. “It was the Spirit that thus moved me.’’
Even while studying, his mind would oftentimes be elsewhere than on the subject under consideration. He could see the raging angry billows whereon myriads of souls were being tossed, and he longed to ‘‘throw out the lifeline.’’ Gradually he grew nearer amid nearer the Light. He prayed almost without ceasing.” Sometimes, when his mother went into his room to call him to a meal she found him on his knees.
“He used to say,” said Mrs. Roberts to me a short while ago, that prayer was more important to him than food.’’
One night, while praying by his bedside, he was “taken up to a great expanse ‘‘—I will give his own words—’’without time or space. It was communion with God. Before this I had a far-off God. I was frightened that night, but never since. So great was my shivering that I rocked the bed, and my brother, being awakened, took hold of me, thinking I was ill.
After that experience I was awakened every night a little after one o’clock. This was most strange, for through the years I slept like a rock, and no disturbance in my room would awaken me. From that hour I was taken up into the Divine Fellowship for about four hours. What it was cannot tell you, except that it was Divine. About five o’clock I was again allowed to sleep on until about nine. At this tune I was again taken into the same experience as in the earlier hours of the morning until about twelve or one o’clock.’’
Seeing that he was supposed to give all his time for college preparation, his family were naturally curious to know why Evan did not get up earlier. While at the colliery and the forge, he rarely, if ever, lost any time through over-sleeping, and why he should now lie abed so late no one could understand. But all questions on this head were not satisfactorily answered. It was too Divine to say anything about, ”he says. “I cannot describe what I felt it, and it changed my whole nature.”
This went on for three months, and during that period he occasionally preached at one or two of the neighbouring chapels.
“Not much use your going to college,” said a pastor, after one of the young man’s efforts. “You are a preacher already!“ But Evan simply smiled. Certain secrets he possessed, and these he gave to no one. “God had told me,” he says, “that I was to take part in a great revival; but kept the secret to myself.’’
But to preach was always somewhat of an ordeal, He was passionately fond of it, but the mental anxiety and soul-worry must surely have told upon him.
“Because he was never over-strong,” Mrs. Roberts informed me. “After preaching he would come home very tired, and sometimes done up. His chest used to trouble him a great deal; but now, thank God, he is all right.’’
With preaching and praying, his time was much encroached upon, and the hours devoted to study became proportionately less. And when the eventful examination day came the student considered himself somewhat ill prepared for the ordeal. But prayer sustained and encouraged him, and he got through the examination without much difficulty. “But Evan says,’’ declares his mother, “that he does not know how he passed. How God must have helped him ‘‘
It now remained for the young man to enter college, and, packing up his belongings, not without some sad regrets, he proceeded, at the commencement of 1904, to the Preparatory School, Newcastle Emlyn. But of all his sorrows at leaving home, the greatest was his fear lest the sweet communion with God which he had enjoyed for so long should cease.
“I dreaded to go to college,” he says, “for fear I should lose those four hours with God every morning. But I had to go, and it happened as I feared. For a whole month He came no more, and I was in darkness.”
Roberts decided to give up half an hour every day to communion with God; but such planning and organising his Master did not seem to favour. At the end of the first month at the school the darkness became pierced by a Light unspeakable. The old joy returned, and once more he communed with God, “as with a friend, face to face.” As the days wore on he became less inclined to study, and more inclined to pray and read the Bible. And soon, as he himself says, “all the time was taken up” in those religious devotions.
To study was all right; but—but—but he was straining towards a nebulous something.
Dissatisfied—or, rather, unsatisfied—at home, he was the same at college. He could not yet understand God’s purpose in his life.
The critic says that Roberts is nothing; but, eliminate the human as much as you like, you are bound to reckon with the charming, forceful, captivating personality of the revivalist. The active brain and powerful individuality of the student made it as easy for him to have lived an obscure life in his humble village at Loughor as for General Booth to have kept within the limits of his Methodist circuit, or Wesley in his tiny parsonage at Epworth. The youth was brimming over with a zeal that soon was to be shed in all directions.
At college, as at home, he frequently wrote poetry, and some of it was of no ordinary merit. His mother told me that often he would go and sit alone on the hillside, and do no small amount of rhyming. Hs was a poetic soul, and he sought to give expression to the thoughts that haunted him when alone with Nature.
Much of this poetry has appeared in the Golofn Cymraeg (Welsh column) of the “Cardiff Times” under the revivalist’s bardic name, “Bwlchydd.” He frequently sent his MS. to that eminent Welsh poet, Rev. Elvet Lewis, who criticised the verses of his ambitious student.