This booklet was reprinted from THEOLOGY TODAY, Vol. XII, No. 2, July 1955.
It was written to coincide with the Jubilee of the mighty Revival of 1904-5.
This picture is of a cartoon of Evan Roberts preaching found in a contemporary newspaper.
Then, in 1904, came the mighty Revival. It swept over the whole of Wales in an astonishingly short time, a movement of resistless, potent, cyclonic Divine power. By the end of 1905, it had spread, practically, over the whole of the religious world (especially in India was its influence and power felt); indeed, not even yet has its momentum in India ended, particularly on the hills of Khassia and Lushai. From many countries, notably from the United States of America, devout men and women came to Wales to see and participate in this mighty, transforming religious revolution. These people returned to their different countries, carrying with them some spark of the divine fire!
While the spiritual awakening under Harris and Rowland had depended very largely upon the power of preaching, in the Revival of 1904 — 1905, as in that of 1859, preaching was not by any means the only factor that counted. In 1859, it might be said that the Socratic method of question and answer was to the fore, for Dafydd Morgan did his most effective work, not in the pulpit, but on the floor of the chapel, after the sermon, when he questioned the people and analyzed their answers. In 1904, it was the thrilling singing of hymns that the Spirit of God used as a real transformative and regenerative power in the lives of countless thousands.
In Wales, preaching is a unique national institution. To the Welshman, a Preaching Meeting is what a horse race or a prize fight is to the Englishman with his almost fanatical interest in sport! The roughest and toughest characters in a neighborhood, men who are hardly ever sober, will be found slinking furtively into the last seat, some corner by the door, in the chapel, hoping that no-one will speak to them! And the next day, in the coal-mine or the next evening as they lean against the bar of the public-house (saloon) with their customary glass of ale in front of them, they will be found discussing the sermons and often doing that with much intelligence and ability. It is only fair to say that this kind of thing is on the wane; but there were many occasions in the past when the discussion of the sermon ended in a free fight with broken noses and black eyes as a result.
In this little land, it must be admitted that the somewhat sterner aspects of Puritanism have flourished, much to the detriment of a great deal that is artistic and beautiful; and moreover, to the detriment of some things that are of the very essence of the nature of the people as Celts. The Fathers of the Church, in Wales, have invariably looked askance at the theater and the playhouse and the opera house, if they ever heard of the latter! As a matter of fact, the people of Wales are only just beginning to create and produce plays and playwrights. But a people so emotionally and dramatically and culturally endowed were bound to find a vent for these characteristics that are possessed by them in such a marked degree; and they found it in the preacher and in the pulpit. So, in a very real sense, the pulpit became the orchestra, the stage, the platform, and the lecture-desk, where the charm of music and the deep stirrings of drama and tragedy and acting were looked for and found in the preacher.
Welsh preaching has one feature or peculiarity that is not found in any other kind of preaching anywhere in the world. (Some aspects of Negro preaching come near it.) It is called the “hwyl.”
“Hwyl” is the Welsh word for sail. The figure is that of a ship being borne along over the billowy waves with the breezes filling out her sails. As the sailor spreads the sails of the vessel and has very little more to do, so the preacher sets his spirit, as it were, in the pathway of the divine breezes, and when his spirit is in harmony with the Eternal Spirit, as happens on rare occasions, then strange and wonderful things take place.
The preacher begins his sermon, speaking slowly and generally using the lower tones of his voice; often, there is a little hesitation here and there, as though he were thinking his thoughts for the first time. That is really an unconscious, traditional, dramatic touch, and is used, probably, to create expectation in the listener. By and by, a warmth enters into the preacher’s voice and he will be speaking a tone or two higher than he was at the beginning. As he proceeds, the winds of heaven begin to fill his sails and the voice gains in intensity and power . . . on he goes with occasional eloquent pauses . . . perhaps there will be a sudden shout that shakes the hearers out of all listlessness, as he thunders against some evil or other.
Anon, there will be a wooing note of unspeakable tenderness — A the preacher’s spirit seems to be bathed in the awful pathos of the Garden and the Cross; and then, imperceptibly as it were, it will be seen that the preacher is speaking in a strange, weird, curious mesmeric manner: it is a unique kind of incantation, thoroughly musical, and at times, it resembles an ancient chant . . . it is the Welsh “hwyl” in its rare beauty and grandeur. It is not something that can be taught; a preacher has it or he has it not, and woe betide the preacher who attempts to manufacture it artificially! In this matter it is impossible to deceive a congregation and a preacher who tries to make the “hwyl” will be set down as insincere and as a mere actor and not a prophet of God. Indeed, the “hwyl” is found as frequently among laymen who participate in religious services, as it is among preachers, and when this unique phenomenon happens naturally (and it must happen in that way or it is not present at all), it is in perfect tune with the words and ideas of the message. In this way, as well as through the singing of the great Welsh hymns; the profoundest ethical, moral, and spiritual truths sing themselves into the minds and hearts and consciences and lives of the people.
A distinction must be drawn between Revivals and Missions. Revivals belong to the very nature of the Welsh people. Missions are a foreign importation from somewhere beyond the Welsh border.
Missions can be, and indeed are, organized; they can be brought about by the plans and efforts of men; their failure or success depend, in the main, on the Missioner; he has his system of mechanics. For instance, if the Missioner decided not to talk for four or five nights in succession when the people had come to hear him, there would be an end to the Mission. In the Welsh Revival, there were a great number of meetings in which Evan Roberts, though present, did not speak, and yet the meetings went on all the same. Again, with regard to the Mission, there is prodigious propaganda, all of which, without a doubt, tends to cheapen real religion.
A Revival, on the other hand, cannot be organized; it is not worked up by means of human plans and efforts; it comes down from above; it is not born of men but of God. (Once I was travelling through West Virginia and on the Notice Board outside of a Church, there was this announcement, “Revival every Friday.” Revival has little or nothing to do with mechanics, but it has a great deal to do with dynamics. The Divine Dynamic of the Holy Spirit of God stirs men to the depth of their nature; there is an invasion of tremendous, creative forces into the lives of men.
In 1904, in the words of a great Welsh hymn, we saw the Christ of God riding majestically and triumphantly through the valleys girding his sword for battle; and his power, like a mighty rushing wind clearing before it all kinds of filth and dross and refuse from the gutters of corruption. Men who had spent all their lives breaking the commandments of God rose into newness of life. Young people in particular became possessed with a strange and wonderful joy and manifested a unique quality of moral courage that they had never known before and at once were found bearing witness to Christ and the Kingdom in all sorts of places. Here are some of the things that the writer saw and experienced:
From the beginning of time, it has been true that one personality sets another on fire. Before the young people in the coal-mining village in which I was brought up quite knew what was happening, they found themselves in Church meetings and taking part in all kinds of religious services; they had never dared to open their mouths in any sort of public gathering before, except, maybe, in the Sunday School, and they were garrulous there because they enjoyed red-hot arguments about all kinds of moral and economic problems.
The meetings took on the strangest character, for while some people would be singing, others would be praying and others again would be on their feet giving expression to the profoundest and sublimest ideas. Young boys and girls of fifteen or sixteen years of age were doing this, making it plain that without their knowledge, some of the richest and grandest religious ideas had sunk into their subconsciousness and were now, under the stimulus of the Spirit, arising to the surface, thereby enriching, not only their own lives, but also the minds and hearts and lives of others. The amazing thing was this, that while all of these things were happening together, there seemed to be no incongruity at all; there was harmony and decorum of the highest order; and why not? Is not the Holy Spirit of God a superb artist?
The writer had the great privilege of “taking care of” a Meeting for Prayer and Praise and Testimony at a “double-parting” in a coal mine for over a year! The men stopped at the double-parting for ten to fifteen minutes every morning on their way to the coal-face. Another meeting that continued for over a year was held on Saturday nights at eleven o’clock P.M. . . a “stop-tap” meeting; that is, at the time when the public houses (saloons) closed and literally threw out their customers. To explain these things adequately is utterly impossible. Here were a number of young people, forty or fifty of them, who had never spoken a word in public in their lives, and had never dreamed of doing anything of the kind. Now, they step into the ring and either speak or pray or sing, and they do this work with a natural eloquence that was astonishing and with a humble assurance that captivated the listeners.
In this amazing quickening of the religious life of the nation, Welsh Hymnody came to its own. At its best, it is a vast, solemn, deliberate torrent of majestic melody, enriched by strong, vigorous and beautiful hannony: very often, these harmonies, combined with noble counterpoint, are made by the people themselves at the time! But it is true to say that such improvisations differ very little from the harmonizations of the composers of the hymn tunes.
In the innumerable addresses that one heard, one recalls that no particular views of the Bible were insisted on; the main doctrinal themes were the nature and character of God — his awefulness and his mercy: the revelation of his love and grace as revealed supremely in Jesus Christ and notably in his Cross. A great deal was said about the Holy Spirit, as Person and Power. In the prayers, the dominant note was one of thanksgiving.
In this mighty awakening of 1904/1905, the fact of “re-birth,” which term is perhaps the religious technical term for the reorientation of life under the stimulus of an external power, was strongly emphasized. For some time previous to 1904, in Wales, as in other countries probably, in ethical and religious circles, the direct and definite insistence on what was called the “New Birth” had gone much into disuse; the discussion of the problem was more or less left to certain people who emphasized nothing else. Surely, if there is one irrefutable human fact, denied by none of any faith, it is that it must be right and saving, in every sense, to turn, with repentance and full purpose of heart to God and to that which is good. And literally, by the thousands, that is what people were doing in this little land amid extraordinary fervor and activity.
Of course, there were critics. There were those who declared that the people were caught in the toils of “religious madness.” They deliberately refused to see that it was a madness that transformed and ennobled character. For here were people of all ages who had been blind but whose eyes were now opened! They were beholding Jesus Christ for the first time! They were seeing him in his wondrous glory and grandeur! They were realizing, albeit vaguely, the agony and suffering of Christ for a world of sinful men and women; for the first time they were seeing themselves as part of that world that Christ had come to save. More, they were seeing the Redeemer of the world victorious over all of his enemies and they felt something of his unconquerable resurrection power in their lives! Religious madness? Glorious madness!
As those silversmiths in Ephesus in the first century, who made idols of Diana, rose up against the Apostle Paul when he came to the city proclaiming the transforming and regenerative Gospel of Christ, so there were public-house keepers and gambling bookies and others of like ilk who saw in the Welsh Revival the hope of their ill-gotten gains departing, and who, therefore, tried to place all kinds of obstacles in the way of the Movement; in some cases, they gave free beer to those who set themselves to disturb and upset the meetings. But paradoxically enough, many of these public-house keepers and their following were themselves converted, and at once, and frequently at great financial sacrifice, they sought some other means of making a livelihood! So mightily did the Spirit of God work.
As there were channels through which the Divine Powers were mediated to others in ancient times — prophets and seers — and as there have been men of vision in every age since Apostolic times, so there was a leader in this Welsh Revival, although he was hardly thought of as such, and he himself, certainly, did not think of himself as a leader. But he was, without doubt, a chosen vessel, more sensitive than the rest of his fellows to the promptings and stirrings and guidance and power of the Divine Spirit.
He was a young man of twenty-six years of age by the name of Evan Roberts, a native of a West Wales mining village. He was as self-effacing a young man as ever breathed, with no arrogance at all, absolutely unspoiled, concerned only about the effectiveness and progress of the great work in which he was greatly privileged to participate. He had been a coal-miner and a blacksmith and had given up manual work and entered a school for the training of preachers only six weeks before he found himself touring the length and breadth of the land.
Over and over again, at all the places he visited, he was most careful to emphasize the importance of ethical values in religion. He could be terrifically and scathingly sarcastic against those who thought of their religion in terms of fine feelings and ecstatic experiences merely, which, of course, are the peculiar dangers that meet an emotional people. He saw very deeply into these matters; he saw, for instance, that it is only as the Divine is in the ethical that the ethical can really be true and effective; he made it clear that it is not a “something” — call it what we will — that tells us to do this and eschew that, but a “Some-one,” no one less than the Eternal God in the power of the Holy Spirit. The “something” belongs to the language of ethical philosophy, while the “Some-one” belongs to the language of Christian theology and experience.
Revivalists and evangelists, with rare exceptions (such an exception as Dwight L. Moody certainly was) are often accused of having very little to say; that is, very little that is of great importance. But this young man, Evan Roberts, as soon as he began to speak, clearly impressed one with the fact that he was using his mind, and that it was a mind singularly steeped in Christian doctrine as well as in the ethical teaching of Jesus Christ. It was evident to the most superficial listener that here was a man who knew what it was to agonize in prayer and a man who carried the burden of the needs of the people on his heart. Though he did not for a moment condemn the fine feelings and ecstatic experiences that came to men as they allowed themselves to be influenced by the Holy Spirit of God, he nevertheless made it abundantly clear that without the practical, courageous, and persistent application of the Christian ethic to every phase of human life, however trivial and ordinary, no person could even begin to call himself a Christian.
In the wake of this strong, positive Gospel teaching, the strangest and most incredible things took place. Old feuds were settled; men who had not spoken to one another for years, even though they might be members of the same Christian church, stood up in a meeting, confessed their stubbornness and sin and deplored the fact that their shameful and criminal obstinacy had been poisoning their lives and causing great unhappiness in their families for years and years. They confessed these things in the presence of the whole congregation; that is, in the presence of people who were fully aware of all these scandalous dissensions; and there they were gripping one another’s hands and asking for one another’s forgiveness. The converts of the Revival were pouring into the shops to settle old accounts and to pay old debts and many a collier did a more honest day’s work than he had ever done before!
The Christian, surely, has every right to enjoy the greatest and richest experiences, for by the surrender of his human will to the guidance and power of the divine will, he is in touch with all that is finest in the history of the race and everything that is best in the nature of human personality, since all the noblest spirits, whether they knew it or not: were divinely-inspired men and women. But unless the Christian gives himself without reserve to the task of cooperating with the divine Spirit and also with his fellow-Christians, who possess and enjoy the same exalted aspirations and experiences as himself, in applying the teaching of the Christian faith to all kinds of problems and situations, in a very short time he is more than likely to lose his fine feelings and consequently his rich experience.
Probably this is one of the great weaknesses of all religious revivals and all movements that cause stirring and upheaval. Only a few here and there seem to have enthusiasm enough to go on with the stern business of living according to the vision that came to them in and through the new movement; only a few here and there keep on with the difficult task of relating truth to life.
In November and December of 1904, over eighty thousand were converted and for the next twelve or eighteen months others were added to the Church daily. It was not the fault of Evan Roberts if a great many of those who were converted in the revival failed to grasp the idea that life is an entity, and that religion is in no way compartmental. Over and over again, this young man of God insisted with intense earnestness that the Christian religion is a life to be lived, and that the words of the Great Master are to be translated into all kinds of noble and loving deeds and relationships.
It is not surprising that after nearly two years of this life of extremely agonizing prayer and intercession — a great many, if not most of his nights were spent, not in sleep but in heart-rending prayer — and in travelling all over Wales with nightly meetings, many of these extending into the early hours of the morning, Evan Roberts became completely exhausted. Indeed, he suffered from nervous exhaustion for the rest of his life (he died on January 29, 1951). But this dedicated young man was probably the most fully-committed instrument that was willing to be used by the Eternal God for the awakening of the Welsh people that that land has ever had. And today all over the world there are Welsh people — and those of many other nations besides — who never stop thanking God for the wonderful time of refreshing that came to them from the presence of the Lord in 1904 / 1905. And their daily prayer is that God may raise another such prophet as Evan Roberts, one equipped for this modern and very different age.
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