The story of Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival of 1904-5 is the most thrilling, but also the most sad and sobering in all revival history. On the one hand we see one hundred thousand souls in Wales coming to Christ in just nine months, from November 1904 to August 1905. This was the beginning of a world-wide revival that ushered hundreds of thousands more into the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, we see Evan Roberts, the principle revivalist of this move of God, becoming deceived, deluded and finally suffering a nervous breakdown which took him out of the public limelight to live the life of a recluse. Furthermore, the fruits of the revival in Wales (but not world-wide) were soon lost through criticism, fears of deception and a Welsh theology which suppressed the assurance of salvation. Within a generation there were no signs that a revival had ever occurred. Surely there are some important lessons for 21st Century Christians to learn here?
Evan Roberts was born and raised in a Welsh Calvinist Methodist family in Loughor, on the Glamorgan and Carmarthenshire border. As a boy he was unusually serious and very diligent in his Christian life. He memorised verses of the Bible and was a daily attender of Moriah Chapel, a church about a mile from his home. Even at 13 years of age he began to develop a heart for a visitation from God. He later wrote “I said to myself: I will have the Spirit. And through all weathers and in spite of all difficulties I went to the meetings… for ten or eleven years I have prayed for revival. I could sit up all night to read or talk about revivals. It was the Spirit who moved me to think about revival.”
After working in the coal mines and then as a smithy, he entered a preparatory college at Newcastle Emlyn, as a candidate for the ministry. It was 1903 and he was 25 years old.
It was at this time that he sought the Lord for more of His Spirit. He believed that he would be baptised in the Holy Spirit and sometimes his bed shook as his prayers were answered. The Lord began to wake him at 1.00 am for divine fellowship, when he would pray for four hours, returning to bed at 5.00 am for another four hours sleep.
He visited a meeting where Seth Joshua was preaching and heard the evangelist pray “Lord, bend us”. The Holy Spirit said to Evan, “That’s what you need”. At the following meeting Evan experienced a powerful filling with the Holy Spirit. “I felt a living power pervading my bosom. It took my breath away and my legs trembled exceedingly. This living power became stronger and stronger as each one prayed, until I felt it would tear me apart. My whole bosom was a turmoil and if I had not prayed it would have burst…. I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me. My face was bathed in perspiration, and the tears flowed in streams. I cried out “Bend me, bend me!!” It was God’s commending love which bent me… what a wave of peace flooded my bosom…. I was filled with compassion for those who must bend at the judgement, and I wept. Following that, the salvation of the human soul was solemnly impressed on me. I felt ablaze with the desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the Saviour”.
Needless to say, his studies began to take second place! He began praying for a hundred thousand souls and had two visions which encouraged him to believe it would happen. He saw a lighted candle and behind it the rising sun. He felt the interpretation was that the present blessings were only as a lighted candle compared with the blazing glory of the sun. Later all Wales would be flooded with revival glory.
The other vision occurred when Evan saw his close friend Sydney Evans staring at the moon. Evan asked what he was looking at and, to his great surprise, he saw it too! It was an arm that seemed to be outstretched from the moon down to Wales. He was in no doubt that revival was on its way.
He then felt led to return to his home town and conduct meetings with the young people of Loughor. With permission from the minister, he began the meetings, encouraging prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit on Moriah. The meetings slowly increased in numbers and powerful waves of intercession swept over those gathered.
During those meetings the Holy Spirit gave Evan four requirements that were later to be used throughout the coming revival:
1. Confession of all known sin
2. Repentance and restitution
3. Obedience and surrender to the Holy Spirit
4. Public confession of Christ
The Spirit began to be outpoured. There was weeping, shouting, crying out, joy and brokeness. Some would shout out, “No more, Lord Jesus, or I’ll die”. This was the beginning of the Welsh Revival.
The meetings then moved to wherever Evan felt led to go. Those travelling with him were predominately female and the young girls would often begin meetings with intense intercession, urging surrender to God and by giving testimony. Evan would often be seen on his knees pleading for God’s mercy, with tears. The crowds would come and be moved upon by wave after wave of the Spirit’s presence. Spontaneous prayer, confession, testimony and song erupted in all the meetings. Evan, or his helpers , would approach those in spiritual distress and urge them to surrender to Christ. No musical instruments were played and, often, there would be no preaching. Yet the crowds continued to come and thousands professed conversion.
The meetings often went on until the early hours of the morning. Evan and his team would go home, sleep for 2–3 hours and be back at the pit-head by 5 am, urging the miners coming off night duty to come to chapel meetings.
The revival spread like wildfire all over Wales. Other leaders also experienced the presence of God. Hundreds of overseas visitors flocked to Wales to witness the revival and many took revival fire back to their own land. But the intense presence began to take its toll on Evan. He became nervous and would sometimes be abrupt or rude to people in public meetings. He openly rebuked leaders and congregations alike.
Though he was clearly exercising spiritual gifts and was sensitive to the Holy Spirit , he became unsure of the “voices” he was hearing. The he broke down and withdrew from public meetings. Accusation and criticism followed and further physical and emotional breakdown ensued.
Understandably, converts were confused. Was this God? Was Evan Roberts God’s man or was he satanically motivated? He fell into a deep depression and in the spring of 1906 he was invited to convalesce at Jessie Penn-Lewis’ home at Woodlands in Leicester.
It is claimed that Mrs Penn Lewis used Evan’s name to propagate her own ministry and message. She supposedly convinced him he was deceived by evil spirits and, over the next few years co-authorised with Evan “War on the Saints”, which was published in 1913. This book clearly delineates the confusion she had drawn Evan into. It left its readers totally wary of any spiritual phenomena of any kind or degree. Rather than giving clear guidelines regarding discerning satanic powers, it brought into question anything that may be considered, or that might be described, as Holy Spirit activity. Within a year of its publication, Evan Roberts denounced it, telling friends that it had been a failed weapon which had confused and divided the Lord’s people.
Evan stayed at the Penn-Lewis’ home for eight years, giving himself to intercession and private group counselling. Around 1920 Evan moved to Brighton and lived alone until he returned to his beloved Wales, when his father fell ill in 1926. He began to visit Wales again and eventually moved there in 1928 when his father died.
Nothing much is known of the years that followed. Evan finally died at the age of 72 and was buried behind Moriah Chapel on Jan 29th 1951.
May his life be both an example and a warning to all those who participate in revival to maintain humility; keep submissive to the Spirit; be accountable to godly men and women; remain true to their calling; use the gifts God has given, but be wise in the stewardship of their body.
Bibliography An Instrument of Revival, Brynmor Pierce-Jones 1995, published by Bridge Publishing (ISBN 0-88270-667-5).