Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Evan Roberts (1878 - 1951), the strange leader of the Welsh Revival

As the 19th C became the 20th an evangelist in Wales, Seth Joshua, prayed for four years that God would raise up a ‘lad from the coal mine or from the field, even as he took Elijah from the plough, to receive his work’. Joshua specifically prayed that the new Elijah would not be a man from the universities. If there was to be revival, he did not want arrogant intellectualism creeping in.
God’s answer to Joshua’s prayer was Evan Roberts.

Roberts was from a large mining family in Loughor, Southwest Wales. When he was twelve his father had an accident and he went down the mines to help support the family – he had fourteen siblings. He worked in the pits till his early twenties. He was very much a ‘lad from the coal mine.’

His parents were devout Calvinist Methodists as was Roberts. He gave his life to God as a teenager, made sure he got to every church meeting, sometimes carried his Bible to the pit, memorized Scripture at night and prayed fervently for revival. He prayed for longer than Joshua.

‘For ten or eleven years I had prayed for revival. I could be up all night and read or talk about revivals. It was the Spirit that moved me to think about revival.’

In early 1904, aged 25, Roberts experienced divine visitations.

‘One Friday night last spring (1904) when praying by my bedside before retiring, I was taken up to a great expanse – without time and space. It was communion with God. Before this a far-off God I had. I was frightened that night, but never since…after that experience I was awakened every night a little after one o’clock…From that hour I was taken up into divine fellowship for about four hours…About five o’clock I was again allowed to sleep on till about nine.’

In September 1904 Roberts began studying for the ministry in Newcastle-Emlyn. Shortly after arriving there the principal of the Bible School encouraged his students to attend a conference led by Seth Joshua in Blaenanerch. Roberts was yearning for a mighty baptism in the Holy Spirit.

 ‘I have built the altar, and laid the wood in order, and I have prepared the offering; I have only to wait for the fire.’

The fire fell.

At the first meeting of the conference on September 29th Seth Joshua prayed that God would ‘bend us’.

“That is what you need”, said the Spirit to me (Roberts). As I went out I prayed, “O, Lord, bend me”’

At the prayer meeting the next morning Roberts had a physical encounter with the Holy Spirit.

‘When others prayed I felt a living force come into my bosom. I held my breath, and my legs shivered…The living force grew and I was almost bursting…I would have burst if I had not prayed…What burst me was the verse, ‘God commending His love’. I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me and the tears and perspiration flowed freely. I thought blood was gushing forth. For about two minutes it was fearful. I cried, ‘Bend me! Bend me! After I was bent, a wave of peace came over me.’

That day he became keenly aware of two truths.

The first was that God is full of joy. He wrote to his sister:

‘God is a happy God and a joyful God. Therefore we must be happy and joyful’

The second is the reality of judgement. Remembering his experience in Blaenanerch, Roberts wrote:

‘As they sang, I thought of the bending at the Judgement Day, and I was filled with compassion for those who would be bent on that day, and I wept’

So the day after this experience he wrote: ‘Henceforth the salvation of souls became the burden of my heart. From that time I was on fire with a desire to go through all Wales, and, if it were possible, I was willing to pay God for allowing me to go’

Roberts did pay with his own money. He left his studies, took all his savings (£200) and began a full-time evangelistic ministry.

This began with prayer - and visions. On October 29th, 1904 Roberts and his good friend, Sidney Evans, both had the same vision. They saw an arm outstretched from the moon todays them. For Roberts the visions continued, sometimes the hand held a piece of paper with 100,000 written on it. For Roberts that was the size of the coming revival.

During the evening service on Sunday October 30th in Newcastle Emlyn the text for the preacher was, ‘Father, the hour has come’ (John 17: 1). This was for Roberts. The hour had come. Roberts’ body shook and he saw the people of his own town, Loughor, waiting for someone to speak to them. Roberts immediately obeyed what he saw as a direct command from the Holy Spirit and the next morning he travelled to Loughor. On the train he wrote a sermon, and practised it on the other passages.

As soon as he arrived Roberts arranged meetings for the young people of the town and by the end of the week he recorded that 65 people – from the reserved Welsh culture - had stood up publicly to confess Christ.

In terms of a revival expecting 100,000 conversions, 65 is not very significant. But for Roberts it was the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, and on November 4th he wrote these words to the editor of the Sunday Companion, a national weekly newspaper.

‘We are on the eve of a great and grand revival, the greatest Wales has ever seen. Do not think the writer is a madman.’

He was not a madman. The revival began.

The next week in Moriah Chapel in Loughor was overflowing. It seated 800 people. A newspaper report for November 9th said that people were lining the street of the chapel trying to get in. Once in, people stayed in – a long time. Usually the meetings started about 7.00 p.m. and did not finish till 4.30 the next morning.

After Loughor, Roberts and his small team went to towns all over Wales holding revival meetings. The response was the same. Thousands came, and thousands – often after a period of painful groaning as they faced their sins – publicly confessed Christ. By the end of 1904 the number of those who had responded was reckoned to be 32,000. By the autumn of 1905, when Roberts’ meetings became fewer, 84,000 had made a public confession. Some round that up to 100,000, the number Roberts believed God had given to him.

Whatever the actual figure, this was a Christian revival and Roberts was the acknowledged leader, albeit a strange one. Indeed for one eye-witness, the well-known journalist W.T Stead, he was not the leader:

‘The most extraordinary thing about the meetings I attended was the extent to which they were absolutely without any human direction or leadership.

G. Campbell Morgan, the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, underlined this, and how singing played a prominent role.

‘The meetings open with any amount of singing…then it is go as you please for two hours or more. And the amazing thing is that it does go….Three fourths of the meeting consists of singing. No one uses a hymn book. No one gives out a hymn. The last person to control the meeting in anyway is Mr Evan Roberts.’

The Billy Graham of his day, R. A. Torrey said the same thing: Roberts ‘ does not seem to try and run things in his own wisdom and strength…Oftentimes, even when Evan Roberts is speaking, some man or woman will burst out into song, and he immediately stops speaking and lets the meeting take its own course.’

It was Roberts though who shaped the character of these meetings, and for him they were all about total dependency on the Holy Spirit. A visitor to the meetings Mary Baxter wrote: '(Roberts) has a real belief in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and knows how to wait on the Lord and wait for the Lord.’

This emphasis on the total dependency on the Holy Spirit can be seen in three ways.

Firstly Roberts determined to cultivate an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit would be at ease. From the start of the revival in Loughor he laid down these rules for the congregation.

1. If there is past sin or sins hitherto unconfessed we cannot receive the Spirit
2. If there is anything doubtful in our lives it must be removed
3. An entire giving up of ourselves to the Sprit. We must speak and do all He requires of us
4. Public confession of Christ.

Secondly, Roberts was a fervent believer in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In November 1904 he wrote this: ‘The Spirit directed me to say that three things show that God is with us. 1. Enormous congregations 2. Unity between the different denominations 3. The baptism in the Holy Spirit (emphasis mine).

Roberts brought this belief into the heart of his meetings. He wrote this to a friend:

‘Let those who have confessed Christ remain behind, and send this prayer around. All must see to it that they pray it:

Send the Spirit now, for Jesus Christ’s sake
Send the Spirit powerfully now, for Jesus Christ’s sake
Send the Spirit more powerfully now, for Jesus Christ’s sake
Send the Spirit still more powerfully now, for Jesus Christ’s sake’

Finally, especially towards the end of his ministry, Roberts would stop any meeting if he felt the Holy Spirit had told him there was an ‘obstacle’ present. For those attending this was embarrassing; for Roberts is was a matter of honouring the Holy Spirit.

A famous example of this was when Roberts went to Liverpool in the spring of 1905. On April 7th there were queues a mile long and eventually 8,000 packed into Sun Hall. In the midst of worship, Roberts ordered the crowd to be silent and with great indignation announced that an Englishman was trying to hypnotize him. He asked the man either leave the building or repent. This caused a sensation. Roberts went on, ‘God will not be mocked! We have not come here to play with the holy things of God, We have come here to worship the Lord, and they who mock Him shall be scattered as chaff before the wind.’ The meeting then resumed, but after a while there was another obstacle. Roberts declared that two clergyman had grumbled about having to raise their arms. He asked them to publicly repent for the meeting to continue. Nobody came forward; and so a shocked congregation watched Roberts leave. Later his pronouncements were proved correct. Dr Walford Bodie, who was appearing at the Lyric Theatre, admitted he had gone to the meeting to hypnotize Roberts; and two ministers sent a signed letter saying they had overheard two other clergymen grumbling about having to raise their hands[1].

At some point in 2005 Roberts suffered a physical and mental breakdown and, apart from a few appearances, he withdrew from public life for the rest of his life. He gave himself to prayer for he considered intercession the most effective work a man can do:

‘I work as hard at prayer as if I had undertaken any religious work…By preaching I would reach the limited few – by and through prayer I can reach the whole of mankind through God’

Roberts remained in the secret place of prayer, living in Cardiff till his death in 1951. The Welsh Revival though has never been obscure. Its impact went around the world, and has passed down the generations.

In 1906 revival broke out in Azusa Street, Los Angeles. This continued to 1909. This revival led directly to the Pentecostal Movement which has at least 280 million adherents. It also led to the creation of new denominations such as the Assemblies of God which has about 70 million members in over 350,000 fellowships around the world.

It is acknowledged that the catalyst for the Azusa Street revival was the visit of Joseph Smale, a pastor from Los Angeles, to Wales in 1905 where he met Evan Roberts. On his return Smale organised day and night prayer meetings urging believers to cry out to God for a Pentecost. As in Loughor, so in Los Angeles – the fire fell.

Regarding generations: as I write in early 2019 the UK is now a country where Christian morality is trampled underfoot, the vile celebrated (in law), the occult exalted. And Britain today is in crisis.

The man standing up to urge Christians to intercede for Britain is the evangelist David Hathaway. On January 26, in Wembley Arena, joined by other Christian leaders, he will lead a day of prayer.

David Hathaway’s spiritual fervour – which is impressive – leads us directly back to Evan Roberts. For Hathaway was born – and born again – into a family and fellowship rooted in the spirituality of the Welsh Revival.

David’s father, William Hathaway, from Wales, was converted in the 1904 revival. After the war William Hathaway met George Jeffreys, another Welshman converted during the Welsh Revival, and these two men started the Elim Pentecostal church in the UK. The head-quarters was in Clapham and this is where David Hathaway was born in 1933 and it was here he became a Christian when he was eight.

So in 2019 an eighty six year old man, shaped by the impact of Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival, will be calling back the UK to repentance.

May God have mercy, again. 

[1] There are detailed accounts of all Roberts’ meetings in Liverpool here: http://www.reavivamentos.com/recent_revivals/evan_roberts_gwilyn_hughes.php

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