It is our great pleasure to present this 1980 archive gem from Kevin McClure
Revival in Wales – some historical background
From even a brief investigation into the subject, it is clear that a sequence of Revival and falling away has been as much a historical feature of Welsh religion as gradual decline has been of English religion. Moral and religious shortcomings among, in particular, the working people have, for some centuries, caused sufficient concern among various non-conformist groups for revivals of various proportions to have resulted on several occasions. Previous to the 1904-05 revival, the last major revival had been that of 1859, during which it was estimated that there were some 110,000 converts. In the intervening 45 years there were local revivals in 1866, 1871, 1882-83, 1887, 1892 and 1893, and in the early part of this century even a senior Welsh churchman sought for a revival. In December 1902, shortly before his death, Dean Howell, Dean of St Davids, wrote a last message on the need of Wales:
“If I knew that this was my last message to my countrymen all over Wales, before I am summoned to Judgement, and with the light of eternity already dawning over me, this is my message, viz. that the principal need of my country and dear nation at this time is spiritual revival through a special downpouring of the Holy Spirit.”
Both because and in spite of contemporary social and religious conditions, a climate was created in which the spark of Welsh revival tradition burst into dramatic, if short-lived flame: its main force was expended by the middle of 1905.
There is little sociological material about this revival. The major study is probably, ‘The Welsh Religious Revival, 1904-5′, by C R Williams, in the British Journal of Sociology, 1952. In a succinct and informative essay, Williams juxtaposes two factors: the concern of the Welsh industrial workers over the churches’ apathetic attitude towards their poor living and working conditions: and the concern of the churches over the religious and moral decline of the working people. Both non-conformist and established churches shared this concern. It was a response to falling church and chapel memberships and attendances, to the onset of Darwinism and modern, non-Fundamentalist Biblical criticism, and to the growth of agnostic Welsh socialism. It was also a similarly conservative response, in a puritan tradition, to an increase not only in drunkenness, swearing and gambling, but also in the theatre, dancing, and rugby football. Williams quotes an anonymous writer in a contemporary Welsh journal: “Everybody who has taken a little trouble to observe the condition of the country must agree that there was a heart-breaking sight to be seen before the commencement of the present Revival. Most people seemed to have given themselves up to the Devil. Agnosticism had raised its ugly head very high. There was a terrible apathy inside the chapels and churches. The workers had fallen into a state of frightful callousness, and the whole country had descended into a pit of corruption. Lust and drunkenness, worldliness and worthless things had possessed the minds of all people.”
It would seem, simply, that the power of the Revival tradition was stronger than the combination of socialism, immorality, Darwinism, dissipation and the rest. Despite the changes in behaviour and the political aspirations of the social groups that had been the traditional backbone of non-conformism the latest and, to date, the last of the great Welsh revivals began.
Through the work of the Forward Movement, of the Llandridnod Convention of 1903, and the persistence of a few evangelists, a foundation was laid. The Revival developed gradually through 1904, and was national news by the end of that year. A mere handful of missioners and evangelists – R B Jones, Evan Roberts, Joseph Jenkins, Seth Joshua, Mary Jones, Jessie Penn-Lewis, Sidney Evans and a few others were responsible for perhaps 90% of its achievements.
The very nature of the Revival was emotional, involving those who attended its many, lengthy meetings. It often depended as much on the contributions of the congregation as of the evangelists (R B Jones, one of those involved, speaks of preachers entering the pulpit only to be ‘closured’.) Conversion is an intense experience, as anyone who has witnessed or undergone anything of the kind will be aware. In the context of the revival tradition it was even further intensified. C R Williams assesses the nature of the experience: -
“Another factor of importance was the new element which the Methodists had introduced into the religious life of Wales – the mystic doctrine of salvation by personal experience. The Methodists taught that the only way to be saved was to repent and to experience, directly, forgiveness from God. This insistence on direct personal experience . . . tended to make religion an emotional thing. People suddenly became conscious of the sinful lives which they had been leading, and this realisation of sin was followed by very moving and, often, distressing scenes as the repentant sinners prayed for forgiveness and, eventually, experienced an emotional crisis which convinced them that they had been saved.”
The Index of the London Times has references for the Revival only from 3.1.05 to 20.3.05. The Revival was undoubtedly flourishing prior to the former date, and ebbed only gradually after the latter, but it seems that it was in January 1905 that it became newsworthy on a national scale. The Times presents most of its material in its regular ‘Ecclesiastical Intelligence columns. It clearly took a particular interest in Evan Roberts, and several of his meetings are mentioned in the extracts that follow, which contain most of the salient material published during this period: -
3.1.05 An account by the Welsh correspondent tells of a conversation with their Host at an Inn, Where they were staying prior to one of Roberts’ meetings,
“There’s too much of it , sir, there’s no sense in it. I b’ain’t against religion, but this goes too far. It’s out of all reason. Me and my missus were only saying last night as how our takings have fallen by the half this last fortnight. What’s to become of the people if this goes on? The men must have a drop of drink if they are to do their work proper. Why, only last night I see’d a score of our best customers pass our door with their heads down, looking that miserable as if they were going to the Asylum, and I’ll tell you what it is, (he said in a voice husky with emotion) that’s where a lot of them will be if they don’t drop it soon!”
The report continues with an account of the meeting itself,
“A rough sturdy collier in a fervent prayer thanked God for the Revival. He recounted his personal blessings and added that when he and his fellow drivers went back to work from the revival the pit ponies, hitherto cursed and sworn at, would not at first move to the strange and chastened biddings of their masters. This graphic detail may raise a smile, but I found upon enquiry that it was literally true.”
10.1.05 “The result of the work (the revival) upon the morals of the district have been specially manifest; for last week, for the first time, there was not a single case of drunkenness at the Swansea County Petty Sessions . . ” A description of a Roberts meeting at Llansamlet follows,
“The whole congregation fell on their knees and in their fervour beat upon the seats and became almost besides themselves in their frenzy. So great was the tension that the missioner himself broke down. The Rev F B Mayer, President of the National Free Church Council was at this meeting, and said afterwards in describing the scene, “It was a tornado of prayer, and quite the most extraordinary thing I have ever been a spectator of.”
The Chester Correspondent telegraphs that “10 patients suffering from religious mania are already in . . the Joint Counties Asylum at Denbigh . . one or two show signs of improvement, but the general condition of the others is stated to be very bad.”
17.1.05 Lloyd-George is due to hold a political meeting at Pwhlelli, but decides to cancel it, saying, “I am very anxious nothing should interfere in the slightest degree to break the full force of Revival”. ” . . a great revival meeting will therefore be substituted, and Mr Lloyd-George will take part.”
24.1.05 Concerning Evan Roberts, “The results of his work in the Neath Valleys have been unmistakeable, despite the fact that the chapels in these districts have proved quite inadequate to accommodate the crowds of people, a number of whom have walked many miles over the hills to attend his services.”
31.1.05 The Revival movement now covers South Wales so completely that there is little opportunity of increasing the area of its influence . . so far between 70,000 and 80,000 converts are claimed.” “At a meeting . . on Sunday (29.1.05) at Pontmorlais, Merthyr, Mr Roberts declared that there were two prominent persons present at emnity. He said he could not go on unless they made peace or left the building. He fell forward on the pulpit desk in a vioent paroxysm of agony, completely giving way, and sobbing and groaning. An extraordinary scene followed. Prayers and loud outcries were heard all over the chapel. A stern appeal was made to persons indicated by a Deacon, who declared that Mr Roberts was ‘going to pieces’. Several persons left the building, and subsequently the missioner, who had intended to go out, resumed.” “Careful enquiry throughout North Wales shows that the total number of converts secured during the present revival is approximately 9,000.”
6.2.05 “There is, up to the present, no indication of ‘waning influence’ . . Seth Joshua meeting in Cardigan . . 1,200 people present were on their knees praying simultaneously, and they remained in this attitude for two hours.” “Mr Roberts begins his mission in Cardiff on Wednesday. Owing to an attack of nervous prostration, he was unable to fulfil his engagement at Nelson on Friday.”
13.2.05 “The chairman of the Cardiff licensing magistrates last week bore testimony to the extraordinary decrease in drunkenness in the town during the past year, apprehensions having decreased from 446 in 1903, to 217 last year.” “Mr Roberts has been within the past week the recipient of lettersfrom all parts of Europe and America, asking him to visit the respective countries.”
20.2.05 “During the 6 months before the Revival began the number of people summoned at the Bridgend Police Court from Llynfi Valley numbered 700, but the average since the revival movement spread there has been not more than two per week.”
7.3.05 “His Honour Judge Gwilym Williams called attention, at a meeting of the Glamorgan County Council yesterday, to the statistics in the Chief Constable’s quarterly report. These figures, he said, showed that during the last quarter there was a decrease in the number of persons proceeded against of 1,364, and the Chief Constable remarked that, “the decrease in drunkenness has undoubtedly been most marked where the revivalists have had the largest following.” The Judge congratulated the County upon this very excellent report and added that those who administered justice in the County considered that they were indebted, in a great measure, for the improved state of affairs, to the efforts of Mr Evan Roberts and his co-revivalists. He certainly did not approve the cavilling that had taken place with regard to the Revivalists’ methods. To him the methods were nothing: the results were everything.” “It is estimated that the number of converts up to the end of February is 76,000 in South Wales, and 7,000 in North Wales, which would give a total of 13,000 for the month of February alone.”
20.3.05 Although a good deal of unobtrusive work is being carried on in many churches, there is no denying the fact that during the last week or so the Revival Movement in Wales has lost somewhat in its power. This is partly due to the fact that Mr Evan Roberts is now in Cardiganshire, suffering from a nervous breakdown. He took part in one meeting last week in Newquay, but was evidently far from well. Two Glasgow ministers, who brought him an invitation to conduct a mission in Glasgow, considered it inadvisable that he should go north at present. Mr Dan Roberts is still conducting largely attended meetings in the Rhondda Valley. In the eastern valleys of Monmouthshire there is considerable activity among the Free Churches. Meanwhile in several centres conferences have been held with a view of determining what steps can be taken towards keeping the converts. One of the largest of these was held in Pontypridd, at which the speakers included Dr Pearson and Mr A A Head (President of the Keswick Conference), Dr Pugh, and Principal Edwards of Cardiff. At this and other conferences of a similar nature, the general view favours a movement in the direction of institutional churches.
Within the past few days a party of eleven revivalists, including several ladies, have left South Wales for Scotland, where they are conducting meetings in Glasgow. Mr Evan Roberts is expected to proceed to Liverpool, but when his visit will be he is not yet able to determine.”
This is the last specific reference to the Revival in The Times. The fortunes of the Revival Movement would seem to have depended very much upon the health, vigour and credibility of Evan Roberts, who never again achieved successes to parallel those in South Wales. Despite major missions to Liverpool and North Wales, by October of 1905 he was virtually inactive, and so was the Revival.
If I had a couple of years to spare I would happily spend it writing a book about Evan Roberts. Though his mission was at no time accompanied by visible signs or portents, his inspiration often came from direct communication with the Almighty or His messengers, and he wrote and spoke many times of the visions he had seen, and the voices that he heard. From the age of 12, in 1890, his preoccupation was with revival, salvation, and the fight against Satan. He was the co-author of a rare and remarkable book, ‘War On The Saints’, which chronicles his own experiences of the Christian’s struggle with objective and cognescent evil. With the exception of a brief spell in 1928-30, during which he returned to South Wales, preached, and performed both spiritual healing and exorcism he, to quote a private letter to me, “lived as a protestant solitary contemplative from 1906 until his death in 1952. All this time he was supported by friends and admirers, and took no paid employment, but prayed for at least eight hours every day and also issued letters of spiritual direction, which is a very unusual thing for a Calvinistic Methodist.”
North Wales and the Lights
The Revival as reported in the Times was largely that in South Wales. In the North, considerably less densely populated anyway, the Revival had only a minimal impact till the last few weeks of 1904. In six months perhaps 10,000 conversions were effected, though Evan Roberts, much the most numerically effective of the Welsh evangelists, did not visit North Wales till the summer of 1905. Much of the fervour of revival was channelled through the incumbents of the varios chapels and churches: to this extent the revival in the North was more home-grown than that in the South. The one outstanding revivalist to emerge in the North was the centre of our investigation, Mrs Mary Jones of Egryn.
Egryn was a scattered hamlet on the coast of Merionethshire, between Barmouth and Harlech. A local celebrity for three months, and a national wonder for about a week, the reports of the events surrounding Mary Jones’ mission constitute some of the most remarkable accounts of paranormal events in British history.
Mary Jones, a farmer’s wife of 35 when her mission began, is something of a mystery herself. So far as I can tell, her early life was spent at the farmhouse at Islawrfford where she lived throughout the Revival, and is remarked on only for its tragedies. She and her sisters had been left orphans, her own son died at an early age, and four years later her sister also died. At the commencement of the Revival she and her husband had no domestic servants (though a servant girl was later hired when she was away much of the time), and owned only the bleak farmhouse and sparse farmland that can still be seen today to the south-east of Talybont Halt on the coastal railway line. In the British Weekly ( a sort of Christian news review) of 2.3.05, an account is given of Mary Jones speaking of her own spiritual development at a revival meeting in Talybont.
“It had been a work of slow growth, which she attributed to the reflective mood brought about by bitter trials and tribulations. Those bereavements caused her to seek relief in prayer, which continued for 12 years before she felt any constraint to take any prominent part in public worship.”
On 26.1.05 a longer article, perhaps more romanticised, had appeared in the British Weekly, written by the Rev. Elvet Lewis, a regular contributor, under the title, ‘A Mystic of the Revival’. This was also published in the excellent local paper, the Barmouth Advertiser, on 2.2.05. While tending to the dramatic, the tale of seeking and conversion rings true. The article, the product of a meeting with Mrs Jones, reports in part -
“I will give the narrative, so far as my memory serves me, in Mrs Jones’ own terms. She has been religious from her childhood. Some several years ago she lost her little boy, and four years later her only sister. The two had been left orphans, so that the elder had been both mother and sister, and her loss was so severely felt by the younger, that her faith in God was over-clouded. She felt herself hardening against Him more and more; ‘I do not believe’, she said simply, ‘that anyone ever had harder thoughts of Him than I did then’. She lost her taste for the services of the Chapel, for the Bible, for prayer. Her husband was not a member, but a faithful attendant, while she who was a member stayed away more and more.
One Sunday evening, a little over a year ago, she met his request to accompany him with the usual reply; it was no use; there was nothing in the chapel for her. So she remained at home alone. After they had gone, something strongly moved her to ask, ‘Is there no book in this house that can help me?’ There was the Bible, but that had become a blank book. Searching among the few odd volumes in the house, she found Sheldon’s ‘In His Steps’. She began to read listlessly at first, and then with growing interest, almost awe. When her husband came home he was struck by the changed face – a face which had been softened by no tears, lighted by no smiles for months, and now it alternated with both. She told him how the light had come. ‘What would Jesus do?’ was from that night her one question . .”
These are the only accounts I have found of Mary Jones’ own conversion, and of her own early life. It is still true that newspapers are only concerned with what is pertinent to what is news, and it would seem that at the time, nobody thought to investigate further. The first media report of her work, in the Barmouth Advertiser of 15.12.04 is brief. “It is a remarkable thing that at Egryn a lady, who has long been known for her devotion to the cause, has taken the lead, and those who were eye-witnesses admit that no-one could have been better entrusted with it.”
This is slightly expanded the following week. “The Revival at Egryn. At Egryn, the revival has made wonderful strides, close upon 40 converts being enrolled during last week.”
Her remarkable conversion work at the tiny roadside chapel in Egryn, a little dilapidated but still in regular use, is recounted in two sources. Firstly, by the Rev. Elvet Lewis, in the British Weekly article already quoted. The claims and reports of paranormal events are already present -
“She returned to her chapel, and became a most faithful but silent helper, her only public part being the giving out of a hymn. But when the news of the South Wales movement came she was deeply moved, and at last asked her brother, who superintended the mission – or branch chapel – to announce meetings for prayer. She was full of expectation but the first meeting, on a Monday evening, chilled her very heart. However, another was announced for the Thursday. It was better attended, and people took part more readily, she herself making the first attempt.
There was no doubt now about continuing, night after night. She became, without knowing how, the leading worker in these meetings, speaking little, except in prayer and hymn, but possessing an influence that would be almost strange, in winning others to take part, and leading others to Christ. In the daytime she visted and invited – in the evening she had her reward. When the fortnight’s meetings were completed, to the day, fifty-one had been brought to Christ in that rural, thinly populated neighbourhood.”
She gave many a striking incident of this fortnight’s meetings, which I need not chronicle here. She made no reference to the signs, until my friend and I asked her. She answered as simply as if she were speaking about the fire on the hearth that she had seen, almost from the first, each evening, a fire or light, between her and the hills which rise from the marshy shore – a quickly vibrating light, ‘as though full of eyes’ so another described it. It had revealed to her what to expect at the meetings? Yes, without fail. One evening, she had interpreted the sign to mean four converts. But only three responded when the test was made in the crowded little chapel. ‘But there must be four’, she said. No, there could not be: all the rest, except the three who had declared themselves that evening, were already members. ‘But there ought to be four tonight’, she repeated. No fourth could be found till the door of the little vestibule was opened, and one stood there halting between two opinions. The opening of the door, and a kindly word of invitation brought the inquirer inside. The four were completed . . .
She had seen the light hovering over some houses on the hill-tops; she was puzzled, for she thought there was no one in those houses unconverted, or at least out of church membership. But one day she was told by the Wesleyan minister at Barmouth and another friend, who visited her, that there was one old woman in one of the houses, not now on Christ’s side. ‘Ah, that must be it’, she said. The two friends went up, found the woman in concern for her son. Mrs Jones visited her; she became one of the fifty-one in that marvellous fortnight.”