Remembering the Welsh Revival
By Peter Larson
In November of 1904, a great spiritual revival broke out in the coal-mining valleys of Southern Wales. According to some estimates, more than 80,000 people were converted in the first two months. Even those who had been praying for revival were amazed by what they saw: lives transformed, old grudges forgiven, drunkards sober, taverns and concert halls empty and churches filled to overflowing. Deep in the bowels of the earth—two miles underground—coal miners held prayer meetings and sang praises to God. Eventually, the Welsh revival sparked a worldwide spiritual movement that reached the United States, South Africa, China, Korea and India.
The Welsh revival began with a small group of Methodist ministers in Western Wales who sensed their own inadequacy and felt the need for a deeper spiritual life and greater effectiveness as pastors. The primary leader of the movement was Evan Roberts, a 26-year-old schoolteacher with no formal theological training. By all accounts, Roberts was not a dynamic speaker or outwardly impressive. With a group of students from his home church, he began praying nightly that his life would be completely surrendered to God.
During the week of November 6-13 in the village of Loughor, the prayer meeting suddenly exploded into a general awakening, impacting seven churches in the area. According to witnesses, there was an overpowering, electrifying sense of the Holy Spirit's presence. Without any guidance or direction, people burst into spontaneous song, prayer, praise and testimony. There were mass conversions, including scores of men and women who had never attended any church. Soon, the meetings were being held all night until 4:30 in the morning. "We became so unconscious of ourselves that we did not know what happened, what was said or what was sung," reported one witness. "Reverent fear ruled over the place." Another witness, E. Cynolowyn Pugh, described the atmosphere of awe and exaltation that swept the land: "In the words of the Welsh hymn, we saw Christ riding majestically and triumphantly through the valleys…and his power, like a mighty rushing wind clearing before it all kinds of filth and dross and refuse from the gutters of corruption."
The Welsh revival was not contained by church buildings: it spilled over into every area of life producing sweeping social change. Merchants were amazed when their delinquent customers suddenly appeared to pay off old debts. In Wales, where rugby comes close to being the national religion, there were converts who ripped up their season tickets and burned their rugby uniforms. Some viewed rugby games as an invitation to drinking, violence and blasphemy; for others, it simply represented "wasted time and duties neglected." To grasp the impact of the Welsh revival, you have to imagine American men ripping up their season tickets to watch the New York Yankees or the Greenbay Packers.
Meanwhile, in the Welsh coal mines there was reconciliation between unionists and non-unionists who had been bitter enemies. Coal miners awakened by the revival became more hard-working and conscientious. The "pony boys" who cared for the cart horses in the mines began treating their animals with new love and affection. But the greatest change of all took place in thousands of individual homes where formerly drunken men became dutiful fathers and husbands. In some villages, saloons remained closed for many years due to a lack of customers. The change was so remarkable that one Welsh boy asked his mother: "What's wrong, mam (mom)? My dad is praying at breakfast time and praying at dinner time and praying at tea-time, and a great deal before going to bed."
As the revival grew, it met with powerful opposition from established clergy and church leaders who questioned its integrity and authenticity. Within a year, many churches that had welcomed the revival returned to their old ways of formalism and tradition. Frozen out of traditional churches, many converts were forced to establish mission halls of their own where they could worship freely. The great leader of the revival, Evan Roberts, suffered from nervous collapse and withdrew from public ministry for the rest of his life to devote himself to private prayer. By 1906, the revival fire in Wales had been quenched.
There has been no great revival since that time. Although the Toronto blessing and Pensacola revival produced some outward manifestations, such as holy laughter and being slain in the Spirit, they did little to transform society. Despite the best efforts of Billy Graham, Luis Palau and other mass-evangelists, the rate of divorce, abortion, poverty, crime, alcoholism in America remains largely unchanged.
Revival is more than spiritual fervor, froth or fizz. When the Holy Spirit comes in power, it changes society. True revival produces justice, reconciliation and concern for the poor. The American church today is rich in many things but we are poor in the Spirit. After one hundred years, it's time for another revival.
Peter Larson is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ohio, and a contributing editor to PRISM Magazine.