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Beyond human control

Welsh revival shows the limits of programs and the limitless Spirit

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

The strange doings of canaries and coalmines are not to be compared to those of tram-harnessed, blind horses in those ore-veined hills of Wales from 1904 to 1906. It was a scene like Babel, but between man and equus rather than man and man. To put it delicately, miners suddenly stopped talking like miners. And their horses, no longer able to understand the colliers' commands, lowered their ears and dug in their hooves. Coal production fell off around the country.

That's not all. Businesses went into foreclosure-pubs and taverns, to be precise. Emergency meetings of local councils were called to discuss what was to be done with the police force since the police had so little to do. Nightly prayer meetings multiplied like spores from Amlwch to Llanerchymedd to Disgwylfa.

They say you should watch what you pray for. As the century turned a page, churches around the world were praying for revival-from Moody Bible Institute, to the Keswick Convention in England, to Wansan in Korea, to 10,000-strong prayer circles in Melbourne. The Methodists in the United States raised $20 million for programs to win 2 million souls. Historian J. Edwin Orr relates with amusement one Methodist's later confession: "God waited till we got our project out of the way before He sent revival."

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Wales is the land of silver-tongued orators. But it was none of these, nor committee programs, that lit the fuse. That came in February 1904 in a weekly youth group meeting in New Quay, Cardigan, when pastor Joseph Jenkins asked: "What does Jesus mean to you?" Silence. Then young Florrie Evans declared simply, "I love Jesus with all my heart." The youth group ignited. A visiting evangelist named Seth Joshua tried to close worship services, but they "went on beyond human control." He would close with the benediction, and in a moment, somebody would start praying again.

A 26-year-old coal miner named Evan Roberts, enrolled in ministerial studies at the Presbyterian Newcastle Emlyn, got wind of this and was electrified; he had been praying for revival for 11 years. Roberts and other students asked the principal to suspend classes for a week so they could attend Seth Joshua's week of meetings in Blaenanerch. Principal Phillips wisely consented. When the week was up, Roberts couldn't concentrate on his studies; he kept hearing a voice calling him home to preach to his hometown youth. He asked Phillips what he should do. Said the school head, "The devil never gives orders like that."

Roberts' parents were surprised to see their son on the doorstep, and more surprised when he said he had come back to preach to the youth of Loughor. "We were in church on Sunday and the pastor didn't announce it," they said. "The pastor doesn't know yet," young Evan said.

Pastor gave him the subprime slot, Monday night. But after Monday folks asked for more, and he ended up staying the week. His message was simple: Confess any known sin to God; put away any doubtful habit; obey the Spirit promptly; confess Christ publicly.

Grocery stores emptied, shopkeepers hung their "closed" signs early, miners and steelworkers, emerging from darkened shafts, scrubbed and donned their Sunday finest for church. What they found was some preaching but mostly prayer and testimony. One hundred thousand were added to the church rolls. (A revival cynic later noted that after five years, 25,000 people had left the church. But which 25,000? Revival converts, or original members who couldn't stand the light?)

The revival never became a cult of Evan Roberts. He wouldn't let it, refusing even to announce where he would show up next. Nor must you imagine thousands assembled in packed auditoriums; it was, rather, a thousand points of light at local churches.

If you had been in Wales before Florrie Evans stood up in youth group in February 1904, you would have said this was a country, if ever there was one, that didn't need revival. The churches were orthodox, pulpit oration was never better, and the youth groups were full of decent, God-fearing Welsh kids. Makes you wonder what it is God wants from us.

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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