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'Going on its own'

A journalist's chronicle of the Welsh revival

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

On April 15, 1912, when a passenger liner named the Titanic thrust its stern perpendicular to the Atlantic in a final unnatural act, an old man named William T. Stead, having helped women and children onto lifeboats, was last observed reading a book in the First Class Smoking Room. I would like to know what the book was.

I first heard of Stead in connection with the sex slave trade in England. It should come as no surprise to 21st-­century American readers, who work and play for the most part unmindful of a trafficking in human flesh that has damaged 30 million children in the last 30 years, that the respectable Victorians pretended there were no village virgins being tricked into brothels and drugged for Europe-bound coffins with air holes, by imposter nuns and newspaper ads soliciting domestics.

William Stead, who would have earned enough of a footnote in history for his innovation of the interview form in journalism, set his employees at the Pall Mall Gazette to investigate the extent of the cancer. He serialized the national scandal in articles titled "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon." This effort, buttressed by 393,000 signatures secured by the Salvation Army, resulted in the Criminal Law Amendment Act protecting youth under 16.

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It also resulted in three months of jail time for the Pall's editor. (He had posed as a brothel client with the help of a young woman whose mother had given consent but whose absentee father later showed up with charges of abduction.) Stead evidently was not traumatized: Every year afterward, he would mark the anniversary of his conviction by donning his prison uniform.

Every good newspaper man knows that primary sources, when available, are best. William Stead himself offers the key to his biography. "I am a child of the revival of 1859-60," he wrote in the The Welsh Revival, having been entreated to go public with what he knew and saw of the events of 1904-1906.

The first reports of revival appeared in the secular press on Nov. 7, 1904. When Stead learned of it, he took two ministers with him to the mining town of Mardy. He filed reports with The Daily Chronicle and a Christian publication called The Christian World. He was also interviewed by The Methodist Times.

Stead: "There is something there from the Other World. You cannot say whence it came or whither it is going. . . . You see men and women go down in sobbing agony before your eyes as the invisible Head clutches at their hearts. . . . If you are afraid of strong emotions, you'd better give the revival a wide berth."

Times: "But is it all emotion? Is there no teaching?"

Stead: "Precious little. Do you think that teaching is what people want in a revival? These people, all the people in a land like ours, are taught to death, preached to insensibility. They all know the essential truths. They know they are not living as they ought to live, and no amount of teaching will add anything to that conviction. To hear some people talk you would imagine that the best way to get a sluggard out of bed is to send a tract on astronomy showing him that according to the fixed and eternal law the sun will rise at a certain hour in the morning."

Anticipating the predictable question of "excesses," Stead wrote for The Christian World: "The fact is, there has been so little handle given to the enemy, who ever is hungering for an occasion to blaspheme, that the revival, so far, lacks that one great testimony in its favor which all good causes have. . . : 'Woe to you, when all men shall speak well of you!'"

Is the revival a supernatural work or human charisma? Stead wrote: "Never was there a religious movement so little indebted to the guiding brain of its leaders. It seems to be going on its own. . . . Ministers, each in his own church, open the meetings. But when once they are started they 'obey the Spirit.'. . . There are no advertisements, no brass bands, no posters, no huge tents. All the paraphernalia of the got-up job are conspicuous by their absence."

Footnote on the Titanic: Stead had published an article in 1886 titled, "How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor." It concerned the need for adequate lifeboats.
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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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