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Evan Roberts & the Welsh Revival

Evan Roberts

by Dennis Pollock

It is tragic that the life and legacy of Evan Roberts has nearly disappeared from the memory of the contemporary church. All who yearn for spiritual awakening cannot afford to be ignorant of this amazing man and the revival in which he figured so prominently.

Evan Roberts was the central figure in the Welsh Revival, one of the purest, classical Holy Spirit outpourings in the history of the church. His beginnings were far from glorious. He grew up in a coal mining community and quit school to become a coal miner at the age of twelve. At thirteen Evan Roberts received Christ as his Savior.

From the beginning he was extraordinarily sensitive to spiritual things. Shortly after his conversion he heard a sermon in which the preacher spoke about the glorious outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and asked the question to the congregation, “What if the Spirit should come in one of our services, and you were not present?” This affected young Roberts deeply and he determined he would not miss any of the many and varied church meetings that were offered. Despite his tiresome work in the coal mine, he began to attend every prayer meeting, youth meeting, or any other meeting offered by the church. This involved him being at church six out of the seven days of the week. This he did consistently throughout his teen years.

He read and heard about some of the great revivals that had occurred in Wales and other places, and became obsessed with the subject. He stated, “I could sit up all night to read or talk about revivals.” As a young man he was once forced out of his rented room by his landlady, who would hear him pray and preach in his room for hours on end, and concluded he was dangerous and quite likely insane.

Visitation

As his date with destiny drew near, God began to reveal himself to the young man in a special way. At the age of 25 he woke up one night and found himself in the presence of God. His fellowship with God was so real, he stated: “I found myself with unspeakable joy and awe in the presence of the almighty God … I was privileged to speak face-to-face with him as a man speaks face-to-face with a friend.” This deep communion went on for four hours, and then he fell asleep again. He was surprised to find that the same experience occurred the next night, again resulting in an extraordinary fellowship with God that lasted about four hours. This continued every night for the next three months, as God revealed Himself in dramatic fashion to this poor Welsh young man, preparing him for the great calling that lay ahead.

Evan RobertsEvan by this point knew God was calling him to ministry, and did what seemed to be the logical thing – he entered a preparatory school. God had other plans. While there Roberts attended a series of small meetings held nearby by the famous evangelist, Seth Joshua. Though he had already known some deep spiritual experiences in those night visitations, God had something more for him. Seth Joshua prayed at the end of one of the services, “O God, bend us.” (Conform us to your will.) For some reason these words shook Evan Roberts to the core. Here are his words about what happened at that point:

I felt a living power pervading my bosom. It took my breath away and my legs trembled exceedingly. This living power became stronger and stronger as each one prayed, until I felt it would tear me apart… I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me. My face was bathed in perspiration, and the tears flowed in streams. I cried out, “Bend me, bend me!” It was God’s commending love which bent me … what a wave of peace flooded my bosom…”

This mighty baptism in the Holy Spirit transformed Evan Roberts. Before that time he had tended to be a serious and somewhat gloomy personality, but henceforth he radiated tremendous joy. Before this experience he had been a timid and hesitant speaker, but now spoke with an authority and boldness that could hardly be resisted. Even his health was improved. He had been physically weak and unable to walk but short distances, but now found he could walk for miles without tiring. God’s instrument was now fully equipped and ready for service.

During a church service soon afterwards Roberts saw visions of himself speaking to the young people at his home church in Loughor. He tried to get the picture out of his mind, but it kept returning. Finally he agreed in his heart to go, and the vision dissipated, and the room was filled with dazzling light.

His parents were puzzled to see their son home from college, and more puzzled still when he announced he had come to speak to the church (without being invited by the pastor) and was considering going through all Wales preaching and soul winning. The pastor of their home church didn’t quite know what to do with Evan. He decided to play it safe and allowed young Evan to speak only after the main prayer meeting was over. Sixteen people and one little girl decided to stay and hear what he had to say.

Roberts wasted no time in getting to the heart of his message. He spoke about a fullness of the Holy Spirit that was available for Christians, but declared that they must fulfill four conditions:

  1. Confess all known sin to God.
  2. Put away all doubtful habits.
  3. Obey the Holy Spirit promptly.
  4. Confess Christ publicly.


His teaching was accompanied with a deep sense of Holy Spirit conviction, and by the end of the night all sixteen young people and adults had confessed Christ. So powerful was this first meeting that Roberts was given a second night to share, and then a third. With each passing night more and more people came. By the second week the church was packed out, and the revival was on!

Reviving of a Nation

Welsh Revival

While Evan Roberts seemed to be God’s chosen instrument to spearhead the revival, he was by no means the whole of it. As word of what God was doing in Loughor spread, fervent prayer for awakening went forth all over Wales and those prayers were heard almost instantly. Within weeks the fires of revival were blazing all through the nation.

The effects were astonishing. Churches which had been only half full were now unable to hold all the people eagerly coming to find Christ. Services which had been formal and lasting an exact designated time, were now hotbeds of prayer, praise, and singing, starting sometimes at six in the evening and going on till past midnight. One pastor, when asked about the times of his services, replied, “From six until midnight.” The astonished inquirer said, “You mean you have church from six p.m. until midnight?” “No,” said the pastor. “I meant from six a.m. until midnight.”

Within a couple of months Wales was a changed nation. Crime was reduced to almost nothing. Often magistrates were given a ceremonial pair of white gloves when they arrived at the courtroom, signifying that there were no cases to try. There was a wave of bankruptcies, as taverns were nearly vacant. One man found himself as the only patron in a tavern when a group of young enthusiastic youths from the revival meetings came past the building, singing praises to God. The tavern owner, sickened by his loss of business, growled at them and threw a couple of empty ale pots at the youths. The patron, sickened by such behavior, went out into the street and joined the singing group as they made their way to the church, where he gave his life to Christ.

A reporter went to a police station, wondering what the policemen did now that there was so little crime. He was told, “We used to serve two purposes, dealing with crime and controlling the crowds. Now that the revival has come there is no crime. So we go where the crowds are, to the churches. We have several good singing voices among our policemen so we have formed three quartets, and sing at the meetings whenever we get the chance.” The Llynfi Valley police court had been averaging 700 cases per week six months before the revival. After the revival was going full force, the average was 2. So radical was the change in the coal miners that there was a slowdown in the mines. The pit ponies, so used to being cursed at and screamed at by the ungodly miners couldn’t figure out what to do when their transformed masters spoke kindly to them.

Ministry Style

Evan Roberts ministry style was unlike anything the Welsh people had ever experienced. His experience with the Holy Spirit had left him deeply emotional. Tears flowed freely at times, and joyous, unrestrained laughter at others. He didn’t really preach, as the Welsh thought of preaching. He used no notes, and hardly ever prepared a sermon. He simply shared and exhorted from his heart, urging the people to press into Christ for a fresh baptism in the Holy Spirit. Spontaneous prayer would often break out in the meetings, with all the people praying to God at once.

Welsh RevivalRoberts was spiritually sensitive, sometimes receiving words of knowledge, information from the Spirit about a particular individual and their specific needs. Sometimes the Spirit would show him specific instances of sins that needed to be repented of. At other times he would prophesy (accurately) of the number of people that would submit to Christ that particular night. One newspaper columnist wrote an article on the young man, using the headline “Thought Reader.”

He was modest to a fault. He often refused to allow his picture to be taken, fearing he would take the glory from His Lord. He would never announce where he would be speaking, lest he become too much the “star” of the revival. In one meeting where he showed up, he reminded the congregation of Christ’s promise that where two or three were gathered together, He would be there in their midst. When he asked the crowd if they believed that promise, they heartily responded, “Amen.” To which Evan Roberts announced, “Then you don’t need me,” and left the meeting. At that point, the people, suddenly aware of the presence of their Savior in their midst, erupted in prayer and praise.

In one year’s time, by conservative estimates, around 150,000 souls were born again. The revival went on to sweep Europe, Canada, America, and many other parts of the world. Five years later, one writer tried to debunk the revival, stating that of the 100,000 souls that were added to the lists of the churches in Wales in that first year, only 80,000 still remained. Now an 80 per cent retention rate far exceeds the rate for any evangelistic enterprises that we are familiar with today. But even that figure was too low, because many of the 20,000 missing from the traditional Welsh churches had simply joined the Pentecostal churches when the traditional churches cooled off and went back to their formal ways.

Sad Ending

It would be great to report that Evan Roberts continued his ministry throughout his years, and enjoyed many decades of fruitful preaching. But such was not the case. Roberts’ greatest weakness was his white hot intensity. He simply could not bring himself to take seasons of rest and refreshment. He labored for long hours with little sleep until finally his mind and body began to rebel. The young man finally suffered a nervous breakdown after about a year of ministry, and was forced to withdraw from ministry altogether. In one of the strangest endings to a ministry ever seen in the annals of revival and Christianity, Evan Roberts never really came back. He became a spiritual recluse for much of his life, devoting himself to prayer and the writing of poetry and short articles. Once, when he spoke at his father’s funeral, an awesome feeling of almost electrical power swept through the audience, giving testimony that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. But the feeling passed and Roberts went back to his hidden life.

Lessons Learned

Many lessons could be drawn from Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival, but space permits me only two main observations. First, the church will never be what she should be without the Holy Spirit. Evan Roberts learned to be sensitive to the Spirit, and yielded to the Spirit in a manner that few ever have. His two primary messages were simple and Biblical: for the sinner – come to Christ. For the Christian – be filled with the Spirit.

Secondly we learn that giftedness and zeal must be balanced with wisdom and rest. Inherent in the command to keep the Sabbath is the idea that man must have rest. No matter how good your intentions, no matter how invincible the anointing of the Holy Spirit can make you feel – the truth is that we are all humans living with human limitations. We must exercise prudence and give rest and recreation its proper place that we may serve our Master over the long haul. The Christian life is a marathon, not a windsprint. And tortoises sometimes end up going farther than rabbits.

To be fair to Evan Roberts, we must recognize that preaching and pastoral work was never his strong suit. During that white-hot revival atmosphere in Wales, he was most effective coming into churches, sharing, exhorting, giving impromptu short messages, and encouraging people to give their all to Christ and be filled with the Holy Spirit. His gifts worked beautifully in those conditions and served as a spark to the power of the Spirit that rested all over the nation of Wales at that time. But once the revival had waned, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit was not nearly as evident, his gifts did not shine as brightly. Many probably expected him to go on and become a pastor, but to endure the necessary but mundane details of preparing new sermons every Sunday, organizing special events, dealing with disgruntled parishioners, and working with stubborn board members probably would not have been a good fit for the high-strung Roberts.

Psalms 1 talks about us bringing forth fruit in its season, and it seems that God had ordained that the major fruit that would spring forth from Evan Robert's life would come while still in his mid-twenties. Regardless of the rather puzzling latter portion of his life, Roberts accomplished more good and touched more lives in the short span of the heat of the Welsh revival than most men could in a dozen lifetimes. His passion for Christ and souls, and his intense study of the word and revivals enabled him to become a vessel for honor in His Master's hands.

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