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On Religious Revival

By William K. Kay

There was fire and rain that year. The last big religious revival in Wales ran from the autumn of 1904 until the summer of 1905. On the 10th November, 1904, the Western Mail, a newspaper that circulated mainly in the south of Wales, reported:

One night so great was the enthusiasm invoked by the young revivalist that after a sermon lasting two hours the vast congregation remained praying and singing until half-past two o’clock next morning. Shopkeepers are closing earlier in order to get a place in the chapel, and tin and steel workers throng the place in their working clothes. The only theme of conversation among all classes and sects is “Evan Roberts.” Even the taprooms of the public-houses are given over to discussion on the origin of the powers possessed by him.

Evan Roberts was the ‘revivalist’ whose preaching triggered off intense religious reaction. In the pubs and factories mysterious powers are attributed to him.

By the end of the year, even the London papers were curious. The Times dispatches a reporter to find out what is going on. Attending one of the meetings he files an eye-witness account:

Presently a young man pushed his way through the crowd and, kneeling in the rostrum, began a fervent prayer of penitence and for pardon. Once again, in the midst of his prayer, the whole congregation break forth into a hymn, repeated with amazing fervour and vigour eight times.

The crowded meeting is silenced by a young’s man prayer. When he has finished, as a kind of collective endorsement, the congregation sings a hymn (which they must know by heart) again and again.

A man in the gallery raises his voice to speak. The people listen, and meanwhile Mr Roberts has resumed his seat and watches all with a steady and unimpassioned gaze. The man confesses his past – he has been a drunkard, he has been a Sabbath-breaker, he had known nothing of a Saviour, but now something has entered his heart and he feels this new power within him compelling him to speak. While he is speaking the people give vent to their feelings in a hymn of thanksgiving, repeated as before again and again. Thus the hours creep on.

The pattern is repeated as the man in the gallery confesses to drinking heavily and breaking the Sabbath. The confession demonstrates the weight of expectation placed on the male population: beer money is money taken from the family budget; Sunday should be occupied with rest and chapel-going.

It is long past midnight. Now here, now there, someone rises to make his confession and lays bare his record before the people or falls upon his knees where he is and in loud and fervent tones prays for forgiveness. (The Times, Jan 3rd, 1905)

This spontaneous form of Christianity results in church services with three characteristics: anyone can take part, anything can happen, and congregational singing expresses collective emotion. The professional clergy find themselves displaced. Even Mr Roberts simply watches for most of the time. The hidden springs of events well up in the troubled hearts of men who feel impelled to public penitence. And, once they have done this, they feel joyful relief. About 100,000 people made their confessions and their commitments to Christ in this way. Historically, the Welsh crime statistics show a fall in these months while, in the mines, industrial unrest was quelled.

When the Welsh revival had run its course the churches were, for a while, fuller. But there were also institutional and organizational consequences. This was most obvious in another religious revival that was linked with Wales and which broke out in the burgeoning city of Los Angeles the following year and ran till about 1912.

The Azusa Street revival saw the same unexpected enthusiasm, the same lengthy disorganized meetings, and the same willingness of the clergy to cede control. Azusa Street stressed the work of the Holy Spirit, miracles, visions, holiness, healing and speaking in tongues. By 1914 new churches and denominations that were called Pentecostal were established, and these took as their founding principles the beliefs and practices they had first learnt in the revival. Such churches are now found in large numbers all over the world and their influence contributes to the renewal of global Christianity.

Religious revival is often haughtily dismissed as mere emotionalism, and there is no doubt that powerful emotions are unleashed. What seems unfair about the dismissal is that so many other human activities involve disproportionate emotion. People go wild at sporting events when, in the light of the big picture and the imperatives of climate change, sport is, well, just sport. But, if the climate is what matters, then those who were caught up in the Welsh revival would have argued that the spiritual climate matters most of all: the two symbols of the Holy Spirit they would have recognised remain fire and rain – forces that transform the landscape.

Professor William K. Kay is Professor of Theology at Glyndwr University in Wales and is an ordained minister in the British Assemblies of God. His most recent book is Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction.

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