Reasons the Welsh Revival of 1904 faded

  • Question 143, from Phil, Germany

    I was interested to read what you wrote about the Welsh Revival. There seems to be a general reluctance in Christians to get involved with politics and social issues which you mention. Do you think that if those in the revival had been more involved in politics, the First World War could have been avoided. Or were those in the revival so far removed from politics of the day – in class, education and social and financial power – that it would have been impossible?

    NB – In this previous freelance theology article, brief references are made to the shortening of the revival by two profound events. These were the First World War, and the rise of Socialism, which took hold in the mining communities of South Wales in particular in the first few decades of the 20th century.

    Realistically it is impossible to state one way or the other the effects of the Welsh Revival, had it impacted significantly among the political class. Given that Wales was mostly regarded as a primitive provincial backwater, it’s very unlikely that even had the revival profoundly changed the outlook of those in power in Wales, that the First World War would have been prevented.

    It is perhaps simplistic to look at the ‘Great War’ and the rise of Socialist politics as the reasons why the Welsh Revival faltered. Certainly these were key external factors. But there were a number of internal factors to contend with too.

    R.B. Jones, writing in the late 1930s describes the contemporary scene as being affected by the growth of ‘liberal theology’ and church ministers who were “representatives of the “modernistic” school”[1]. These are partly to blame, he felt, for the decline of the revival outlook, although he also pointed out that ‘revivals’ by their very nature are short-lived. Jones’ is ultimately a realist – another reason he gives is that some converts “lapsed” – but he also points to missionary endeavours, training colleges, and ongoing ‘faith missions’ as evidence for the revival’s “lasting fruit”.[2]

    Eifion Evans, writing an account in 1969, almost 40 years after Jones, expresses more of the internal strife, which befell the leaders of the Welsh Revival[3]. A central figure in the Welsh Revival was a young man called Evan Roberts, who had little or no theological training. The pressure of being the figurehead of the revival seemed to damage Roberts mentally and emotionally, and by 1907 he was virtually a recluse, having left Wales.

    Evans lists a whole host of reasons why the revival petered out, which follow the basic accusations leveled against Evan Roberts’ ministry during the revival. For example, Evans lists disciplinary problems and moral laxity in revival-affected churches, a “Lack of solid preaching”[4] with an emphasis on prayer and ‘spiritual experience’ instead, the “rise of the new theology” and rationalist explanations for religious experiences[5], doctrinal disagreements – particularly centred on baptism in the Holy Spirit, and the fact that some revivalists and their converts left (or were forced out of) established churches and chapels and founded new churches (separatism).

    Evans’ conclusion is that “Historically speaking, it has to be admitted that revival has had a divisive effect upon the Christian church”[6], although Evans posits that such division is necessary to prevent the wholesale death of the Church. But it is fairly certain that these many divisions were key elements in diminishing the long-term impact of the Welsh Revival.

    These internal divisions weren’t confined to the church, however. They were conducted very publicly, particularly between Evan Roberts and a minister form Dowlais called Peter Price. Correspondence between Price and supporters of Roberts filled up the letters pages of the Western Mail and other local newspapers. The revival was a common topic for discussion in non-church settings such as pubs and working men’s clubs. It is arguable that the public airing of theological and spiritual disagreements, accompanied by slanderous comments about key figures in the revival, negatively affected the perception of Christians among the non-churchgoing public[7].

    It would also seem from contemporary accounts that the Welsh Revival did not actually change the ‘church culture’. In Voices from the Welsh Revival, Brynmor P. Jones includes an interview with Dafydd Jones of Aberporth, about the decline in the revival’s effects. Dafydd Jones relates how shortly after the revival, women were stopped from participating in weeknight meetings “by the deacons”, the giving of testimonies by young people and ‘children’s processions’ ended, and the younger converts weren’t used in church services or missions[8].

    Brynmor Jones concludes: “That was the final tragedy: the eagerness of the church members and their leaders in particular, to go back to the old traditions and to become normal and sober once more.”[9]

    In conclusion, then, the Welsh Revival of 1904 was probably as much a victim of internal problems, than wider social issues. While the Revival has subsequently been feted as a time of great spiritual awakening in Wales, it is mindful to remember that it, at best, only affected 10% of the population, that it occurred in a poor and isolated part of Britain, and that it was short-lived. Its effect was mainly on the working and middle classes, and its tendency towards personal piety, meant that it never translated into calls for political or social reform, beyond the individual ‘reformation of the sinner’.

    Within a decade, the Great War started, and its effect on the ‘revival generation’ can be read in any Welsh chapel of that vintage, in the lists of names on war memorials. The subsequent rise of Socialism in South Wales, and the Great Strike of 1926 which saw troops deployed against striking miners, also undermined the effect of the revival.

    But it did have an effect, in terms of missionary activity and ‘chapel culture’, and the huge number of chapels built across Wales remain a visible legacy of the Welsh Revival. For such a short-lived movement, perhaps the greater wonder is that it had any lasting effect at all, and would still be the subject of discussion a century later.

    Notes and references
    [1] R.B. Jones, Rent Heavens The Revival of 1904, Pioneer Mission, 2nd Edition 1948 p.86
    [2] ibid pp 77-83.
    [3] Eifion Evans, The Welsh Revival of 1904, Evangelical Movement of Wales Press, 1969
    [4] ibid p.183
    [5] ibid p.185
    [6] ibid p.197
    [7] See for example the chapter ‘Quenching the Spirit’ Brynmor P. Jones, Voices from the Welsh Revival 1904-05, Evangelical Press of Wales, 1995, pp274-280, which details the opposition to the revival from professing Christians.
    [8] ibid pp271-2
    [9] ibid p. 272

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