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Evan Roberts and the 1904 revival

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:23 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

In these days of easy commercialism and clear scepticism in all matters theological, it is hard to conjure a picture of Wales in 1904 and 1905 when, for many months, the whole country was gripped by a religious revival that swept like a tidal wave across the land. The man at the head of that revival was a young trainee minister called Evan Roberts.

Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts

In the autumn of 1904 Evan Roberts was 26 years old. He came from Loughor, some six or seven miles west of Swansea, having been born in 1878. He left school at the age of 11 to work down the coal pit with his father. It was a job he kept for 12 years before becoming an apprentice to his uncle, a blacksmith, in Pontarddulais.

Evan Roberts might have been, in the eyes of the public, an ordinary labouring man but he had been a committed Christian for many years. He regularly attended Moriah Calvinistic Methodist Church in Loughor where he was a renowned Sunday School teacher. Indeed, his whole life consisted of work, studying the Bible and contemplation and consideration of the words of God.

For many years Roberts had felt a 'calling'. Always a spiritual man, someone who would sometimes stay up all night engaged in deep communion with God, he knew that his life was not meant to be lived down the pits or at the blacksmith's forge. And so, in 1904, he enrolled at a grammar school in Newcastle Emlyn to help improve his educational standards, prior to taking up a place at theological college.

Just two weeks after arriving at the school Evan Roberts took part in a convention at Blaenanerch and there underwent what he called "a fresh baptism of the spirit." Instantly the young man was transformed into a revivalist who felt instructed by God to share his vision and his views with others.

On 29 September 1904, at Moriah Church in Loughor, he rose to his feet to make four pronouncements. He wanted people to confess their known sins, to get rid of any doubts they might have about the significance of God in their lives, to obey the Holy Spirit and to confess publicly that they would follow Christ. He continued to preach and urge people to join him.

By the end of the first week 60 people had repented their sins and Roberts promptly undertook a whirlwind tour of the Welsh valleys. At revivalist meetings in each of the mining towns, Evan Roberts and his brother Dan preached and a small choir of five girl singers accompanied them. The movement began to gather real force and impetus and within a year over 100,000 converts had joined the church - thanks to Roberts and his party.

Quite simply, a firestorm had hit the churches. Roberts appealed to young and old alike - but particularly to the young who were in desperate need of direction in their lives. He gave them fire in their bellies and hope in their hearts. As Evan Roberts and his followers journeyed all over Wales the effect of his "missionary journies" were astounding.

Quite apart from the converts who had suddenly found purpose in their lives, there were also clear social benefits. Crime rates dropped wherever he came to preach and huge numbers of people gave up alcohol. Pubs, hotels and inns all over the country reported major losses in trade. And the movement spread. Soon cities in England were holding revivalist meetings and religious fervour even spread across the Atlantic to the United States of America.

Of course, it could not last. A movement like the 1904 revival depended on one man, one individual, for its success. A charismatic leader was essential but by 1906 Roberts was ill. He had, almost literally, worked himself into the ground and duly suffered a physical and emotional breakdown. He went to Leicester to recuperate and in his absence the revivalist movement lost its way and its momentum.

Evan Roberts accepted it as God's way. As he said: "The movement is not of me, it is of God. I would not dare to try to direct it."

Nevertheless, the revival had been an amazing experience for everyone who had seen it or taken part. Evan Roberts lived on for another 45 years, dying on 29 September 1951. His 1904 revival had been, probably, the last great outpouring of Christian values and belief. Who knows when there might be another.

Take a look at the history of religion in Wales on the Wales History website.

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