Friday, March 09, 2018

Evan Roberts & the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905: His conversion (?): Part 1 of 22

Evan Roberts and Jessie Penn-Lewis were the central minister and the most influential expositor,[1] respectively, of the Welsh holiness revivalism concentrated from December 1904 to May 1905,[2] co-opting and eclipsing a genuine revival movement in Wales that had already been occurring.  Roberts received infant baptism a few weeks after his birth on June 8, 1878[3] and grew up in the Calvinistic Methodist denomination.  His “name appears in the church roll for the first time in 1893-94” after taking a “preparation class,”[4] but evidence of his own personal conversion is very weak at best.[5]  A minister claimed that he had been the instrument some time after 1898 of Roberts’s “conversion or consecration,”[6] but Roberts himself does not appear to have affirmed that he was born again at that time—indeed, Roberts testified that he was not a Christian until a number of months before the onset of his work of holiness revivalism.[7]  The closest one can come to a testimony of conversion by Roberts appears to be a time when he was “taking steps to enter ministerial training” and seeking to be “baptized with the Spirit.”  Hearing a “voice . . . within his troubled heart” about willingness to receive the Spirit, “he went . . . to the chapel”[8] where a Keswick-style Convention was taking place[9] and at that meeting, affirmed:
What boiled in my bosom was the verse, “For God commendeth his love.”  I fell on my knees with my arms outstretched on the seat before me.  The perspiration poured down my face and my tears streamed quickly until I thought the blood came out.  Mrs. Davies of Mona, Newquay, came to wipe my face, and Magdalen Phillips stood on my right and Maud Davies on my left.  I cried, “Bend Me, Bend Me, Bend Me. . . . OH! OH! OH! . . . After I was bended, a wave of peace and joy filled my bosom.[10]
Roberts affirmed that “Living Energy” came and “invaded his soul, burst all his bonds, and overwhelmed him,” and he gave his testimony at the afternoon service about this experience “as if it were a kind of conversion or new birth”[11] through seeking and receiving Spirit baptism. Through this Keswick-inspired experience, “the blessing . . . [was] borne to Wales from Keswick and the conventions at Llandrindod and Pontypridd.”[12]  Evan Roberts testified that a “living energy or force enter[ed] his bosom till it held his breath and made his legs tremble.”[13]  He took this feeling as evidence that his sins were forgiven and that the spirit which had entered him, hindering his breathing and making his legs wobbly, was the Holy Spirit.  Such “bodily agitations . . . [and] convulsions were the natural and legitimate results of the new birth,”[14] in his view, although his landlady turned him out of the house, having “become afraid of him,” fearing “he was possessed or somewhat mad.”[15]
            Although there are not strong grounds to conclude that Roberts was, at whatever point, genuinely converted, and not just the subject of a variety of powerful religious experiences arising from his flesh or from the devil, at least “ever since he had been filled with the Spirit he had been physically conscious of the Spirit’s prohibitions and commands”[16] in voices and visions.  He “began to have visions”[17] from the time of his Spirit baptism and alleged conversion, so that “it [was] evident that Evan Roberts [was] conscious that he ha[d] received a gift of prophecy through his baptism of the Spirit.”[18]  Roberts’s experiences were comparable to those of “St. Teresa, Jakob Boehme, George Fox, [and] Ignatius Loyola,”[19] having the same sources in the spirit world as such Roman Catholic, theosophist, and Quaker luminaries.

[1]              Of course, other men were involved, such as “W. S. Jones,” who not long before 1904 “had a vision,” after which it “soon became evident that God had chosen him to be the first receiver and transmitter of Holy Spirit baptism.  Around him there gathered a group of young pastors such as Keri Evans, W. W. Lewis and D. Saunders who sought the same experience” (pgs. xvi-xvii, An Instrument of Revival, Jones).  Nevertheless, “Evan Roberts . . . must be placed at the center of events” (Pg. xviii, Ibid.).

[2]              Pg. 65, Voices from the Welsh Revival, 1904-1905, Brynmor P. Jones.  It is worth noting that practically all the resources employed in this study of Roberts, Penn-Lewis, and the Welsh revival are written by men sympathetic or even adulatory of Evan Roberts and Jessie Penn-Lewis and hostile to their critics.  For example, one of the least adulatory and most even-handed writers, J. Vyrnwy Morgan, stated that “he would rather burn . . . [his] manuscript . . . than be the cause of adversely affecting the work of God through Mr. Roberts . . . I have . . . profound regard for Mr. Evan Roberts” (pg. 268, The Welsh Religious Revival, 1904-5:  A Retrospect and a Criticism.  London:  Chapman & Hall, 1909).  Morgan notes:  “The title of this volume should not be taken as implying any hostility to revivals.  Criticism is the science of discrimination, and it is the science upon which this [book] is based” (pg. xi).  Other works cited frequently do not hesitate to attack the character, impugn the motives, and employ other unjustifiable tactics to oppose critics of Roberts, Penn-Lewis, and their ministries.  The intent of these resources was by no means to put Roberts or Penn-Lewis in a bad light.

[3]              Pg. 3, An Instrument of Revival:  The Complete Life of Evan Roberts, 1878-1951, Brynmor Pierce Jones.

[4]              Pg. 5, An Instrument of Revival, Jones.

[5]              Roberts’s very sympathetic biographer B. P. Jones believes that Roberts was converted “[a]t some point” (pg. 5, An Instrument of Revival, Jones) but gives no specific or certain details or words of Roberts himself about this event which Jones affirms took place.  Similarly, S. B. Shaw records Roberts’s birth, youth, and entrance into revivalistic work in the Welsh holiness revival with not a jot or tittle of reference to an experience of personal conversion (pgs. 121-125, The Great Revival in Wales:  Also an Account of the Great Revival in Ireland in 1859, S. B. Shaw.  Chicago, IL:  S. B. Shaw, 1905).  Nor does W. T. Stead record a syllable that recounts a reasonable personal conversion testimony in his account of Evan Roberts’s life (pgs. 41ff., The Revival in the West, W. T. Stead).  Instead, Roberts passes from thinking he is not a Christian to being someone who has visions and encounters with supernatural forces and therefore concludes that he belongs to God.

[6]              Pg. 9, An Instrument of Revival, Jones.

[7]              Pg. 41, The Revival in the West, W. T. Stead.  “[A]ccording to his own account . . . he was not a Christian until little more than fifteen months” before Stead wrote his book in 1904 (Ibid).

[8]              Pg. 24, An Instrument of Revival, Jones.

[9]              Pg. 34, Rent Heavens:  The Welsh Revival of 1904, R. B. Jones, 3rd. ed.  Asheville, NC:  Revival Literature, 1950.

[10]            Pg. 24, An Instrument of Revival, Jones.  Note the discussion by the headmaster of the school where Roberts prepared for the ministry for a few weeks on pgs. 110-112, Psychological Aspects of the Welsh Revival, A. T. Fryer.   Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 19 (December 1905).

[11]            Pgs. 23-24, An Instrument of Revival, Jones.

[12]            Pg. 85, Rent Heavens:  The Welsh Revival of 1904, R. B. Jones, 3rd. ed.  Asheville, NC:  Revival Publications, 1950.

[13]            Pg. 19, Voices from the Welsh Revival, 1904-1905, Brynmor P. Jones.

[14]            Pg. 234, The Welsh Religious Revival, Morgan.

[15]            Pg. 42, The Revival in the West, W. T. Stead.

[16]            Pg. 108, An Instrument of Revival, Jones.

[17]            Pg. 111, Psychological Aspects of the Welsh Revival, A. T. Fryer.   Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 19 (December 1905).

[18]            Pg. 178, The Pentecostals, Hollenweger.

[19]            Pg. 180, The Pentecostals, Hollenweger.


Gary Webb said...

Brother Ross,
Thanks for this information on Evan Roberts.
Once, after preaching on music to a youth group, I was approached by a young person with seemingly serious questions about what I had preached. He did not seem to understand some simple statements based upon God's Word.
The youth pastor at that church was standing nearby & listening as I attempted to answer this young person's questions. He could see that I was having trouble persuading the youth. At that point he said to the young person, "When were you saved?" There was no answer. The youth pastor knew the reason for the youth's questions was that the youth was unconverted. I was immediately enlightened as to why there was a difficulty in the understanding of the youth.
As I read stories of "great Christians of the past" & take note of the unscriptural practices & doctrines, I often wish I could ask them, "When were you saved?" I believe their answer to that question would clear up a lot of questions about why they believed & practiced the way they did. A good example of this would be Charles Finney.

KJB1611 said...

Yes, lack of true conversion is a big problem.

Something I have difficulty in understanding is why people who profess the necessity of conversion will exalt someone like Evan Roberts who did not have any evidence of real conversion (something we will also see in subsequent parts of this series, Lord willing). The only people who should be excited about Evan Roberts are charismatics.

Thanks for the comment.