A brief survey
What happened? There had been a revival in New York in 1857 associated with a man by the name of Jeremiah Lanphier. However, the pioneer of the revival in Wales was a man called Humphrey Jones, from Tre’r-ddol, 9 miles north of Aberystwyth. He had applied for training with the Wesleyan Methodists, but was turned down and went to America. There in 1856, he began a series of what he called “revival meetings”. Then in June 1858, he came back to Wales, to Tre’r-ddol, with the aim of holding “revival meetings” there. In October, a man called Dafydd Morgan, a Calvinistic Methodist preacher heard him preach near Aberystwyth and was convicted of the poverty and inadequacy of his own spiritual life and ministry. A few days later, Dafydd Morgan had a spiritual experience which filled him with new life and new power. The two men began working together holding “revival meetings“ in the Aberystwyth area and throughout Ceredigion.
In 1859, Dafydd Morgan began to preach beyond Ceredigion, in most of Wales, and the revival spread though the whole nation. In 1860, things began to quieten down and came to a close by the end of that year. The revival was really the 1858 to 1860 revival, but it was at its height in 1859.
The main features of the revival
- A strong emphasis on prayer. Many areas experienced revival quite independently of these two men. There were not very many prominent human leaders. It was almost as if there were two revivals – the one begun by Humphrey Jones and carried on by Dafydd Morgan, but side by side with that, there was another revival carried on mainly through prayer meetings. Here was an echo of what was going on in New York with Jeremiah Lanphier. “The means blessed of God to carry on the revival in most places, if not in all, is prayer.” There were prayer meetings in churches and chapels, out on the tops of mountains, in work before a shift began, during the lunch break, underground in the lead mines around Aberystwyth, in the slate quarries in North Wales – even when the men were on strike!
- An awareness of the reality of the presence of God. At their meeting in Llangeitho in August 1859, the Calvinistic Methodists reported on a “triumphant solemnity” there – the two elements together, the sense of triumph and of solemnity, that eternal realities had come into close contact with the people. God was there, in their midst.
- A new spiritual vitality. People’s spiritual life was more vibrant in congregations at large, and among preachers, whose ministry was changed by the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit working in them, using them. This was seen in Dafydd Morgan himself. He was a good, quiet, solid man, not exactly “a ball of fire”, not noted for his preaching gifts. And people were amazed at the change in him: “Dafydd Morgan on fire!” No more ‘going with the flow’.
The results of the revival
- Abundant conversions. The group who were especially changed were the “listeners”, those who would come on a Sunday evening, but were not members, not believers; there were regular attenders, moral people, interested in Christianity, but they did not believe for themselves. They were transformed. But also quite remarkable, dramatic conversions of notorious drunkards, blatant wife beaters, people noted for their immorality and ungodliness, these were also converted, in their droves.
- The effect on society. This spiritual life overflowed into society at large. “It’s a new heaven on the Sabbath and a new earth during the week.” There was a striking decline in the number of criminal cases brought before the courts. There was also a new confidence among the Non-conformists in the chapels.
They were still then not allowed admission to the university! This new confidence became apparent at the elections when more and more people were given the vote, and with the increasing numbers of them became a strong electoral force, voting against the Anglican Tories who were the landowners, who were used to being returned year after year. They flexed their political muscle also in Parliament. In 1881, the Welsh Sunday Closing Act was passed, closing the pubs in Wales on Sundays. There was also an increased desire for a university for the people of Wales, because Oxford and Cambridge were not accessible to Non-conformists. University College of Wales was opened in 1872 in Aberystwyth. The Church of England was disestablished in Wales; the Anglican Church has no more status than any other church in Wales. The heritage of Non-conformist Wales is based on the empowerment granted to the chapels by the 1859 revival.
Comparison with earlier revivals
There were many parallels with the revivals of the 18th century, even with those of the 6th century. And yet there was an awareness from the very beginning that there were certain differences about 1859. Some features were old, but others were new. Several doubts were centred on the theology and methods of Charles Finney. He began holding ‘revivals’ in America in the 1820s and published in 1835 a book called Lectures on Revival. He was responsible for a seismic shift in the way people understood the very nature of revival. He rejected the idea that we are sinners by nature (original sin). As a result, salvation is not a gift freely given by God; we can come to a decision to take hold of salvation ourselves. We have that ability within us. Revival is not a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, wherever, whenever He decides; rather, “It is not a miracle; it is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means”. If you follow the right procedures, you will then get revival.
Among the most important means that Finney recommended was to create some kind of excitement in meetings. People are sluggish by nature, and so it is necessary to excite them to get them to the point to make a decision there and then. That decision to yield to Christ, to “surrender to Him” is evidenced by them coming forward to the front. It is as certain as can be that Humphrey Jones was following Charles Finney’s methods in America. His specific aim in coming back to Wales was “to set Wales on fire”. He began to implement Finney’s methods at Tre’rddol; he would preach an ‘in your face’ sermon, rebuking the congregation. And then: “I would ask if there were any sinners present who desired a place in the prayers of the church and who wished to give themselves to the Saviour; if there were, that they should come forward to the altar”. That was the common expression, the “altar call”, even though there were no altars in the chapels! He would count the people who responded, and record them, just as they did in America.
Dafydd Morgan had his doubts about all this, and so did many other Calvinistic Methodists. But Dafydd Morgan was won over, partly because of his own conviction under Humphrey Jones’s ministry, partly because of Humphrey Jones’s earnestness, zeal and sincerity, and partly because of his seeming success. So Dafydd Morgan adopted and adapted Humphrey Jones’s methods. He would preach and then he would come down from the pulpit into the ‘big seat’ and address the congregation personally and directly and would announce a seiat, a society meeting, immediately after the end of the service. Anybody who wished to yield to Christ was invited to remain behind for that meeting. Sometimes he would invite people by name! He would pray for them and record the numbers in his diary.
- The emotional pressure placed on people to make this public decision. Like Finney, Dafydd Morgan seems to have regarded this decision as the sign of regeneration. This was a declaration that they had been born again. Dozens of people would remain behind, and it was impossible for one man to speak to them all personally in full view of the congregation and give satisfactory counsel to every single one. All too often the counselling did not include any detailed examination of the person’s faith in Christ. It was as if this was taken for granted; their staying behind was taken as a declaration of their faith.
- Specific visible, external acts as proof of new spiritual life. If you now yield to Christ, you must live in a certain way. Not so much a new heart, a new life, but the focus was on visible acts, for example giving up alcohol and swearing, establishing family worship at home – the emphasis was on external actions rather than nurturing a spiritual life. There was the seed of legalism, that there were things you don’t do, and things you must. Many, many were truly converted, but Finney’s methods
that were then adapted by Dafydd Morgan encouraged a ‘dumbing down’ of the new birth; it was a human decision rather than the work of the Spirit; and they encouraged a delusion among individuals who came to the front who assumed that they were born again. It promoted all kinds of difficulties in the churches. Rev Morgan Howells in Newport in the mid 19th century declared that it would have been the greatest mercy if the ship bringing the first copies of Finney’s Lectures on Revival to these shores had sunk in the middle of the Atlantic!
- Dafydd Morgan accepted all those who remained behind for the seiat into church membership immediately. This may well have undermined the long term spiritual health of the chapels. Huge numerical increase in 1859, but with this indiscriminate influx in to the chapels, there was a corresponding decline in their spiritual life and discernment.
- The role of unrestrained rejoicing and singing and jumping up and down and shouting. Should not the Christian when they are stirred to the depths of their being by the glory of God’s grace in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, give some kind of expression to that? This had occurred in previous revivals, but those leaders were aware of the dangers of this enthusiasm. But in 1859, this kind of enthusiastic outburst became the raison d’etre of the revival itself. A tell-tale sign was that quite frequently this outburst came at the very start of the service before anybody had said anything, or just as the preacher gave out his text. It often prevented preaching at all! Something wrong here: it wasn’t the response of the mind and the heart to the Word of God, it was the response of the emotions to the excitement of the occasion. It created the excitement which would bring people into a frame of heart, not a frame of mind, where the preacher could play on their emotions without any problem at all – not always much more than crowd hysteria. Not true of all meetings by any means. Rowland Hill said “I like the fire, but I don’t like the smoke!”
Too much smoke in 1859.
- Humphrey Jones began to prophesy. He claimed that God had given him a revelation that the Holy Spirit would descend in visible form in the Welsh Wesleyan Chapel in Aberystwyth at 11am on a certain day. (But the Holy Spirit does not have a visible form; He is Spirit!) But here was a prophecy from the pioneer of the revival, and the chapel was choc a bloc full of people, full of tension and anticipation – and as the minute hand reached 11 o’clock, nothing happened! This led to Humphrey
Jones having a nervous breakdown and returning to America. This ‘illuminism’ – the claim to have received a revelation from God – was new in Welsh revivals. And it ended in tragedy.
There were new man-centred elements in 1859. They were to become more prominent in 1904. We need to be aware of being so impressed by a person’s spirituality, and apparent success, that we fail to question the Biblical validity of their theology on the one hand and their methods on the other. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a person does not in itself preserve a person from theological error, or going to extremes in some respects. Yes, we need revival. But we should never regard revival naively; we need to assess everything, to weigh everything, in the light of God’s infallible Word. And yet, 1859 also had so much in common with previous revivals. Something undoubtedly happened to Dafydd Morgan to change him as a man and change his ministry, to empower him, for all his mistakes, in his preaching to the eternal benefit of many, many people. Something undoubtedly happened in prayer meetings. Something undoubtedly happened among the slate quarry men of Bethesda.
At the time of the revival Queen Victoria came to see the quarries, and the quarrymen were granted time off work in order for them to have one opportunity to see and honour Her Majesty. Instead of doing so, they took advantage of the holiday to come together in large numbers to hold a prayer meeting. One John Jones remarked in one service, “When the Queen of Great Britain came through Bethesda she didn’t notice our chapel, but when Jesus Christ passed through He turned in here.”
How we need Him to turn in here today. How we need the reality of His presence, the reality of His power, through the Holy Spirit, in our own lives, in our pulpits, in our churches, in our ungodly and unrighteous society. How we need what Thomas Charles Edwards experienced in Bala that June day in 1859: “Eternity came into the service; Heaven came into the place.” How we need the living God in our midst. How we need Jesus Christ not only to pass through, but also to turn in here.