Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Christmas Evans - A biographical stetch (Part 2)

Christmas Evans - "The One-Eyed Bunyan of Wales"

His call to preach

On the night that he lost an eye, Evans had a vivid dream of judgement day. This gave him a deep concern to preach the Word of God. He first attempted to preach in a Cottage meeting, while still a member of the Presbyterian Church. It is fair to say that his sermon did not go down too well. In fact, it was not even his sermon. He had borrowed it from Bishop Beveridge’s Thesaurus Theologicus. His ruse was spotted by a farmer in the congregation, who just happened to own that very book! Nevertheless, the farmer expressed the hope that Evans had some potential as a preacher, because his ‘prayer was as good as the sermon’. Unbeknown to the farmer, the prayer was not exactly Evans’ own either – it was lifted from a collection of prayers by Griffith Jones of Llanddowror! I can’t be too hard on Christmas Evans at this point. My first attempt at preaching was more than a little reliant on a message that I had just read by Martyn Lloyd-Jones! I even used to begin my early messages with, “Now I would like to draw your attention….”, just like the great man himself.

If we can “fast-forward” about ten years, we can see how God was able to make a powerful preacher of this unpromising young man. The year is 1794. A vast open-air congregation has gathered at Felinfoel near Llanelly. It is the event of the season – the Association meeting. But to everyone’s embarrassment, the preacher for the occasion had not turned up. Various ministers were approached, but all shrank from preaching to thousands at a moment’s notice. Timothy Thomas, the man who baptised Christmas Evans was urged to preach, but he too declined saying, “Ask that one-eyed lad from the north!” (By this time Evans was ministering in Anglesey). As a last resort, the unknown, lanky, badly dressed and disfigured Christmas Evans was pressed into service. The people who saw him ascend to the platform wondered if a mistake had been made. Here was no “big name” preacher, worthy of addressing the great Association.

Some in the congregation even began to wander away, seeking refreshments. Others stayed on, hoping that the preacher would not detain them long. Evans announced his text:

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— (Colossians 1:21 & 22).

He began a little awkwardly, but soon warmed to his theme as the preacher eloquently proclaimed the gospel of reconciliation. Wanderers returned to the congregation and the people were gripped by the one-eyed preacher’s powerful message. Many were moved to tears and some cried out, “Gogoniant!” ­(Glory!) and “Bendigedig!” (Blessed!). They wondered “Who is this preacher?” “Where is he from?”

Christmas Evans had developed a unique imaginative preaching style. His sermons were so full of pictures that he was nick-named “The Bunyan of Wales”. Let me give you one or two excerpts from his sermons,

Here he is preaching on the conversion of Saul of Tarsus,

Saul of Tarsus was once a thriving merchant and an extensive ship owner. He had seven vessels of his own, the names of which were, (1) circumcised the eighth day. (2) of the stock of Israel. (3) of the tribe of Benjamin. (4) a Hebrew of the Hebrews. (5) as touching the law, a Pharisee. (6) concerning zeal, persecuting the church. The seventh was a man of war, with which he once set out from the port of Jerusalem, wel1 supplied with ammunition from the arsenal of the chief priests, with a view to destroy a small port at Damascus. He was wonderfully confident, and breathed out threatenings and slaughter. But he had not got far from port before the Gospel Ship, with Jesus himself as commander on board, hove in sight, and threw such a shell among the merchant fleet that all his ships were instantly on fire. The commotion was tremendous and there was such a volume of smoke that Paul could not see the sun at noon. While the ships were fast sinking, the Gospel commander gave orders that the merchant should be taken on board. 'Saul, Saul, what has become of all thy ships?' 'They are all on fire.' 'What will you do now?' 'Oh, that I may be found in him, not having mine own righteousness which is of the law, but through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.'

Robert Oliver comments dryly, “As a preacher Evans was unique. It would be wrong to imitate his method, although some tried to do so and made themselves look foolish”.

His labours in the ministry

Now I’ll take my finger off the “fast-forward” button, rewind the story to 1790 and consider the beginnings of Christmas Evans’ work in the ministry.

At the tender age of twenty-three, he was urged by several ministers go to the Llyn peninsula as a missionary among the Baptist churches. Off he went to begin his work as a minister of the gospel. But at this point, he was still struggling with doubts about his own spiritual condition. He felt too that something was missing in his preaching. But in the early 1790’s the Lord met with Evans and brought him to full assurance of salvation. He testified,

I then felt that I died to the law, abandoned all hope of preparing myself to apply to the Redeemer, and realised the life of faith and dependence on the righteousness of Christ for my justification.

He began to preach with new power so that in his first year, many people were converted and fifty were baptised. In the second year, eighty converts sought church membership. The theme of his preaching was the mighty, sovereign grace of God in the salvation of sinners. He could say of his preaching,

The eternal power is here, and with one hand it conceals me in the shadow of redeeming mercy, and with the other it points out the glory of the great and wondrous truth that God is once a just God and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus

It was in Llyn that Evans was to find a wife – Catherine Jones. She was, by all accounts a
godly and resourceful woman - and she needed to be, to get by on her husband’s meagre stipend. Evans’ biographer remarks, “it is astonishing what she contrived to make out of oatmeal, buttermilk and potatoes – their staple diet.”

Christmas Evans supervised five preaching places on the rugged peninsula. He would often travel twenty miles on foot on a Sunday and preach in five services. Evans nearly wore himself out with his constant labours. But this did not stop him attempting an arduous preaching tour, walking from Llyn to South Wales. He preached with unusual power in the towns and villages on the way and large crowds would gather to hear him.

Anglesey

In 1792, Evans received “a providential intimation” that he should leave the scene of his labours and move to the island of Anglesey. The Baptist Churches on the heathenish “Dark Isle”, promised him £17 a year for his services. Evans’ salary, which amounted to 33p a week, was never once increased in nearly 34 years of his ministry on the island.

He arrived on Anglesey on a frozen, snowy Christmas Day to take up lodgings in a dilapidated old cottage. The ten congregations he was to serve were in a very poor state. They were divided and demoralised. A previous minister had fallen into open disgrace. The Baptists consequently suffered from a very poor reputation among the islanders. Evans called for a day of prayer and fasting and the Lord began to bless the work. The new minister divided the island into four districts so he could preach regularly for each group of churches. Many were converted and in two years, the ten congregations had become twenty. To fund the building of chapels to house the new fellowships, Evans would undertake preaching tours in South Wales. He believed that the wealthier Churches in the South aught to support poor Christians in the North.

Christmas Evans closely supervised the Baptist work on Anglesey. Co-pastors were appointed to serve in the churches, but they were ultimately accountable to Evans as the senior minister. Some of the churches wanted more independence and a number began to resent Evans’ centralising tendencies. In 1823 his wife Catherine died. In the same year, he suffered from eye trouble and had to spend several months having medical treatment in Aberystwyth. With tensions mounting between Evans and the Baptist congregations, the preacher accepted a call to Caerphilly in South Wales.

Caerphilly Castle

In 1826, aged sixty Evans began a remarkable two-year pastorate in the small, castle-dominated village. Crowds flocked to hear the famous preacher and one hundred and forty members were added to the church. It is reckoned that some of his greatest sermons date from that revival period. But here too, Evans faced difficulties. Maybe the church deacons, who had been used to ruling the roost could not come to terms with their minister’s somewhat autocratic style? Not one to stay where he wasn’t wanted, the preacher accepted a call to Cardiff and spend four years there, accompanied by his second wife, until moving to his final pastorate in Caernarvon in 1838.

Click on the label below for the rest of the series.

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