Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The 1859 Revival in Wales (Part 1)

A three-part series based on a talk given at one of our Wednesday evening Prayer Meetings.
2009 is a big year for anniversaries. For many it is the year of Charles Darwin, with 2009 marking the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. The more theologically minded will be aware that 2009 also marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of a certain John Calvin. But now I would like to reflect on another important anniversary – that of the 1859 Revival in Wales. Let me begin by quoting R. S. Thomas’s poem, “The Chapel”. R. S., the somewhat cantankerous Welsh poet, nicknamed the “Ogre of Wales” was a Church in Wales Clergyman. He is reflecting on the decline of “old time religion” in the Land of my Fathers,
A little aside from the main road
becalmed in a last-century greyness
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire,
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
But 150 years ago in February 1859, preachers did catch fire and people were saved – around 110,000 in the space of twelve months. In our days of decline and setbacks we find ourselves wondering,

And shall we then for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great?

We need an encouraging reminder of the great things that the Lord is able to do for his people, Psalm 145:4-7. So let us look at what the Lord did in Wales in 1859. What follows is only a brief sketch of what happened rather than an exhaustive account.

1. “The Low State of Religion”

Wales is sometimes known as the “Land of Revivals”. There is definitely something in that. For a period of 170 years the land of my birth experienced a number of powerful outpourings of the Spirit. It all began in 1735, the year in which Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris were converted, and ended in 1905 as the revival associated with Evan Roberts and others began to peter out. But we must not think that the Welsh churches were in a constant state of revival. They were not. Powerful revivals were followed by periods of decline and deadness. The years before the 1859 were characterised by just a time. The Churches were orthodox. The Calvinistic Methodists held tenaciously to their Confession in the face of growing attacks on the doctrine of Scripture. But church leaders bemoaned, “The inefficiency of the ministry… the low state of religion” and the “hardness of the times”.
In some respects the period before the 1859 Revival mirrors our own. We have many sound churches where the Word of God is preached faithfully. But the spiritual state of the churches is low and we seem to be having little impact on the world. Of course there are differences too. The Christianity is no longer the “default faith” for people in our land as it was in Wales during the Victorian period. We live in an increasingly post-Christian society. We have to face the challenges of religious pluralism and the consumer society. But I think that part of the battle is acknowledging that there is a problem and that we are desperately in need of a fresh outpouring of the Spirit.

2. Hopeful Signs

One of the main instruments of the 1859 Revival was David Morgan. An entry in his diary for 1855 gives us a glimpse into his soul,
"It is a big thing to have a feeling that God would revive His work. Whoever possesses such a feeling will be compelled to do all he can to revive the Lord's work. By reading the history of the Church we find that the great cause fluctuates up and own through the ages, but whenever the Lord draws near to save there was some considerable expectancy amongst the godly for His coming. As well as praying, we should be doing out utmost to revive the work. So did the godly of old; they prayed and they worked." (Revival Comes to Wales, The story on the 1859 Revival in Wales, Eifion Evans, Evangelical Press of Wales p. 25).
Renewed interest in revival was awakened by reports of what had been happening in New York in 1857-58. Businessman Jeremiah Lanphier was deeply concerned about the prevailing spiritual conditions of the day. He wanted others to join him in a lunch time prayer meeting at Foulton Street. He handed out some 20,000 fliers advertising the first noonday prayer meeting on September 23, 1857. For the first thirty minutes he sat alone praying. Eventually, steps were heard coming up the staircase and another joined. Then another and another until Lanphier was joined by five men. The next Wednesday the six increased to twenty. The following week there were 40. Lanphier and the others then decided to meet daily, and within weeks thousands of business leaders were meeting for prayer each day. Before long over 100 churches and public meeting halls were filled with noonday prayer meetings. God moved so powerfully that similar prayer meetings sprang up around the nation.

Lanphier’s Pastor was one James Waddell Alexander. He laid great emphasis on prayer for revival, writing in a tract, Pray for the Spirit, ‘what we especially need is for the whole church to be down on its knees before God.’ The headings give us the gist of his teaching:
1. There is such a thing as the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.
2. The influence of the Spirit of God is exceedingly powerful.
3. The Spirit whom we seek is the Author of Regeneration and Sanctification.
4. The Holy Spirit sends those gifts which are necessary for a successful work.

It is reckoned that tens of thousands of people were converted as a result of those prayer meetings. News of these remarkable events began to filter through to Wales, creating a fresh longing for Revival. D. Evans, a minister from Aberaman published an address that he gave to his congregation on the Foulton Street revival under the heading, The Great Religious Revival in America; Or God’s Triumph over Mammon in the New World in 1858. He concluded,
"In order to be blessed with a similar gracious visitation we must think of and exercise the following things - 1. To repent and be humbled before God because of our sins... 2. The prayer meeting must have more attention from God's people; and the characteristics of their prayers must also change... 3. Christians must also make a personal effort, as well as pray in public... 4. There is every encouragement for God's people in their endeavours, and also for sinners to turn to the Lord." (Revival Comes to Wales, p. 32-33).
Soon revival prayer meeting began to spring up across the land. As Matthew Henry once put it, “Before the Lord does a great work he first sets his people a praying.”

How we need to pray, Isaiah 64:1, Acts 4:29-31. While prayer meetings are neglected and private prayer is simply going through the motions, we cannot expect but little from the Lord. May this report of what the God did in 1859 stir us up to pray for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit.

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