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AT THE HEART OF THE WELSH REVIVAL
Constance L. Maynard
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|AT THE HEART OF THE WELSH REVIVAL|
A REVIVAL in 1905 has to face a very different world of religious thought from that which surrounded the Revival of 1859. Again and again the various phases of Christianity stand on their trial before the world of those who think, and in the forty-five years that have passed between the two visitations both judge and jury, advocates and opponents, have all been silently withdrawn and replaced by others of a different stamp.
In the old days those who thought, whether they were friendly or hostile, agreed in the main on the reality of the phenomena, though (as in the days of Our Lord) some ascribed them to the forces above us, and some to the forces below. But now both enthusiastic praise and violent abuse have sunk down into quiet, and we tend to adopt the attitude of spectators rather than of those who are called to take sides in a pressing decision and an active conflict. The respectful attitude of the Press, as showing the temper of a nation educated by Professor James and others, is most marked, and even notices of a somewhat contemptuous nature take their colour only on the ground of the dominance of the motional over the rational to a degree that is thought to be harmful to the subtle poise of our nature, and bound to produce reaction.
Which mental position is the better for the thinking world to adopt, it is not for a single mind to determine; for though the attitude of the spectator is tolerant and patient, and worthy of those who see over the heads of their immediate contemporaries into the general course of history, and know that “Beyond the hills again there are people,” its very tolerance and patience bring a difficulty, that no active opposition can equal, to those who feel that it is indeed a Holy War and that sides must be taken in good earnest. To a keen combatant nothing is so baffling as this tone of calm superiority and judicial temper; and for ourselves, if there be really a right and a wrong in the matter, we may lose grievously before we are fully aware that there is anything to lose. One may look on with absorbing interest at such a spectacle, but the very interest lessens the power of action, and we may awake, too late, to the solemn fact that it is the will as well as the judgment that should have been at work. The critical temper, in its true work of appreciating the good and testing the doubtful, is an excellent product of our age but the time comes when the decision must be taken and the course of action followed.
With these thoughts in mind some may, perhaps, be interested in hearing of a visit of three days to South Wales, undertaken in order to get a first-hand glimpse of the work of the Revival. It was in some respects unfortunately timed, as the Mission of the young Revivalist, Evan Roberts, to Swansea was just over, and he was preaching in scattered villages round, in square massive stone chapels remote in place along the bleak hillsides, and possibly yet more remote in thought from the accustomed ranges of our interest.
It was Friday, January the 6th, when I set out from Swansea to find the chapel called Carmel in the small and widely scattered village of Llansamlet. The tramcar set me down at Morristown, a place black and desolate with the furnaces and gaunt machinery and heaps of refuse that accompany mines, and with over two miles to walk along a road that led uphill to my destination. The road could scarcely have been less inviting, with its parallel lines of black mud, but I started on the track, and after awhile fell in with a comfortably clad motherly woman, who seemed to be saying good-bye to her friends at the door of a small house, where all were talking Welsh with great rapidity. Just as I came by she finally turned from them and began to walk along the road, and so, seeing we two were alone, I made the excuse of addressing her by asking how far it was to the chapel. She turned to me a sweet if rather world-wearied face, and in the refined timid accents of one to whom English is an acquired tongue, gave what information she could, and asked me if it was Evan Roberts I wished to hear. On learning that it was, she told me in a gentle, detached sort of way that she was his mother and that they lived at Loughor; and there the conversation might have dropped for all she desired to tell. To me it seemed an honour to be admitted thus in the first hour into the silent heart of things, and to be allowed to look into those twilight caves where the immature soul dwells during its long solitary preparation; and so there was silence between us for a while. But a mile of muddy road means a full twenty minutes in time, and in isolated sentences and gentle tones she began to speak and tell me of her son.
“Yes; he was always good. Yes; he gave his heart to the Lord when he was but a little child; and he was good, always good. He prayed a great deal; he prayed in the early mornings, very early. He had to get up at five, but he would pray hours before that. When he came in from his work he would wash himself, and then he would go to the chapel, to the Sunday-school, to the Young Men’s Meeting, to the singing, to whatever there was. Then he would come home and go to bed early; and then he would wake very early and pray. It was last September the Lord called him to speak. He is very quiet. He did not want to speak. He is not old. He will be twenty-seven in June next. The Lord called him. He saw a vision of the chapel and the young people sitting just as he always saw them sitting, and he saw himself speaking. He was not disobedient. He tried never to disobey. He had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit five months before. He knew it. There was no doubt about it in his mind; so he went. He obeyed when he was told to do it and the blessing of the Lord does seem to be with the words he speaks. The young people at the chapel at Loughor were converted, and now it is others too. And he still prays just the same. Very early in the morning it is that he prays.”
Aloof and apart, and as if looking on it from another world, she spoke very gently, sometimes saying: “I wish I had the English better.” But an abrupt end came at the door of the cottage where she was evidently expected, and where a torrent of Welsh greetings awaited her. She turned to give me a friendly nod and say: “It is yet a mile,” and I trudged on alone up the steep hillside. Gardenless, bleak, low cottages, very few trees, poor-looking hedges, fields unkempt and bare under a grey sky, everything presented the strongest contrast to beautiful bowery Sussex, and I thought the world of Nature looked harsh and unfriendly. But the spiritual world was all alive; for groups of eager people began to overtake me, and I knew the goal was near. It was now close upon 1 o’clock. The meeting was to begin at 2.30, but the chapel was already filling fast. A comfortable seat was offered me; the rest of the audience was soon wedged in tight, till there was no more room either for sitting or standing, and about 1.15 the service began in a wholly informal manner. It was all in Welsh; guttural sounds of fiercely energetic prayer, calmer sounds of Bible verses read aloud or quoted, and wonderful singing, prompt, tuneful, and exceedingly loud. Again and again came the choruses — some of old well-known hymns and some new — repeated with piercing intensity that swallowed up all else into a storm of vibrating sound. There was too much of it for my taste, breaking in as it did on the prayers; but now and then it was exquisitely sweet, arising from some corner of the building and gathering volume as it rolled along. The whole meeting went on as if there were no audience at all, but every one was alone with God. A man would start praying, and a minute later another would begin, and both would go on with closed eyes and uplifted hands, regardless of a third who began to read a few verses of the Bible, or even of the singing which entirely drowned their voices. At 2.45 Evan Roberts came in, young, slight, quick and noiseless in his movements, and took his seat unobtrusively in the back of the wide pulpit. No one seemed to observe him, and the course of the meeting did not swerve for a good ten minutes or more. Then, in a comparative lull, a Mr. McTaggart rose, tall, thin, and white-haired, and spoke in English very sympathetically, with a cultivated voice and manner accustomed to command. He told us the best work was always done quietly alone with God, and that it was to Him we must speak and not to man, and that His presence threw all others in the shade. He sat down and the uproar began again, till the very walls seemed to thrill with the singing. One woman prayed with a sobbing catch in her voice that was dreadful to hear. She seemed to be confessing her sins, and she reached at last a kind of whispered scream that one could hardly bear. Another woman gave a long sentence at a time, a piercing torrent of words like a question, and then answered herself with a long-drawn trembling sound, “Oh — h, I’ll do it.” Whether this was really English, or whether it was the chance resemblance of the sound of some Welsh word I could not make out, but this plangent Litany continued long, and its shuddering sigh of a refrain was repeated to my ears over a dozen times before the ever-ready singing burst out again and swallowed it up. Evan Roberts did nothing all this time. Once or twice he stood up as if to speak, but no gap was made for him and he sat down again, and appeared to be listening attentively. After an hour a tall, fresh-faced young fellow in a new overcoat stood up in front of the gallery and spoke for two or three minutes. Evan Roberts rose and interrupted him with a question, and there was a sudden slight response from the audience generally, and some other lads nudged the speaker as though to say, “One for you!” And after this it was like a conversation, the fresh young fellow holding his ground in some kind of friendly argument. But it was 4 o’clock now, and the twilight was falling, so I left.
The second glimpse was on Sunday, January the 8th, when at 4.15 I found myself, after some patient searching, outside the chapel of Llwynbrwdraw, six miles out of Swansea. The regular service was to begin at 6.30, but the people were collecting fast, and a very large number were eventually left outside, if one might judge from their shouts and singing. Fourteen miners, they told me, had walked the ten miles from Caermarthen, and intended to walk the ten miles back at night when service was over. The prayers began informally, as before, and again it was all in Welsh, but it did not at first seem to have the heart in it that we had left at Llansamlet. Prayer followed prayer promptly, often two speaking at once, the women especially following on with such incredible rapidity that one would hardly think human lips and breath were constructed to speak so fast. It was one rattle of vocables, sometimes rising to a sustained shrillness painful to hear. The men, who outnumbered the women by at least four to one, were a little less distressing, though their extreme loudness and the sway and hoarse song of their voices made it desirable not to be too near them. But the singing was even more extraordinary than that which I had heard before, the bass and tenor voices closing in a flood over the powerful sopranos, and making a thunderous body of sound that thrilled the very walls of the building. For the more regular hymns that were definitely given out, the precentor of the chapel proved a most able conductor, swaying his hymn-book gently to and fro; and the obedience of the audience was so perfect it was to me as if he produced the sounds by the motion of his book, making them dwell on a single note as long as he would, and ending up true and clear. Think of the congregations of our Sussex villages singing like that! It you would have this magnificent singing you must put up with the corresponding prayers that we find so painful, the emotional sing-song and rhythm that they call the “hwyll,” and consider to be the outer manifestation of the voice of the Spirit of God. Both are untutored save by the custom of previous generations, and both are now the natural expression of their feelings.
At 6.15 Evan Roberts came in. At Llansamlet he had stood with his back to the light, so that I could take note of nothing save that his voice was very clear; but now the shadeless incandescent light fell upon him as he leaned in silence over the great Bible, and looked steadily up and down from the lads, standing in close rows in the galleries, to the densely crowded floor of men and women below him, while the singing went on, rising again and again in different parts of the building. Shall I attempt to describe him? He is pale and wan, and not so strong as he is sensitive and responsive. He has a momentary smile that is more than happy — it is downright merry, and it lasts but the fraction of a second and is gone again, like a pebble thrown into a clear pond. His eyes are purity itself, and that always means a dash of the severe, and yet his look is so appealing that any “warn off” is absolutely unconscious, and all his intention is to draw people towards goodness and love. “And Jesus, looking upon him, loved him “was the impression given as those earnest eyes were fixed upon us, with their gentle pervading solemnity. He is a strange offshoot from these rough mining districts. I looked at the men around me, mostly short of stature, some with broad shoulders, close-cropped heads, thick skins, and hard-set, bull-dog faces; and among them rises this slender stem, this shoot from another world, so easily to be trampled down, or ignored, yet holding them still hour by hour with a command of which they knew nothing before. Here is a thin line, a thread of communion with God, a flame pointing upward to Eternity and Perfection, amid the most sordid earthliness of human conditions that it is possible to think of.
Yet he belongs here. The pure red fire has no innate likeness to the solid block of coal, yet the two live together in harmony, as we all know. He is their own, their very own. From this race he springs, in the miner’s cottage he was born, and the coal-pit has nurtured him; he is their making, their property. Suddenly I felt I ought hardly to be there. We from another life are intruders on ground not our own; leave him, leave him to the rough solitudes, the extreme contrast between heaven and earth that has brought him thus far. The God Who made his spirit and also his conditions is to be trusted. There are plenty of miracles like this in the physical world. Out of darkness and masses of water-logged leaves at the bottom of an ancient moat, out of dim regions where only the mud-carp live and the black water-snails glide, and where everything is coated and furred with slime, springs the bud of the white water-lily. Drawn upward by the sun, it feels its way slowly to the light through eight or ten feet of stagnant water, and it holds itself firmly shut, in resistant tenacity of purpose, to every surrounding influence. It is deaf and blind to every thought but one, and that is to reach the surface and to begin a new type of life. Thus tightly packed together, it gropes its way upward, building up its stem inch by inch out of its unlikely surroundings. One day it actually attains its object, and all that has been so silent and secret, a hope and a vision to be hidden away or spoken of with bated breath, becomes known to all, a matter for the gladness of victory. The root of the plant remains anchored in the darkness below, but its blossom reaches a new element, where every influence is not an enemy but a friend, and it may open safely. Here are gentle airs and bright dews, and there far away, but yet near, is the sun. “Does he care for me?” says the lily. “Every one of my stamens has its shadow, every infinitesimal grain of my pollen can ripen in its beams, so can I doubt it? I am satisfied. I am his and he is mine.” Is it any wonder after this long repression and then this “welcome home” to air and freedom and the companionship of the sun himself, that the heart of the flower springs out into a blaze of whiteness and gold? — whiteness that no human hand must touch, gold so tender and loose that it can only be offered in silence to the blue heavens above.
Such may be the history of the heart. In one sense it is a miracle, in another it is but the natural outcome of persistent seeking after God. If God exists, if He is what He says He is, the God of character; if Jesus is His true and rightful exponent, the manifestation of the infinite under the bondage of time and space; and if this embodied Sun of Righteousness is indeed shining in our skies, then to attain to the sight of Him necessarily must produce purity of character, and conduct fashioned by another standard than the sordid course of this world. Almost all of us are groping at various stages, but some few have done with the groping, and have come out into the free air and light beyond, and these attract all eyes. They cannot help it. There they are and evasion is not possible. To take three hours or four hours a day for secret prayer, to take them in the early morning “while yet the heavens by the sun’s team untrod have took no print of the approaching light” — this is the kind of persistent groping that at last reaches the top, and breaks out into a radiant blossom of self-forgetting happiness. After that the commission to speak and the wonderful effect of the words is but a secondary thing and a natural consequence, and those of us who have not tried the preliminary groping need not criticise the result.
But we must come down from heaven to earth, and the very tangible earth of a crowded Welsh chapel, lit by glaring white lights, and filled by the clear voice of an earnest speaker. In the mouths of most the language is full of ‘gi’ and ‘ch’ to English ears, but with his exceedingly distinct articulation it seemed to abound in “r’s” and in clearly defined vowels. He had spoken thus for nearly an hour when I began to get restless to know the subject of discourse, and so whispered at a venture to a girl beside me, “Can you tell me what he is saying?” She had been singing a piercing but true alto, and now turned on me a pair of burning Celtic eyes and replied; “He says that if we would have Jesus save us, we must save ourselves first. He says that we must do all that we know is right, first. He says that we must leave off the drink and all that is bad; he says that we must pray and we must work, we must work hard. He says if Jesus Christ is to save us we must work along with Him, side by side, or, he says, the saving will never be done.” Ten minutes more passed, and then more markedly came that fast-flying smile, and the girl beside me gave a sudden responsive chuckle, as did many others in the congregation. “What is it now?” I asked. “He says that if once we begin really to pray, to do it properly, there is enough to pray about to go on praying for a week without stopping!” Another ten minutes and there seemed to be some kind of anecdote, and I caught the single word “gipsy” three or four times. “What is it now, please?” I asked. “Oh, he tells that one evening at home at Loughor he went to post some letters, and a poor ragged gipsy woman said ‘Good evening, sir.’ He could not bear that she should call him ‘sir,’ and he wished to say ‘Good evening, madam.’ At that moment, he says, the love of God filled his heart as it had never done before, and now he says he Wants to love the whole world.” A few minutes more went by, and again came a quick smile and an even louder responsive murmur from the audience. This time the girl turned her emotional eyes upon me of her own accord and said: “And now he says that if any one is doing the Will of God he feels as if they were his own father and mother. He loves them like that. He said just now that he thought he must have a million brothers, and that is a large family! He says we cannot help loving people, everybody, everybody, if we are right with God.” I thanked her; but now we had been in the chapel for over four hours, and there seemed no particular prospect of a close, so slowly and gradually we made our way out through the standing crowd into the refreshing wind of the rough cloudy night.
“He says we must save ourselves first.” Here is indeed a different Gospel from that of 1859. I thought of the hymn beginning “Nothing either great or small,” and how it went on to say “Doing is a deadly thing, doing ends in death”; and I thought of the immense development of ethics since that date, and the increased understanding of the complexities of human nature, and how we have learned at last to work from both ends, as it were — the spiritual and the ethical at once — if we would be successful. Just as we are not pure spirit, so the work of regeneration is not purely spiritual, and disappointment and even despair might be avoided if this could be remembered. It is true that the heavenly seed received into the heart will, of its own nature, bring forth the good fruit, but the analogy fails along the line of the soil, for the active co-operation of the soil is needed at every step or the germinating seed withers, and dies. Even to these remote corners of our land has the fresh aspect of the truth penetrated, and now the message runs: “Rouse yourself, do your best, listen for the voice of God in obvious matters of conduct, and obey, and then He will help you in regions of thought and desire where you are powerless. He is waiting to work a miracle for you, but come and do, do your best, or nothing will be done.”
And something is being done in South Wales. Grim, sordid is the work; drunken, brutal, are the amusements there. To pick up a testimony at random, the Daily Mail of January the 9th has half a column about “Football Ruffians,” telling of bloody fights and disgraceful scenes on the ground, and of animosity running so high that the games had to be stopped by a force of police, as thousands of spectators were cheering on the combatants. This noble game has so degenerated that it has for the present to be abandoned by those who would live the new life. But the rest of the change is all positive. Quarrels are made up, even though of long standing; debts are paid that have been ignored for years; the Union men and the non-Union men, who would not go down the mines in the same cages, will now shake hands; aged parents are being fetched out of the workhouses and established in the homes of married children; and when the judge comes his rounds the cases for trial have decreased in number to one in five or six of the usual tale, and even in some places the white gloves can be given. Here are fruits, solid and ripe and good, that we can all appreciate; and the social problems would be solved were the same spirit to penetrate to every village of our own land. But whence came they? On the Saturday night at half-past nine we heard five hundred men go singing along the wide main street of the busy little town of Neath. Every one of them, they said, had been converted within the last seven weeks, and they walked with arms linked together, ten in a row, singing “All hail the power of Jesu’s Name,” their magnificently blended voices rising higher and ever higher in the solemn refrain “Crown Him Lord of all.” Is there no connection between these two things? no link binding together the clean sheet presented to the magistrate and the singing in the streets? There is truly. The spring of hope, the centre of life, is Christ the Lord; and it is His joy that inspires the songs, and His goodness that is shown amid the hard facts of life. In Him we find a point of unity for the various manifestations. The transitory and the weak will cling round the permanent and the strong, and to some extent clog their action; but a right discernment will show us that the centre is there, and that the elements in it are divine. The true function of criticism should be to separate the essential from the accidental, and if we strip off the strange and sometimes repellent circumstances of the expression of feeling, we shall find the spirit within will stand the tests we offer, and prove itself to be an influence from Heaven.
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