The visit of Evan Roberts and team

The story of the Welsh Revival of 1904/5 is well known and in particular one of the central figures of the revival, and certainly the most famous - Evan Roberts. What may not be particularly well known is that he spent 3 weeks in the middle of the revival to take meetings in Merseyside. I have included this visit in the booklet not so much as one of Merseyside’s revivals, but rather as an account of how the Welsh revival affected Merseyside. The reason for this will become clear later in this chapter.

It was in November 1904 that after a short term of six weeks at Newcastle Emlyn Grammar School he suddenly returned home to Loughor, and there, in his native village on the Glamorgan border, kindled the first spark of the revival which, by the end of February, had set the whole of Glamorgan, Monmouthshire, and East Carmarthenshire ablaze and added 80,000 converts to the churches. Then, suddenly at Neath he withdrew into silence and solitude. This was prior to his visit to Merseyside, which it was said weighed heavily on his mind. For seven days and seven nights he kept to his room, "commanded of the Spirit" to remain mute, and commune with God. Emerging from that retirement, he divested himself of all worldly possessions, sharing his savings, amounting to £350, among a number of churches, and a gift to a fellow student, and travelled to Liverpool in literal obedience to the Divine command to "take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money." It has been estimated that the £350 that he gave away would be the equivalent today of some £36,000.

The visit of Evan Roberts to Merseyside in March/April 1905 came at the invitation of the Liverpool Welsh Free Church Council. In those days Liverpool, Bootle and Crosby had a very large Welsh speaking population, in fact it had a larger Welsh speaking presence than Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham or Newport. The Council had been very thorough in canvassing through the members of the various chapels of every denomination, and the houses in Liverpool and Garston as well as Bootle and Birkenhead and had discovered 30,000 Welsh speakers. Amongst them all there were around 4,000 non-adherents, i.e. who had no chapel or church allegiance. In all 17 meetings were arranged for him in Liverpool, Bootle, Seacombe and Birkenhead. Some of these were arranged specifically for non-adherents, although sadly in all cases many of them were unable to gain admittance to the meetings. This was a very well organised programme and somewhat different to what he had hitherto experienced in South Wales, where he had moved on his own initiative, as led by the Holy Spirit, from one place to another.

The effect of the Welsh Revival on Liverpool

Whilst researching the Liverpool papers for information on the Torrey/Alexander crusade in November 1904/January 1905 I was quite amazed to discover how much publicity the Welsh Revival had attracted in the secular press. This naturally aroused a huge amount of interest all around the country and not least in Merseyside, and especially among the Welsh speaking population. Here is an extract from The Weekly Mercury in January 1905, "The invigorating effect of the revival on the Welsh religious life of Liverpool is perceptible in all directions. In the centre and at both ends of the city densely crowded meetings are held night after night. The proceedings are marked by extraordinary animation." When the visit of Evan Roberts to Merseyside was announced there was naturally a huge interest in the visit, both amongst the Welsh speaking population but also generally in Merseyside, and when he came huge crowds of people would congregate wherever he was to appear just to catch a glimpse of the famous evangelist. Prior to his visit posters of Evan Roberts were to be seen everywhere both in shop windows and in people’s homes.

What should have been a hugely successful campaign, however, and perhaps an extension of the great revival, hitherto experienced in Wales, was disappointingly not the case. As previously mentioned the interest in the visit of Evan Roberts was immense and there was a huge expectancy of what God would do. However prior to the visit there was an unfortunate split in the Presbyterian Church of Wales led by Rev. W O Jones, who formed what was known as The Welsh Free Church, an organisation which soon attracted a large number of dissatisfied Welsh Presbyterians. This resulted in a lot of upset, disagreements, and personal acrimony, which regrettably spilled over into a number of the meetings of the crusade. One minister greatly affected by the split was Rev. Griffiths Ellis of Bootle who had laboured in Bootle all his life and lost 160 members of his congregation, who started a Welsh chapel only 400 yards away. He said that he had experienced a worse bereavement over this than in the death of his eldest daughter.

Evan Roberts was determined to arrive at Lime Street without a penny, as he believed God had directed him to do, but as he as about to leave South Wales he realised that he still had some money in his suit so he gave this to his brother Dan, instructing him to hand this over to an elderly and poor female who lived in the village. He caught the train to Cardiff and then joined his sister Mary Roberts, the soloist Annie Davies, Rev. D M Phillips, and his niece Edith Jones Phillips. Both Rev. Phillips and Evan Roberts stayed with a Mrs Edwards at 1 Ducie Street, Liverpool. Not surprisingly it was not long before their whereabouts became known and a large crowd waited in the street for a glimpse of the Welsh evangelist.

The itinerary arranged for the visit of Evan Roberts was for the following churches and halls. All the services were held in the Welsh language. Space, unfortunately will only allow me to give a very brief account of the meetings held-:

Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Princes Road. (29/3, 8/4, 15/4)

Anfield Road Chapel, opposite Stanley Park. (30/3)

English Primitive Methodist Church Grange Road, Birkenhead. (31/3)

Welsh Wesleyan Chapel, Shaw Street. (1/4)

Toxteth Tabernacle. (3/4)

Welsh Calvinistic Church, Liscard Road, Seacombe. (4/4)

Crescent English Congregational Church, Everton Brow. (5/4)

Stanley Road Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, Bootle. (6/4, 12/4)

Sun Hall, Kensington. (7/4)

Westminster Road Chapel, Kirkdale. (10/4)

Welsh Independent Chapel, Grove Street. (11/4 @ 2.30pm)

Mynydd Zion Welsh Wesleyan Chapel, Princes Avenue. (11/4)

Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, Fitzclarence Street. (13/4)

Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Chatham Street. (14/4)

Brunswick English Wesleyan Chapel, Price Street, Birkenhead. (17/4)

The Mission commences

The inaugural meeting of the crusade was held in the Princes Road C M Chapel. This was often described as the cathedral of Welsh Nonconformity, and stood on the Princes Road Boulevard, an avenue leading to Sefton Park. As with all the meetings they were filled to capacity well before the commencement, in fact none of the venues were sufficiently large enough to cope with the vast crowds that attended. In every case other church buildings were used for overflow meetings, up to as many as six other churches. On each occasion it was not known which of the churches he would actually speak at, this only being known by a few of the organisers. The other church used on the first night was the Mount Zion Wesleyan Chapel close by, and this was also crowded out. The meeting, however, was disappointing with Evan Roberts giving a severe rebuke to the congregation stating that there were in that meeting hundreds of obstacles to the coming of the Spirit, and that there were scores, even hundreds there who during the previous hour had disobeyed the Spirit. He then spoke of how important it was to obey the Holy Spirit at all times. A dozen converts, however, were enrolled at the end of the meeting.

Disappointing as the first meeting was by those who were familiar with the great revival scenes in South Wales, there was a feeling that the revivalist was ‘feeling his way’ and there was a confidence that there would shortly be a repeat of the extraordinary outburst of religious fervour which marked his visits to the towns of Wales. This certainly didn’t arrive at the next meeting in Anfield. At this meeting it was fully two hours before he rose to speak and this again was in the form of another rebuke to the congregation. When the meeting was tested only about four people responded. Three other meetings were held simultaneously with this one in nearby chapels, all of which were crowded.

By the time Evan Roberts visited Birkenhead his name was on everyone’s lips, and there was a widespread disappointment that the mission was not being held in the 16,000 seater Tournament Hall in Edge Lane where the Torrey/Alexander Mission had recently been held, and also that it was not being spoken in English. However, Evan Roberts was clear in the fact that he had come to Merseyside to conduct a mission to the Welsh people in the language they knew best, and also that he had never, apart from rare exceptions held his meetings in anything but places of worship.

At Birkenhead the usual pattern followed with the venue being full well before the meeting commenced, with thousands being turned away. Two other churches were used close by. The meeting was especially lively with scores of young people present from Rhos, aflame with the fire of the revival. The singing, however, was stopped by Roberts who gave a further rebuke to the congregation over unforgiveness amongst some of them. This was followed by frantic prayers all over the building over this issue, with half the congregation in tears, who then tried to start another hymn. Roberts again intervened to state that some of the people were declining to forgive, and that this must be dealt with. The meeting, however, began to improve after that and it finished on a happier note, and many converts were announced.

At Shaw Street, which was one of the meetings for non-adherents, it was clear that nearly all present were chapel goers. It was found that there were hundreds of non-adherents not able to get in, and an appeal was made for some to give up their seats for them, but this fell on deaf ears. At this meeting Roberts stated that there were five people present who were obstacles to the meeting, three of them preachers of the gospel. He said that they were envious of the work going on. This caused some consternation in the meeting. However, when the meeting was tested there was found to be around 70 converts.

At Toxteth Tabernacle the usual scenes were repeated, with the church being full well before commencement and around 3,000/4,000 people outside unable to gain admittance. Three other nearby churches were also crowded. At this meeting a man interrupted the meeting to make reference to the controversy relating to the recent split. Evan Roberts again referred to hindrances in the meeting, and refused to have the meeting tested for converts, so it was closed without this taking place.

At the Seacombe meeting Roberts suddenly stood up and asked the question "where is the mocker tonight?" It later turned out that such a person was present at the meeting, but he left after this pronouncement and then Roberts stated that the meeting was then clear. Only one conversion however was announced that night.

At Everton Brow the church was full at 4.00pm, and six other churches, all in Everton, were also packed. The revivalist was in fine form this night, and it was a sparkling service. Reference to the recent split, however, was made by a young lady, who prayed that the feud would be healed. There were around 16 converts.

The first service at Bootle was a good service, with over 60 converts announced.

Following an invitation to the Liverpool Town Hall, where the Lord Mayor gave him a very cordial welcome to Liverpool, he spoke in the evening at the Sun Hall in Kensington. Although this was not a church, it was never used for anything but religious purposes. The hall seated 6000 people and before the service commenced every inch of standing room in the hall was occupied. This was a meeting especially for young people, and there were about 8000 present. What initially had the appearance of being a promising meeting, however, turned into a fiasco. During the service he stood up and said that there was someone there who was trying to hypnotise him, and he asked the person to leave. Such a person was later found to have been present. Later in the meeting he stated before the congregation that a minister present had been criticising his directive to them to raise their hands in worship. He asked the guilty party to confess and that the meeting could not progress until this had taken place. Nobody responded but then a protest was made by some ministers at this attack on their fellow ministers. This caused Evan Roberts and his team to quickly depart from the building, and soon the end of the meeting.

The following night was a return visit to the Princes Road Church. Some were naturally concerned at how the crusade was going to continue after the painful and dramatic scene that brought the previous evening to such an abrupt termination. However, the night was actually by far the most successful meeting of the crusade with 213 converts announced.

In contrast the meeting the following night in Kirkdale was a heavy and joyless meeting, with the painful church split once again being mentioned in prayer. About a dozen converts were announced.

In the afternoon of April 11th Evan Roberts addressed a meeting for women in Grove Street. He announced at this meeting that there was somebody present who had for some time resisted the call to the mission field. A young lady stood up and confessed that God had called her to the Khassia Hills in Assam but had disobeyed. She then publicly surrendered to God’s call on her life.

The evening service on the same day in Princes Avenue was another painful meeting. In this meeting he announced to the congregation that with regard to ‘The Free Church of the Welsh’ its foundations were not on the Rock. This caused a lot of consternation in the congregation, numbers of whom had supported the crusade from this church. The repercussions from this were far reaching. The revivalist retired from the service bathed in perspiration and somewhat exhausted. Although there were 1200 persons present that night there was not a single convert.

The return to the Stanley Road Church in Bootle the next evening was a much lighter meeting and 24 converts were announced.

What had the appearance of another difficult meeting followed at the church in Fitzgerald Street. Gwilym Hughes described this as the slowest, coldest, and most irresponsive revival congregation that he had ever seen. In the meeting an interrupter denounced Evan Roberts as a deceiver of the nations. He was, however, soon drowned out by the singing of the congregation and Evan Roberts ignored him. Surprisingly the number of converts was announced as 120 persons as the service concluded.

At the meeting in Chatham Street, there were two interruptions. The first was from a Baptist minister from Chester who asked Evan Roberts if he had been reconciled to his brother i.e. Rev. W O Jones, the leader of The Welsh Free Church. The other one was from another Welsh minister who stated that the work was not of the Holy Spirit, but was the work of man. Evan Roberts didn’t speak that night. There were 3 converts.

There was some trepidation at the last Liverpool meeting held again in the Princes Road church, that there would be further interruptions similar to the previous evening. It passed over peaceably, however, and the number of converts was announced as 72 persons.

The final meeting of the crusade was held in Birkenhead. By and large this was a good meeting, with Evan Roberts delivering the longest address during his visit. There were 44 converts at this meeting.

Although the crusade was not the great success that many people had hoped, it was by no means a failure. Gwilym Hughes assessment was as follows – "as to the beneficial effects of the mission, let it suffice that during the three weeks 750 converts were added to the churches; that professed Christians enjoyed a real deepening of the spiritual life; and that numbers untold have been compelled to turn serious thoughts to the great issue of ‘the life beyond.’ Professor David Ben Rees’ assessment was that he left behind on Merseyside, 1) a strong temperance witness which was praised by the Chief Constable of Liverpool, 2) at least the building of one new chapel, i.e. Salem Presbyterian Church of Wales, in Laird Street, Birkenhead, and 3) a stronger Sunday School through the medium of the Welsh Language. The Calvinistic Methodists or the Presbyterian Church of Wales Sunday School on Merseyside gained in that year 606 new scholars as a result of his visit.