Review of Fire in the Thatch by Eifon Evans

Review of Fire in the Thatch by Eifon Evans

Evans, Eifon, Fire in the Thatch. Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1996. 234 pp.

Eifon Evans is well established in the field of revival literature. He is particularly known for his emphasis on revival in his native country, Wales. Previous publications include the following: The Welsh Revival of 1904, Revival Comes to Wales, and The Great Evanglical Awakening in Wales, and articles on revival in several periodicals.

Evans has collected several articles which have been published previously, adding five unpublished articles. There are three articles among the fifteen that are more general, entitled “What is Revival?” and “Why No Revival?,” (which commence and end the studies), and “Revivals: Their Rise, Progress and Achievements.” All the articles except the one on Richard Baxter of Kidderminster have their principle context in Wales. The title has its origin in a statement of the Welsh Puritan, Walter Craddock, concerning the spread of the gospel: “…the gospel has run over the mountains between Breconshire and Monmouthshire, as the fire in the thatch.”1

The author provides an inviting cache of biographical material on Welsh leaders such as Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris, Griffith Jones, David Jones, John Davies, Humphrey Jones, Thomas Charles of Bala, William Williams, and David Morgan, etc. He also shows George Whitefield’s connection with the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists.

In one of the beginning chapters before mentioned (“The Rise, Progress and Achievements of Revival”) Evans gives to the uninitiated as fine an overview of the 18th Century awakening in the UK and America as can be provided in reduced compass. His progression includes sections on 1. Darkness Before Dawn, 2. The Dawn of Revivals, 3. The Progress of Revivals, and, 4. The Fruits of Revival. What is most refreshing is the considerable highlighting of doctrine and preaching.

Illustrative of Evans biographical depictions is the chapter on “Humphrey Jones, the Youngster Who Lit the Fuse.” Born in Wales, Jones had moved to the United States, preaching in the Welsh communities for three years. During his time there he experienced the 1858 Revival which swept the US. He was heavily influenced by Charles Grandison Finney. A brief biographical sketch of Finney is inserted to explain the underpinnings to the type of revival expectations and methodology used by Jones. He returned to Wales “to set Wales ablaze.”2

His ministry, mainly among the Welsh Weslyan Methodists, was well received by many, though quite unusual in style for the larger Welsh mindset. But this changed. Before long Jones lost effectiveness. He resorted to prophesy. He once stated that he had a message from the Lord that “the dawn is about to break…that on a certain day, at eleven in the morning, the Holy Spirit would descend visibly, and the Millennium would then be ushered in.”3 This linking of revival to millennial hopes was akin to Finney. Finney had said, “If the church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years.”4 But, sadly, Jones’ prophecy was not fulfilled and Jones virtually disappeared from any type of leadership in the revival. The work continued however, being a genuine visitation from God, through the more sane David Morgan and others.

The 1859 revival as it touched Wales was greatly used of God, even though the influences in its inception were problematic. Over 100,000 people were converted, most of whom persevered. 5

I had been curious for some time concerning the methods of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists on accessing members into the church. This book answered my questions. I had run across a footnote to this article in another publication recently and had intended to write Evans for information concerning it. The rules and serious questions which new converts went through prompted me to weigh our own church’s procedures. The seiat or society would even examine the convert by interviewing his neighbors to find out if there had been genuine change. I found the process to be far more spiritual and far less mechanical than ours. Though not a perfect fit to our day, we would do well to examine our procedures in light of their approach. Some of the retention of converts, even in the revivals which were not as Word-based (the ’04) could be attributed to a more thorough system of accessing members than most evangelicals implement today.

One can find a great deal of material related to the interplay of emotions and truth in revival from Evans. The man, Griffith Jones, who was so used in the early days of the evangelical revival in Wales overrode emotional excess in revival on several occasions. His actions incited some discussion between revival leaders as to the place of emotions in revival. On October 13th, 1745 the following was recorded by Howell Harris:

“He was offended with the screaming and crying out under the Word. I (Howell Harris) said that I heard Mr. Rowland reproving [those] as cried [out of] themselves, but that many I believe could not help it, and that I had rather see them cry than gape…He said we were charged as going to Quakerism and all errors, and to leave the Bible and to follow our experiences. I said that was not true, but what is the Bible but a dead letter to us till we do experience the work of the Spirit in us, not one of the other separately, but both together.6

This kind of discussion among revival leaders helps me see the always-present nature of this “feelings” issue. The Society meetings and the tone of the Evangelical Awakening in general was one which, in the final place, put the Word above emotions, making the feelings “the handmaiden of truth.” But preaching that does not include the emotions is not revival preaching. As Derek Llwyd Morgan states: ‘It was unusual preaching, rather than ordinary reading, that converted people’ during the Great Awakening. 7

In 1819, revival leader John Elias wrote:

“True religion does not consist in emotions. The passions of many are excited under sermons, without a change of heart! Others may be changed; their hearts broken, conscience tender, sin hated, self loathed, but perhaps without many tears. There is a great difference in the natural temperament of people, which accounts for the difference in their feelings under the Word preached. I confess that if people are easily moved under natural causes, but immovable and unaffected under sermons, it is a very bad sign…”8

One additional reinforcement of a doctrinal issue was important to me, filling in some of the data that I need to buttress my point. I have repeatedly seen that regeneration plays heavily in many of the past revivals, particularly those that were pre-Finney. Evans deals with this in relationship to the Evangelical Awakening by giving some interesting details of such preaching, not only in Whitefield, who was well-known for his new birth emphasis (Whitefield referred to regeneration at least forty-six times in his journals between 1734-44; justification, eight times), but in his contemporaries also. William McCullough had been laboring on regeneration about a year before revival came in Cambuslang; the same was true of James Robe in Kilsyth and Daniel Rowland in Llangeitho. We have been saying and will say many times again that justification and regeneration are not preached as much nor as thoroughly nor in as lively a manner in our needy day.

It is impossible to comment on each article, each of which is a stand-alone piece. However, I do wish to stress again the benefit I received by reviewing the Welsh revival situation in this fashion. I have always appreciated Eifon Evan’s work. There a distinct difference between the way an outsider treats Welsh revivals and the way an insider treats it. Evans is no romantic and often finds fault with certain aspects of the Welsh historical situations, but few will understand it as well as he.

1 Evans, Eifon, Fire in the Thatch. Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1996. p. 10
2 ibid., p. 187.
3 ibid. p. 200. Quoted in J. J. Morgan, Hanes Dafydd Morgan Ysbyty a Diwygiad 59 ([Mold], 1906, pp. 146, 147
4 ibid. p. 201.
5ibid. p. 202. See e.g. Yr Eurgrawn Wesleyaidd, Dec. 1860, 429; Cymru, vol. xiii (1897), 13; Thomas Phillips, op. cit., 135-6; Hugh Jones, op. cit., vol. iii, 987
6ibid. p. 152. Quoted in Tom Benyon, Howell Harris’s Visits to Pembrokeshire, 1966, 5, p. 118, 119.
7 ibid. p. 158. Quoted in Y Diwygiad Mawr, 1981, 39, 38, quoting from Ymddiddanion cyfeillgar rhwng Gwr or Eglwys Loegr, as Ymneillduwr neu Un o’r Grefydd Newydd a elwir Methodistiaid [7]
8 ibid. p. 185