Time of Refreshing.
It has been estimated that in the hundred years from 1762 to 1862 Wales experienced fifteen significant religious awakenings, some of a local nature and others more widespread in their extent, but each clearly identified and well attested as works of divine origin and inspiration. (see Dr. Eifion Evans, When He Is Come: An Account of the 1858-60 Revival in Wales, chapter 1). It is quite remarkable to consider that this meant a revival occurred every six or seven years on average throughout that period, and that people such as Christmas Evans and his contemporaries, were privileged to spend the whole of their lives in times of spiritual blessings.
Evans, born in 1766 when the great "Methodist" movements associated with Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland were reaching their height, was himself greatly used by God in the frequent visitations which took place in the 1790s, and played an important part in the extension of that work down to his death in 1838.
Life of Hardship.
Evans was born on Christmas day 1766 at Esgaer-waen in Llandysul, [Wales], the son of Samuel and Joanna Evans. His father, who was a shoemaker, died when Christmas was only nine years old and his family had to apply for relief from the parish poor law. As a result Christmas became an apprentice farm labourer, working at first for his uncle who treated him so harshly that Evans later recounted, "You could hardly find a harder man in the whole word."
It was the custom in those days of poverty and hardship for labourers to migrate as the seasons changed, wherever work could be found, and Evans travelled as far as Herefordshire, [England] at harvest time. It was while there that he went to a rowdy fair and lost the sight of his right eye when a youth struck him with a cudgel [club]. Up to that time Evans had experienced little friendship or kindness in his life, but when he returned to Wales in the early 1780s, he took employment on the farm of Rev. David Davies at Castell Hywel and came into contact with other young men in similar circumstances to himself.
Evans began to attend a local chapel and about the same time a spiritual awakening in the Twrgwyn area of Cardiganshire in 1784-5 was deeply affecting many people. Evans recalled later, "We bought Bibles and candles and met together at evening in the barn." Although he had had no previous education, Evans learned to read in Welsh in only a month, and as he often recounted, despite the fact he only had one eye he clearly saw Christ calling him to turn from the lost and dying world before it was too late!
Called to preach.
At the time of his conversion and baptism, Evans was greatly helped by Rev. David Davies whose gifts as a schoolmaster were well-know. Davies taught him English, introduced him to Latin and encouraged him to extend his studies later to Greek, Hebrew and the works of the Puritan divines.
Evans became a member of Aberduar Baptist chapel at Llanybydder and began to preach in the farms and cottages of the Teifi valley, but at first he relied heavily upon memorising the sermons and writings of others. Feeling a deep sense of inadequacy, Evans spent several years delving into the Scriptures and sitting under the ministry of Rev. Timothy Thomas at Aberduar. This helped to free him from the Arminian influences which prevailed in many pulpits at that time. Evans also had the opportunity to hear preachers whose ministry was blessed with much fruit, and to realise what the power of God was accomplishing in revivals at Trecastle in Breconshire in 1786, and Llanbryn-mair in Montgomeryshire in 1787. Of these ministers Evans acknowledged, "I reaped much advantage from hearing them, especially as it regarded my manner of preaching. Their ministry conveyed to me some spiritual taste, which I highly appreciated, and prayed for assistance to retain. Mighty powers accompanied them."
In 1789, Evans was invited to make a preaching tour amongst the Baptists in Lleyn, Caernarvonshire, whose only chapel was Salem with between 60 and 70 members. He was ordained as pastor of Salem and within a year his preaching was inspired with the powerful unction of the Holy Spirit.
Evans testified that, "It was there that the Holy Spirit put the cause of Christ in my heart, till I became distressed for the salvation of souls and the establishment of the Redeemer's kingdom on earth."
So powerful was the work of the Holy Spirit that Evans stated, "A breeze from the new Jerusalem descended upon me and on the people, and many were awakened to eternal life."
Evans was greatly encouraged in his early ministry by the preaching of Rev. Robert Roberts of Clynnog, who was regarded as a worthy successor to Daniel Rowland. Large congregations gathered to hear Roberts proclaiming the gospel with such effect that Evans said it gave him, "confidence in prayer, a care for the cause of Christ, and a new light on the plan of salvation." As a result, Christmas Evans began to extend his own ministry beyond the Lleyn peninsula and in 1791 made a preaching tour along the west coast of Wales as far as Llanelli, during which many conversions were recorded.
A New Work
Although Christmas Evans spent less than three years at Salem, the number of members more than doubled and in addition other Baptist congregations in Lleyn were established and built up. He had married Catherine Jones at Bryncroes chapel in Lleyn in October 1789, but his ministry was not solely confined to Caernarvonshire. At that time there were fewer than ten Baptist chapels in north Wales and Evans frequently travelled, on foot or horseback, to preach to scattered groups in other counties. He was particularly burdened for the cause of the gospel in Anglesey, which he found to be in a state of spiritual dearth, and in 1791 he accepted an invitation to become pastor of a chapel at Llangefni. Thus it was that on Christmas day his twenty-sixth birthday, Evans set off on horseback with his wife riding pillion behind him to make the long journey to Anglesey where God had a new work for him to do.
People in Darkness.
When Christmas Evans moved to Anglesey at the end of 1791, the spiritual condition of that county was amongst the poorest of any part of Wales. As yet the religious awakenings which had been occurring in many other areas of north and west Wales since the 1760s had made little impact on the island which at that time was accessible only by ferry boats crossing the dangerous tidal waters of the Menai Straits. This remoteness tended to isolate the inhabitants of Anglesey who had a reputation for ignorance, immorality and lawless pursuits such as smuggling and piracy. The low state of religion can be gauged from a frequently quoted letter to Rev. Thomas Charles of Bala by Sion Williams in 1799, describing his memories of life in Anglesey before revival began. Williams recorded that the people "...delighted in nothing except empty sports and carnal pleasures, playing with dice and cards, dancing and singing with the harp, playing football, tennis, mock trials and hostages, and many other sinful sports too numerous to be mentioned. They used the Sunday like a market day to gratify every wicked whim and passion; old and young, with no one to persuade or prevent them in their ungodly course. They flocked in crowds to the parish churches on Sunday morning; not to listen to the Word of God, but to devise and relate foolish anecdotes, and to entice each other to drink at the wash-brew house of the devil's market and to arrange places of meeting to decide upon the sports to be engaged in after the evening service."
None of the dissenting causes had been securely established in the county. The Baptists for example had very few chapels there, although small groups met in houses for Sunday worship in several places. There seemed little prospect that they could even open new chapels and support ministers, let alone have any impact on the general mass of the population whose lives seemed devoted to drunkenness and rowdy behaviour which often ended in violence and disorder. Such a daunting prospect did not deter Evans, for although he was still young and inexperienced as a pastor, he was convinced that the spiritual awakening which God had bestowed upon other parts of Wales, was the only true remedy for the sad plight of the people around him.
Time of Planting.
Evans and his wife took charge of the chapel at Cil-dwm in Llangefni and lived in the small cottage attached to it. The chapel provided an income, but Evans spent little of this upon his own comforts, for the cottage with its low roof and bare floors was sparsely furnished to meet his simple needs. Most of his time and resources were expended on visiting the farms, villages and towns of the island, preaching three times every Sunday, holding meetings to set up new chapels and encouraging the small groups of believers who were struggling to call their own pastors. With regular periods of prayer and fasting, Evans laboured for several years and was able to write, "it has pleased the Lord to bless us, to increase our hearers, and to bring many to Christ." As the planting of new churches continued, Evans assumed personal oversight of their development and engaged upon preaching tours throughout Wales to gather financial support for the work. No task was too large or too small for Evans to undertake for the sake of the proclamation of the gospel. In 1794 his contribution to the Baptist Associations annual meeting at Felinfoel established him as one of the denominations leading preachers, while at the same time he and his wife frequently had to sell copies of his pamphlets in order to cover the expenses of his itineraries. After just over ten years the steady growth of the work made it possible to restart the North Wales Baptist Association in Anglesey in 1802, and as a result of his superintendence over the chapels there, Evans was popularly referred to as, "Esgob Mon"—"bishop of Anglesey."
Onset of Error.
The progress made by the Baptist cause in the 1790s was not without its problems and setbacks. In particular the spread of erroneous teachings was damaging in its effects. One of the Baptist leaders who had associated with Christmas Evans was Rev. J. R. Jones of Ramoth chapel who had become affected by Sandemanian ideas. These theories had gained a strong foothold in Scotland and had created division and controversy amongst Welsh Methodists. Their originator, Sandeman, had put forward a theory on justification which reduced it to a mere intellectual assent of Christ's atonement. He had stated, "Everyone who obtains a just notion of the person and work of Christ is justified, and finds peace with God simply by that notion." Such a view completely ignored the need for conviction of sin and for repentance, and put so much emphasis upon human intellect that it inevitably led to arrogance and pride. The heart and will could remain unaffected as long as the mind accepted the idea of Christ as Saviour.
The Sandemanian error opened up the way to all kinds of excesses—some busied themselves with rituals such as washing each others feet, giving a holy kiss, and holding love feasts in order to show conformity to New Testament customs, while others developed a pre-occupation with forms of church government and became intolerant of anyone who disagreed with them. The attraction of the Sandemanian position was its intellectual interpretation of salvation and in 1811 he published a book entitled, "Particular Redemption examined and its content and implications noted." This work presented a view of Christ's atonement in terms of a commercial transaction in which the value of His sacrifice on the cross was exactly equal to the weight of human sin which required cancellation. Such opinions were currently very popular with theologians who saw salvation not as a divine act of grace which was, "vast, unmeasured, boundless and free," but as a transaction which was limited to the number of sins committed by those who were predestined to be saved.
There followed a bitter controversy which wrought havoc, not only amongst the Baptists, but throughout all the denominations and caused grief to many ministers and their congregations.
For Evans the experience proved to be profoundly depressing, yet ultimately very instructive. With great honesty and understanding he wrote of himself, "The Sandemanian heresy affected me so much as to drive away the spirit of prayer for the salvation of sinners." Christmas Evans followed the lead of J. R. Jones for several years, although he later separated from him when Jones broke away from the Baptist cause and set up his own organisation. For Evans, "Lighter matters of the kingdom of God pressed heavier upon my mind than the weightier. The power which gave me zeal and confidence and earnestness in the pulpit for the conversion of souls to Christ was lost. My heart sank within me and I lost the witness of a good conscience. On Sunday night, after I had been fiercely and violently condemning errors, my conscience felt ill at ease, and rebuked me because I had lost communion and fellowship with God, and made me feel that something invaluable was now lost and wanting. I would reply that I acted according to the Word. Still it rebuked me, saying that there was something of inestimable value gone. To a very great degree had I lost the spirit of prayer, and the spirit of preaching."
Restoration and Revival.
Evans had been warned against adopting Sandeman's ideas by many of his friends, including Thomas Jones of Glyn Ceiriog, and in an effort to correct his doctrinal deviations, Evans was recommended to read Andrew Fuller's "The Gospel Worthy of All Acception" and other works by that author. Evans knew his spiritual condition was not right in the sight of God, but he struggled to go on until he experienced such a sense of despair that he threw himself on God's mercy for deliverance. The account which Evans later wrote of how God dealt with him is a stirring testimony of how the Holy Spirit can restore the believer who has wandered away from the Lord:
"I was at last tired and wearied. My coldness of heart towards Christ, His atonement, and the work of His Spirit—coldness of heart in the pulpit, in my secret chamber and study—pained me; especially when I remembered that that heart for fifteen years before had been burning within me, as if I were on the way towards Emmaus with Jesus. A day came at last, a day ever memorable in my life when I was on my way from Dolgellau to Machynlleth. As I climbed up towards Cader Idris, I felt it my duty to pray; though my heart was hard enough and my spirit worldly. After I had commenced praying in the name of Jesus Christ, I could soon feel as if my shackles were falling off, and as if the mountains of snow and ice were quickly melting away. This engendered a hope in my mind for the promise of the Holy Ghost. I felt as if my whole spirit were liberating itself from some great bondage, and as if it were rising up from the grave of a hard winter. My tears profusely flowed, and I was compelled to cry out aloud, and pray for the gracious visitations of God, for the joy of His salvation, and for the divine presence once more in the churches of Anglesey that were under my care. I prayed for all the churches, and for almost all the preachers of Wales by name. The struggle lasted for three hours. It would come over me again and again, like the waves of the sea, like a tide and a strong wind, until my physical power was greatly weakened by weeping and crying. I gave myself up altogether to Christ, body and soul, talents and labour; my life, every day and every hour, and all my cares, I entrusted into the hands of Christ. The road was mountainous and lonely, so that I was altogether left to myself while this was going on. This event caused me to hope for a new revelation of God's goodness towards myself and the churches. And thus the Lord delivered me and the people of Anglesey from being swept away by the evils of Sandemanianism. In the first services I held after this event, I felt as if I had been removed from the cold regions of spiritual ice, into the pleasant lands of the promises of God."
The gratitude to God that Evans felt knew no bounds and made him resolve never to indulge in erroneous and misleading ideas. He recorded:
"I felt great calmness and perfect peace. I had the feelings of a poor man who has just come under the protection of the Royal Family, and has obtained an annual pension for life—the dreadful fear of poverty and want having left his house for ever; I felt the safety and shelter which the little chickens feel under the wings of the hen. This is what it is to abide under the shadow of the Almighty, and to hide under His wings until all dangers are past."
When he resumed his ministry in Anglesey his preaching was blessed with such power that within two years, 1814-15, it was estimated that there were about 600 conversions in the Baptist cause alone. It should also be remembered that the ministry of John Elias was marked with similar blessing in Anglesey amongst the Calvinistic Methodists during this period, and furthermore in 1822 a great revival swept through the whole island when the Holy Spirit mightily used a young minister named Moses Jones.
The remarkable changes in the religious life of Anglesey during the 35 years Evans spent there saw the Baptists open sixteen new chapels, but this placed a heavy responsibility upon him. In 1823 his wife died and since they had no children, he was left to continue alone in his demanding position of spiritual leadership. Feeling, "there was yet more work for me to do in the harvest of the Son of Man," Evans left Anglesey in 1826 and moved to Caerphilly where the membership of his church tripled in two years. He then accepted an invitation to the pastorate of Tabernacle chapel in Cardiff where he ministered from 1828-32. The town's population was expanding rapidly at the time and Evans lived at 44 Caroline Street in an area where this growth was largely concentrated. His preaching still attracted large congregations and he continued to make frequent tours of Wales even after he moved to Caernarvon in 1832.
By this time Evans had remarried and for the remainder of his life he followed his practice of preaching, writing, encouraging and propagating in every way the good news of Christ's redeeming love for sinners. It was while preaching at Swansea in July 1838, that Evans was taken ill and shortly before he died at the house of his friend Daniel Davies, he gave final testimony to God's unfailing goodness and mercy:
"I am leaving you; I have laboured in the sanctuary for 53 years, and my confidence and consolation in this crisis is that I never laboured without blood in the basin [referring to Exodus 12:22]. Preach Christ to the people, brethren. Look at me in my sermons; I am nothing but ruin. But look at me in Christ, and I am heaven and salvation."
Used with permission of Heath Christian Bookshop Charitable Trust, United Kingdom, ©1996.
>> More Christmas Evans