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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 17:30 GMT
A 'spiritual Beckham' centenary
Evan Roberts (post image courtesy National Library of Wales)
Quiet reflection: Evan Roberts said he came face-to-face with God
A religious revival which thrust a pious former coalminer and blacksmith on to the front page of newspapers across the UK 100 years ago is being celebrated.

Evan Roberts was the charismatic leader of the spiritual awakening which saw more than 100,000 people in the industrial valleys of south Wales pledge their faith in Jesus Christ.

The 27-year-old became an instant media celebrity - described as the spiritual David Beckham of his day - during the year-long religious upsurge he inspired, now seen as the birth of the world-wide Pentecostal movement.

Yet the fervour of faith he created - and the occasional gossipy headlines - subsided almost as quickly as it had begun and his work and words remain largely forgotten.

For many, the Welsh-speaking coal-miner's son from Loughor, near Swansea, was the answer to their prayers - a working-class preacher who had emerged from the tough, often dangerous industries of pre-World War One Wales.

Despite working in the mines from the age of 12, and then re-training as a blacksmith, the devout Christian decided he had to preach the word of God.

He was the first charismatic leader of the 20th Century - he also understood the importance of the media in spreading the message
Author Kevin Adams
He began training to become a minister, but one night, after he had been praying about the "failure" of mainstream Christianity, his life was transformed when God came to him in his dreams.

He later said: "I found myself with unspeakable joy and awe in the very presence of the almighty God.

"I was privileged to speak face-to-face with him as man speaks face-to-face with a friend."

Roberts stormed on to the scene as a preacher in the still low-key religious upsurge then taking place in south and west Wales in the spring of 1904.

His fame became such that even a rumour that he was to be at a particular church or chapel would see hundreds of people turn up.

A postcard showing Evan Roberts (courtesy Kevin Adams)
A postcard showing the spiritual star of the 1904 religious revival

Yet his addresses ran contrary to the loud, aggressive sermons of more fire-and-brimstone preachers, as well as the more formal highly-structured delivery of Welsh-language sermonising.

He was quiet, often reflective, and invited the audience to participate, to share their experience of the Holy Spirit.

One onlooker was reported as saying: "He neither preachers nor harangues; he simply talks, pleads, exalts, explains; tells his own story simply and willingly and smilingly invites. He prays with the fervour of a man who is deeply moved."

His style worked. Churches quickly reported an 80,0000 rise in congregations, and thousands more followed as people across the UK and Europe flocked to hear him.

Newspaper readers became avid consumers of stories about him and his friends, and editors soon realised they could boost their sales by carrying daily reports on his exploits.

And the social effects of the religious fervour made itself felt, often in mysterious ways.

The Singing Sisters (postcard courtesy of Kevin Adams)
Three of the "singing sister" who travelled with Roberts

Drunkenness - and beer sales - fell as thousands took the pledge, while the crime rate dipped as people strove to lead a more honest life and repay their debts.

Employers said the quality of men's work went up and even the miners' pit ponies, which dragged coal-laden wagons to the surface, were confused when their usually foul-mouthed handlers stopped using obscene language.

Even the man who was to become arguably the Tony Blair of his day, the Caernarfon MP and future prime minister, Lloyd George, singled him out for praise and the odd photo opportunity.

Young people were particularly attracted to Roberts' preaching style and soon he also had a band of young women devotees, whom newspapers said had fallen under the spell of the "Welsh Wesley".

The journalists who followed him failed to find any evidence of scandal in his relationship with his female fans, but that still did not stop them reporting unfounded speculation that he had become engaged to one of them.

Foundations for American revival

Roberts style of preaching was to become a blueprint for the Pentecostal movement, which today numbers an estimated 115 million people worldwide.

In his day he was a spiritual David Beckham
Writer Kevin Adams
Yet after little more a year in the public eye, he retired, exhausted. The religious revival descended into chaos and acrimony, but by then had laid the foundations stones for a similar upsurge in America a few years later.

He recuperated in England, where he lived for several years before returning to Wales to live quietly in Cardiff, writing poetry in English and Welsh, until his death in 1951. The 72-year-old had never married.

Roberts' year in the spotlight was marked on Wednesday with the launch of two books and a promotional film outlining his life and career.

The Christian ministry, Crusade for World Revival, is behind the re-telling of the story of the 1904 revival and its spiritual star.

Kevin Adams, who researched and wrote all three centenary editions, said Roberts' legacy lives on in Pentecostalism, the world's largest Protestant Christian grouping.

He said: "He was the first charismatic leader of the 20th Century, emphasising the use of spiritual gifts rather simply preaching.

"He also understood the importance of the media in spreading the message, striking up an important relationship with The Western Mail newspaper which carried daily reports of his meetings.

"In his day he was a spiritual David Beckham."

Parishioners fund church
16 Jan 04  |  North East Wales

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