‘Christmas Evans,’ according to an early biographer, ‘was a Paul in labour, a Bunyan in imagination, and a Whitefield in eloquence’. Even today — perhaps because his name and appearance are so easily remembered — some regard him as the Welsh preacher par excellence.
As will become clear, there are reasons to question such an opinion. And yet, 250 years on from his birth, Christmas Evans continues to instruct and challenge us.
He was born into a poor family on Christmas Day 1766 at Tre-groes, near Llandysul, in the former Cardiganshire. It appears that the death of his father in 1775 was a means of first awakening him to the reality of eternity and judgment, and no doubt he received spiritual encouragement from his godly mother.
Through the strange workings of providence, in 1783 a revival occurred at nearby Llwynrhydowen Chapel, whose minister was both an Arminian and an Arian in his theology. It was during this revival that Evans came to faith in Christ, although his understanding of the gospel remained inadequate long afterwards.
A few years later he went as a harvest labourer to Herefordshire. There he was attacked by a gang, resulting in the loss of an eye. Again the hand of providence may be seen: his spiritual life had been in decline, but he now devoted himself more earnestly to declaring the gospel. And his distinctive appearance — a large and ungainly body, and only the one eye, with its particularly piercing gaze — soon drew him to public attention.
North and south
In 1789 he was persuaded by some north Wales Baptists to serve as an itinerant evangelist on the Llŷn peninsula. He exercised a fruitful ministry there until 1791, when he took charge of the Baptist cause throughout Anglesey.
His dramatic preaching, fuelled by his vivid imagination, resulted in many conversions and the building of numerous chapels. (Cildwrn Chapel, his centre of operations, is now the home of Llangefni Welsh Evangelical Church.)
In 1826, aged 60, he moved to Tonyfelin Chapel, Caerffili, where in two years he baptised some 140 new converts. There were also tensions, however, and in 1828 he accepted an invitation to provide urgent assistance to Tabernacl(e) Baptist Chapel in Cardiff. His time here was rather unhappy, partly because of his deteriorating health and quarrels among church leaders. Nevertheless, during his four years’ ministry, 80 were added to the church.
In 1832 he returned to north Wales as minister of Caersalem, Caernarfon. For many years he had undertaken preaching journeys throughout Wales, to collect money to pay off debts on chapel buildings. In 1838 he set off on one more long journey, but was taken ill and died at Swansea.
What of his preaching? There is no doubting his remarkable gifts as a preacher, nor the way he was used by God to spread the gospel. His vibrant, warm-hearted ministry, allied to his unpretentious godliness, frequently overwhelmed his hearers, and his preaching was accompanied by periods of genuine spiritual revival.
Before his time, preaching among the Welsh Baptists had been orthodox but not always particularly passionate. Through the influence of his ministry (and that of others), however, sermons and services became more ‘Methodist’ in their spiritual fervour and warmth.
Something similar occurred among the Independents around the same time. As a result, the foundations were laid of the evangelical Nonconformity that shaped much of Welsh life during the nineteenth century and on (in much decayed form) to the present day.
However, there were also undeniable weaknesses in his preaching. He had a remarkable gift of painting pictures in words; his sermons were full of lively and imaginative illustrations, often extended into dramatic allegories. These might be effective in driving a point home, but at times they could be rather fanciful, to say the least.
Moreover, his calculated use of dramatic techniques encouraged some among the next generation of preachers to descend into shades of theatrical vulgarity in the pulpit with the specific aim of producing startling effects among their hearers.
For most of his ministry Christmas Evans had a firm and vital grasp of gospel truth. At certain stages of his life, however, he was hardly a model of stable theological orthodoxy.
Thomas Jones of Denbigh, Wales’s foremost theologian, claimed that Evans changed his theological views nine times — sometimes admittedly for better rather than for worse. We shall look at some of these fluctuations:
1. He was converted through David Davis, who, as an Arian, denied the deity of Jesus Christ and regarded him as a mere created being. Initially under Davis’s influence, Evans eventually came to embrace a fully trinitarian theology.
2. Davis was also an Arminian, who rejected the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners. Again, Evans was heavily influenced by Davis. Only gradually did he come to a more biblical understanding of man’s inability to save himself and of the absolute necessity of divine grace.
3. Evans took up a thoroughly Calvinistic position, but soon strayed into an excessively mercantile version of it that limited Christ’s sacrifice to the exact equivalent of his people’s sins. Thomas Jones was profoundly disturbed by this. He argued that, while Christ’s atoning death was indeed effective only for believers, it was in itself of infinite value. Evans appeared to retract some of his more extreme statements and Jones believed that they had reached a rapprochement. To Jones’s chagrin, however, Evans shortly afterwards republished his position with no significant amendments.
4. During his ministry on Anglesey, Evans for a time drifted into Sabellianism, failing to acknowledge clearly the three distinct Persons of the Trinity. He was later to argue vigorously against this heresy.
5. Evans’s most notorious wandering was his flirtation with Sandemanianism. This teaching had certain positive aspects: a respect for Scripture, a desire to base church life on the New Testament, and a suspicion of the excessive emotionalism among some Methodists.
However, its core doctrine was that saving faith is mere mental assent to the message of the Bible (shades of the Alpha course?). Its condemnation of all who took a different view resulted in a nit-picking, joyless religion that had no place for the ‘religious affections’.
For some three years Evans actively supported J. R. Jones, leader of the Sandemanian faction among the Welsh Baptists, but he became increasingly aware of a coldness in his heart and a lack of divine unction in his preaching.
He took up a more biblical position concerning the nature of justifying faith, then re-embraced Sandemanianism temporarily, and finally, in dramatic spiritual wrestlings near Cadair Idris, was restored to a vibrant and warm-hearted Christian experience that once more infused his whole ministry.
These wanderings notwithstanding, there is something delightfully winsome about Christmas Evans. His childlike lack of guile and generosity of spirit were an ornament to the gospel he preached and a means of attracting large numbers of friends and supporters.
Despite his renown, he never sought popularity and remained in comparative poverty all his life, without complaint. He was twice married, and both wives were sacrificial in providing practical support. It has to be added, nevertheless, that he was a man of paradoxes. To the exasperation of his friends, his childlikeness could sometimes become childishness, not to mention stubbornness.
He also lacked man-management skills. His ministerial travels, mentioned above, all derived from strained relations within his churches. Although he was not solely responsible for the tensions that arose, he regularly failed to resolve them.
All things considered, Christmas Evans was hardly the Welsh preacher par excellence. There are many others far more worthy of the honour, although none of them would for one moment consider accepting it.
And yet Evans’s genuine zeal for the gospel, arising from ‘a heart swelling with love to God and man’, is undeniable. So too is the power of his gospel preaching, which brought spiritual truths alive to so many and resulted in lasting fruit the length and breadth of Wales. And his sincere desire to lead a godly life, as evidenced in his searching personal covenants with God, stands as an example and challenge to Christians in every generation.
It is easy to point out his flaws and foibles, but here is a man who knew the reality of revival in both his life and ministry. Scripture reminds us that God often chooses and uses what is weak in the eyes of the world in order to shame the wise and the strong.
In today’s chilly spiritual climate, perhaps we would not object too strongly to Christmas Evans’s weaknesses, if only we might also have in our midst just a little of his warmth and zeal. And one thing is certain: we sorely need that powerful anointing of the Holy Spirit that was such an important part of his life and ministry.
Gwyn Davies was a lecturer in church history at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology