By 1858, preaching in Wales had assumed a mantle of cool respectability, where hearers were more concerned with oratorical style than warm, heart-searching, gospel messages.
Some, however, were troubled at this low ebb, and realised a religious awakening was desperately needed.
In various places, the importance of seeking the Lord in prayer was dawning. A certain D. Evans published a book on revival claiming ‘the prayer meeting must have more attention from God’s people; and the characteristics of their prayers must also change … Christians must also make a personal effort, as well as pray in public’.
Indeed, all the Congregational churches in Monmouthshire resolved to dedicate the first Sunday in August 1858 to a day of prayer, asking that the Holy Spirit would descend and revive the church. Encouragement came from news of the revival being experienced in North American churches.
The concern for revival also spread to North Wales, especially Cardiganshire, which took the lead in the coming months. At Ysbyty Ystwyth and Pontrhydygroes, Humphrey Jones and David Morgan laboured together at united prayer meetings, and over 200 were converted in the last three months of 1858.
By the following February, 400 had been added to one church in Aberystwyth and, by March, 4000 converts were recorded in Cardiganshire alone.
The revival spread further afield, north and south, reaching its peak around the second week of 1860, when the extraordinary effects of the Holy Spirit receded, and the churches’ main task became teaching the 110,000 Welsh converts.
By this time, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) had become the most celebrated preacher in London. His audiences had grown so rapidly that he needed to build a sufficiently large meeting place for his congregation.
This was to be the Metropolitan Tabernacle which opened on 18 March 1861. In the meantime, they met at the Exeter Hall (1855–56), the Music Hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens (1856–59), and then back to the Exeter Hall (December 1859–March 1861).
It was during his time at the Royal Surrey Gardens that Spurgeon made his first visit to Wales. This was to Castleton, between Newport and Cardiff, on Wednesday 20 July 1859. It should be remembered that on 19 June he had just reached 25 years of age!
Spurgeon’s visits to Wales coincided with a period of revival and church building. Besides his main purpose of preaching the gospel as a means of saving sinners, he was also being used to raise funds to help defray the large costs of several new (Baptist) church premises.
At Castleton, money charged for the seats was used to defray the debt on Castleton Baptist Church (New Salem), whose building had just been completed (New Salem was sold in 2001 and its congregation now meet at Gateway Christian Centre, Marshfield).
Spurgeon would customarily take half the offerings, after expenses, for his fledgling Pastors’ College, which he financed privately until 1861. Over his lifetime, this college trained 900 men for the ministry, in whose churches 100,000 were subsequently baptised. Spurgeon only claimed rail fares for himself, received no preaching fee and was usually provided with local hospitality.
The day at Castleton began with a thunderstorm, but was soon sunny and hot. About 6000 people assembled for the morning service at 11.00am, many being miners brought down from the valleys by special trains.
They sat in a semi-circle facing the speaker, who began by entreating their prayers that he ‘may be enabled to preach the gospel with power. You may have men to preach the gospel in Wales in a better manner than I can, but you have no one who can preach a better gospel’.
The text was Matthew 28:5: ‘And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye, for I know that ye seek Jesus which was crucified’. Spurgeon said bad men have always cause to fear, but good men never. Bad men fear an angel, but good men can look the devil in the face. If God be for us, who can be against us?
He then defined those who were seeking Christ with all their hearts like Mary Magdalene, and next sought to allay their fears by reminding them of Christ’s promises.
True seekers must use great effort and emulate the passionate longing of Mary. Some would walk 20 miles each way to hear the gospel. They also seek Christ early, whereas Satan kept prompting ‘tomorrow’.
Some thought themselves not religious enough to seek Christ, but they should go in their rags, just as they are. Sin is the very best livery for the sinner. Some were also fearful that they were not among the elect, or simply had no hope. He urged the people to make the most of this opportunity of salvation, in view of the brief period before they face the judgement seat too.
There was a final prayer and collection; and then the people had a break until the afternoon service, when the text was Revelation 14:1-3.
Spurgeon’s next preaching visit to Wales was on Wednesday 30 May, the following year, at Abercarn (about 10 miles north-west of Newport, in the Ebbw valley). It coincided with the second day of the Baptist Association of South Wales’ annual meeting.
His party stayed at Abercarn Hall with the colliery proprietor and civil engineer, Ebenezer Rogers, with whom he had some connection. Ebenezer’s father was Rev. William Rogers of Dudley (New Street, now Priory Road) Baptist Church.
The field for the preaching services belonged to Mr Rogers and was on the gently sloping hillside close to the station, with a temporary, covered pulpit at the bottom.
About 5000 persons were present for the morning service, many of them miners in black suits with white neck-cloths, and some with long clay pipes.
The atmosphere was rather like a fair-day, with stalls selling gingerbread and ‘many, coloured, suspicious liquids’. Entry was free of charge, but no seats were provided. Spurgeon preached on the woman of Samaria. The retiring collections were, unusually, for Baptist churches in France.
Special trains to Chapel Bridge station were provided for the afternoon 2.00pm service by the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company, with return tickets at single-fare prices. This swelled the audience to about 8000, though one reporter estimated 20,000. Many of these would have been influenced by the Welsh revival throughout the previous year.
At the start of the service, a carriage with four horses and outriders, reportedly that of Lord and Lady Llanover, jostled the congregation to get near the platform. Spurgeon suddenly stepped forward and told them to come no closer, because he did not desire to preach to horses, neither would he have horses for an audience. He had come to preach to men — and four horses and a carriage occupied the space of 50 men.
Carriages belonging to Lord and Lady Tredegar and the Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire had also arrived. The latter invited Spurgeon to come to Pontypool, but Spurgeon told him that regretfully he had full engagements for the next two years.
The congregation solemnly sang the Old Hundredth Psalm by Luther, and then Spurgeon announced his text as John 15:9: ‘As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you; continue ye in my love’.
He said a man once preached in the hearing of Robert Hall, following his grand preface by a poor sermon. ‘Robert Hall said the preface was a pompous introduction to nothing. You’ll not say that of mine, for I shall have no introduction at all, except … if you look all the Scriptures through, although every text is a pearl, I do not hesitate to say there is not one pearl in the entire collection finer or of more value than this. It is truth distilled — sovereign grace brought down to a very small compass’.
He presented two main things in the text, firstly a comparison, then an exhortation. The word ‘as’ had three elements: confirmation, comparison and degree. As surely as the Father loves Christ, so surely does Christ love his people.
God gave Noah the rainbow as a symbol of his love, but that could not be seen every day. We now have a better sign to look up to: Jesus in the bosom of his Father. God has loved the Son without a beginning, and he from eternity knew every one of his people. We were brought to love him, because he loved us.
Spurgeon said he knew of nothing calculated to make the heart happier than the doctrine of election, through Jesus Christ our Lord. If we were different from the world, it was only right to say that God intended to make that difference. He said that, although Puritan divines did not accept ‘as’ in the text indicated the degree of love, he differed from them.
They said we were finite and could not take infinite love, but the question was not what we could take, but what God would give us. He was afraid some of his ‘particular’ Baptist friends were afraid of these doctrines, and did not ‘particularly’ care what they did, but it was a good thing to have some Welshmen in the towns to set them straight!
Spurgeon observed some people claiming to be Christians pulled long faces wherever they went, thinking it wrong to appear happy or pleased. He suspected those who were so afraid of being thought hypocrites that they put on dourness.
He spoke against those who dressed up as ministers, yet whose actions showed they were no different from the world. The Lord would say to them, ‘You lived, traded and cheated like a sinner, and you shall be damned like a sinner too’.
He appealed to those who did not know the Lord as their Saviour, were not convicted of their sin, and had neither sought nor found mercy: ‘Oh! Cast away your good works. Fling them from you, and flee — flee to Jesus Christ. Oh! Remember, your good works will ruin you quite as easily as bad works, if you trust on them.
‘As well might a man try to swim across a river leaning on a mill-stone, as try to go to heaven on good works, or as well try to sail to America on a leaf’.
He addressed those who knew they had no righteousness, and neither had any hope. ‘Oh! Come, come, I beseech you. Stand not back. Come with trembling and humility. You that the devil casts away, come. You, the sweeping and offscouring of the universe, come. You, who are the sons of noble mothers, come.
‘You, whose fathers carried you in their arms to the house of God, come. And I pray the Spirit of God to come. Now you cannot hold back. You must come, if angels held you back. Come, Spirit, come; and bless this assembly, and thine shall be the glory for ever’.
To be continued (in October)
The author is a retired analytical chemist and member of St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff. In 2012 he published Thoughts fixed and affections flaming (Day One) concerning Matthew Henry.