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On the wings of a Dove

July 2003 | by Roger Fay

Roger Fay reviews Noel Gibbard’s book on the 1904 Revival

During March 1944, General William Slim’s forces in Burma wrested an 800ft rock called Mandalay Hill from the grip of Japanese soldiers. They defended it to the last man.

Slim visited the scene of battle shortly afterwards. He wrote: ‘Through all this noise and the clatter of men clearing a battlefield, came a strange sound – singing. I followed it.

‘There was General Rees [Major-General Thomas Wynford Rees, Commander of the Indian division], his uniform sweat-soaked and dirty, his distinguishing red scarf rumpled round his neck, his bush hat at a jaunty angle, his arm beating time, surrounded by a group of Assamese soldiers whom he was vigorously leading in the singing of Welsh missionary hymns.

‘The fact that he sang in Welsh and they in Khasi only added to the harmony. I looked on admiringly’ (Defeat into Victory, Reprint Society 1956, p.456).

Here is corroboration, if ever it were needed, of ‘the international effects of the 1904-05 Revival’ – it even echoes in the annals of Britain’s ‘forgotten’ 14th Army!

International impact

Dr Gibbard’s book is an important one. It does for the international impact of the 1904 Welsh Revival what Dr J. Edwin Orr’s book The Second Evangelical Awakening in Britain (Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1949) did for the local effects of the 1859 Revival.

It provides a detailed, place-by-place survey (backed by copious references) of how events associated with Evan Roberts shook churches and communities thousands of miles away from Wales – in places like France, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, the Far East, South Africa and India.

‘The 1904’ influenced Evangelicalism for at least two generations, even though many of its children perished in the trenches of the First World War, prepared for that horrific conflict by a God of sovereign grace.

Doctrinal issues

Gibbard, like Orr, writes as a historian. Clearly, he also writes as a Welshman, but never adulterates his subject with Welsh nationalism. His tone is pre-eminently spiritual.

Nor does he ignore the theological dimensions. But he deals with the doctrinal issues more historically than theologically – issues like the Revival’s relationship to Pentecostalism, the Holiness movement and the Keswick convention.

Gibbard describes the worldwide effects of the 1904 Revival – its intense praying, repentance, weeping and rejoicing – as it swept along through channels carved out by Welsh mission, prayer fellowships and correspondence. In this, the indefatigable Mrs Jessie Penn-Lewis played a major role.

There is no doubt that the 1904 Revival was an international phenomenon. The author ably proves his point.

Events in India

But, one hundred years on, does the historical data reveal the full significance of what happened? The answer is ‘not really’, for revival has not only historical, but theological identity.

Consider the following description of events in India in 1905: ‘The revival spread from Mukti to Poona, Dhond, and even to Telegaon, a hundred miles east of Bombay.

‘At Poona a hundred and twenty girls were described as in a “state of revival”. They were shaking, laughing, agonising in prayer, and many of them had a vision of Jesus…

‘Wednesday, November 30, was the greatest day, and the scenes of the day were simply indescribable. One woman had an awful fight. Itwas a real case of demonical possession. Nothing else explains it. She was tossed here and there, over the seats and on the floor.

‘For a long time the demon refused to depart, but at last after much striving in prayer, in the name of Jesus the demon fled, and the woman had some peace; but not for long.

‘The same thing was repeated four different days … but when the fourth demon was cast out, the woman found peace, and she is still rejoicing with exceeding great joy.’

Evaluating claims

The account continues: ‘When they found peace they would jump up and begin to sing and dance, their faces beaming with the light and radiance of Him who had met and conquered them’ (p.136).

What are we to make of this? Scripture obliges us to evaluate these claims objectively (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Firstly, eyewitness accounts have their limitations. Readers may have read prayer letters affirming, ‘The Holy Spirit came into the meeting; we had great liberty; there was a strong sense of the Lord’s presence, etc.’ – when a more honest account would be, ‘we had a better prayer meeting than usual’!

That there might be unconscious ‘hype’ in eyewitness accounts is surely possible in this fallen world. However, this reviewer is certainly not advocating that ‘the 1904’ is explicable in these terms alone.

Outbreak of demons?

Another factor relevant to our evaluation of the revival is the explanation offered by its leaders for such phenomena. Although Mrs Penn-Lewis and other revival leaders eventually distanced themselves from an aggressive, tongues-speaking Pentecostalism (pp. 186-188) she nevertheless ‘claimed that there was an outbreak of demons “which followed the outpouring of the Spirit of God in Wales”‘.

Dr Gibbard continues: ‘many in Germany believed that the devil had silenced Evan Roberts. This is why she collaborated with Evan Roberts in writing War on the Saints…’

He further avers: ‘the authors were right in calling attention to the spiritual battle raging in heavenly places, but they dwelt so much on this theme that it became an unhealthy preoccupation.

‘They also lost sight of other considerations in dealing with revival, including the sense of the presence of God, conversion and social impact’ (p. 188).

These are significant and perceptive statements, and lead us to ask whether four demons were really cast out of that woman in Poona?

What kind of chemistry?

Pentecostalism and demonology have ‘moved on’ since 1905, of course, and such accretions as the ‘Toronto Blessing’, ‘exorcisms’, visions, laughing and shouting have often been highly suspect.

But what about Pentecostalism’s biblically flawed inception – a matter discussed by Victor Budgenin The Charismatics and the Word of God (Evangelical Press, pp. 184-196)?

Is there, perhaps, an organic relationship between this flawed movement and what happened in India in 1905? What kind of chemistry was really at work in Poona?

We know few of the facts, and should be cautious. Hopefully, the women experienced genuine deliverance from the power of sin, and salvation in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, Dr Gibbard acknowledges that ‘the children of the revival made many mistakes. There were examples of uncontrolled emotion, unwise counselling, and inadequate response to criticism’ (p. 222).

Biblical criteria

But correct as this is, we still need the right biblical criteria by which to apply his caveats and ‘test the spirits’.

In other words, in evaluating the historical events we must reason from valid theological parameters. And if we are to be Evangelicals and not mystics, our authority must be Scripture, not just experience.

The fundamental theological question must be: ‘What is a biblical revival?’ Acts 2 gives the normative answer.

Revival is a surge of life from the Holy Spirit, bringing grace to undeserving sinful people through the faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and ascended. It will bring conviction of sin, regeneration, repentance, faith and love.

Effective preaching

In Old Testament times, the word ‘revival’ (Psalm 85; Habakkuk 3; Ezra 9) strongly implied that, along with the manifestation of God’s overwhelming presence, there was a ‘turning of captivity’, a restoration of Israel’s national integrity, and a purification of temple worship.

Viewed through New Testament eyes, this equates to a powerful and effective preaching of the gospel of grace. Why? Because the city of Zion, the temple (its structure and worship), and the Shekinah glory, all speak of Jesus Christ – both of his glorious person and his saving work.

Only when these are in view – when a revival uplifts him – are we entitled to call it biblical.

Biblical revival will major on the exclusive mediatorship and sovereign grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. For when the Holy Spirit is truly at work, he unerringly glorifies Christ and leads us to do the same (John 16:13-14).

Biblical revival

In short, biblical revival is marked, at least at some significant stage, by faithful proclamation of ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:8).

Judged by these standards, there have been relatively few genuine revivals in church history. Examples would be the movements under the ministry of the Reformers, the Puritans, George Whitfield, Daniel Rowland, Jonathan Edwards and C. H. Spurgeon.

But – and this could apply to 1904 – there have also been revivals where some (though maybe all too few) of these gospel elements have been present, along with an admixture of human error. Yet, in the sovereign mercy and providence of God, there has been powerful blessing from on high.

The ministries of Jonah in Nineveh, of Arminian Methodists in Great Britain and America, and of Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, are cases in point.

Perhaps these imperfect phenomena need their own name to mark their significance – maybe ‘awakening’ would be a better term than revival.

But much more biblical evaluation is needed before we can really grasp what happened in ‘the 1904 Revival’.

On the Wings of the Dove by Noel Gibbard is published by Bryntirion Press (distributed by Evangelical Press). 278 pages, £9.95, ISBN 1-85049-186-0

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Historical