Once on a preaching tour of Anglesey, Robert Roberts was in the town of Amlwch. His preaching was in full flow, gripping the congregation. The presence of God was very real.
A pale-faced youth turned to his friend in awe and whispered, ‘Is he a man or an angel?’ His friend replied, ‘An angel, of course. Did you not know?’
‘No I never knew’, said the other, ‘Dear me, how much better than a man an angel can preach!’
Prisoner of hope
Robert Roberts was born in Llanllyfni on 12 September 1762 and was one of 13 children. He was an able child, learning to read when young. He had a carefree childhood and, although outwardly religious, soon fell in with a bad lot. At 14 he was causing concern to his family, and especially his older brother, John.
But John managed to persuade Robert one day to hear the famous preacher, David Jones of Llangan, who was preaching at Carnarvon. Roberts took along a group of friends, fully intending to cause mischief. They sat along a stone wall as the preacher commenced.
Jones preached on Zechariah 9:12, ‘Turn you to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope’. The effect on Roberts was powerful. He slipped from the wall into a heap on the grass, deeply impressed by the Word.
For the next few days Roberts was under deep spiritual conviction and when finally prompted by his brother admitted to a great change in his life. After a long period of soul-searching, he was able to exclaim, ‘I have come into such a state of mind that “free salvation” has always been the sweetest word I ever heard. Free salvation! May God be praised for ever!’
Roberts, now a new creature in Christ, left the quarry where he had worked and got a job as a farm labourer. He worked hard and, under the influence of a godly farmer, John Richards, grew in grace. He became a member of the local church, Bryn Engan, and spent much time in the fields meditating and praying. He was always present at family worship and at all the church’s meetings.
He had a few serious, near-fatal accidents on the farm and, though he enjoyed the work, his rigorous lifestyle involving long hours praying on cold floors had a long-term detrimental effect on his health.
Even so, his desire to serve God continued to increase. He would often travel in company to Llangeitho to hear the famous Daniel Rowland. He would soak up the great preacher’s sermons, often rewriting them from memory when he got home.
On one occasion one of these written sermons was shown to Rowland by a friend. The great preacher read it over and exclaimed, ‘I have seen many a thief coming to Llangeitho from time to time, but thou art the best of them all!’ Such was the power of Roberts’ memory!
Call to preach
Roberts had been a strong, tall youth, but one day a severe cold got the better of him and developed into a serious condition. This, combined with his sleeping in an outhouse in all weathers, seems to have created a permanent defect in his spine and limbs.
After nine weeks in bed in great pain, he was finally able to get up, but his appearance had changed: his muscles had contracted and his spine was curved. He was several inches shorter than before. Lacking the medical knowledge we have today, he remained deformed for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, his passion for the Lord was unabated.
It was during this period that there was a visitation of God’s Spirit at the Bryn Engan church. Roberts was deeply affected and at many of the meetings could be found weeping and praising God.
At the close of 1787 Roberts was set aside by the church to do some preaching. Due to his illness he had already given up farm work and had been given a small house where he was able to run a school, mostly teaching children to read the Welsh Bible during the day.
By now also he had been married two years and had two small children. The evenings and Sundays were given over to preaching. As he increased in popularity as a preacher, his friends advised him to give up the school and preach full-time.
At the next monthly meeting of the Calvinistic Methodist presbytery, a resolution was passed that Roberts should confine himself to the ministry of the Word. He complied and was released for this task and sent to the chapel house at Clynnog, hence after to be known as Robert Roberts Clynnog.
When one considers his disadvantages — little formal education, crippled with deformity, in constant pain, living in an age of restricted travel and communication — Robert Roberts seems the most unlikely candidate for the pulpit. Yet there was no doubt that God had set him aside for his work.
Whatever Roberts lacked was more than made up for by a warm, passionate heart, commanding voice, good memory, sharp reasoning and an incredible imagination. This latter gift in particular was used and sanctified in his preaching by a powerful anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Although admittedly little known today, Roberts was well acquainted with the famous Daniel Rowland and a significant influence on younger, but better known preachers like John Elias and Christmas Evans. Evans, on hearing Roberts’ preaching and particularly his use of imagination, had his preaching permanently changed.
Roberts’ ministry lasted a mere 15 years, with him dying at the age of 40 in 1802. But those 15 years were the source of blessing to thousands. On one occasion at a service, a certain Richard Bumford, a ringleader of wild games, drunkenness and debauchery, decided to make sport of Roberts. Taking a few companions, he intended creating a disturbance, but was arrested by the preaching, with the hot tears coursing down his cheeks. Humbled and repentant, he gave up his wild ways and became a preacher himself, serving God to the end of his days.
Roberts was once powerfully describing the fight between Christ and the devil at the cross. With vivid imagery he developed the scene of the contest between the two and the congregation became totally wrapped in the preaching.
After holding the people in suspense for some time, he suddenly released the tension by shouting out Christ’s victory: ‘It is finished; I have trodden the winepress alone, and of all the people there was none with me’. He then gave a shout of, ‘Glory be to God’. The congregation responded with one voice, feeling the close presence of God amidst the tears and hallelujahs.
On another occasion, when describing the danger of sin using the analogy of the tide creeping in on a party of men playing on a beach, Roberts cried out, ‘The sea is around you, escape by the tract of sand on your right!’ Such was the impact that a group of sailors present in the meeting jumped up and shouted, ‘The long boat! Take to the long boat!’
The source of his power
It would be quite wrong to think of Roberts as merely an engaging personality with popular oratorical gifts. This was a time when God was graciously blessing Wales with many Spirit-anointed preachers and his ministry took place against the backdrop of ongoing revival in Wales.
Often people who had never met him before were at first contemptuous of the small, crooked figure in the pulpit: he was unimposing to look at and in weakness would often break down under the strain. But, under the unction of God’s Spirit, he was able to soar in the sheer power of his preaching and overcome all reservations.
The real secret of his preaching was his close walk with God. Above everything, he was a man of prayer. An old preacher, John Williams, was once in his company, having witnessed his preaching. He said, ‘Tell me Robert, where did you get that wonderful sermon of yours that is working such havoc in the land?’
His answer was, ‘Come here, John’. Roberts took him into a small parlour and pointed to the floor. ‘It was here I found that sermon you speak of; on the floor here, all night long, turning backward and forward, with my face sometimes on the earth’.
When I try to visualise that hunchback preacher rolling on an earth floor all night, and then the blessing that God poured out on his short, 15-year ministry, I begin to see why there is such a dearth of powerful preaching in our land today.
How we need to get back to basics: to pray for our preachers, for our churches and for ourselves, that God would give us the same passion, commitment and freeness in prayer as Robert Roberts Clynnog knew.
Stuart Fisher is part of the church leadership at Moordown Baptist Church, Bournemouth