Welsh Pentecostalism

Debate/presentation in the National Assembly for Wales, 25 Nov 2015, concerning Welsh Pentecostalism by Darren Millar, a member of the assembly and an ordained Assembly of God minister.

I’m very grateful for the opportunity to lead this short debate in the Senedd on the topic of Welsh Pentecostalism. This year and next, Pentecostalism in Wales is celebrating some centenary celebrations. In doing so, this branch of Welsh Christianity confirms its place as one of the most significant parts of our Welsh religious heritage. But Welsh Pentecostalism has not just had an impact here in Wales; its influence has been keenly felt worldwide. As Pentecostal history continues to grow and Christianity continues to grow, so too does the importance of our Welsh Pentecostal heritage. Before going any further, I should put on the record that earlier this year, I was ordained as a minister by the Assemblies of God denomination, the largest of the Pentecostal denominations worldwide, and that one of my staff members, Tim Rowlands, is also a minister of the Assemblies of God denomination. So, you can call us both ‘Reverend’ from now on if you want.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘Pentecostalism’, perhaps I should attempt to define it. Pentecostalism is a stream of mainstream Christianity that is Protestant, evangelical, relational and experiential. In more accessible terms, Pentecostals believe: firstly, that salvation comes only through grace and faith in Jesus Christ rather than by our own human efforts; secondly, that they have a faith that is good news and worth sharing with others; thirdly, that everyone can know God and can have a personal relationship with him; and fourthly, that all Christians can experience God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which empowers believers to live the Christian life for themselves. Of course, it is this distinctive that sets Pentecostals apart from other streams of Christianity. It is perhaps because of these beliefs that congregations in Pentecostal churches are generally very lively and exuberant in their worship, and that they reach out so effectively in mission and care for their local communities.

Pentecostalism is so called because it associates itself with the events recorded in the book of Acts of the Apostles, where on the day of Pentecost, some 10 days after Jesus’s ascension into heaven, around 120 disciples experienced an infilling of the Holy Spirit, which fuelled their ministry and birthed the worldwide church that we see today. While the American Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906 is generally considered as the origin of the modern Pentecostal movement, many would argue, myself included, that the 1904 Welsh revival was the catalyst that prepared the way for Pentecostalism to take the world by storm. Interestingly, from its beginnings, Pentecostalism has always been inclusive regarding the role of the women in the church, with some very high-profile women minister such as Maria Woodworth-Etter and Aimee Semple McPherson. Importantly, because of the pioneering role of William J. Seymour, the African-American minister who led the meetings of Azuza Street, Pentecostalism has also managed to successfully build bridges across numerous racial divides. But early Pentecostalism was not embraced by all. Those who experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit were often rejected by the churches they attended, and it is this that caused new denominations to emerge. Thankfully, these divisions did not last long, and now many people in other denominations, including Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists have all embraced the Pentecostal experience for themselves. Such people are often referred to as ‘charismatics’, and from its humble beginnings, Pentecostalism now represents the fastest-growing form of Christianity in the world. One piece of research estimates that one in four of all Christians worldwide are Pentecostal or charismatic, representing 8 per cent of the global population.

As recently as August this year, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stated that engaging with Pentecostalism was especially important, as Pentecostalism has become, and I quote,

‘the second-largest reality in Christianity after the Catholic Church.’

What is fascinating is the part that Wales has to play in this exponential growth, and the role it has played in the past. The influence of the 1904 Welsh revival cannot be underestimated. As a forerunner to global Pentecostalism, the work and ministry of Evan Roberts was significant. Born in 1878 in Loughor, near Swansea, Evan Roberts spent his early adult years as a coal miner. But it was while studying for the ministry in September 1904, at a chapel service in Blaenannerch, that a supernatural experience changed his life. Following this, on Halloween of 1904, at Moriah Chapel in Loughor, Evan Roberts began to hold a series of meetings that ignited a spiritual awakening that spread the length and breadth of the country. Within just two years of those meetings, it’s estimated that 100,000 people were added to the churches and chapels of Wales. Chapels were filled from morning until night, marriages were restored, families were reconciled, long-standing debts were settled, the crime rate plummeted and, in some parts of Wales, judges wore white gloves because there were no cases to try. It’s even reported that pit ponies refused to work as the swear words that used to command them were abandoned by the miners whose conversions caused them to abandon their foul language. One legacy of the revival that continues to feature strongly in our modern culture is the singing of hymns at national rugby matches.

Reports of the awakening in Wales soon spread across the world, both in printed form and by a new wave of converts who became passionate Welsh missionaries. From India to Madagascar, and from China to Patagonia, the stories of Welsh revival burned wherever they were carried, and Evan Roberts himself inspired those who became leaders in the Azusa Street movement, encouraging them in correspondence to seek a similar awakening for themselves. They did, and it led to the Pentecostal revival that has now reached every continent on Earth.

Two of the children of the revival in Wales, as converts are often called, would become pioneers of the worldwide Pentecostal movement. Christmas Day 1904 saw the conversion of Daniel Powell Williams, or D.P. Williams as he is more often known, and this turning point in his life took place under the Ministry of Evan Roberts at Pisgah chapel in Loughor. Following his conversion, D.P. Williams experienced his own personal Pentecost in 1909, and in January of the following year, he joined a small church in Pen-y-groes, south Wales, which was opened by a group of people who’d been impacted by the 1904 revival. Under D.P. Williams’s leadership, in the January of that year, the Apostolic Church in Wales denomination—. In January 1916, rather, the Apostolic Church in Wales denomination was formed, with its headquarters based in Pen-y-groes, which also became home to the first Pentecostal college in the UK. Today, with its headquarters now in London, the Apostolic Church, with more than 15 million members, will be celebrating its hundredth anniversary next year.

A fortnight before the conversion of D.P. Williams, on 20 November 1904, two brothers from Nantyffyllon, Maesteg, Stephen and George Jeffreys, attended a service in Siloh chapel, during which they were both converted. George was just 15 years old at the time and in very poor health. Few could have predicted that he would become, as that prince of Welsh preachers Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones has reckoned, the most outstanding British evangelist of the twentieth century. George was baptised in the Holy Spirit in 1910, during a meeting in Sunderland, and soon gained a reputation as a popular evangelist and preacher. After participating in an international Pentecostal convention in Sunderland in 1913, he took up an invitation to preach in Monaghan, Northern Ireland, and it was during these meetings, in January 1915, 100 years ago this year, at the Temperance Hall in Monaghan, that George Jeffreys formed the Elim Evangelistic Band. A year later, at the site of a former laundry in Hunter Street, Belfast, the first Elim church was opened, and a place for washing clothes became a place for washing souls. Under George’s leadership, the fledgling Elim movement went from strength to strength, with new churches being established in most major cities in the UK, including Cardiff City Temple here in the capital. Elim is now in its centenary year. It’s a denomination of almost 600 churches in the UK, and 9,000 churches worldwide, operating over 40 different nations, founding hospitals, orphanages and schools.

Stephen, George’s brother, went on to become a highly successful evangelist with the Assemblies of God denomination, of which I’m a member. That was formed in 1924. It now has more than 67 million members around the world. So, the three main Pentecostal denominations in the UK all trace a link back to Wales and, as such, we should be doing much more, I believe, to celebrate and profile this rich and unique part of our Christian heritage, including through the Welsh Government’s faith tourism action plan and any other work that is being carried forward from that. After all, it’s a heritage that draws thousands of visitors to our shore every year, many of whom see Wales as something of a spiritual fatherland. But, regrettably, this heritage is sometimes overlooked. Just a few years ago, Pisgah chapel faced demolition, in spite of its association with Evan Roberts, who oversaw its construction, and its being the place where D.P. Williams was converted. And the Bible College of Wales in Swansea, which was established by Rees Howells, and where Pentecostal evangelist Reinhard Bonnke trained for the ministry, was closed, and it faced a very uncertain future. But, thankfully, as a result of the generosity of Cornerstone Community Church in Singapore, both of these important parts of our Chris0tian heritage have now been rescued and restored. A heritage centre has been established also at the Bible College of Wales, which was officially opened by Edwina Hart on behalf of the Welsh Government earlier this year. Its collection includes a commemorative item of the 1904 revival that was kindly donated by the Deputy Presiding Officer.

But the story doesn’t stop there. Here in Wales, Pentecostal churches continue to do great work, with churches running volunteer projects for young people, supporting older people and reaching out to help the vulnerable. There can be no doubt that, without them, many people would be much worse off. Just last week I held a number of meetings with the leader of the Assemblies of God in Great Britain, the Reverend John Partington, to discuss how as a denomination they can improve their impact and engagement in Wales. It was a positive discussion with a sense of purpose for the future. Here in Wales, of course, there are some excellent examples of Pentecostal churches that are adding value to their local communities. From Hope Church in Newtown, led by the AOG area leader in Wales, the Reverend Alan Hewitt, which my colleague and fellow Assembly Member Russell George attends, to North Coast Church in Tywyn, led by the Reverend James Buckley, where I fellowship. Communities of Pentecostal believers are making a real difference and we should do much, much more here as legislators in the Assembly to acknowledge them.

Indeed, I was very pleased to host a visit to North Coast Church in Tywyn with Carl Sargeant, when he was the Minister for Communities and Local Government, and he saw for himself the tremendous work that that church is doing with young people, parents and older people.

To summarise, then, Wales has a very rich Pentecostal heritage that has had an enormous impact on Christianity here in the UK and around the world. We need to do more to protect and commemorate and to celebrate this heritage, and we certainly need to promote it, particularly amongst the hundreds of millions of Pentecostal Christians around the world. We also need to do more to engage with Pentecostal churches and groups in our own constituencies, and to acknowledge the ongoing and positive contribution that they make to the Wales of today. Thank you for listening.

 

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