Calvinistic Methodism and Rock 'n' Roll

Article by   October 2008
Americans occasionally pass through London, and as there is a famine of Presbyterian churches in the Big smoke, they often find their way to our congregation whilst travelling round Scotland, England and France in 3 days!!

After the service I'm often asked, 'where are you from'? I reply 'I'm Welsh', to which they joyfully respond in a broad Tennessee drawl 'I'm Welsh too' as I'm enveloped by a well made up, larger than life lady.  They've never been to Wales, they can't tell me where it is on the map, their parents have not even been to Wales but their great grandfather emigrated from Cardiff to Tennessee.  At this point I smile and say isn't it a small world and we're one big happy family the emphasis being on big!!!

Most of you reading this will wonder whether this is some conspiracy by Derek Thomas to wind up Carl Trueman by posting a review of two 700 page volumes on 'Welsh Cavinistic Fathers.'  I'm all for getting on Trueman's goat and look forward to his responses on the blog.

The two volume work by Morgan and Jones was originally published in 1890. It has been painstakingly translated from the Welsh  ('you have your own language' I can hear my Tennessee friends say - oh how cute!!!) by John Aaron. It has been published as in all things old by the Banner of Truth trust.  It's very well produced but with some extraordinary ugly drawings on the inside cover.  I would have to say that the South Walians were a lot better looking than their North Wales contemporaries.

To understand the importance of this work we need to realise that Wales at the start of the 18th Century was largely pagan and superstitious, it is not an overstatement to say the country was transformed by Calvinistic Methodism.  Since that time although there have been revivals in the 19th century and 1904, Wales has undergone the sharpest decline in church attendance of any country in Europe.

It's impossible to give you a detailed review of over 1600 pages but let me make seven reflections on the work.

1.    Hard Work - The extent to which these men gave themselves to the work is extraordinary. They diligently laboured breaking their strength at times. They saw the urgency of the hour.  They are a model of what Paul describes in 2 Ti 2. They were like soldiers, single minded and determined; they were hard working farmers who received their share of the crop. We are so comfortable and so petrified of becoming burned out that many of us in ministry today aren't putting our shoulder to the plough.  I mean by that Rowland, Harris et al saw the urgency of the gospel. The realities of heaven and hell weighed heavily upon them.  They loved sinners. They had faults but we could do with men who have such a passion for people and the masses. The working classes flocked to hear them.

2.    Powerful preaching and Rock stars - In the UK, a rite of passage for teenagers is the rock festival.  These are three day rock concerts with headline bands and supporting bands, staying in tents - usually they are a mud bath (The Stone roses at Glastonbury 1995 who will ever forget).  The Welsh 18th century equivalent was the communion season which would last for a weekend.  People would walk 30/50 miles to come and hear these men. The biggest name in the land was Daniel Rowland and he would headline communions when he was around, and supporting him would be Harris, Williams (Pantycelyn), Jones (Llangan) and others.  These men were the rock stars of their day (not that you would know that by the dust jacket). Preaching was rock n roll, though of course there's more to it than that.  These men were gifted preachers. To read some of their sermons, see their attention to how the truth was presented so that it would reach out and grab their hearers by the scruff of the neck is remarkable.  The Spirit used their preaching to the conversion of literally thousands.  Preaching is a means of grace and greatly to be treasured, but I wonder if there was too much emphasis on preaching, so that in some ways it became an event in and of itself.  Preaching is a means of grace - it is not grace itself, and it is troubling when the preacher is elevated to a position of great popularity, even celebrity. The fault is not wholly with the men themselves, but there is still danger for us today, such as those churches where the preacher is in his own view and the view of the congregation the only one who really matters. We have celebrity preachers in the reformed world and are our conferences sometimes are in danger of being a little like rock concerts without the sex, drink and drugs.  There is preaching on preaching, there are countless books being produced on preaching - Spirit empowered preaching, applicatory preaching, the preaching of... (you name the figure in church history and there'll be a book on his preaching). We long for powerful preaching which shakes the self confidence out of people, sears consciences and breaks hearts but there's a warning that we can even turn a means of grace into an idol.

3.    The genius of the Experience meeting - Howell Harris was an organiser and administrator par excellence, and with all these hundreds of people being converted he realised there was a need for pastoral care. Thus, 'The experience meeting' was born.  Believers gathered in small groups to encourage, exhort, rebuke and discuss the Lord's dealings with them.  Men were appointed as overseers and divided into areas with superintendants given responsibility. There was danger of introspection and certain dominant people taking over, but Harris trained these men so they became skilful Shepherds of people.  William William's booklet on the experience meeting translated by Bethan Lloyd Jones is worth reading by every minister and elder.

4.    Reluctance to leave the Church of Wales (the established church) - They were pushed before they jumped. The established church couldn't stand the Calvinistic Methodists.  They mistreated them and discriminated against them. Daniel Rowland, probably the finest preacher Europe has ever heard, remained a curate (an Assistant Pastor) to his unconverted uncle and was refused to become the rector many times.  There was a lack of clarity in their Ecclesiology. I'm not sure this was ever resolved, and their decision to become Presbyterians was purely pragmatic.  They lived with a degree of tension on this issue which occasionally bubbled over,  a tension which is not entirely dissimilar to contemporary conservative Anglicanism.

5.    Doctrine of the Covenant - Rowland and others did speak about the covenant of redemption between the members of the Trinity, but how that covenant was worked out in the history of God's people doesn't seem to be a prominent theme in their preaching. I am sure it was there but it didn't affect their church life nor did it effect how they brought up their children. In that sense Presbyterianism never really took root in the hearts of their congregation.  The fact that the Calvinistic Methodists did not have a confession of faith for over a 100 years obviously led to a lack of clarity here.

6.    Giants - Griffith Jones, Thomas Charles - Panycelin and his hymns. I've touched on this above in a negative sense but there is another side to the coin.  They were men who were larger than life. A generation of men arose in the 18th century who were "10 talent" men. Most of us make do with 2 or 3, but there is no doubt that there were a couple of generations of truly great men who were brought together in a relatively small place like Wales and did enormous good. We must thank God for them and pray that God would send us giants, 10 talent men and yet not depend on them nor compare ourselves to them.

7.    Division - Within the 18th century revival there was also division. Sometimes over major issues but in the main over personalities.  Although it never comes out explicitly, there is the implication of  who will be chief in the movement.  From the days of the disciples asking Jesus 'Who is the greatest' that tendency has never left the church and it is still with us today.

So who is going to read 1,500 pages of Welsh Church history?  Probably not my large friends from Tennessee and most certainly not Trueman. For those of us who have an interest in the 18th century, it's vital reading.

It's not in the category of Dallimore on Whitefield or Marsden on Edwards but it's an endless source of illustrations which I plan to inflict on my congregation.  It's a wonderful reminder of what God can do, of how he can use eccentric men to transform a country. It shows us the power of the preached word and how we should pray for preachers today.  It tells us that with great blessing comes great opposition.
John Aaron should be commended for undertaking such a mammoth task in translating this work.

The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, John Morgan, translated by John Aaron. Published by the Banner of Truth


Paul Levy is the Minister of the International Presbyterian Church, London.

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