Fire on the Altar by Noel Gibbard

Fire on the Altar is a brief historical account of the 1904-05 Welsh Revival. The Welsh Revival is of particular interest because it is considered by many to be the last great evangelical revival in the Western world. Many today desire and pray for this very kind of revival. So what was it like? Was it a true revival from the Spirit of God or a sham?

Unfortunately Gibbard’s account did not answer these questions. It reads more like a newspaper documentation detailing the where, what and when but seldom dips below the surface. What were the leaders of the Revival, especially Evan Roberts, really like? We discover that he was a recent convert (p. 30), was quite eccentric (pp. 44, 46, 76-80, 85-87, 153) and suffered a nervous breakdown toward the end of the Revival (p. 190), but little more.

What was the theology behind the Revival? Once again we learn some but not enough. There was a blend of liberalism (Henry Drummond), Keswick higher life, Roman Catholic mystics, Pentecostalism, and the Holiness Movement (pp. 167-175), which ultimately led to a triumph for Arminianism (p. 195). But the real particulars are never handled. We do find that some leaders neglected salvation by faith alone (p. 175) and prophecies concerning the return of Christ became popular (pp. 178-179), but what was really preached at these marathon meetings? We are not told.

We do know that a strong link is evident to the Pentecostal Movement which had begun in America at the same time (pp. 32-33, 169-171, 181-184). Roberts, and many others, were constantly being led by visions, dreams and inner voices (pp. 31, 47, 84, 99, 115, 158, 159-164,182, 185, 196). Demonic warfare became prevalent (pp. 153, 174-175, 197-198) and all the supernatural manifestations of Pentecostalism (tongues, healings, etc.) were present. And, as with American Pentecostalism, women played a key role in leadership and preaching (pp. 22, 54, 95, 104, 108).

Was the Welsh Revival a true movement of God or something else? Given the above evidence, the hand of God is hard to discern. It is true that statistically (which is highly disputed and subjective—pp. 150-166) there was a large scale, though short-lived, increase in church membership. Socially, the revival had immediate and powerful influence on the culture for a time, although legalism and judgmentalism crept in (pp. 130, 200). But even the most sympathetic supporters, including Roberts and Jessie Penn-Lewis, believed that the Revival was a mixture of God’s hand and the demonic or, at best, the passions of men (pp. 153, 198).

Overall the Welsh Revival has a highly questionable pedigree. I would certainly not encourage the modern church to look upon it as a model. Let us look to the New Testament for that. As for Fire on the Altar, it could serve as a primer but much more is needed to understand the Welsh Revival.

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