The Welsh revival: mass hysteria or outpouring of grace?

Next week, I’m off to Wales. First, I’m going to Cwmbran, where something is happening called ‘the Welsh Outpouring’. In April, when a young pastor called Richard Taylor was preaching, the congregation felt filled with the Holy Spirit, there were tears, shouts, groans, and this started to happen every evening. Word got out, congregations swelled, queues formed to get into church, services went deep into the night, and many people were apparently healed from mental or physical complaints. I’m going there with a local GP, who I met at the Hay book festival, who is curious about this outpouring which has helped a lot of local people overcome alcoholism, apparently.

Then I’m going to Ffald-y-Brenin, a Christian retreat in Pembrokeshire, and a place where people have often said they’ve experienced miraculous visitations from the Holy Spirit. It is known as a ‘thin place’ - in Celtic Christianity, there are supposed to be certain places where the border between the sacred and the secular is particularly diaphanous.

Obviously, I feel like a bit of a spiritual tourist. Am I going for my own advancement as a writer, or am I going with a genuinely open heart to see what is ‘out there’? I hope the latter, but as a writer there’s always some ego mixed in.

When writing on religious group psychology, you have to decide how much you should ‘go with it’ and give yourself to the experience, and to what extent you should stay objective and detached. When Jon Ronson, one of my heroes, went on the Alpha course in 2000, he felt he couldn’t switch off his journalistic mind during the Holy Spirit session of the Alpha weekend:

James rests his hand on my shoulder. "Oh Jesus, I pray that Jon will receive Your wonderful spirit. God. Please come and fill Jon with ... " It is not working. The spell has broken. I tell James again that I'm sorry, but I'm a journalist.

I’m also a journalist, although I happen to believe in God and was helped to overcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder through a near-death experience which felt like an experience of grace. So I'm more open to the value of ecstatic experiences. But there are aspects of charismatic Christianity that I find off-putting. When an entire church gets ‘slain’ by the Holy Spirit, when people fall over, roll around on the ground, bark like dogs and so on, is it a visitation by God, an outbreak of mass hysteria, or some kind of learned cultural practice?

When it comes to Welsh religious revivals, Welsh Christians think of them as both a supernatural experience and a learned cultural practice. They are very aware of the history of Welsh revivals, and this knowledge creates expectations of future revivals. Wales is known as ‘the land of revivals’ - previous revivals include a Methodist revival in 1735, when congregations would shake, weep, faint and jump for joy, and a cross-denominational revival in 1859, when historians suggest 100,000 people - a tenth of the population of Wales - converted, and services were so ecstatic that ‘people were carried out of chapel unable to move hand or foot’. Both revivals were intensely musical - hymn-singing plays a central role in Celtic ecstasy.

The most famous Welsh revival was in 1904-5. It was started by a preacher called Joseph Jenkins, after he had a vision of being wrapped in a blue flame. His sermons started to inspire great excitement among his congregation, particularly young women, one of whom followed him home one night, then stood up at church the next day and declared ‘I love Jesus with all my heart’. This set others on fire, and the normal order of service gave way to spontaneous testimonials, conversions, moans, fainting and hymn-singing.

The fire spread to a 26-year-old miner called Evan Roberts, an intensely religious young man who had prayed for a revival ‘for 10 or 11 years’. He was dramatically filled by the Spirit during a service, bending his knees and crying out. The next nights, he had a series of visions, of hell, of Christ’s victory over Satan, of an enormous religious revival that would save 100,000 souls. Although not a priest and not very educated, he became the de facto leader of a revival that swept through Wales ‘like a hurricane’ as David Lloyd George put it.

A journalist who covered the revival, WT Stead, was struck by the unplanned spontaneity of the services, though in other ways, the scenes closely followed the cultural script of previous Welsh revivals - melted hearts, tears, joy, fainting, spontaneous hymn-singing, public confessions, testimonials, mass conversions, the sense of ‘a country aflame’. All of this was repeated from previous Welsh revivals. What was new in the 1904 revival was that young people, particularly young women, played a leading role, singing and giving testimonials, in a break with religious tradition. And the mass media also played a central role in the revival, helping to spread the fire through their reports - one historian calls it ‘a newspaper revival’.



As Roberts predicted, there were scores of conversions - perhaps 100,000 or so. Many alcoholics gave up drink, and supporters of the revival said the entire moral climate of the country was improved, with pubs emptied, crime down and industrial unrest quelled.

Then, after a year or so, Roberts became more and more exhausted and erratic. He would dramatically stop the singing during the services, declaring there were obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s visitation, naming people in the congregation who were obstacles, including priests. He emphasized there must be total obedience to the Holy Spirit among everyone present. He became uncertain about when it was the Holy Spirit prompting him to speak, or the Devil. He eventually retired from public life, publishing a book six years later warning of the rapid approach of the Apocalypse.

What are we to make of it all? It’s a sensitive subject, particularly for an English journalist (although as my name suggests I have a lot of Welsh blood in me). For the Welsh, the 1904-05 revival was and is a source of national pride, evidence of the country’s special relationship to God, Who speaks to their warm Celtic hearts in a way the mechanistic English could barely appreciate. The academic historian, meanwhile, might look for social or cultural causes of the revival, and interpret it as some sort of mass psychic reaction to the advance of scientific rationalism and the demands of industrial civilisation.

A colleague of mine at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Rhodri Hayward, has written an excellent book on the question of how to interpret mass ecstatic experiences like the 1904 revival, called Resisting History: Religious Transcendence and the Invention of the Unconscious. He looks at how the unconscious was invented in the late 19th century, as a way for the new secular discipline of psychology to provide a naturalistic explanation for ecstatic religious experiences like trances, automatism, visions and mass revivalism.

Rhodri traces this invention from Frederick Myers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, who posited a subliminal self to explain the behaviour of spiritual mediums, to William James, who developed this naturalistic explanation of religious experience in his Varieties of Religious Experience, to early explorers of the unconscious like Janet, Charcot and Carl Jung, all of whom were keen to explain spiritual experiences through the naturalistic idea of the unconscious. The unconscious was a crucial device in a broader move to disenchant supernatural experiences and fit them into a naturalistic historical narrative.

What’s interesting is that the early pioneers of psychology remained very ambivalent about whether religious experiences were supernatural or not. The border between natural and supernatural explanations of ecstatic experiences remained rather thin, or diaphanous. Myers, at the end of his life, decided that some spiritual mediums really were communicating with the dead. Jung came to view much unconscious phenomena as genuine communications by spirits. William James was also convinced that some mediums were genuine and remained open-minded about whether religious experiences could be genuinely supernatural. He wrote: ‘The notion of the subconscious self certainly ought not at this point in our enquiry be held to exclude all notion of higher penetration.’

Right at the birth of psychology as a rationalist discipline, there’s uncertainty about whether the unconscious is a trash-heap of primitive impulses, or a cave of hidden treasures.

This uncertainty about apparently supernatural experiences exists for Christians too. Even during the 1904 revival, Welsh people wondered if Roberts was simply a ‘neurotic youth’, if his fits weren’t manifestations of pathology rather than divine ecstasy. One church minister wrote to the Western Mail suggesting there were, in fact, two revivals going on, a genuine revival, and a ‘bogus revival’ being led by Roberts. Roberts also became uncertain whether his visitations came from God or the Devil, and this uncertainty and sense of a cosmic spiritual war being waged in his own person eventually exhausted him.

Speaking for myself, I remain uncertain about the religious experience which healed me of years of trauma and suffering. Was it an experience of the Holy Spirit, or a moment of religious mania prompted by a near-death experience after several years of depression? If it was some sort of supernatural visitation, from who or what?



William James suggested that, even if we can’t know for sure where such experiences come from, we can still empirically weigh their effects: ‘What comes must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience...Its value must be ascertained by empirical methods.’

We see chroniclers of the 1904 revival trying to do just this, taking statistical evidence of the numbers of conversions in each village and town. Judged by the number of people it saved from alcoholism, the 1904 revival seems socially valuable (although Marxist historians like EP Thompson might argue that such ecstatic outbreaks put back the cause of political agitation).

It’s very difficult to empirically asses all the effects of a revival - particularly as historians can’t peer into the spiritual realm to see what might have been the effect there. Certainly, the Welsh revival had a huge impact on modern Christianity, helping to popularise a new, highly emotional form of worship which one meets on the Alpha weekend. The revival didn’t seem to have such great long-term effects for Roberts himself, though for all I know his reward was in the afterlife.

I wonder, finally, if one can combine cultural historical accounts of ecstatic experiences with an open-mindedness to the possibility that such experiences are, at least partly, supernatural.  In other words, is it possible that spirits or the Spirit really do speak to humans, but that we also interpret such experiences through pre-learned cultural scripts (such as the history of Jewish messianism, or the history of Welsh revivals)? Some of those scripts are perhaps better than others, in that they more successfully ‘run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience’. I think that one problem with the Christian eschatological script is it leads to mass Millenarian expectations that the world is about to be utterly transformed into a perfect Age of Love. History has repeatedly disappointed this ecstatic expectation, yet somehow it keeps coming back.


In other news:

Talking of Millenarian expectations, the NYRB reviews a new book that looks at Millenarian expectations and the idea of the demonic enemy in fascism and communism. Behind a pay-wall alas.

The New Yorker, meanwhile, looks at a new neuroscientific attempt to measure and quantify consciousness.

I did a 5 min essay on Radio 3's Nightwaves this week, about the 2400th anniversary of the founding of Plato's Academy, asking whether philosophy belongs inside or outside of academia. Its 26 minutes in here.

On that theme, here's Philosophy Bites' Nigel Warburton, on why he's left academia to practice philosophy outside of it. And here's a BBC article looking at philosophy's central role in French school education.

Here's an New York Times article covering a successful trial of cognitive processing therapy for rape victims in the Congo.

Here's a Spectator piece by Norman Stone looking at the political crisis in Turkey and Erdogan's over-played authoritarianism.

Here's a piece I wrote about the Sunday Assembly and why I don't think God minds me playing the drums there.

Here's a piece on how psychedelics is turning into a subject of serious academic research (man).

UCLA has a great centre for investigating mindfulness. Its website has some good free meditation podcasts.

Finally, this week I got very excited about Laura Marling's new album. Here's a short film she helped to make of the first four songs of the album.

See you next week,