Grace, Grit and Gumption

One Saturday morning in May 1891, in the unchurched and sprawling industrial area of East Moors, Splott, Cardiff, two men could be seen putting up a large tent.

The older man of 45, John Pugh, was unused to swinging a sledgehammer and he had lumbago for a month. The younger man, Seth Joshua, who was in his early 30s, was adept at the job. Just as they finished, one of the rough characters of the area passed by. He was curious as to what was going on.

'Hello, guvnor, what is this, a boxing show?'
'There is going to be some fighting here,' said Seth.
'When are you going to start?'
'Tomorrow morning at 11.00 am.'
'Tomorrow's Sunday.'
'Well, better the day, better the deed.'
'Who's on?'
'I've got to take the first round.'
'Who's with you?'
'He's a chap called Beelzebub.'
'Never heard of him. Who's he?'
'Oh he's a smart one, I can tell you. Come tomorrow morning.'
'I'll be there.'
'And strange to say, he was there,' said Seth. 'When I had given out the first hymn, "All hail the power of Jesus' name", he knew he had been caught. Beelzebub went over the ropes all right, for the chap was converted that very morning.'

Working class outreach

Those tent meetings on Sunday May 5 1891 were the beginning of a great surge of evangelistic activity to reach the unchurched working classes in Cardiff, most of whom were by now unable to understand Welsh. For the previous 20 years, before he came to Cardiff, Pugh, as we shall see, had laboured with exceptional success in ministries in English-speaking churches in the new mining towns of Tredegar and then Pontypridd. Those years from 1872 to 1891 showed him that the Welsh-speaking evangelical churches of that time, secure and successful in rural areas and country towns, and still warm with the afterglow of the 1859 revival, were getting seriously out of touch with a new urbanised generation growing up in the mining and seaport towns because most of that generation were monoglot English in speech. Untouched as many were by Christian influence, and thrown into living conditions that were primitive as regards amenities and dangerous to health, they were raw and rough in their ways and increasingly under the social scourge of the day, 'the drink'. When Pugh moved to Cardiff, his passion to reach the unreached led to the tent evangelism in East Moors. This joint initiative with Seth Joshua soon developed into what became known as the Forward Movement of the Calvinistic Methodist (Presbyterian) Church of Wales. It was an attempt to face and tackle the deep divide that was growing up between the churches and the rapidly changing social patterns of ordinary folk.

Railway age

The world in which Pugh lived was a booming coal and railway building age. The entire Welsh coalfield was absorbing population, much of it young, able-bodied, working men, at a rate without comparison in the United Kingdom, and indeed was, for a while, a magnet for immigrants surpassed in the world by the United States alone. Cardiff became the largest coal-exporting docks in the world. It had begun with the sinking of coal pits in village areas all over what became the South Wales coalfield. These villages had had a closely-knit, Welsh-speaking identity. When more houses were built to meet the inrush of men to man the mines, new chapels soon followed, retaining their Welshness.

Immigants took over

Eventually, however, as the immigrant population took over, the valleys became anglicised in speech. Though there had been plenty of personal ungodliness in the old village communities, they had not been beyond the reach of the moral and spiritual influence of the chapel. But now the drinking clubs and betting shops became rife and took over. The local chapels and their traditional activities, all wrapped up in the Welsh language, did not touch these new needy but tough types. At first, the bulk of immigration had come from rural Wales, bringing with them their cultural legacies in the chapels. Then increasingly, newcomers arrived from England (and Ireland), uprooted from any religious background they may have had and hurled into a harsh, unchurched, urban environment, destined to reject the old Welsh chapel-based values.

New culture

The critical point, and Pugh saw its implications early on, is that the English-speaking chapel in Wales was still a rarity in the late 1880s. The advent of English-speaking immigrants caused much heart-searching among the Welsh-speaking community. Some said the church should 'function in the Welsh language exclusively'. Others saw this was not consistent with the history of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism.

The English leaders of Methodism - Whitefield, the Wesleys, the Countess of Huntingdon and others - had often been present in gatherings in Wales during the early days of the 18th-century reawakening. When the hearers could understand it, Howel Harris would preach in English as he accompanied Whitefield on their South Wales tours. 150 years later, the tide of immigrant irreligion that was engulfing the urban areas of South Wales, would only be met by evangelism in English. However, as late as 1899, the Home Mission reported that an Atlantic passage in winter was not as stormy as the Calvinistic Methodist transition from Welsh to English.

The docks

Standing tall and massive in front of the former coal exchange on the Barry seafront is a statue of David Davies. In front of the imposing Cardiff Civic Centre, alongside that of David Lloyd-George, stands one of John Cory. Davies and Cory were two of the entrepreneurs responsible for south-east Wales industrialisation and the resulting massive social changes. They were the builders of Barry Docks and, as coal owners in the valleys, its main coal suppliers via their own Taff Vale railway. Within 20 years, Barry grew from a village of less than 100 people to a busy seaport of over 30,000. In 1913, it surpassed Cardiff for a while as the world's greatest coal exporter. The Davies family and Cory were Christians supportive (in the Davies' case, massively so) of Pugh's vision of bringing the Christian message to the anglicised families whose men worked in docks and mines.

God's bridge

That vision was born in the heart of the son of a railway builder, John Pugh, of New Mills, Montgomeryshire, who lived from 1846 to 1907. Bilingual and born near the English border, he was equipped by background to bridge the two language communities. It is important to say that Pugh was never one of those who thought Welsh an inferior language, best dropped if the Welshman was to throw off his supposed inferiority. He was a bilingual Welshman whose missionary heart bled for 'the stranger in their midst' who did not know Christ. In his attempts to reach them, he showed himself to be a doughty fighter, obstinate, determined, a man of steel, but also tender and compassionate - a soul of emotions which could frequently break out into tears. First he, and later the Joshua brothers Seth and Frank, quite independently of each other at first, went out to the street corners and public houses of places like Tredegar, Pontypridd, Neath, Cardiff and Barry and saw the unreached drawn and won for Christ.

Today's challenge

Our Lord's words in Matthew 22.9-10 were lived out in the ministries of Pugh and the Joshuas and were crucial in Pugh's calling. 'Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you can find. So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.'

Their mission was primarily to those neglected by any Christian influence and concern - a challenge to any generation, and once more a challenge to today's as we see a burgeoning underclass. It is also a virile boost to spiritual morale! We can't copy the past. But we can be stirred by these men to live out that text in our context. In a recent correspondence, Sir Glanmor Williams, formerly Professor of History at the University of Wales in Swansea, says: 'These excellent men of the Forward Movement put us all to shame.'

This extract is taken from Geraint Fielder's recent book Grace, Grit and Gumption, published by Christian Focus, and is used with permission.

Geraint has just retired as part-time minister of Highfields Church, Cardiff.