Sunday, 9 August 2009
Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in early twentieth century Wales
R. B. Jones was one of the most prominent evangelicals in early twentieth-century Wales, one of the leaders of the 1904-5 revival and one of the standard bearers of conservative evangelicalism during the inter-war years. To date he has received relatively little scholarly attention, something which Noel Gibbard's, R. B. Jones: Gospel Ministry in Turbulent Times (Bryntirion Press, 2009), attempts to put right. Gibbard's biographical study engages closely, even exhaustively, with the primary source material throughout, but presents a picture of Jones that is perhaps substantially different from the image of the firebrand fundamentalist warrior that has persisted in those works that have made mention of him to date. Gibbard prefers to depict him as an 'enlightened fundamentalist' (p. 179). Where Gibbard's biography is not quite so strong is in its lack of engagement with the relevant secondary historiography. Indeed, beyond reference to some of the author's other books and the work of Brynmor P. Jones, hardly any secondary literature is cited at all. This results in a study that is excellent on some of the details of R. B. Jones' life and minstry, but one that is one-dimensional, poor even, on the wider currents that were shaping Welsh nonconformity and evangelicalism during these important decades. The book falls into two parts; the first seven chapters deal with the main features of Jones' life, the last four being more analytical. Maybe the book would have been more effective if the analysis had been woven into the preceding narrative more consistently. R. B. Jones spent the whole of his ministry pastoring a number of baptist churches in the Rhondda valley, most famously Tabernacle, Porth. The picture that emerges from Gibbard's study is of an energetic and committted pastor, albeit one who was often distracted by worldwide travel and his many other extra-congregational commitments. In the first chapter, Gibbard mentions some of the influences that proved key in Jones' development, a band of Rhondda, even Merthyr, based evangelical nonconformist ministers; Keswick spirituality, the evangelistic missions of Torrey and Alexander, dispensationalism and premillenialism. More on Jones' theological education would have been welcome, particularly given the rise of theological liberalism in much of Welsh nonconformity. An awareness of the wider context of Jones' theological development would have enabled Gibbard to see parallels with other individuals and countries as well; higher-life teaching, mass-evangelism, dispensationalism and pre-millenial eschatology were ubiqitous throughout much of english-speaking evangelicalism. These were the roots of inter-war fundamentalism; Jones' thought was clearly rooted in the wider developments of the time, you wouldn't necessarily pick this up from this study! As it stands Gibbard prefers to deal with Jones' theological views in a separate chapter that merely describes his opinions using largely his own words (chapter 8). A missed opportunity! Gibbard devotes a separate chapter to Jones' involvement in the 1904-5 revival, which shows the full extent of his itinerant ministry at the height of the revival. Jones never really got on with Evan Roberts, and consistently distanced himself from him on account of his 'mystical strain' and because he thought that Roberts had become 'a spectacle rather than a prophet' (pp. 148-9). There was a similar distancing from Jessie Penn-Lewis also. One of the chief benefits of Gibbard's book is that it further helps us to understand the multi-faceted nature of the Welsh Revival, that it was actually about far more than Evan Roberts. The most extensive studies of R. B. Jones prior to Gibbard's book have been a number of articles by David Bebbington. In these Jones is portrayed as one of the leading voices of fundamentalism in Britain; Gibbard tries, not altogether succssfully it must be said, to distance Jones from some of the worst excesses of American-style fundamentalism. The first thing that needs to be said is that Gibbard does not engage with the extensive literature on fundamentalism that has recently appeared, not even to the well-known work of George M. Marsden. Then, little reference is made to Jones' abrasive personality. Indeed the picture of Jones on the cover of the book is a million miles away from the stereotype of the fundamentalist demagogue. His more austere side does come out occassionally though; some were put off by his 'other worldliness' and 'monkish detachment', but were keen to stress that 'Mr Jones' austere purity is communicable' (p. 94). Other criticised him for his unwillingness to take part in the life of his local community; indeed this is one of the more glaring omissions from the book, no mention is made of either the Great War nor the General Strike of 1926, two of the most cataclysmic events in twentieth century Wales. Does this reflect Jones' own detachment, or that of the author? One of the strongest pieces of evidence in support of Jones' fundamentalist credentials relates to his founding of the South Wales Bible Training Institute in 1919. Although the reasons behind Jones' foundation of the college are not elaborated upon here (see Noel Gibbard's, Taught to Serve: A History: the history of Barry and Bryntirion (1996) for more), the advance of liberalism in the Welsh denominational theological colleges was the over-riding reason. Again, there was nothing unique in Jones' actions here; Gibbard mentions his visit to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, but doesn't really address what Jones learned at Moody and whether the South Wales college was in conscious imitation of it. An awareness of the wider Bible College movement would have informed Gibbard's discussion. What these new colleges did, of course, was to lead some evangelical students away from mainstream theological debate, to be suspicious of the intellect and unable to combat the liberal theology that was rife among the main denominations. For many of the students who attended the Porth school, the result was usually isolation and cultural retreat. While Jones himself certainly shared in this fundamentalist tendancy, his own theological reading seems to have been genuinely wide. Gibbard mentions his awareness of the new-fangled kenotic theory relating to the person of Christ, and his contribution to debates about the humanity of Christ, and even his recommendation of the writings of Karl Barth (p. 191). Yet his welcoming of William Bell Riley, Gresham Machen and T. T. Shields to lecture at the college would tend to suggest that he was consciously alligning himself with the more militant wing of American fundamentalism. A similar mixed asessment of his fundamentalist credentials can be seen in Jones' attitude towards theological liberalism within his own denomination. He took a very public role in opposition to T. R. Glover's nomination as Vice President of the Baptist Union in 1924, for example, but this oposition did not lead him to secede from the denomination. Jones seems not to have been attracted to the idea of eclesiastical separatism, surely a key feature of fundamentalism. Indeed, Jones was one a number of prominent Welsh evangelical nonconformist ministers, W. S. Jones (Llwynypia), Nantlais Williams and E. Keri Evans, who remained committed to fight theological liberalism within their respective denominations. In this Jones was perhaps not quite as fundamentalistic as has often been assumed. Noel Gibbard has produced an attractive and sympathetic portrayal of R. B. Jones, one that certainly goes some considerable way towards successfully portraying him as a more moderate fundamentalist. Where the book is slightly disapointing is in Gibbard's lack of awareness of the wider evangelical context in which Jones both developed and worked. The only part of the book in which Gibbard does engage critically with the interpretations of others is in the concluding pages where he takes issue with Iain Murray's dismissal of Jones in the latter's biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Murray makes some ridiculously over-stated accusations about Jones' lack of a theology (for which read that he wasn't a Calvinist) and claims that his college led people into a theological cul de sac. Of course, Murray is keen to downplay the significance of the inter-war years in Wales, as elsewhere, in order to serve his thesis about evangelical decline following the death of Spurgeon and the beginning of the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but the fruitful ministry of R. B. Jones and other evangelicals in Wales during these years, whether one agrees with every aspect of their theological position or not, patently shows how unfounded that line of argument actually is.