At the end of the 1800’s there was a radical work of God in Wales. While the church was growing in respectability with the crachach (the cultural and political elite of Wales), it was also shrinking in effectiveness with the working classes, especially the English workers moving in. As a result, God raised up a new generation of church leaders, rough diamonds who had grace, grit and gumption.
Just as three stood out in the Methodist revival 150 years earlier (Harris, Rowland and Williams), so there were ‘the three’ of the Forward Movement. This was an evangelistic branch of the Calvinistic Methodist Church, the story of which has been documented dramatically by Geraint Fielder in Grace, grit and gumption. He describes this movement as ‘a romance of faith in a harsh world of social deprivation, sometimes shameful poverty.’
One of the three was Seth Joshua.
Let me trace his life with three descriptions.
Seth was born in 1858 and brought up in Pontypool. His father worked in the iron industry and they moved to Pontypridd in 1881. They attended the Welsh Baptist chapel and one Monday, Seth crept into the chapel through an open window. He climbed into the pulpit and acted out the sermon from the day before. Was he mocking? Actually, he probably admired the preacher, but his grandmother, who was the church caretaker, saw him. She assumed he was making fun, and threw her broom at him as he ran for safety.
Seth wasn’t great at attending school and so his first job was as a donkey driver. Years later he would say:
I had more out of that donkey than I could get out of any college in the land… I bear the marks of his back kicks on my lower extremities. He was a great donkey to object. I maintain that if a man knows how to handle a donkey for three and a half years he is qualified to handle anything awkward.
In Pontypridd there was a square called ‘The Tumble’, also known as ‘a little hell’ due to all the pubs and drunks. Seth was a regular and a ringleader of the mayhem there. The first of ‘the three’, John Pugh, came to preach in the open air at The Tumble, and then the second of ‘the three’, Seth’s brother Frank, was converted.
Seth didn’t follow straight away. He tried giving up alcohol and he attempted to change parts of his life but it wasn’t real change. A lot of it was just keeping up with his brother. One night, he heard that Frank was praying for him in public and although he didn’t want anything to do with it he was convinced to go into the meeting. He was converted! Seth knelt down and gave his sins to Jesus. I love the way Geraint Fielder describes it:
Seth was next to a broken chair, kneeling on broken bricks, with a broken heart. It was a radical conversion.
The day after he was converted, he walked past his favourite haunt, the Rickett Arms hotel, and his new passion was clear. His friends shouted: ‘Seth, come and have a drink!’ ‘Lads’, replied Seth, ‘I have found a better well, come and have a drink of that!’ As R. Tudur Jones comments:
He spent the rest of his days telling people about that well, and he never lost his common touch.
The donkey driver had become a daring evangelist.
Seth’s brother Frank went to share the gospel in Neath. It was unreached and a wild west of wickedness. He started in the annual fair where he stood up and preached. People jeered and joked and he was threatened more than once so Seth joined him between 1882 and 1891. They had no idea what they were doing and they didn’t know how to preach. Seth was pretty unorthodox.
Have a listen to a description:
Some listened quietly, some jeered and one, an ex-pugilist who looked as if he had taken more punishment than he had given, stepped forward, infuriated at the most forthright sermon he had ever heard and cursed the evangelist. The young preacher stopped, and noticed the pug nose and cauliflower ears. Slowly he took off his jacket, saying not a word. The ex-pugilist looked at his barrel chest and the knotted muscles of his arms and slunk away. He did not know that the evangelist was Seth Joshua, former tosspot [heavy drinker], one who had been unenlightened so recently that even now he could be tempted to use his muscles in the service of the Lord.
They would preach and sing, give away literature and sell Bibles. God really used them in amazing ways. The brothers had an interesting tag team approach. Frank would say, ‘Seth knocks sinners down, and I pick them up.’
Meanwhile, John Pugh was seeing great success in Cardiff and the surrounding area. He needed help and thought of Seth Joshua. This would mean leaving the work in Neath where they had seen much blessing, for the opportunity to see blessing further across Wales. Without any money, Seth took his wife, kids and a big tent to Cardiff.
Seth was going to reach a difficult people. Splott was considered an impregnable Jericho. They would put their tent up in the roughest areas and try to encourage people to attend their meetings.
Desperate for a deeper walk with God
However, Seth Joshua wasn’t just a daring evangelist and a big fisted preacher. There was something else too. Seth was desperate for a deeper walk with God. This is the area of Seth’s life that I think needs more attention. Seth was unique in that he was both a bit of an activist (a daring evangelist) and a bit of a pietist (desperate for more of God).
Seth was part of the Keswick movement. He wanted spiritual blessing and an outpouring of the Spirit. This was called ‘Holiness’ or ‘The Consecrated Life’. However, Seth was not completely ‘Keswick’- if there is such a thing. He went to the Llandrindod Wells conference in 1903 and was uneasy with what he saw. He said, ‘My one fear is that many people are in danger of cultivating holiness at the expense of work.’ Seth wanted holiness but he still wanted to reach the lost. He didn’t want to become a mystic in a holy huddle so he pursued both activism and pietism, preaching and prayer.
At this point Seth took on a new role. In 1904, he began as an evangelist for the Calvinistic Methodists with a remit to roam Wales. He wrote in his diary on New Year’s Day: ‘My one strong desire is to live out the consecrated life in 1904.’
On the 29th September 1904, Seth went to preach at Blaenannerch. This was a conference for the deepening of the spiritual life. He made a plea: ‘Humble us, O Lord!’ In that meeting was a young man by the name of Evan Roberts, and, well, the rest is history.