The Forward Movement
Our story now jumps forward 80 years to 1891, and we move from a mid-Wales market town to the city slums of Cardiff. The Calvinistic Methodist Church grew over the intervening years, and is now often known by its more formal title, ‘The Presbyterian Church of Wales’.
Wales itself has also changed. Increasing industrialisation drove growing numbers of men into the towns and cities. Out went the farms and the cottage industries. In came railways, docks, steelworks and of course the mines. South Wales was a thriving industrial heartland. For some this economic boom meant massive riches — but the riches of the few came at the expense of the many. In the rapidly expanding towns substandard over-crowded housing was the norm, poverty and ill-health were common place.
Few were prepared for this rapid change, least of all the Presbyterian Church of Wales. The Calvinistic Methodist movement had developed largely in Welsh-speaking agricultural Wales, not in English-speaking urban slums. Into the breach stepped three men: John Pugh, Seth Joshua, and Seth’s brother, Frank. They were concerned about the poverty and the terrible conditions, but above all they were concerned about the godlessness they saw all around them.
John Pugh (right) was converted in his teens and immediately lef t the rebellious lifestyle he had adopted, and threw himself into the Calvinistic Methodist church his parents attended. Soon he was the unofficial leader of a group of young Christians leading open-air services near Tenby. At 23, he was training for the ministry in the Calvinistic Methodist College in Trefecca, and soon took up his first pastorate in the new mining town of Tredegar. He began as he intended to carry on. Abandoning the relative calm of the tin hut that served as a church building, he assembled his congregation outside the Town Hall, and held an open-air service. He unashamedly aimed his preaching not at the ‘respectable’ members of his congregation but at the working-class men who frequented the pubs in the area.
It was a tactic that was not universally welcomed — the opposition did not come from the unconverted miners but from his own church. He was charged with lowering the prestige of the denomination, though it seems his detractors had forgotten the Connexion’s own history of open-air preaching. A senior minister within the church and the principal of Trefecca College were sent to investigate. They arrived by train at one of the open air services, with what seemed like an entire carriage full of deacons. Thankfully both had better memories than those who had lodged the complaint, “Had I and others done this [preached the gospel like this] in our life,” one said, “Glamorgan and Monmouthshire would not be in the grip of the evil one… You are the true Methodist”. The commendation was generous, but it was also a clear acknowledgement that the newly English-speaking counties of Wales had been largely unreached with the gospel.
After nine years in Tredegar the church had grown from 16 to more than 400 members, and Pugh felt it was time to move on. In 1881 he began a new work out of a rented room in a Pontypridd school. By this time opposition from within the church had been replaced by apathy, but the same could not be said for the publicans of Pontypridd. Having seen at first-hand the damage that alcohol was causing, Pugh was a fervent supporter of the temperance movement. His answer to the demon drink was not the mere signing of a pledge, but the transforming power of the gospel that would change lives. He found a public square surrounded by 17 pubs and despite having little support from his church, he made that square his pulpit. The publicans, seeing a marked dip in their profits, sent thugs to intimidate him, and even a brass band to drown him out. But Pugh stood firm against the thugs, and simply waited for the band to run out of steam: “when they got puffed, I preached”.
God was using Pugh’s preaching to change lives that most preachers simply weren’t reaching. One such life was that of Seth Joshua (right). Seth thought he was respectable, but he wasn’t being honest with himself. He sang in the church choir, but also as an entertainer in the local pub, and there was no question in Seth’s mind as to which was the more enjoyable place to spend a free evening.
So when John Pugh invited the Salvation Army to Pontypridd, Seth rounded up his friends from the pub to go and have some fun at the expense of the girls with the tambourines. Instead he was astonished to find his brother Frank at the front of the marching band — he had been converted the previous evening. Incredulous, he accompanied his brother to the chapel that night, and almost despite himself became convinced that his lifestyle must change. He signed the temperance pledge, gave up swearing and smoking, but succeeded only in making himself unhappy. He’d given up the things he’d lived for, but replaced it with nothing. After three months of misery he was persuaded to return to the chapel for the first time. Still kicking against the goads, he realised that a lifestyle change was not enough, and that night, he finally submitted to Christ as Saviour and Lord. Within 24 hours he was back in his old pub – but this time not as an entertainer, but as an evangelist.
Seth and Frank were soon off to Neath to work full-time as evangelists. They threw themselves into the work, without any training, and learned on the job. They saw dozens of remarkable conversions. Their methods were instinctive, and often unorthodox, but there was no doubt that God was with them.
In the meantime, John Pugh brought his work in Pontypridd to an end, and in 1889 began pioneering a work in Cardiff. Few in the UK had reached the people Pugh wanted to reach, but he knew of one: William Ross of Cowcaddens in Glasgow. They had first met in 1877, and Ross shared Pugh’s ideals. He was older though, and had already seen great success amongst the working classes in Glasgow. Ross and Pugh became firm friends, and Pugh often preached at evangelistic campaigns in Cowcaddens. Ross also visited Cardiff, and was even invited to address the General Assembly of the Welsh Church.
Ross’s work had involved working out of existing buildings, but Pugh did not have that luxury. So he formulated the bold idea of planting new Calvinistic Methodist churches by first using a tent as a base. If the ministry proved successful a wooden hut could be built in its place, and the tent moved to another location. Pugh knew that the Joshua brothers were already using tents to great effect in Neath, so in 1891 he went to visit Seth. During a long walk in the hills overlooking Port Talbot, Pugh suggested that Seth join him in Cardiff. He spent a week praying it through, then readily agreed. Seth took his tent with him, and on 5th May 1891 they erected it in Splott, Cardiff. It was the beginning of the Forward Movement.
Within a few months the tent was destroyed by a gale, but it had already served its purpose. Just as Pugh had planned, it was replaced by a ‘hut’ – an inadequate name for a building that seated 500. Less than a year later the hut was replaced by a more permanent Mission Hall seating 1,000.
The Calvinistic Methodist denomination wasn’t quite sure what to make of this new Forward Movement, but it was too big to ignore. A special committee was set up to investigate, which to its eternal credit and Pugh’s great relief, concluded “we greatly rejoice at the success of the new and strange enterprise commenced in Cardiff”. Pugh was released from other responsibilities and set apart as a special missioner, and the ‘Forward Movement’ was officially adopted by the denomination. For the first time in its history, the Calvinistic Methodists were demonstrating commitment to reach working-class English-speaking men. A new hymn summed up the mood:
For a work of grace we pray
For the Spirit’s power each day
Turning souls from sin’s dark way
Wales for Christ.
The Forward Movement rapidly spread to other towns in Wales, and God’s blessing continued. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands professed faith. News of the Movement spread even to the United States where the principal of Central College, Kentucky exclaimed, “The account of the Forward Movement reads almost like a fairy tale. The reality surpasses any fiction.”
But it was no fairy tale. Mission Halls were springing up and being filled, often with new converts. Their legacy has lasted. Many evangelical churches that are still strong today were first planted by the Forward Movement in the early 1900s: Malpas Road, Newport; Bethlehem, Sandfields; Heath, Cardiff; and — on a rather smaller scale — Trinity Chapel in Clydach.