On December 25th, 1766, a son was born to shoemaker Samuel Evans and his wife, Joanna, in Llandysul, Ceredigion. The couple named the child Christmas. That boy would grow to be a tall, husky, bushy-haired preacher who would lead the spiritual revivals in late 18th- and early 19th-century Wales. But he had a hard road to the ministry he would pursue from Anglesey to Cardiff for over half a century.
Evans’ father died when the boy was only eight or nine years old, leaving the family in poverty. Living with a drunken uncle, Evans received no schooling and by age fifteen, he still could not read or write. His illiteracy grieved him, and with dogged determination he set out to teach himself, plodding through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with the help of friends. They also studied the Welsh Bible together: “We bought Bibles and candles, and were accustomed to meet together in the evening in the barn of Penyrallt, and thus in about one month I was able to read the Bible in my mother tongue.”
At 18 he was converted under the influence of Presbyterian pastor David Davies, and soon began preaching in cottage meetings, having memorized published sermons. Without financial means to further his education, Christmas Evans went to England to earn money in the harvest fields. But in England he began to despair of his prospects in the ministry and nearly lost interest in spiritual matters altogether. The turning point in his life came when he was attacked by a mob, apparently provoked by Evans’ objection to their ungodly activities, and was beaten unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he found that he was blind in his right eye. This crisis awakened his faith and his determination to serve God. At age 20 he was baptized in Aberdare by Baptist pastor Timothy Thomas and joined that congregation.
At the Baptist Association meeting in 1790, Evans accepted a call to minister in Caernarvonshire. He was ordained at Lleyn to serve five small Baptist chapels in that area. It was there that he met and married Catherine Jones, a member of one of the chapels. Though his preaching was well received, the ministry there took a toll on his health. So after some months in Caernarvonshire, Evans took a vacation to Pembrokeshire. Since he could not afford a horse, he traveled on foot, preaching in every town along the way. Crowds followed him from town to town, spreading revival throughout western Wales.
Refreshed by his coastal tour, Evans threw himself back into the ministry in Lleyn, walking twenty miles every Sabbath to preach in various chapels and open-air meetings. Yet in spite of the many converts from his ministry, Evans was not pleased with the level of spirituality on the peninsula, and in 1792 he accepted a call to the island of Anglesey, where, for a salary of 17 pounds a year, he was to be responsible for ten chapels. On Christmas Day – his 26th birthday – he and Catherine crossed the Menai Strait to take up residence in a dilapidated cottage with a ceiling so low the six-foot-tall preacher could not stand up in it! His ministry there prospered, however, and within two years he saw 600 converts, and the ten chapels had doubled to twenty.
In 1823, Evans’ beloved spiritual companion Catherine died, and the same year he developed an eye problem which necessitated treatment in Aberystwyth. By 1826, the number of chapels in Anglesey had increased exponentially and Baptist preachers numbered twenty-eight. Evans then moved to Caerphilly where 140 more converts were added to the Baptist congregations. From there he ministered in Cardiff, then back to Caernarvon, “where he contended with great difficulties from church debts and dissension.” (Armitage, The History of the Baptists, 612) On a trip to Swansea to raise funds for the Caernarvon chapels, he suddenly fell ill and died on July 19, 1838. His last message was, “I am leaving you. I have labored in the sanctuary fifty-three years, and this is my comfort, that I have never labored without blood in the basin,” a reference to Exodus 12:22. In his last breath he voiced the words to an old Welsh hymn and passed into eternity.
Christmas Evans is reputed by some to be the most dynamic preacher of “the golden age of itinerant preachers” in Wales. Historian John Davies takes note of Evans, along with Calvinistic Methodist John Elias and Independent William Williams (William o’r Wern) as the prominent preachers in the revivals that swept Wales in the early 1800s. (The History of Wales, 359) It is estimated that between 1801 and 1851, a new chapel was built on average every eight days. Many of those chapels were the result of the tireless ministry of Christmas Evans.
First published in Ninnau: The North American Newspaper, November-December 2015