Not until Rees was twenty-two did anything happen to alter the quiet course of his life at home. By then he was a fine-looking, broad-shouldered young man of nearly six feet, wit sensitive hands, the striking square-cut forehead which one sometimes sees among the Welsh, and above all, remarkable eyes, .crystal clear and penetrating, .the eyes of a seer. Beneath the quiet surface, however, one strong tide was running — ambition. He wanted to see the world, he wanted to make money, and America became the loadstone. Several young men from the village had gone to the U.S.A. and were sending back glowing reports of the money they were making, earning in one day what it would take a week to get in South Wales. When Rees heard this, nothing could hold him back, not even the pull of home. He “weighed the losses and gains, and America won every time.” His brothers were studying for careers, but he decided “to make money and retire early in life”! He had a cousin, Evan Lewis, who had emigrated and taken work at New Castle, in the steel area round Pittsburgh, and Rees took ship and joined him, getting employment in a tin mill.
Before he left Brynamman, however, a word from God came to him, which he called the greatest blessing he received before his conversion. One Sunday night, a month before he sailed, he came late to church, and as it was crowded out, he stood in the vestibule. The minister was reading Hebrews 12:1. “Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses…” “These witnesses,” he said, “are the men of faith mentioned in the previous chapter and we ought to realize they are around us; we know they are real, because Moses and Elijah spoke to the Saviour on the Mount of Transfiguration, and the disciples saw them.” The minister then said straight out, just as if he knew Rees was listening, “Young man, you may be leaving home, you may be going to a place where your parents will not see you; but remember, the cloud of witnesses and God will see you.” The words struck home to Rees. They were new to him and the effect was “an impression from the other world” coming over him. “I saw the Mount of Hebrews 12:22,” he said, “the city of the living God, the general assembly and church of the firstborn,” and he saw them, not as spies, but there to encourage and strengthen him. It was God’s overshadowing Hand again, putting an external restraint on His chosen vessel, until He revealed His Son to him; for till that day came, this cloud of witnesses remained “the greatest reality” of his life.
When he left his homeland Rees continued to live the same religious life in America, where he became a member of a church and never missed a prayer meeting. Only once did he nearly, yield to the temptation of worldly amusements, when a friend invited him to go to a big boxing match. Doubtless his former interest in boxing was the attraction.” But the Restraining Hand was upon him. The day before the match, the thought came to him, “If your father or uncle were here, would you go? And what about the cloud of witnesses?” He told his friend he wouldn’t accompany him that night for a fortune!
Living an upright life like that, how could God bring him to the realization that he was born in sin and needed to be saved? Even the minister of his church thought he was “the best young man in the congregation” — an indication that the minister himself must have needed what Rees needed! His case was not unlike Paul’s, “As touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless”; and until there is a conviction of need, there can never be a desire for a change. But God has His ways.
The first mark that God made on him was through his cousin, Evan Lewis. t-Ie gave Rees a sudden shock one night by asking him if he was “born again”. Rees had never heard the expression. He was “as ignorant of it as Nicodemus”. But he knew he was wounded and raised his defenses” “What do you mean? My life is as good as yours.” “That’s not the point. Put it this way: Do you know you are saved?” “I am a Christian, and that’s good enough for me.” But though he professed to be unconvinced, his complacency was shaken. His cousin was faithful and did not let the matter drop, although it always seemed to end in fruitless argument. But one day the arrow really found its mark. His cousin told him that when his sister was dying she had spoken to him about his own need of the Saviour, and as she spoke, he had “seen Calvary”. Again Rees did not know what he meant, but instinctively felt he was on holy ground, and a voice seemed to warn him not to argue any more. The impression was so strong that he decided to leave the place and seek work elsewhere, lest he should “touch the forbidden thing”.
He moved about a hundred miles to Martin’s Ferry, but as his cousin saw him off at the station, even his last words drove the shaft farther home: “If only you were born again I wouldn’t mind your leaving, but it troubles me to see you going when you are not right with God.” Rees could not forget these words. The gracious Hound of Heaven was on his trail “with unhurrying chase, And unperturbed pace”, with “those” strong feet that followed, followed after”.
The light really began to dawn as he was reading one day an outstanding book of that time, Professor Henry Drummond’s Natural Law in the Spiritual World. Drummond was telling how he had never thought it possible to give a definition of life, till he found one in “the works of Herbert Spencer, who said that life is correspondence with environment. A child is born with five senses and various bodily organs, and each corresponds with something in his environment; the eye sees sights, the ear hears sounds, the lungs breathe air, and so on. “While I can correspond with my environment, I have life,” said Spencer; “but if something happened to me which prevented me from corresponding with my environment then I should be dead; death is failure of correspondence.” Drummond took the definition back to Adam. The Lord had told him that the day he disobeyed, he would surely die. Did he die? On Spencer’s definition he died spiritually, for though he continued to have a natural life, he lost his correspondence with God and could only come back to Him by the way of sacrifice, the way of a victim killed in his stead.
On reading this, the first thought that came to Rees was, Had he correspondence with God? Could he say the Saviour was as real to him as his mother? Did he know God as a daily Presence in his life, or did he only think of Him in the prayer meetings? If he died, had he another environment with which to correspond? He was a part of his parents, distance didn’t interfere with their .fellowship, but he hadn’t a relationship with God like that, and back came those words to him which his cousin had constantly been quoting: “Except a man be born again… he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”
“I saw it!” said Rees. “! believed in the Saviour, but one thing I knew, I wasn’t born of Him. So far as having correspondence with the spiritual realm where the Saviour lived, I was a dead man, I was outside the Kingdom, which all my good life and religion had never enabled me to enter; I was outside, though I was not a drunkard or a thief, — because I had no correspondence with God.”
His religious complacency was shattered. There was no great conviction of sin, but he knew there was a gulf between him and God, and a deeper concern for his eternal destiny than for any of the affairs of this life possessed his mind.