Howell Harris (1714-1775)
At the time of Howel Harris Wales was still relatively isolated from England. Despite unification under Henry VIII, the Welsh still preserved distinct cultural and historical traditions. Wales was physically remote from England in that her roads were hazardous, so people tended to think twice before they visited Wales. The use of the Welsh language was another isolating factor. Griffith Jones, (see this website) who set up his Circulating Schools to teach people to read Welsh, made an interesting point about the language. He said, “There are some advantages peculiar to the Welsh tongue favourable to religion, as being perhaps the chastest in Europe. Its books and writings are free from the infection and deadly venom of Atheism, Deism, Infidelity, Arianism, Popery, lewd plays, immodest romances, and love intrigues; which poison minds, captivate all the senses, and prejudice so many.” This could have been a major reason why the Welsh received Holy Spirit so easily in the coming decades.
The Anglican Church at this time was in a bad condition. The clergy were paid so badly that many needed two livings to get by. Bishops appointed the clergy on any basis, rather than on the person being fit for the position. Not only were unfit vicars appointed, but several eminently suitable men were refused ordination. Ignorance and ineptitude were rife in the Church and few taught the Gospel so the people were starved of Truth. Griffith Jones was a shining exception to the rule, but he was had up before the Church authorities for attracting crowds. The situation with the Nonconformists was probably better than with the Anglicans, but there was indolence and ignorance here as well.
One widespread influence at this time was Deism. In his biography on Daniel Rowland, Eifion Evans puts it this way. “Human reason was the measure of both truth and reality. Revelation, Scripture, the mysteries of the Christian Faith, miracles, the atonement, and human destiny were all subjected to its evaluation. Whatever was unacceptable or incomprehensible by that standard was deemed to be superstitious or false.” It was in the second and third centuries when followers of Plato and Aristotle came into the Church, bringing with them the philosophers’ beliefs that everything had to be explained. The Greek mindset replaced the Hebrew mindset. Unfortunately many religious leaders embraced this ‘new’ teaching and could no longer accept Truth without dissecting it and reasoning it, even though you cannot reason God or the supernatural. This teaching came into Wales as well and the Methodists arrived to directly oppose it.
Another influence on the Church was formalism. This was an emphasis on ritual rather than emotion; head rather than heart. Formalism pervaded all the churches; except perhaps in Cornwall (see ‘Revivals – Cornwall’ on this website) where the people loved to show emotion. However, in revival Holy Spirit comes and does as He wishes and most of the time He is touching hearts; either making people aware of their sin so that they cry out for mercy or showing them what an amazing sacrifice Jesus performed on the Cross, so they shout out for joy. These shows of emotion are unavoidable when someone’s heart is being touched, but it caused great offence to many clergy during times of revival. (See William Haslam on this website for examples of this.) One of the main avenues of attack against the Methodists was that they were ‘enthusiasts’; just calling them that was viewed by many to be sufficient criticism. The preachers of the Great Awakening spoke through the mind to the heart of sinners. No one can be converted unless their heart is affected. One of the main reasons why the Church was in such a dreadful state was because clergy would preach to the mind of the sinner only, not reaching the heart where conversion is effected. Many who were offended by this ‘enthusiasm’ rejected revival because it was not what they were expecting. A Rector’s wife wrote to William Haslam (in the 1860’s) saying that she and her husband had been praying for revival in Norfolk for years, but “if this is a revival, it has come in such a way that I cannot thank God for it.”
Howel Harris was born at Trefeca, in Brecon in 1714. He went to various schools; the last one was in 1724 at Llwyn Llwyd, near Hay, where he stayed until soon after his father died in 1731. He was a school master until 1735. Harris liked to record how sinful he was as a boy, but it is likely that this was exaggeration and that he was a normal boy with the sins a growing lad had in those days. On March 30th 1735 Holy Spirit got hold of him. He was listening to his vicar in Llangasty Tal-y-llyn church, who was talking about receiving the Sacraments, “if you are not fit to come to the Lord’s Table, you are not fit to live, nor fit to die.” This persuaded him to take things more seriously. Harris tried to reform, but he found he could not do it in his own strength. He wrote in his journal, which he kept as a record of his life for use after his death: “One day in prayer I felt a strong impression on my mind to give myself to God as I was, and to leave all to follow Him. But presently felt a strong opposition to it, backed with reasons, that if I would give myself to the Lord, I should lose my liberty, and then would not be my own, or in my own power; but after a great conflict for some time, I was made willing to bid adieu to all things temporal, and chose the Lord for my portion. I believe I was then effectually called to be a follower of the Lamb.”
On Whit Sunday he realised that he had been accepted by God, then on June 18th he experienced a manifestation of God’s presence. “Being in secret prayer, I felt suddenly my heart melting within me like wax before the fire with love to God my Saviour; and also felt not only love, peace etc., but longing to be dissolved, and to be with Christ. Then was a cry in my inmost soul, which I was totally unacquainted with before, Abba, Father! Abba, Father! I could not help calling God my Father; I knew that I was His child; and that He loved me and heard me. My soul being filled and satiated, crying, ‘Tis enough, I am satisfied. Give me strength and I will follow Thee through fire and water.’”
He was so fired up by Holy Spirit that he had to go out and tell people about his Saviour. “The Word was attended with such power, that many on the spot cried out to God for pardon of their sins, making peace with each other, etc., and appeared in concern about their eternal state. Family worship was set up in many houses, and the churches, as far as I had gone were crowded, and likewise the Lord’s Table.” When not preaching or telling people about God, he spent his time reading and praying. In November he went to St Mary’s Hall at Oxford University with a view to becoming a priest, but he came back within a week, “having no taste for the entertainments there.” On his return he went to speak to people house to house until he had visited virtually all in his parish and many in neighbouring ones. In February 1736 his vicar wrote to him, “.since you are advance so far as to have your public lectures from house to house, and even within the limits of the church, it is full time to let you know the sin and penalty you incur by so doing. The office you have freely undertaken belongs not to the laity any farther than privately in their own families….you concluded (at one of his meetings) with a long extemporary prayer, with repetitions, tautologies, etc. Pray consider how odiously this savours of fanaticism and hypocrisy.” This was a typical opinion amongst the clergy of the day; they would not allow anyone speaking in a parish without permission. It was the law and would not be changed for another 150 years. This made Harris curtail his activities as he did not want to break the law.
In May he sought the counsel of Griffith Jones (see this website), the great revivalist who had recently started his Circulating Schools to help the poor to read. Whilst there he met Jones’ great backer - Mrs Bevan. As a result of their advice he decided to go for ordination, even though he was not yet of age. He collected all the testimonials he required from clergymen and he went to see the bishop of St David’s. The bishop had heard about his irregular preaching and out of hand refused him ordination.
He now needed an income, so he went back to being a school master and also acted as general organiser for the schools that Jones was setting up. Harris did have great skill at organising which was to be well used in the cause of Methodism in the years to come. Jones advised him to stop evangelising for a time to get back into favour with the bishop, so he could be ordained. He did this for a while, but he could not resist preaching for long. After school he would go out to tell people about Jesus, sometimes he was up all night doing this. He tried to reduce the number of hours he needed to sleep to the barest minimum, but his work suffered and his students went off to other schools. He recognised that a layman preaching could be viewed as illegal by the Church authorities, but he saw in the Bible that in times of necessity it was permissible and he felt that because of the religious state of Wales, it was a time of necessity. At the end of 1736 he travelled with a man who was teaching psalmody to the young, and after the time of teaching Harris would preach and lead many to the Lord. At this time he began to form his new believers into societies where they could fellowship together and encourage one another. He travelled extensively and led many to the Lord.
In August 1737 Harris went to Defynnog where he heard Daniel Rowland (see this website) preach for the first time. Neither Harris nor Rowland knew about the other’s existence until that time. Harris relates “…on hearing the uncommon gifts given him and the amazing power and authority by which he spoke and the effects it had on the people, I was made indeed thankful, and my heart burst with love to God and to him. Here began my acquaintance with him and to all eternity it shall never end.” In October of that year Harris went to visit Rowland and their work together began. These two men founded Methodism in Wales and led the revival that transformed the people of the Principality.
Harris and Rowland had the uninhibited and compelling urge to preach the Gospel. Crowds flocked to hear them; Harris writes that between 400 and 2,000 would hear him speak. Some future leaders were being saved under Harris’ ministry. Howel Davies was converted at one of his meetings in 1737 and he went on to be a curate of Griffith Jones, later becoming the ‘Apostle of Pembrokeshire.’ In 1738 William Williams of Pantycelyn, the hymn writer, accepted Jesus after hearing Harris in Talgarth churchyard. Rowland, Harris, Williams and Davies were the four leaders of the Great Awakening in Wales, and they worked together for many years.
Rowland allowed Harris to preach in his church, despite him being a layman; something that the bishop would not have liked. Rowland was obviously of the same opinion as Richard Baxter, who wrote in the previous century that, “it’s better that men should be disorderly saved, than orderly damned, and that the Church be disorderly preserved than orderly destroyed.” Most of the clergy and gentry were opposed to the work of Harris, so most of his supporters were Nonconformists. One minister wrote to him asking him to delay ordination as it would limit his ‘extensive usefulness.’ From the beginning of 1738 Harris started preaching full time and he travelled the whole country; mainly at the invitation of Nonconformist ministers. He would go on a tour for weeks at a time, travelling maybe 150 miles a week speaking between two and six times a day; sometimes speaking at 1.00am to avoid persecution. He was threatened by magistrates and clergy in many places where he preached. By the end of 1738 Harris comments that the spiritual situation in Wales was similar to the revival in New England that he had read about in an account by Jonathan Edwards. Harris and Rowland were beginning to realise that this was no ordinary work they were doing; the amazing results that they had had from the first days of their ministry could only be through the Hand of God. The huge crowds, the many conversions, the deep awareness of sin and the amazing transformation in people could only be a special work of Holy Spirit. Harris was not a great preacher like Rowland, but he was probably the most successful evangelist that Wales has ever known. His appearance was commanding, his voice solemn and strong, and his earnestness quite irresistible and overpowering. At this time he received a letter from George Whitefield (see this website) telling of the revival fires that had started to burn in London.
Both Harris and Rowland had started ‘societies’ as a means of keeping the new converts together in fellowship. This was a subject that was also being considered in England by Wesley and Whitefield. These societies were vital in keeping the fire burning. If the new converts were to go back into their churches with an unsaved vicar at the helm, the odds are that they would soon be called backsliders. John Wesley’s societies eventually became the foundation of the Methodist denomination after his death. For now these societies were used for fellowship and for people to examine one another to ensure that they were leading godly lives and walking on the right path. By 1740 Harris had 64 societies that were fairly evenly distributed in seven counties.
Whitefield was becoming quite close to Harris. Although he had not yet met Rowland, he was in communication with him. Whitefield had an affinity with the Welsh leaders and Wales. Firstly, he came from Gloucester which is on the road to Wales from London; secondly, he was married to a Welsh lady; and thirdly, Harris, Whitefield and Rowland were all very much Calvinistic in their doctrine. The relationship with Whitefield would be beneficial to the Welsh leaders.
John Wesley travelled to Wales 46 times, although some of these were when he was going to and from Ireland. However, Wesley was never to make the same impact in Wales that Whitefield did. His first visit was in October 1739 at the request of Harris. He later wrote a letter saying, “I am just come from Wales where there is indeed a great awakening… There is such a simplicity among the Welsh who are waiting for salvation, as I have not found anywhere in England.” It was Wesley’s views on predestination that prevented him from having a major impact on the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, but both Harris and Rowland were determined that this difference of opinion would not cause a split with Wesley. (The word Methodist, really just another name for Puritan, was first applied to them in around 1743. Harris did not like the word and wanted them to be called by the name ‘Society People’.)
At the beginning of 1739 Harris wrote to Whitefield that there was a great revival in Cardiganshire through Rowland and also in Glamorgan, with prospects in Brecon and part of Monmouth. Harris had amazing energy, preaching incessantly. He seldom prepared a sermon beforehand, but what he said was irresistible. He thundered against sin and set out the beauty of salvation so effectively that sinners wanted to grab it. He continued to apply for ordination, but was turned down three times in 1739.
Harris was in London May/June 1740 helping Charles Wesley at their church. He was admitted as a member of the Wesleys’ society despite his opposing views on election/predestination. Harris spent a lot more time in England than Rowland. Obviously, as he had no parish he was free to go where he thought the Lord was taking him. He considered staying in London, but there were cries from Wales, including Rowland’s, to come back to Wales where he was needed
In August 1740 it was agreed between Harris and Rowland that Harris should arrange a meeting of unity between the religious leaders in Wales. In October about eight ministers of different denominations, together with eight lay teachers, met at Defynnog to explore common ground to work together in the Awakening. They all were preaching regeneration and justification; they all were concerned for the evangelising of their nation and for the growth and godliness of the new converts. The meeting was not a success. There was divergence on the issue of Church Order and doctrinal differences on ‘assurance’ and ‘opening the heart’. The Nonconformists were also concerned about the manifestations of Holy Spirit that accompanied the ministry of Rowland, Harris and others; particularly crying out and falling down in the Spirit. They maintained that God was a God of order! These two spiritual lifestyles, one old and one new, were in tension around the same Gospel message. Since they could not agree they went their separate ways.
In February 1741 a new group of leaders met to agree a way forward at Llandovery in Carmarthenshire. There were around 30 people including two Anglican ministers and two Nonconformist ministers; the remainder being lay teachers. At this meeting they laid down the basic framework of Welsh Methodism and determined its character, identity and practices for the rest of the century. They agreed on the provision of Welsh Schools and they stood together on the Calvinist side of the great divide with Arminianism. They agreed on doctrine and on the need to continue to attend the parish church (one person dissenting) as the liturgy was pure, whatever the state of the minister. The main achievement was a set of rules for the purpose of managing their affairs and exercising efficient oversight over the Methodist movement in Wales.
All societies were given a copy of the rules. They laid down that they would meet every two months to open their hearts to one another, watching over and examining one another’s behaviour and bringing issues into the open. They agreed on the doctrines of free grace, weak and strong faith, perseverance in the state of grace, dominion over sin, absolute perfection in Christ (in parts in themselves and allowing of progress by degrees); unity with anyone who is a believer. They were also to put aside one day a month for prayer and fasting.
Harris’ undoubted administrative skills were used to organise regular meetings of the societies in the different areas. He emphasised love, simplicity and openness and he appointed leaders over the different areas in South Wales. As in England, the Methodists insisted to all that they were part of the Anglican Church. They attended the church for the Sacraments, they subscribed to the Thirty Nine Articles and they used the Anglican Prayer Book.
1741 brought the split in Methodism over the Calvinist – Arminian controversy and over the doctrine of perfectionism. The Wesleys were pro Arminian and pro perfectionism; Whitefield and the leaders in Wales were pro Calvinist and anti perfectionism. This produced a break between John Wesley and Whitefield. Harris was a man who loved people and he loved the Wesleys and Whitefield and he did much to try to reconcile their differences, even though he was a committed Calvinist himself. He and Rowland seemed to recognise that the points of disagreement were superficial compared with the core Biblical Truths and they continued to work with the Wesleys. The English Methodists, however, built these differences of opinion up so much that there was a total split. There were many accusations on both sides about the devil being with the opposing side - they were both right; both sides allowed him in to cause this serious fracture.
This same year brought a split between Griffith Jones and the Methodists. He wrote, “Our new itinerant preachers are exceedingly erroneous, harsh, conceited and disorderly” and “very defective in common sense, common manners, and veracity or common honesty.” It seems that much of his opinion comes from hearsay and although some of what he said might have been true, some of it must have been problems with the old accepting the new. Also, he undoubtedly felt that the schools he highly valued might suffer as a result of his close association with the Methodists, so he disowned them. As a result, Welsh Methodism lost its respected figurehead and senior statesman. Harris tried to bring reconciliation, but sadly he did not succeed. From this point, Jones’ influence on Methodism was a corrective one from without, rather than a determinative one within. He was still very much respected by Harris and Rowland and they took note of certain things he said in later sermons.
Harris had often experienced persecution. He had been silenced by constables in Brecon; he had been arrested and then acquitted at trial in Monmouth; he narrowly escaped serious injury from a mob in Montgomeryshire. One of Whitefield’s companions, William Seward, died from mob violence when Harris was speaking at Hay. There were many attempts to stop him preaching through creating noise, threats of arrest, or violence etc. However, from 1741 persecution became more concerted. Harris was in London and read a periodical called ‘The New Weekly Miscellany’ which took delight in attacking Methodists. Whitefield and the Wesleys were attacked in turn, but now it was the turn of Harris and Rowland. They were accused of all sorts of things including making money out of the revival, wanting public applause, holding unlawful meetings and encouraging ‘enthusiasm.’
The Methodists were often in personal danger. Harris at Bala was hit with stones and dirt by a furious mob that had surrounded the house where he was preaching and there was an incident in Caernarvon where he barely escaped with his life. At LLanilar Rowland had stones and other missiles thrown at him so that he had to run for his life. At Aberystwyth a man aimed a gun at Rowland and pulled the trigger, but it did not fire. On another occasion people laid a good plan to blow up Rowland while speaking, but by accident the plan was discovered.
In January 1742, at Dugoedydd, there was a meeting of Methodist leaders led by Rowland, now the recognised leader of the Welsh Methodists. The meeting was to try to sort out some of the perceived problems about Methodism. This gathering of leaders later came to be known as an Association. Unable to attend the meeting, Whitefield sent a letter laying out his ideas. It was agreed to accept Whitefield’s organisational suggestions and to have closer links with England. At the next meeting itinerant preachers (exhorters) were examined and approved, with one exception. This was done to try to deflect the criticisms that abounded about laymen preaching. In those days the clergy had a very high opinion of themselves and many believed that only they were qualified to preach; there was little understanding of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. More detailed rules were decided on and printed, so that the world could see the scriptural validity of the private societies, the irreproachable nature of their activities and the character of their discipline; hoping to end some of the criticisms about the societies. Harris was the main person involved in the rules and organisation of the societies; it was he who examined the preachers and he was the Superintendent in charge of the societies. The rules of these societies were quite strict and much was expected of someone who joined, the aim being to help each person grow in maturity and a vigorous pursuit of personal holiness. The Methodists were persuing lively spirituality, as well as strict orthodoxy and morality.
Most of 1742 was a time of difficulty for the leadership as Harris and Rowland fell out. Harris felt that Rowland had his theology wrong on assurance. People were concerned by this breakdown in relationship, but by August it was resolved.
Early in 1743 Harris writes to Whitefield that the fire is still burning. “There is a general, fresh, and uncommon stirring in most places. Many come anew under convictions, especially old, worldly professors, and backsliders return. And there is such power as I never felt before given me in preaching and administering the Lord’s Supper. The Lord comes down amongst us in such a manner as words can give no idea of. Though I have, to prevent nature mixing with the work, openly discountenanced all crying out, yet such is the light, view, and power that God gives very many in the Ordinance, that they cannot possibly help crying out, praising and adoring Jesus, being quite swallowed up in God. And this I was obliged to leave my congregation, being many hundreds, in a flame, the one catching it from the other. It would have set your heart in flame to see them, and to feel the flame that runs through; and this is our condition generally every Sabbath! The convictions are now more deep and solid than formerly.” Through these good times persecution continued. One of the preachers was jailed for being a Methodist, but freed at his trial. Howel Davies was set before the Bishop’s Court for giving communion to people from outside the parish. William Williams was refused full ordination despite having the correct papers because he was a Methodist and preached outside his parish.
At the end of 1743 everything was good. The revival was continuing and the Methodists in Wales had developed a set of rules and an organisational structure that gave them more respectability. Doing this removed the cause of one of the main criticisms against them; that they were scripturally in error and disorderly. They were in complete unity over their doctrine; something that the English Methodists weren’t. They were also in unity with Whitfield’s English Methodists, seeing themselves as being exactly like the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the Puritans of the seventeenth. Rowland was the acknowledged head of the group, with Harris as Superintendent in Wales, the chief organiser. Whitefield was there instead of Jones to give advice. ‘Society houses’ were built, as under the law they needed to have registered buildings, so that they could meet without being harassed by their enemies.
The Methodists wanted to show everyone that the societies were not churches and that their itinerant and society preachers (or as they called them, exhorters) were not ministers. They were not a sect, but a people inside the Established Church who were called to reform until either they were heard or turned out.
The societies were handling people at different levels; some could see the dreadfulness of their sin, however they had not yet found Christ through justification by faith; some had found justification, but not sanctification and others had found both. The old law was dead to the Christian, but it was to be used as a ‘rule of life’ for his walk. Through this ‘rule of life’ he comes to rate Christ’s righteousness highly and it drives him to seek more sanctifying grace from God. The people were encouraged to read the Scriptures and leaders were instructed to test them. The success of this depended on the literacy of the people and this is where Griffith Jones’ Circulating Schools were crucial because they taught the people to read. Jones’ Church Catechism was used in the societies as well.
In the midst of all the success a problem was brewing. Harris was becoming more difficult and more critical of Rowland, year by year. He had been associating with Moravians since 1739 and his doctrine was tinged with Moravian beliefs that most in the Association did not agree with. The differences were magnified because there was a dogmatism about him that was unbending. He often reproved Rowland and Whitefield for their ‘levity’ and he became critical of their doctrines as ‘legal in some expressions’, and for being ‘contemptible of the blood’. He did not keep these disagreements private, but aired them at the Association meetings. The one in October 1746 was particularly stormy and acrimonious. Harris notes that the Association voted for Rowland to take over some of his duties and that they called him an Antinomian and Moravian. (On one of his trips to London he was caught up in one of the religious controversies that were eagerly debated there, but carried less significance in Wales. Because Harris was not always reliable in doctrinal discernment, he was repeatedly out of step with his Welsh brethren on these matters. Rowland’s orthodoxy proved a correcting influence on many occasions.) He also wrote that usually when there were disagreements with Rowland he would cry and hug him and all would be well, but this time he was ‘more stiff’; and things were not resolved.
Richard Tibbott considered both parties to be at fault; agreeing that Harris’ reproof was timely, but he told Harris that he was sometimes too dogmatic. Harris’ subjective judgement resulted in his being unable “to distinguish between people and their opinions. There is some bad in good men, but it is wrong to regard good men as bad on account of their faults. You failed to distinguish between some and others of those you opposed, and accused all indiscriminately…You were too hasty in taking suspicion for fact.” One undoubted problem was that Harris was happy when he was in charge or ministering on his own, but he did not like being under anyone’s authority. With the Methodists now becoming a proper organisation, it was very difficult for Harris to be part of it unless he was the leader. He was becoming far less tolerant of people who did not agree with his views. This was in such contrast to his former desire for unity and his loving people like the Wesleys, despite their Arminian stance. At this time he also believed that God was telling him things, so if anyone disagreed they had to be enemies of God.
This situation continued for several years. Rowland and Harris came into direct confrontation with Harris expelling some people from the societies and then Rowland allowing them back in. Harris was used to being in charge. In fact, when Whitefield went on his long trips to America he handed over his church and the leadership of the Calvinistic Methodism in England and Wales to Harris. Furthermore in 1749 Harris began to travel with a married woman whose prophetic gift blessed him, replacing his wife in the role of his counsellor. Many tried to reprove him for this folly, including Rowland and Whitefield (Whitefield banned him from his pulpit as a result). In trying to apportion blame in all this, it has to be significant that Whitefield, who knew them both well, supported Rowland throughout this time. As a result we may assume that Harris should take a large portion of the blame for the split that was soon to occur. Harris claimed that his relationship with the prophetess was purely spiritual and he believed it was of God. He ignored the Word of God on the matter, he ignored wise counsel from leaders; he ignored the sensibilities of his wife and the offence he caused to many. Harris was endangering the future of the movement due to a belief that he had a superior relationship with God which meant that he did not need to submit to anyone. Self-righteousness is a common strategy of the enemy to take out leaders; something we need to watch out for.
Following the Association meeting of May 1750, Rowland and Harris, together with their supporters; went their separate ways. Harris’ dictatorial attitude soon lost him considerable support and gradually Welsh Methodism rallied behind Rowland. The loss of Harris to the movement was considerable; they never found anyone to replace his amazing organisational and evangelistic giftings. Welsh Calvinistic Methodism went into a comparative decline as a result.
It is probable that the incredible amount of work that Harris carried out eventually affected his mind and body. A mental breakdown can be the only explanation for the change in his character. He continued to preach until May 1752 when his constitution broke down. In July he writes that he thinks his work is done and in December he gave his horse away, showing that he considered his preaching days were over.
For a long time Harris had been impressed by Professor Francke’s Pietistic Institutions in Halle, Germany. Resolving to create a similar institution, he pulled his house down at Trefeca in 1752 and then built another that had seven rooms on the ground floor, seven on the first and three attics. This building would house members of the ‘Family’ and by the following Whitsun he had 29 people in his community. As the activities increased more buildings were added. John Wesley visited in 1763 and wrote, “Howel Harris’ house is one of the most elegant places which I have seen in Wales. The little chapel, and all things round about it, are finished in an uncommon taste; and the gardens, orchards, fish-ponds, and the mount adjoining, make the place a little paradise…. About six score people are now in the Family; all diligent, all constantly employed, all fearing God and working righteousness.” Major additions were made in 1769. Some of Harris’ disciples rented farms nearby so that they could be close to him.
All members of the Family were expected to put all their resources at the disposal of the Community and to work at their trade. By 1759 as many as sixty different trades were being carried on in the settlement. Harris taught two or three times a day and preached publicly on Sunday. Some blind and disabled people found refuge there. When Harris started this work he was very sick and thought he was going to die, but he slowly recovered. He spent his mornings in prayer, reading and meditation and in the afternoon he interviewed people and inspected the work that was going on. In 1759 he went to see John Wesley, meeting later that year with Rowland and William Williams. He also felt well enough to do a preaching tour in Carmarthenshire, but he did not feel the time was right for a full reconciliation with the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists.
France at this time was preparing to attack England. This was the Seven Years’ War and William Pitt, the Prime Minister, had called out the militia to defend the nation. Harris felt that the Lord wanted him to join the militia and so in September he joined the Brecknockshire Militia as an Ensign; he was 45 years old. He recruited 24 men and served until the end of 1762, by which time he had been promoted to Captain. He only joined on the condition that he could preach wherever he went. One might wonder how he coped with taking orders for three years. He preached in many places in England, as well as Wales. On one occasion he went to preach in Great Yarmouth. Methodist preachers would not go there because of the fierce persecution, so he paid a town-crier to go around announcing that a Methodist preacher would be preaching in the market place at a stated time. The mob assembled to stop the preacher. Harris, who was with his men nearby, asked the mob why they were there. On being told he offered to sing a hymn with them and then he preached to them with little interruption. From then on he preached there regularly.
His work at Trefeca was clearly therapeutic for Harris and it was an interesting experiment, surviving him for seventy years. On its demise, the property appropriately came into the hands of the South Wales Calvinistic Methodist Association.
On hearing that Harris was going to resign his commission, the Methodist leaders sent him a letter saying that his, “inclination to visit our several counties again is the voice of heaven” and they were confident that “all animosities will and must subside and a spirit of love take place.” It was signed by Rowland, William Williams and others. The reconciliation was never complete, partly because many of his old friends had remained unchanged and also because there were signs that they were moving farther away from the Established Church, whereas Harris was moving closer to it. Many of his old friends also did not really accept the work he had done at Trefeca; most people wondered why he had stayed there rather than use his huge gifts in evangelising Wales. Others were not happy with his close association with the Arminian Wesleys. It was the Wesleys who kept in touch with Harris after the split. They had remained very loving and supportive of him, so it was small wonder that there was a close attachment there. He also had a strong relationship with the Moravians, the source of his original unorthodoxy, and many Calvinistic Methodists did not like his theology and his association with the Moravians.
Harris’ old desires for unity were surfacing again. He wanted the Calvinists, Wesleyans and Moravians to join together, but he was about the only one who did. He did, however, witness a measure of reunion between the Wesleys and Whitefield in 1766. He was again made Superintendent in charge of organising the societies and they needed a lot of work as his administrative gifts had been much missed, but there were several who would not bow to his authority. The wonderful revival in 1762 brought many more into the societies. Consequently his giftings were much used again, but he never recovered his former authority in the organisation.
Harris frequently went on preaching tours again all over Wales and in Bristol, Bath and London. In 1768 Lady Huntingdon built a training school for her preachers just a few hundred yards from his home in Trefeca. Members of the Family helped to build it and staff it. Harris himself exercised a measure of spiritual oversight over the students. In 1770 his wife, George Whitefield and Howel Davies all died. He had two daughters; one died in childhood and the other married a Catholic. From now on he was often in great pain. From the beginning of 1771 he does not seem to have left the immediate vicinity of Trefeca. In August 1772 John Wesley saw him for the last time and wrote, “we found our hearts knit together as at the beginning.” Howel Harris died on July 21st 1773 and was buried at Talgarth church. Twenty thousand attended his funeral and as his body was being interred; one clergyman after another was unable to read the Burial Service due to their emotions.
Harris was a remarkable man. Through his energy the Word of God spread throughout the whole of Wales. Undoubtedly the revival would not have spread the way it did had he not travelled so much, and had his organisational skills not put in place a structure in which the Methodist movement could consolidate and grow. In the societies his creative genius found scope and fulfilment. However, he was a man of contradictions; a man of love and yet critical; humble and yet proud. His pride and obstinacy made it impossible for his colleagues to work with him and yet those qualities helped him be an indefatigable evangelist despite persecution and dangers. Few did as much for the spiritual life of Wales as Howel Harris.
This essay has been taken from ‘Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales’ by Eifion Evans, published by The Banner of Truth Trust 1985. Mr Evans has written several books on Welsh Spiritual Heritage. Also ‘Howell Harris’ by G T Roberts, published by the Epworth Press in 1951 and ‘Howel Harris Evangelist’ by Eifion Evans, published by University of Wales Press in 1974. ‘Daniel Rowland’ on this website is very similar to this essay and is taken largely from the same book. Their lives were so intertwined that large parts are the same. There are also considerable similarities in parts of ‘Revivals – Wales’, also on this website.