Not Fit to Live - Not Fit to Die

Not Fit to Live – Not Fit to Die

The conversion & early ministry of Howell Harris (1714 -1773)
by Rev Richard Holst
Minister at Bethel Presbyterian Church

The year 2004 marks the 100th anniversary of the last Welsh Revival. In commemoration, Network is publishing the first of two articles on the Welsh Revival story.

The history of Presbyterianism in England and Wales is the story of two quite different initiatives. The Presbyterian Church of England began with the merger of the United Presbyterian Church and various English and Scottish Presbyterian congregations in 1876. It ended in 1972 with the merger between the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Union of England and Wales to form the United Reformed Church. The history of Presbyterianism in Wales goes back to the Evangelical or Methodist Revival of the 18th century and to Welsh Calvinistic Methodism in particular. It is the combination of the Reformed doctrinal emphasis and the Methodist ethos that gave Welsh Presbyterianism its distinctive character to the end of the 19th century. We call it experimental Calvinism. The story of Welsh Presbyterianism begins in the year 1735 with the conversion of two men, Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris. In this article we trace the conversion of Howell Harris and his early ministry.

In the Devil’s Service

From the year of his birth until 1735 Howell Harris’ story is wholly unremarkable. His formal education began in 1725 at a nearby elementary school. In 1728 he graduated to the academy at Llwyn-llwyd and completed his secondary education with competence rather than distinction. In spite of this the young Howell Harris considered his familiarity with history, politics, games, and the like, ample qualification to be ‘the most interesting of companions’! He was an all-or-nothing kind of person, capable, on the one hand, of throwing himself into amusements and youthful mischief and of sinking into deep melancholy, on the other. We see something of this propensity when, after his father’s death in 1730, he became schoolmaster at the small township of Llan-gors, a place of doubtful reputation, not far from his home. While there, he neglected the classics in favour of plays and set about becoming the life and soul of every party. He was also an implacable enemy and mocker of the local Nonconformists. A man of extremes!

His time at Llan-gors troubled him long after his conversion. He called it, ‘the place where I first broke out in the devil’s service’ and later reminded his erstwhile friends that many of them used to go with him towards hell. Once, when preaching there, he said, “God’s grace must have been free, or else I would not have received it, because I was the worst of you all.” An occasional sermon might create a momentary crisis and he once dreamt that he stood before the judgment-seat of God, but such reflections produced only fleeting resolutions to mend his ways, and attempts to pray. “I tried to turn to God in my own power” he said, ‘but did not succeed until the day of His power came.’

Personal Efforts at Reformation

By the age of twenty-one he was entertaining thoughts of the Anglican ministry but as yet had not managed to attend a single service of Holy Communion, whether out of indifference or a tender of conscience, we are not told. But God’s ways are not ours! On March 30th, 1735, the Sunday before Easter, the vicar of Talgarth, the Rev. Pryce Davies, announced that the following Lord’s Day he would celebrate Holy Communion. He read the formal Exhortation from the Prayer Book and came to the words, “Therefore our duty is to come to these holy mysteries with most hearty thanks to be given to Almighty God …” Looking up he said, ‘You plead your unfitness to come to the Holy Communion. Let me tell you, that if you are not fit to come to the Lord’s Supper, you are not fit to live, you are not fit to die.”

The logic was impeccable. If we are unfit to draw near to God, we abide under his wrath and are not fit to live or die. Harris knew at that moment that he that he was unfit to meet his God and resolved that he would attend Holy Communion on Easter Sunday without a bad conscience. On his way home that morning he called on a neighbour with whom he had quarrelled and made it up with him. All the following week he kept himself from his usual sins and anything else he considered inconsistent with a religious life. Thus began his attempt at personal, moral reformation.

Next Sunday came and he presented himself at the Lord’s Supper more at ease with himself than before, that is, until the vicar began reading the general confession of sins. Howell recited the words after him, ‘We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness … which we have committed by thought, word and deed … provoking most justly your divine wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous to us …’ Bewail, repent, heartily sorry for our misdoings … grievous to us? All this was humbug; he was telling lies to God! His sins were not grievous, and he did not bewail them. He knew that the guilt of the previous Sunday had been a passing discomfort, and that if the truth be told, he didn’t feel any real burden at all!

It was enough to drive him from the Lord’s Table, but an ameliorating thought entered his head; he had honestly and sincerely tried to change his life and be as good as it was possible for him to be. He had done all that God could reasonably expect of him, and God is not unreasonable. Armed with the spurious comfort of a duty performed and seemingly with a clear conscience, he partook of the Holy Communion for the first time in his life.

From the Law to Christ

Beginning is easier than continuing – especially when you are trying to do it in your own strength! After momentary elation Harris found himself in the depths of despair. On April 20th, someone gave him a ‘Book on the Commandments written by Brian Duppa’. It seemed to do him no good; the more he read the more sinful he felt himself to be and the more depressed he became. ‘By the law comes the knowledge of sin!’ God was showing him the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin’ and he found the experience exceedingly painful. Nevertheless the book, which plunged him into despair, also showed him the way forward. Having tried to put himself right with God he now understood that he needed God to settle accounts for him. The Law of God had driven him to rely on the Son of God, who is’ the end of the Law to all who believe.’ Attendance at Whitsun communion was quite different because his confession was true and heartfelt. He had been to Jesus Christ for forgiveness. Through faith in him he was now fit to live and die.

The effect was more or less immediate. Harris began ‘exhorting’ whoever would listen to him, and others who would not. No period of preparation ‘in Arabia’ was necessary, though, as he later admitted, he knew nothing. But having been to the ‘Fountainhead’, and feeling the compulsion of his experience, he plunged himself into urging others to be reconciled to God. Those close to him were shocked, and by the following November had packed him off to Oxford ‘to cure him of his fanaticism’. But Harris was now God’s man and being unable to tolerate the worldliness and immorality of university life, he remained there barely a week before returning to Breconshire.

Early Public Ministry

Thus by 1736 his bold witness was attracting large audiences. He wrote, ‘a strong necessity was laid upon me, that I could not rest, but must go to the utmost of my ability to exhort. I could not meet or travel with anybody, rich or poor, young or old, without speaking to them of religion and concerning their souls’. Family gatherings turned into congregations so large that ordinary dwellings could not accommodate them. Family worship was instituted in many homes and churches in the neighbourhood became crowded, with many seeking admission to the Lord’s Supper. The Evangelical Awakening had begun.

The boldness and enthusiasm proved costly. Harris was frequently attacked and more than once appeared before the magistrate charged with being in violation of the Conventicle Act (a law forbidding meetings of certain groups). In 1737 he was ejected from his post as schoolmaster, being accused of irregularities by the vicar. He later wrote, ‘The ministers preached against me as a false prophet, the people despised me, pointing at me as I passed by, and young wastrels threatened to murder me, speaking all kinds of falsehoods against me… In order to keep me humble the Lord made me a laughing-stock and a subject of lampoons to all.’

Howell Harris had become the pioneer of the Evangelical Awakening in east Wales, just as in the west, and almost simultaneously, similar things were happening through the agency of a young curate named Daniel Rowland.

Passion Without Knowledge

The approach of this ‘all or nothing type of person’ to witnessing and especially preaching is interesting. He wrote, ‘Persuaded by my neighbours, I went during the festive season from house to house in our parish, and the parishes of Llangors and Llangasty, until persecution became too hot. I was absolutely dark and ignorant with regard to the reasons of religion; I was drawn onwards by the love I had experienced, as a blind man is led, and therefore I could not take notice of anything in my way. My food and drink was praising my God. A fire was kindled in my soul and I was clothed with power and made altogether dead to all earthly things. I could have spoken to the king were he within reach – such power and authority did I feel in my soul over every spirit…’

We note the experiential foundation of his enthusiasm, which carried him to the centre of Satan’s strongholds. Phrases like ‘clothed with power’ and ‘power and authority … in my soul’ suggest an absolute conviction about calling and message. He wrote, ‘I lifted up my voice with authority, and fear and terror would be seen on all faces. I went to the Talgarth fairs denouncing the swearers and cursers without fear or favour. At first I knew nothing at all, but God opened my mouth (full of ignorance), filling it with terrors and threatenings. I was given a commission to break and rend sinners in the most dreadful manner. I thundered greatly, denouncing the gentry, the carnal clergy, and everybody. My subjects, mostly, were death and judgment, without any mention of Christ. I had no order, and hardly any time to read, except a few pages now and then, because of constant busyness. But when I came to the people matter enough was given to me, and I received fluency of speech and great earnestness, although I was inclined by nature to levity and frivolity.’

His usual method was to read the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or a chapter from The Whole Duty of Man, or some other book and then expand on what had been read. This he did extemporaneously, perceiving himself to be the passive agent of the Holy Spirit. He would begin a sermon often without the slightest idea of what he was going to say and could continue for two to three hours, even six on one or two occasions! At this stage he made only scant use of the Bible. Richard Bennett comments that ‘for a long time Satan worked in him a curious disinclination to use the Word of God’.

Curious indeed, but not wholly out of character. Harris could be headstrong and was greatly influenced by his own experience and betrayed the weakness of one who thought he had a ‘hotline to heaven’. When scripture is marginalized it is often because personal experience has made it redundant. Perhaps Harris was more an experiential Calvinist, than an experimental one, for his subjectivity led him down some strange paths, even to the point of doctrinal aberration, in later years.

By his own reckoning, Harris’ early ministry set the standard for later years. Reflecting on moments of later blessing he would say, “the power of the first year has returned.” But here we are far removed from the expository and doctrinal preaching that builds the church. He was a man to convert rather than teach. Whereas Rowland would prepare, Harris seemed to despise preparation. He preached without safeguards. But for now he was God’s instrument of blessing, used mightily to call in his elect.

Organisational Gift

He was also a good organizer whose expertise contributed much to the building of the Calvinistic Methodists of Wales into a cohesive movement. He helped organize the groups of converts into ‘societies’ along essentially Presbyterian lines so that when the formal break with the Established Church came in 1811, there already existed in principle, local congregations, districts, presbyteries and regional synods or assemblies. Moreover, the doctrinal foundation had been laid not in Wesleyan Arminianism but in the experimental Calvinism of the Puritans and Marrow-men of Scotland.

The first gift he received was one of ‘similitudes and apt comparisons.’ His sermons were all very simple and easily understood by the dullest of his hearers. He used illustrations such as – someone out on the open mountain having lost his way, and darkness overtaking him; or a house on fire with the door locked, and the family refusing to open the door, etc. Such things spiritualised, flowing out scorching hot from the speaker’s heart, would leave a wonderful effect on the minds of many of his hearers. He was very acceptable for some weeks. But as the novelty wore away, and when he himself began to particularise, pouncing upon the besetting sins of the age and the particular locality, some were disgusted and others were terrified.

Vicar Davies opposed him from the beginning, and now he took advantage of his opportunity and sent him a nasty, imperious letter commanding him to give up the work immediately and warning him that he would lose the favour of his brother and others, together with every hope of obtaining Holy Orders. At the same time a more friendly Justice of the Peace advised him to beware of Puritanical zeal, and the people were threatened that they would be fined £20 for admitting him to their houses. It was in the face of such things that Harris’s first public attack on the ramparts of the enemy came to an end in February 1736, after lasting barely three months.

The years went by, filled with missionary journeys to the north and south. Every occasion was marked by unusual fervency and boldness in declaring the gospel of God.

He was a skilled organiser and worked hard to create order into the upsurge in public interest. He travelled around local groups across England and Wales and helped them to organise into Quarterly Associations. The new converts were gathered into ‘religious societies’ in towns and villages throughout the land. They were called ‘societies’ not churches because Harris and his co-leaders were church-men at heart and would not think of setting up rival churches or another denomination. Nevertheless the Calvinistic Methodists were becoming more numerous by the year and some degree of organisation and supervision was necessary. ‘Associations’ (not synods) were convened for leaders to oversee the societies and consider how best they might be served. Each ‘society’ was placed under the oversight of an ‘exhorter’, and a group of societies in a district was placed under the care of an ‘overseer’.

Eleven years passed before any new building was erected for the purpose of worship and when it became necessary to designate such places they were scrupulous to avoid anything that smacked either of ‘church’ or the dissenting ‘meeting houses’.

Preaching to large numbers

Howell Harris continued his journeys throughout north Wales and into England, speaking to large crowds. His evangelising around the country led to the formation of local associations or societies. Daniel Rowlands and he were regarded as leaders of this Connexion. Harris made many visits to London where he exploited his cultural connections with Welsh exiles and built upon this. He was a skilled organiser and worked hard to bring order to the upsurge in public interest. He travelled around local groups across England and Wales and helped them to organise into Quarterly Associations.