Howell Harris, Mightily Used of God in South Wales

volume 19, number 6, February 6, 2020

“. . . born again to a living hope.” -1 Peter 1:3

Howell Harris was born in Carmarthenshire, Wales in 1714, a year after Daniel Rowland, and three years after George Whitefield. John Wesley was eleven years old when Harris was born and all eventually became mighty preachers and instruments of revival in England, Scotland, and Wales. Harris’ family was nominally Christian, being baptized members of the Church of England. His two older brothers both were noteworthy men. The oldest, Joseph, was a talented silversmith who eventually garnered an important post in the British government, overseeing the production of gold and silver coins. He had many friends in science, including the astronomer Halley. Joseph wrote several notable books including A Treatise on Navigation. His second brother, Thomas, was a tailor who won a contract from the British government supplying uniforms to the army. He made a fortune doing so. Apparently neither of them walked with Christ. After Howell’s conversion to Christ they maligned him for becoming a Methodist, warning him that his life would amount to nothing, that he would die in obscurity. Ironically the names of Joseph and Thomas Harris are forgotten while Harris’ name lives on in the folklore of Wales and Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. 

Due to his parents’ lack of money Howell was not able to attend college and prepare for the Anglican ministry. Instead he became a school teacher, and continued regularly to attend the local Anglican Church at Talgarth. In the spring of 1735 young Harris became terribly convicted of his own sinfulness as he listened to his pastor Price Davis preach. A week before the communion season Davis said, “I know that many of you do not attend public worship when we serve communion and that is because you know you are not prepared before God to do so. But if you are not prepared to take communion then you are not prepared to live, and if you are not prepared to live, then are not prepared to die.” Howell Harris was converted shortly after Easter in 1735, within weeks of the conversion of Daniel Rowland, George Whitefield, and John Cennick. This was also at the time of the first wave of revival waters spilling over Northampton, Massachusetts through the preaching of thirty-two year old Jonathan Edwards. By the fall of 1735 Howell’s brothers in London prevailed upon him to enter Oxford University. They were willing to pay for his education. Harris was twenty-one at the time and a new Christian and was appalled by the wickedness and debauchery he saw at Oxford. He kept to himself and connected with no one. He could only take a couple of months of life at Oxford and returned to Wales before Christmas. 

Harris had undergone extensive conviction of sin prior to his conversion, fearing the wrath of God, understanding that he deserved hell and God’s just condemnation for his sin. So his conversion was profound, deeply moving to him, and he could not bear the thought of remaining silent about Christ while so many lived in sinful ignorance, superstition, and licentiousness. He began going door to door in his small town in South Wales, warning people to flee from the wrath of God which is sure to come. He walked in the mud beside farmers plowing behind oxen, telling them about Jesus’ death and resurrection, warning them to flee to Christ to escape perdition. Many hated him and rejected him, labeling him a fanatic. Others, however, were deeply moved by his persuasiveness, the deep conviction, and sense of eternity with which he spoke. Soon large crowds would gather to hear him preach. There was no sermon preparation, no sermon outlines or manuscripts. There was no discernible order or progression in his sermons. He did not expound texts of Scripture as we typically do. He said that God simply gave him a message he felt in his soul, and he opened his mouth and the Lord filled it with words of power and life. Those who heard him, almost to a person, were deeply convicted by their sin, seeing the horrors of hell before them, seeing the glory of Christ’s redeeming death and the power and efficacy of His resurrection portrayed vividly to them. They could not help but turn from sin and believe on Christ. Harris’ fame spread throughout South Wales and pastors and vicars in the established Anglican Church, as well as those in the Dissenting Church, urged their people not to listen to him, calling him a heretic, fanatic, and Methodist. The people, however, heard him gladly.

Before long Harris was traveling to other cities in South Wales, eventually making several trips into the north of Wales as well. He was earnest to preach Christ crucified, calling people to faith and repentance in Him. Often he would preach three or four times per day, sometimes up to two hours at a time, to several thousand people at a time. He was traveling by horseback 350 miles per week. He hardly slept and his living accommodations were Spartan at best, as was his diet. At the same time George Whitefield was startling the nation of England with his preaching; and Daniel Rowland, an ordained minister in the Church of England (as was Whitefield), was preaching to similar crowds and success in the south of Wales. Finally Rowland and Harris met at Defynnog in 1737 and both immediately sensed a kindred spirit, believing that God had raised them up to bring revival and awakening to Wales. During this same time period, two years after all three had begun itinerant preaching ministries, Marmaduke Gwynne, a nobleman and justice of the peace in Deyfnnog, intended to arrest Howell Harris for disturbing the peace. He was a man of integrity, however, and decided that before reading him the Riot Act which forbade riotous public assemblies, he should have the decency of first hearing him preach, being convinced that Howell was a troublemaker who would pronounce politically divisive judgments meant to stir up anarchy. When Gwynne heard none of this, no mention at all of politics or politicians, no railing against the King, he listened intently and found himself face to face with his sin and the judgment of eternity. He brought Harris home with him, much to the dismay of his daughter and wife. The former, daughter Sarah, was converted shortly thereafter and eventually married Charles Wesley. His wife finally was converted a few years later and the family continued to the end to support and defend Howell Harris and his preaching ministry.  

Harris was a master organizer and had learned from Dr. Woodward of the Church of England the importance of gathering new believers into small groups, what he called Societies. These were to help instruct new converts in the basics of the faith as well as to encourage fellowship and accountability. These Societies flourished all over Wales and were lead by what Harris called “Exhorters”, non-ordained men, whom he trained in the basics of preaching and teaching. Harris, like his Exhorters, was not ordained into Anglican ministry (he was turned down three times). He and Daniel Rowland held monthly meetings of these Exhorters, training them in the basics of the Calvinistic faith, determining who should be given the responsibility to exhort and what Society they should oversee. 

Howell Harris had many problems, which I plan to mention next week, but it is vital for us to remember that God powerfully uses men who are under the influence and anointing of the Holy Spirit. Harris never forgot his formerly lost condition and this fueled his passion for souls. He could not remain silent. He could not stop speaking of the things he had seen and heard. May our great God raise up many such young men whom He may use as His instruments of revival in our day—fearless men, carried along by the Holy Spirit, raised up to preach Christ, calling all men everywhere to repent. 

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