FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 19, number 7, February 13, 2020
“Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” -1 Timothy 4:16
There is no question that God mightily used Howell Harris as a major catalyst for revival in Wales in the 18th century. God was transforming the nation of Wales through Calvinistic Methodist preachers like Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland, and Griffith Jones. By 1746, however, leaders of the Calvinistic Methodist movement began to be concerned with some of the doctrinal content of Howell Harris’ preaching. He began speaking of God dying on the cross, of God’s blood being shed at Calvary, of God the Father and Spirit dying with Christ on the cross. This kind of language dominated most of Harris’ sermons at the time. He said that God had revealed to him the mystery of Christ’s two natures, that the historical manner in which the church proclaimed Jesus as being both God and man was lacking, that they were denying the fullness of Christ’s atoning work. The Nicene Fathers in 325 A.D. used very specific and thoughtful language to speak of the hypostatic union in Christ, His being one substance with the Father, very God of very God, begotten not made, but Harris was not satisfied with that language. When his good friend Daniel Rowland tried to speak with him, to suggest that he was going too far in speaking of God dying on the cross, Harris would hear nothing of it. He said, in his journal, “I declared that I had this from God and not from man and would preach it and God would cut my way through men and devils and if they would all stand against it, it was no more to me than to see butterflies. I was only grieved to see their ignorance of this mystery, which is my food.” Finally Rowland (who of course had joyfully labored side by side with Harris for over ten years), in a tract entitled A Conversation Between An Orthodox and Erroneous Methodist, carried on an imaginary conversation with Harris, accusing him of Sabellianism (confusing the three persons of the Godhead), Patripassianism (God the Father became flesh, suffered, and died on the cross), and Eutychianism (Christ’s divinity became flesh, that His flesh is ubiquitous). In retrospect it appears that Howell was not consciously being heretical, that he was merely confused and went too far at times in speaking of the glory of Christ’s death at Calvary.
But Harris also had other mounting problems. One of his disciples, James Beaumont, was a young preacher in whom Harris had poured much instruction, and Beaumont increasingly gave evidence of departing from orthodoxy in his preaching. He was accused of Antinomianism (he refused to believe the Law was in effect today or that believers had any responsibility to obey it) and of denying the Trinity. At the monthly Exhorters’ meetings, Rowland, Howell Davies, William Williams, et al regularly challenged Beaumont’s views, urging him to repent of them. Harris continued to defend his friend, saying that the others did not understand him, that they were misinterpreting him. Eventually Beaumont was turned out of the fellowship, but Harris remained faithful to Beaumont until his death.
However the greatest weakness of Harris’ ministry was his tendency to believe the Holy Spirit spoke directly to him, outside the bounds of Scripture. Harris often opened his Bible willy-nilly, reading whatever he saw, believing it was a direct word for him to obey immediately and without reservation. With this tendency, Harris was also given to superstition which manifested itself in his belief that Madame Sydney Griffith was a prophetess who was given ability by God to test the spirits, to see whether or not they were from God. Madame Griffith had been terribly abused by her husband who eventually left her. She had been converted under Harris’ preaching. Harris believed God had gifted him with Madame Griffith so that she could discern who should or should not become Exhorters in the ministry in Wales. Some have suggested sexual impropriety between Harris and Griffith. After all, Harris believed that God told him his present wife would soon die and that he was to marry Madame Griffith. At best, the relationship between Harris and Griffith gave the appearance of sin. However there can be no doubt that she ruined his ministry, costing him credibility with other Christian leaders and preachers. When challenged by them concerning her authority, he always quickly turned them out of the Societies and places of leadership. He had no tolerance for anyone challenging his authority.
Finally, in 1750 George Whitfield, Daniel Rowland, Howard Davies, and William Williams agreed to turn Harris out of their fellowship. Harris took it well, believing it was a test from God, that the devil was given opportunity to discourage him. He wrote in his journal, “Secretly I perceived that the Lord willed that we should depart from the brethren and their Association, because, (1) They have in spirit departed from the Lord. (2) They are in truth his enemies. (3) Because they hate the government of the Spirit. (4) Because they despise the Urim and the Thummim (probably a reference to Madame Griffith). (5) Because they do not have life to feed upon the Christ. (6) Because they despise the doctrine of the flesh and blood, and I love in truth this dear and infinite flesh and blood.” He very obviously at this time is given over to self-righteousness, being totally unwilling to receive rebuke or correction from his brethren. He is even intimating that the opposition of these godly men proves they are not true followers of Christ. He gathered a few remaining men around him and began a new society at his home in Trefeca. He made even more strenuous the requirements of the Exhorters, making them swear allegiance to Madame Griffith, saying that she was a gift from God to them. He publicly rebuked any who challenged him on anything. Eventually all but a few of his Exhorters deserted him as well.
By this time Harris’ preaching ministry had pretty much come to an end. He gathered together a Community of believers at Trefeca, requiring them to give up all their possessions to him, living in communion, holding all things in common. This seems to have been an honorable assembly, nothing like the cults we typically consider today when hearing of such things. Finally, some thirteen years after the split, Harris and Rowland were reconciled to each other, and enjoyed sweet communion together. The wounds of the past had healed. It seems safe to say that both Rowland and Harris had huge egos, and though they loved Christ and each other, like all men, their fleshly desires at times conquered them, much to the detriment of the Church and her mission.
What can we, who desire to be used of God to see revival come to our own nations, learn from Howell Harris and the split, or what church historians call “the great disruption”? I will mention two things for our consideration. First, on a positive note, Harris was incredibly zealous and bold with the gospel. He was a man utterly possessed by the Spirit of God (at least in the first ten years or so of his ministry), one who saw vividly the lost condition of mankind, one who saw the efficacy of Christ’s death as the only hope for his nation. His vision of Christ and His gospel moved him to risk his life for his countrymen, to proclaim to them the excellencies of Christ, holding out to them, with unusual power, the hope of salvation. His was a free offer of the gospel. All, regardless of their condition, could be saved at that very moment if they called on the name of the Lord to save them. He fervently preached the utter sinfulness of man and the effectual regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. His ministry was used mightily of God to transform Wales. There can be no doubt about that. May God so work in us, deeply impressing upon us the glory of the gospel, so that we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard! May we sincerely believe that God can do the same thing today, as he did over 250 years ago and may we expect Him to do it!
Second, we need to guard our hearts against the sin of pride, and by this I have immediately in mind the temptation to think God speaks to us outside the bounds of Scripture. I, of course, am not denying the illumination of the Spirit, or even at times what we perceive as God deeply impressing something upon us (I imagine most of you have had this from time to time, but hopefully we put far less confidence in this than we do Scripture), but Harris put this sort of thing on par with Scripture. This led him to go too far in describing Christ’s hypostatic union as God dying, of God’s blood being shed, thinking God had revealed this mystery to him, something even the Nicene fathers humbly acknowledged to be beyond their comprehension. His pride also prevented him from listening to the reasoned, theological perspective of his theologically orthodox friend, Daniel Rowland, causing Harris to give undue support to James Beaumont when it was clear to so many others that Beaumont had departed from orthodoxy. His pride was manifested in his unwillingness to hear the wise counsel of brethren who loved and respected him. His violent and angry reaction, also an evidence of pride (he had a terrible temper which often exploded at Exhorter meetings), frequently came against anyone who challenged him on anything. It was “his way or the highway”. And his pride was seen in his unwillingness to turn out Madame Griffith as a heretic. He simply refused to listen to sound biblical and theological counsel on the matter. Harris’ sin of pride short circuited a remarkable and powerful ministry in Wales and England. How much more could have been done had he listened to godly counsel, had he humbled himself and thought objectively on these matters!
It seems to me that most of us in the gospel ministry have an extra burden of battling the sin of pride. Our positions tend to lend themselves to this temptation. Many put us on pedestals (at least for a few years, anyway), complimenting our preaching or pastoral gifts or leadership. We can listen admiringly to these complements and if we are having success in ministry (usually most perceive this to be a numerically growing congregation) and if we are enjoying notoriety outside our churches through writing or preaching in a larger context, then the hideous sin of pride can lodge deeply within our hearts and minds. We can get to the place where we live to preach, live to serve the church. We can unknowingly begin to trust our experience, our personality, our accomplishments, all the nice things some say about us; and then it is not long before we refuse to listen to the gentle suggestions of our wives, a trusted elder, an experienced staff member, or a caring mentor to whom we have often looked for counsel.
It has often been said that leadership is a lonely place and certainly it is. A leader is so often one who is out front, who has vision, who sees things others are not yet able to see. I thank God for the leadership abilities and vision God has given you, and I am thankful for the way the Lord is using so many of you in building Christ’s church. My prayer is that we would all see a mighty outpouring of the Spirit upon our ministries. It is clear that God often uses men of such vision, faith, and leadership; and it is also true that He so often seems to work in spite of our sinful pride and presumption, as He continued to do in and through Howell Harris for many years. Some of Harris’ most powerful sermons were preached during the disruption. This, of course, is a mystery to us. We cannot understand how this can be. One thing is sure, however, and it is that we cannot presume upon all the nice things people say about us. Paul told Timothy to be very careful to keep a close watch on his personal life of holiness and on his doctrine. He was always to be vigilant in these matters. The promise to Timothy was that a persistent pursuit of sound life and doctrine would guarantee his own salvation as well as the salvation of those who hear him.
Never forget, Almighty God is the One who has saved us, called us, equipped us, and who goes before us in ministry. He is the potter and we are the clay.
1 The 18th century Methodists, led by John and Charles Wesley, were mainly from England and were Arminian in their theological approach. That is, they believed man had some measure of ability to “decide for Christ.” The Calvinistic Methodists, on the other hand, were mainly residing in the nation of Wales and were decidedly Calvinistic in their doctrine. That is, they believed in the total inability of man to call on the name of the Lord for salvation. They embraced the doctrine of election and the faithful ministry of the Holy Spirit to draw His people to Himself in due time. The term “Methodist” was, at the time, a pejorative term meant to mock the discipline and personal holiness of these “Methodists.” The recipients of this moniker, however, considered it a badge of honor.
2 As one historic example of what we might call divine impressions, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as pastor of Westminster Chapel, London, 1939-1968 was convinced that God would preserve the church building at Westminster, even as the Nazis bombed the city repeatedly during World War II. He believed this because he knew that the gospel was preached at Westminster Chapel and he believed that God would not allow the gospel to go silent at such an important time in London’s history.