Saturday, December 10, 2016

Howell Harris and the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists

            Only among the Welsh are the terms ‘Calvinistic’ and ‘Methodist’ mutually compatible. In America, the very mention of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists brings a chuckle of disbelief. That’s because nearly all branches of Methodism trace their origin to Anglican priests John and Charles Wesley, both staunch anti-Calvinists. Yet, three years before the Wesleys found peace with God, a bold evangelist in Wales was preaching to burgeoning crowds which he later organized into “Societies,” small groups of converts who met for mutual encouragement. Those Societies were the start of Methodism in Wales.
            Because the influence of Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland was so pervasive in Wales, the Methodist Societies there became strongly Calvinistic and were later considered to be synonymous with Presbyterianism. Ironically, Howell Harris was loyal to the Established (Anglican) Church before and after his conversion. In fact, he had harsh words for Dissenters, labeling them “a perverted and dangerously erroneous set of people.” Yet after he began his evangelistic ministry, he found more support from the Dissenters than from Anglican clerics, the latter preaching against him as “a false prophet” and “a deceiver.”
            Those who knew Howell Harris before his conversion would never have expected him to become an advocate of holiness. By his own testimony he had a combative temperament and was given to extreme vanity:

When I was at school, although small in stature, I was ever ready to fight, even with friends. I harboured hatred towards those who treated me shabbily, and despised those of my own family when I wore a new suit of clothes. I was skillful at lying to my mother, teacher, or anyone ill-treated by me, and crafty in framing excuses for breaking the Sabbath. (Harris, Autobiography)

            That all changed on Palm Sunday, 1735, when the twenty-one year old Harris heard the Vicar of Talgarth Church admonish the congregation: “If you are not fit to come to the Lord’s table, you are not fit to live, and you are not fit to die!” Harris was profoundly smitten by those words. “All my natural faculties were confounded in the shock,” he wrote. He began immediately to amend his ways, exercising religious duties faithfully and making restitution to those he had wronged. Yet he found no peace in his good works.
            As Whitsunday approached, Harris fasted from Thursday to Sunday, and he recorded all the sins he could remember from age four. During this agony of spirit, “he felt the strong urge to give himself to God” (Dallimore, 237). It was at last this abandonment of his own efforts and his trust in the complete atonement of Christ that brought peace and transformation to Howell Harris. “I knew that my sins were forgiven me . . . I was so deeply convinced that nothing could shake my assurance of it.” His old life of vainglory also vanished: “Now, the world and all thoughts of human applause and preferment were quite vanished from my sight.” (Autobiography)
            Harris wasted no time in sharing his new life with his “fellow sinners”. Finding no churches willing to accommodate his preaching, he took to the open air, which set a trend that was to be followed by Rowland, Whitefield, and later John Wesley. His extemporaneous preaching found a welcome response from multitudes across Wales, but it also stirred opposition from all ranks of society. Mobs, sometimes led by clergymen reviling him in the same coarse language as the common folk, accosted him, “flinging stones or anything they could lay their hands on.” Once while Harris was preaching from a second story window in Machynlleth, a crowd led by a lawyer, a clergyman, and “a gentleman” began hurling stones and swearing at him. “One of them discharged a pistol at me,” he recalled. “I received no hurt, but was obliged to go among them into the street, not expecting that I should escape alive . . . But my hour was not yet come.” (Autobiography)
            Despite the ill treatment he received from Anglican clergy, he remained loyal to the Established Church. He entered St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford, hoping to attain ordination, “but when I saw the irregularities and immoralities which surrounded me there, I became soon weary of the place.” He returned to Wales and resumed his itinerant preaching and teaching, in spite of Anglican rules against un-ordained religious teachers.

A strong necessity was laid upon me . . . I could not meet or travel with anybody, rich or poor, young or old, without speaking to them concerning  their souls. (Autobiography)

            Harris applied twice to the Anglican bishops for ordination, but was – not surprisingly – refused because of his Methodism. His denunciation of Established Church clergy trumpeted like Jesus’ denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees of His day:

Many who wear the cloth . . . what good they do I know not. Because I led some hundreds of ignorant people to a knowledge of what it means to be Christians, to live in peace and to exercise morality, I am called a madman by those who claim the office of enlightening the people who are in darkness.

            In 1752 Harris founded a Christian community after the Moravian model and called it Teulu Trefeca (The Trefeca Family), which later became Trevecca College. Harris died in 1773 at his home in Trefeca Fach and was buried nearby. It was reported that nearly 20,000 people attended his funeral.
            Harris’s open-air preaching not only inspired other revivalist preachers, such as George Whitefield, John Wesley, and American evangelist Samuel Davies, but it laid the foundation for the 19th- and 20th-century mass evangelism of D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

Dallimore, Arnold. George Whitefield, vol.1
Douglas, J. D. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.
Harris, Howell. Autobiography. Kindle edition

(First Published in the Welsh-American newspaper Ninnau & Y Drych, May-June, 2016

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