At a time when Wales was lying
In a dark and deadly sleep,
Presbyter and priest and bishop —
None of these his charge did keep;
In the dark and dismal twilight
From Trefeca came a man,
All ablaze in sparkling brightness,
A thrill of fervour through him ran.
William Williams Pantycelyn may have been guilty of poetic licence here, but there can be no doubt that the Methodist Revival brought about a seismic change, that eventually saw the triumph of the gospel in Wales on a scale not seen since the age of the Celtic saints.
And there can be no doubt that Howel Harris, born 300 years ago and the subject of the above verse, was a key figure in this spiritual revolution. ‘Twym ias’ (‘a thrill of fervour’), Pantycelyn’s striking description of Harris, tells us much about this remarkable man.
Among the Methodists nobody was so courageous or tireless. In the early years of the movement, he travelled incessantly, preached at every opportunity despite much opposition, and devoted himself to organising young Christians into seiadau (experience meetings) to instruct and encourage them — but the ‘thrill of fervour’ never ceased.
Harris was born at Trefeca, near Talgarth in Breconshire, in January 1714. On Palm Sunday 1735 the vicar of Talgarth urged his parishioners to come to the Easter communion.
‘You say that you are not fit to come to the table. Well, then, I say that you are not fit to pray; yea, you are not fit to live and neither are you fit to die’. These words challenged Harris, a young schoolmaster, concerning his spiritual condition and, for the next few weeks, he was in agony of soul.
On Whit Sunday, however, ‘Strength was given me to believe that I was receiving pardon on account of [Christ’s] blood. I lost my burden: I went home leaping for joy’. And immediately he became an evangelist: ‘I said to a neighbour who was sad, “Why are you sad? I know my sins have been forgiven”.’
It is remarkable that Harris was converted at more or less the same time as Daniel Rowland and George Whitefield, although quite independently of them.
Shortly afterwards, he had a profound spiritual experience at Llangasty Tal-y-llyn Church: ‘I felt suddenly my heart melting within me, like wax before the fire, with love to God my Saviour . . . Give me strength and I will follow thee through fire and water’.
One of the most important results of this experience was that he devoted himself immediately to itinerant evangelism, first of all locally and then further afield.
Because of his ‘Methodism’ he was refused ordination in the Church of England on a number of occasions. Forbidden to preach in church buildings, he took to ‘exhorting’ in the open air, presenting gospel truths simply and directly with remarkable spiritual power and authority.
One day in 1738 he was ‘exhorting’ in Talgarth churchyard, when a young man stopped to listen and later recorded his experience, translated as follows:
This the morning I’ll remember,
I myself heard heaven’s call,
I received a fearful summons
From the highest court of all.
The man was Williams Pantycelyn. His life was changed that day, with untold consequences for himself and for all those who have been uplifted by the biblical truths and spiritual warmth that flow through his hymns.
Harris encountered much persecution on his evangelistic journeys. While he was preaching at Hay-on-Wye in 1740, stones were thrown at him and William Seward — a close associate of both Whitefield and John Wesley — and Seward died from his injuries.
When Harris ventured to North Wales, he was beaten mercilessly in Bala and a gun was fired at him in Machynlleth.
Although he often suffered at the hands of mobs organised by gentry or clergy, nothing could daunt his fearless zeal for Christ, as he, in Williams Pantycelyn’s words, ‘hurled tremendous lightnings . . . on the dark benighted millions who in sin’s foul regions lay’.
In 1737 Harris met Daniel Rowland at Defynnog, Breconshire, and from then on it was obvious that a Methodist ‘movement’ was afoot in Wales. The conversions of Williams Pantycelyn and Howel Davies, ‘the Apostle of Pembrokeshire’, (also through Harris’s ministry) provided significant additional momentum.
Harris’s horizons were further broadened when he met Whitefield at Cardiff in 1739. ‘When I first saw him’, said Whitefield, ‘my heart was knit closely to him. I wanted to catch some of his fire and gave him the right hand of fellowship with my whole heart’.
Harris provides a key insight into the essence of early Methodism when he records that, ‘The first thing he said to me was, “Do you know your sins are forgiven?”’
Harris subsequently came into contact with the Wesleys and was highly regarded as a mediator and conciliator among English Methodists. He was also much respected by Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, and it was partly his presence nearby that, in 1768, persuaded her to establish her ‘nursery for preachers’, on land sub-let by Harris just a few hundred yards from his home.
Within Wales, however, tensions gradually arose between Harris and the other Methodist leaders, partly because of his enigmatic personality.
He could be very generous and tender-hearted — ‘I love to love’, he said on one occasion. But he was also authoritarian, stubborn and volatile, and, although he was often eager to ask forgiveness of those whom he had offended, friction with his fellow-Methodists was inevitable.
There are indications that, perhaps as a result of his indefatigable evangelism, he may have been suffering from some kind of breakdown by the late 1740s.
Doctrinal tensions made relationships even more difficult. In company with the other Welsh Methodists, he was essentially Calvinistic in his doctrine. However, his theology was more fluid than dogmatic, and his injudicious enthusiasm and unguarded mode of expression on occasion caused them much concern.
His admiration for the Moravians, for example, led him to follow them in their unhealthy preoccupation with the physical blood and wounds of Christ. He also strayed into a form of Patripassianism, in which he failed to distinguish between the Persons of the Godhead and supposed that it was the Father who suffered on the cross.
Things came to a head over his relationship with Madam Sidney Griffith, a married woman who claimed special prophetic gifts. To the dismay of the other leaders — and his wife — Harris accepted her claims and regularly took her with him on his preaching journeys, with the aim of securing divine guidance.
Although there is no evidence of any adulterous relationship between them, the episode — which ended with Madam Griffith’s unexpected death, contrary to her ‘prophecies’ — brought the gospel and Methodism into disrepute.
As a result of these tensions, in 1750 Harris parted company with the other Methodist leaders in Wales and, in 1752, committed himself to establishing a self-supporting Moravian-style Christian community — the ‘Family’ — at Trefeca.
Williams Pantycelyn was not impressed, rebuking Harris for turning from his itinerant evangelism to set up ‘some big monastery’. Harris’s endeavours to ensure the success of the venture, including a personal interest in innovative agricultural methods, are nevertheless full of fascination.
There was extensive building at Trefeca to accommodate the numbers who joined him. Eventually they totalled about 120, with about another 50 living on farms nearby. The present building has been altered to some extent, but still displays the Georgian style that Harris favoured.
The ‘Family’ continued at Trefeca after Harris’s death, but, in the 1830s, the buildings were presented to the Calvinistic Methodist denomination and now house a lay training and conference centre.
Harris was reconciled to the other Methodists in 1762 — a reunion accompanied by a powerful revival — and began again to travel the country preaching the gospel, although by this time he no longer had the physical vigour of former years.
He died in 1773 and was buried at Talgarth Church, in front of the altar rails (now covered by carpet). A memorial plaque stands on the south wall.
Harris recorded many of his innermost thoughts in nearly 300 diaries. It must be acknowledged that they reveal an excessive introspection, including a tendency to regard ‘impressions’ as divine guidance and seek such guidance for the most trivial matters.
What they demonstrate most of all, however, is that ‘thrill of fervour’ — the openness and freshness of his walk with God, together with his personal dynamism and boundless energy in the work of the gospel.
He is rightly regarded, not only as one of the founding fathers of Methodism in Wales, but also as one of the most important Welshmen of the eighteenth century. The ‘thrill of fervour [that] through him ran’ also stands as a testimony to the spiritual vitality of true biblical religion, and an urgent challenge and rebuke to every tendency to indifference and apathy among Christians today.