Harris was born at Trefeca, near Talgarth in Brecknockshire on 23 January 1714. He was the youngest of five children of Howel ap Howel alias Harris (c. 1672–1731), a carpenter, and his wife, Susannah (died 1751), daughter of Thomas Powell. He underwent a religious conversion in May 1735 after listening to a sermon by the Rev. Pryce Davies, the Sunday before Easter, in the parish church on the necessity of partaking of Holy Communion. This led to several weeks of self-examination. This reached a climax at Communion on Whit Sunday, May 1735, following the sermon. After what is described as answering the devil’s accusations, he received Communion, and came to the conviction that he had received mercy through the blood of Christ. This resulted in a sense of great joy. He immediately began to tell others about this and to hold meetings in his own home encouraging others to seek the same assurance that he had of Christ’s forgiveness.
Having failed to be accepted for ordination in the Church of England because of his “Methodist” views, he became a travelling preacher and was tireless in his determination to spread the word throughout Wales. His preaching often led him into personal danger, and he endured considerable persecution and hardship before gaining a following. From 1738 he was supported by Marmaduke Gwynne, who was a local squire and early convert.
After a disagreement with Daniel Rowland, there was a reconciliation and Harris began to preach again in 1763. When he died, ten years later, and was buried close to his birthplace at Talgarth, 20,000 people are said to have attended his funeral.
There is a memorial to Harris in Rhydyclafdy, near Pwllheli, where he preached.
He was effectively the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, also known as the Calvinistic Methodist church.
The papers of Howell Harris
Harris kept a detailed diary, in addition to a careful filing of letters he sent and received during his ministry. His papers afford access to a first eye witness of the Welsh Methodist revival. After his death, they were left to gather dust for over a century until O. M. Edwards, in the 1880s, noted their importance and suggested they ought to be cared for. By this time, the once-home of Harris at Trefeca had been turned into a college.
The deputy head of the College, Edwin Williams, took on the task of putting the papers in order. They were kept at Trefeca until 1910 when the Presbyterian church of Wales (which ‘owned’ the papers) decided to set up a committee whose responsibility it would be to take care of the papers and to study them.
By 1913 the scale of the work needing to be done on the papers became apparent. As many of the papers were in Latin, it was estimated that it would take much of a decade and a vast sum of money to ready the papers for publication. In 1913, it was decided that a better use of resources would be to set up a Historical Society of the Presbyterian church of Wales that would be responsible for publishing a regular journal to include, amongst other articles, some of Howell Harris’s papers.
It is believed that around 1932, the papers were moved from Trefeca to the denomination’s theological College in Aberystwyth. Those papers, along with others from Coleg y Bala (an old college of the denomination in Bala, North Wales), were taken in 1934 to be stored safely at the National Library of Wales. The papers are in the vaults to this day. Revd Dr Geraint Tudur (son of R. Tudur Jones), formerly Lecturer in Church History at University of Wales, Bangor, now General Secretary of the General Union of Welsh Independents, published a biography of Harris: Howell Harris: From conversion to separation, 1735–1750, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000.
- Born: 23 January 1714, Talgarth, Wales
- Died: 21 July 1773, Talgarth, Wales