Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Howell Harris by Geraint Tudur

Howell Harris From Conversion to Separation 1735 - 1750
by Geraint Tudur, University Press of Wales, Cardiff, 2000, reprinted 2003 here .

Howell Harris was a pioneer of the 18th Century Evangelical Revival in Wales. He was the first of the revival leaders to be converted, in May 1735. Harris began to preach in the open air and gather new converts into “societies” before any other Methodist leader in England and Wales. By any reckoning, Howell Harris was a figure of real importance in the early Methodist movement. But unlike his contemporaries George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers and Daniel Rowland, Harris has not been the subject of a contemporary biography in English. Geraint Tudur has filled an important gap in our knowledge with his well-researched account of Harris’ life. The book is based on an Oxford D.Phil thesis. Tudur, a Calvinistic Methodist Minister, writes with scholarly grasp of detail, spiritual insight and warm sympathy for his subject. His account gives us a picture of a very human Harris as a great man with great faults who God used to accomplish great things.

From his conversion in 1735 until his death in 1773, Harris kept a regular spiritual journal. He left behind the literary legacy of 284 diaries. The diaries contain Harris’ reflections on his own spiritual progress and his analysis of the development of the Methodist Revival in England and Wales. Tudur set himself the task of mastering Harris’ virtually illegible handwriting in order to base his account on the diaries. It took the writer three months of painstaking work to crack the Methodist’s text.

Not long after his conversion, Harris began to read pious books to friends and neighbours. He soon progressed to preaching in the open air. His ministry had a noticeably awakening effect and Harris began to organise the converts onto Societies where the new believers could be nurtured and disciplined. Harris was a loyal member of the Church of England, although the leadership including his own Minister viewed him with suspicion. Harris’ attempts to gain legitimacy for his work via ordination were repeatedly blocked by his bishop. This led to Harris having something of an inferiority complex which he would compensate for by insisting that he was the overall leader of Welsh Methodism because he was the fist to be converted.

Dissenters tried to encourage Harris to join them and form his Societies into Nonconformist Churches. But he was determined to remain in the Church in which he had been converted and work for further revival and reformation in Anglicanism. This policy left the Societies open to attack and persecution by the authorities without the protection afforded to Dissenters under the Toleration Act of 1689.

Harris regarded himself as an “exhorter” rather than a preacher in order to distinguish himself from the clergy. His bold and powerful exhortations to the people to repent from their sin and turn to Christ provoked much persecution. Harris was mobbed, beaten, shot at and prosecuted for his evangelistic activities. But he continued to bring his message to the masses and many were awakened and joined the new Methodist Societies.

The book discusses Harris’ conversion and formative influences. From the time of his conversion, Harris believed that the Lord guided him by providential events and subjective impressions. If he was unsure of a course of action, he would seek God until he was granted the appropriate indication of what he was to do. This reliance on subjective guidance left Harris open to the charge of “enthusiasm” or fanaticism. Harris' understanding of these matters meant that once he had made up his mind that he was doing God’s will, nothing could make him alter course. This insulated Harris from legitimate criticism of his behaviour. His critics were dismissed as opponents of God’s purposes. If only they were more spiritually minded, they would see that he was in the right! Jonathan Edwards wrote his The Religious Affections to correct just this kind of attitude among converts of the Great Awakening.

Harris was the leader and chief organiser of the Methodist movement in Wales. In the early days he cooperated harmoniously with his fellow Methodists Daniel Rowland and William Williams. He fostered links with English Methodism, befriending Whitefield and the Wesleys. He was often invited to preach at Whitefield’s Tabernacle in London when the great evangelist was in America.

Tudur is too honest a biographer to omit discussion of the disruption of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism in the late 1740’s, that led to Harris' withdrawal from the movement in 1750. Harris came under the influence of Moravian teaching that put great emphasis on the blood of Christ. He preached about the blood of Christ as the blood of God and spoke about the Trinity in ways that alarmed other Methodist leaders such as Daniel Rowland. He was charged with patrapassionism – the teaching that the Father as well as the Son suffered on the cross. Harris’ response was that God had led him to this teaching and that Rowland and the other Methodist clergymen relied too much on book knowledge. Coupled with this was Harris’ increasingly domineering style of ministry as he sought to impose discipline on Welsh Methodism and eliminate criticism of his leadership.

But the issue that forced Harris to leave the mainstream revival movement was his relationship with Mrs Sidney Griffith. He was convinced that Mrs Griffith was a prophetess with rare spiritual insight. In the face of bitter (although understandable) opposition from his wife Anne, Mrs Griffith accompanied Harris on his preaching tours. This alienated the other Methodist leaders and made Harris’ relationship with Mrs. Griffith the subject of gossip and insinuation. But Harris was convinced that God had brought them together for the good of the revival. It seems that Harris was infatuated with this married woman. Although Tudur refutes Geraint Jenkins’ claim in The Foundations of Modern Wales that the relationship was consummated, Harris acted most unwisely during this period of his life. Tudur suggests that Harris was suffering from a kind of nervous breakdown due to massive overwork. This certainly helps to explain Harris’ erratic behaviour during the 1740’s and 50’s.

After the disruption, Harris withdrew to Trevecca, where he founded a community. He was reconciled to the other Methodist leaders in the 1760’s and resumed his work in the revival movement. This life of Howell Harris is a reminder that God uses deeply flawed human beings to accomplish amazing things for him. Harris was the instrument of conversion and revival blessing for thousands. The movement he began, Welsh Calvinistic Methodism seceded from the Church of England in the early 1800’s and became the largest and most vibrant of Welsh denominations in the Victorian period.


Isaac said...

Sorry for commenting on such an old post, but I'm interested in Harris' relationship with Mrs. Griffith. Was she exhorting as well or only uttering prophesies? Did Harris ever comment on Wesley's exhorting female companions or use Wesley's practices as justification for his own decision to travel with women? also, was Wesley at all involved in pressuring Harris regarding the inappropriate situation? It seems very similar, noting that Wesley was the subject of rumors (and jealousy from his wife) regarding the women he traveled with. Does Howell, as Wesley seemed to, ever refer to Montanus and his prophetesses as justification? Thanks. Great post

Exiled Preacher said...


Good job I get e-mailed the comments, or I wouldn't have picked this up.

I had a quick flick through the chapter on Mrs Griffith, and looked up the refs to JW in the index for the relevant pages. Couldn't find any mention of JW's attitude to the affair. Whitefield was against, though.

I don't think that Giffith exhorted.

I hope that helps.