Saturday, 28 April 2012

Howell Harris: Evangelical Enthusiast

Normally, I bristle when reading a book that labels an evangelical as an "enthusiast," but I have to agree with Geraint Tudur's assessment in Howell Harris: From Conversion to Separation, 1735-1750. This is an interesting biography of the early years of a key leader in the Welsh revival.

Tudur informs his readers that Harris left a huge collection of extant manuscripts, including letters and a diary that covers 1735 to 1773 (284 volumes of his diary alone!). But because of the difficulty of reading his handwriting, and the fact that the initial years of the diary are written in Latin, there has been little effort to publish a scholarly edition of his writings. Tudur deserves credit for what must have been painstaking work transcribing his manuscripts in order to pen such a biography.

Harris was born in Trevecka on January 23, 1714. He was the youngest of three boys. Tudur states that his parents were "devout Anglicans, genuinely concerned about the education and spiritual welfare of their children" (14). According to Harris's own account, he started wrestling with his internal spiritual state as early as 1731. Although meditating and praying, he continued in a sinful state, never feeling any ultimate relief. Palm Sunday 1735 seems to be the beginning of his conversion experience. On that day, the Anglican vicar of Talgarth, Pryce Davies, admonished his parishioners not to come to the communion table unless they were worthy. Torn by these words, Harris determined to change his life for the better so that the following Sunday he could partake of communion in a worthy manner. He pursued reconciliation with a neighbor whom he had a standing grievance with, and visited the sick. Harris did in fact take communion for the first time the following Sunday. But his initial success of piety faded as the days went by so that soon he lapsed into some of his old vices.

Harris took up reading The Whole Duty of Man, an Anglican book on godly living, and later Bryan Duppa's Holy Rules and Helps to Devotion (London, 1675). He also committed himself to fasting and praying often, and living a more ascetic lifestyle by denying many of the pleasures of life. He gained some encouragement from his efforts, but, as Tudur claims, "he had progressed no further than an outward, superficial change, and that his religion was rooted in mere conformity to a few rules seen in a book" (17). Harris struggled around this time with thoughts that bordered on atheism. In order to gain control over his wayward mind, he read Lewis Bayly's The Practice of Piety (1610), which taught him that those who believed in Jesus Christ would be forgiven of their sins. Finally, Harris gained some assurance that he had found Christ on a personal level. He saw Christ's death on the cross and was convinced that Jesus had died for him. Soon after this somewhat ecstatic experience, however, he was again overwhelmed by worries that he had not received the grace of God. I'll spare more of these kind of details in the book, only to say that Harris continued to fret over whether he truly received salvation for much of the 1730s and 1740s.

In the mid-1730s Harris began hosting religious meetings similar to English Methodist classes. Tudur writes, "Motivated by a desire to express his gratitude to God, he could not desist; his awareness of God's love spurred him on, not only to read to others but also to sell his possessions in order to give to the poor" (20). Pryce Davies, however, did not appreciate what he took to be a radical trying to usurp his authority and lead impressionable parishioners away from the Established Church. Meanwhile, Dissenters like the Baptists William Herbert and Phillip Morgan tried convincing Harris to leave the Anglican Church and join them. In order to decide what he should do, Harris looked for "an infallible sign" from God, believing that the Lord told him to remain an Anglican and forge ahead with his religious societies. Tudur explains that Harris looked for all kinds of signs when making even daily decisions. "A cock crowing out of time was an omen of Harris's own death, while the chattering of magpies signified the coming of trials and battles" (24). This type of "enthusiasm" would prove to be a major obstacle later in his life when he concluded that God was telling him that it was fine if he maintained an intimate relationship with a married women despite the advice of Methodist colleagues and to the chagrin of his wife.

In the summer of 1737, he met Daniel Rowland. The two worked tirelessly promoting the Welsh revival from the time of their first meeting in 1737 until 1750 when they parted company. In March 1739, Harris met George Whitefield in Cardiff. Harris then accompanied Whitefield to Bristol and London where he was introduced to other evangelical Methodists and joined the Fetter Lane Society. While in London, Harris became acquainted with the Moravians and their doctrine of "stillness," which advocated complete passivity when receiving divine grace. Returning to Wales, Harris felt encouraged to organize his societies in a more detailed manner, with strict governing rules. While at first only "exhorting" at meetings on his interpretation of books that he had read, Harris soon abandoned this practice and started preaching "extempore" on passages of scripture. Due to his charismatic personality, organizing ability, and powerful preaching, his societies grew dramatically. Whereas in 1737 he led some sixteen societies, by 1742 he estimated that some seventy-eight meetings were under his control. In order to create a more cohesive structure, he invited like-minded clergymen and laymen to join him in order to promote Welsh Methodism. But the initial collegial spirit would not last long since both Harris and Rowland were equally power-hungry and stubborn.

By March 1741 there were signs of a looming showdown between Harris and Rowland, who began to scuffle over theological points involving God's covenant with humanity and assurance of salvation. A temporary lull in the debate occurred when Whitefield assumed the position of Moderator of the newly-formed Association of Welsh Methodists in January 1743. But differences between Harris and Rowland continued throughout the 1740s. Adding to the problems, Harris's theology in the 1740s showed signs that he had adopted certain Moravian teachings on the wounds of Christ. Although disavowing conformity to Moravian theology, he nonetheless openly preached about the "Blood" of Jesus several times in his sermons. Harris furthermore struggled to give a clear and orthodox view of the Trinity. Besides theological matters, Rowland became irritated with Harris and his frequent visits to England for weeks and months at a time. To make matters worse, Harris held his societies in an iron grip whereby he exercised severe discipline and seemed quick to excommunicate anyone who dared question his authority.

The final issue that broke up Rowland and Harris had to do with the latter's controversial relationship with Sidney Griffith, an elite member of Welsh society who happened to be married. Harris first met her on a preaching tour in October 1748. From that point on, he was reluctant to let Griffith out of his sight. She toured with him for weeks at a time, stayed up late conversing with him, and was welcomed by him into his home for long periods of time, despite the protests of his wife and Methodist colleagues. The more criticism he received from friends and family, the more Harris determined to be with Griffith. Harris came to the conclusion that she possessed the gift of prophecy, and was essential for his own spiritual growth. This unhealthy relationship led to the formal separation between Rowland and Harris in 1750. Retreating to Trevecka with a minority of followers, Harris remained in relative isolation for a number of years until he reconciled with Rowland in 1762. By this time, Griffith had long passed away (she died in 1752), and Rowland needed Harris's help with a revival that was taking place at Llangeitho.

Harris's life is fascinating by any standards, but especially considering that he was a leading figure in the Welsh revival. His spiritual highs and lows, scandals, and erratic behavior trumps many of the more sane accounts of other eighteenth-century evangelicals. But such passion also had its strengths. Harris was instrumental in multiplying Methodist societies in Wales, thanks to his magnetic personality and fervent preaching. How different his life would have been had he been grounded more solidly on theological matters, been open to chastisement on improper behavior, and able to work well with others with strong personalities.

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