NOTICE: Store prices and specials on the Banner of Truth UK site are not available for orders shipped to North America. Please use the Banner of Truth USA site .

Section navigation

JOHN ELIAS 1774 – 1841

Category Articles
Date November 29, 2005

There have been men who made the most profound impression upon their own generation, yet whose very names are well-nigh forgotten by posterity. Man ‘fleeth as a shadow and continueth not,’ and another generation takes his place upon the stage of life. Such is the shortness of life that few find time to obey that Scriptural command: ‘Inquire, I pray thee, of the former age . . . Shall not they teach thee, and tell thee?’ (Job 8:8-10). As a result, those glorious works which God wrought among their forefathers are unknown, and the lessons they ought to have learned from them wholly lost. One cannot consider the life of John Elias without being sadly persuaded that such observations are true. Though he died only some hundred and sixteen years ago [at the time of writing], though his preaching was attended by such evidences of Divine power as have not often been seen in these British Isles–promoting a great awakening in North Wales–and though his influence as a minister of Christ in his own day was second to none, yet the fact is that his life is now neither known nor remembered by the vast majority.

John Elias was born near Pwllheli, Carnarvonshire, on March 6, 1774. His parents were not religious, but under the hand of his godly grandfather he was brought to fear God at a tender age. By the age of seven he had read through the Bible from Genesis to the middle of Jeremiah. Soon after when his aged grandfather was unable to walk with his grandson on Sabbath days to hear the preaching of the Methodists, the young boy would continue to walk without a guide or friend upwards of ten miles to hear the Word of God. His distress at his parents’ failure to observe God’s commands caused him to weep much, and at length prevailed upon them to hold family worship. Though between the age of fourteen and sixteen (Elias tells us) he experienced great inward conflict ‘there was a strong inclination to become light and trifling like my contemporaries’–yet these serious impressions did not leave him, and the concerns of his soul remained the one thing needful in his mind. From his earliest days he had heard stories of the great work of God in South Wales and of the revivals which had occurred under the preaching of Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands. The former Elias could never hear for he had died in 1773, but Rowlands in his old age, was still preaching with great power at Llangeitho. As soon as he felt strong enough for the walk of 80 miles Elias was determined to journey south to Llangeitho. But one Sabbath morning, in his seventeenth year, upon going to church in Pwllheli he was overwhelmed with the mournful tidings of Mr. Rowlands’s death. Little did Elias realise at this time that he himself was to be in the north what Rowlands had been in the south!

North Wales at this time was a scene of spiritual darkness. The Established Church was dead, and the people were given over to all manner of ungodliness. When Harris had preached in the north in 1741 he had very nearly lost his life. But there were some in the north who had been converted under Rowlands or Harris and who began to form Methodist societies as in the south. Their leader was Thomas Charles who settled at Bala in 1783. God’s time to favour them was about to come. In 1791 a great awakening occurred at Bala. Charles writing in that year says, ‘We have had a very great, powerful, and glorious out pouring of the Spirit on the people in general. Scores of the wildest and most inconsiderate of young people of both sexes, have been awakened. Their convictions have been very clear and powerful. . . divine truths have their own infinite weight and importance on the minds of the people. . . at one time there were but very few who had not felt awful impressions on their minds, producing foreboding fears respecting their future existence in another world.’ The following year Elias, now eighteen, joined a large company of young people who were to attend the Association meeting at Bala (These Associations were regular meetings among the Welsh Methodists, when believers gathered to be addressed by several ministers). As they walked to Bala, a distance of 40 miles, Elias says their time was filled with praise or discourse concerning the Bible or sermons. ‘They were indeed most anxious for the unspeakable favour of meeting with God. When we came there we observed crowds from different places, meeting together, and the whole multitude, appearing as persons of one mind, and engaged in the same important business . . . God owned the preaching in an extraordinary manner, making his servants like a flame of fire. The saving operations of the Spirit were most clear and powerful on the people; and the divine glory rested on them. . . I had such delight and pleasure in the fellowship of these godly people that I could not live separate from them. I determined to join them.’

It was about this time that Elias was brought to a state of peace in his own soul, and he began to be burdened towards the work of the ministry. In 1793 Thomas Charles wrote, ‘A very general awakening now prevails through the greatest part of the county of Caernarvon.’ At Christmas 1794, the monthly presbytery meeting in Carnarvonshire received John Elias a preacher.’Brethren,’ said an old minister, ‘when I am in the dust this young lad will be a great man.’ Never was the ministry undertaken with more gravity and solemnity. Apart from one or two Puritan works he had read few books, but, says Morgan, his biographer, ‘he was so well acquainted with the chief subjects in every chapter in the Bible from the beginning to the end, that he could easily make use of them on any occasion.’ On Elias’s first appearance as a minister at an Association meeting he opened in prayer, the effect of which was, says one who was present, that ‘all around me were in tears as well as myself; indeed we trembled as if we were going to appear before the judgment seat of Christ.’ It made a deeper impression than all the sermons they were to hear at that Association. After he had preached a few times the rumour travelled the country that a great servant of God had been raised. At one church, where he was sent to preach in the place of another, because of his youthful appearance the members felt doubtful at first whether they would allow him to preach, ‘but before the sermon was over he appeared unto them as a seraph come from heaven.’

Elias’s ministry was of an itinerant nature, and even after 1799 when he married and settled at Llanfechell in Anglesey, he continued to visit all parts of the land awakening a dead and sleeping people. The effects which accompanied his preaching are truly indescribable. Though many might come to hear him only out of idle curiosity, ‘in the twinkling of an eye their souls and spirits were absorbed with greater things. Trifles vanished; great realities appeared; God became great, and Jesus Christ and his precious blood; and they left the meeting in an agonising struggle for their own salvation.’ At Denbigh in 1800 when many assembled in the open air to hear him, such a real dread of punishment and hell fire fell upon the people that many screamed in despair. In 1802 Elias visited Rhuddlan, one of the strongholds of Satan, where thousands attended Sunday fairs–scenes of riot, revelry, and all manner of evil. On one such Sunday afternoon Elias and a party of believers took up their stand outside the New Inn. The sound of fiddling and dancing from the taverns was loud in their ears, and there were some hundreds of pleasure bent people before him. Elias gave out Psalm 24 to be sung, then prayed in such a manner that awe and dread took possession of the dense throng. The din of the fair was gone when he read his text, Exodus 34:21, ‘Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest; in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.’ After expounding the verse, he showed from Scripture how God visited Sabbath breakers with punishment. He answered any excuse which might arise in their minds. Then he cried to the people with all his might, with his arm lifted up and tears flowing down his face: ‘Oh robbers, Oh robbers, Oh thieves! Alas! stealing the day of the Lord! What! robbing my Lord of his day! Oh robbers, the most vile and abominable.’ These words shook the people like the shock of an earthquake; they were filled with fear; many said after the sermon was over that they would not for the world go there again. It put a complete end to these fairs. Rarely has the power of the world to come been so present in a man’s preaching as it was in that of Elias. People listened to him ‘as men that were going to the judgment Day.’ He would at times suddenly say, ‘Stop! Silence! What are they saying in heaven on the subject?’ Or he would exclaim, ‘Stop! Silence! What do they say in hell on this awful subject? Consider the shortness of time, and the approach of eternity. Everything will be over with us here below very soon, and we shall be in an eternal world before long.’

No ministers of the Gospel in Wales at this time doubted that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ and they lived under the impression, that, ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ The famous incident of Michael Roberts at Llanidloes in 1819, demonstrates the effects which followed this manner of preaching by others besides Elias. Roberts, on arriving at this place the evening before he was due to preach, was deeply stirred in his spirit by beholding the evident marks of ungodliness in the speech and actions of the inhabitants. ‘After going into his house for the night,’ reports Owen Jones, ‘he could eat nothing: and during the whole of the night he slept none at all, but wrestled with God in prayer; nor could he take anything to eat the following morning. The service was to be at ten o’clock before the Red Lion Hotel. As it was an Association, there were a great many people present from all parts of Montgomeryshire. His text was Psalm 1:5, ‘Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment.’ He described the judgment with such vividness that a great solemnity came over the whole multitude. He described the ungodly losing the trial, and unable to ‘stand.’ He described them as overwhelmed with extreme despair, the pallor of death on their faces, and their knees trembling. The preacher turned to the judge, and said: ‘O, mighty Jesus! withhold Thine hand; say not a word more unto them; they are already in the agony of death; they are already overwhelmed.’ The reply was: ‘No; I have one word yet more to say to them; and that word I must say to them; after that-not another for ever! And this is it: DEPART FROM ME, YE CURSED, INTO EVERLASTING FIRE!’ . . . Some hundreds of ungodly men were immediately cast into the condition of the jailer of Philippi after the earthquake . . . Some had forgotten altogether where they stood, some swooned and fell down, some wept, many were stricken with the paralysis of guilt, and others seized with the pangs of despair. After Michael Roberts had finished, Ebenezer Morris, one of the greatest preachers of his day, was unable to fix the attention of the people; he finished, after a few minutes, and the service was closed.’

But although they considered that the greatness, purity, and justice of God in punishing sin was to come first in preaching the Gospel, they were equally instrumental in declaring the all sufficiency and excellence of Christ in an overwhelming manner to needy sinners. More was accomplished then by single sermons than is accomplished in years of preaching to-day! Once Elias was called to preach at Pwllheli where the state of religion was known to be very low and discouraging. ‘A great spiritual darkness and lethargy had prevailed there for upwards of 10 years,’ writes Morgan. ‘Elias was greatly moved, when he rose up to preach, and took those words for his text, “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered.” Psalm 78:1. The truths delivered by him then, had, under God’s blessing, the most happy and astonishing effect; many of the people fell down to the ground in great terror, crying for mercy. It is said that no less than 2,500 persons were added to the church in Carnarvonshire that year, in consequence of the powerful impetus which was given by that extraordinary sermon.’

It was in Anglesey itself that the effects of Elias’s preaching were most visible. ‘Awful indeed was the state of things there, and evil beyond expression,’ writes Morgan. Drunkenness, fighting, smuggling, and adultery were prevalent. The societies of believers were few and small. Within a short time the whole island was transformed, these sins became uncommon; smuggling was done away with; those who had plundered wrecked vessels took their booty back to the sea shore; horse racing and play acting were given up; owners of windmills stopped them on the Sabbath day; and within 40 years 44 chapels were built, and filled with congregations.

Very high views of church membership were held in these times, and Elias tell us that such questions as the following were to be put to professed converts. ‘(1) Have I been brought to see and consider the greatness and infinite purity of God, before whom I am, at all times? (2) Have I seen that I am a responsible creature, bound to give an account of my thoughts, words, and actions? (3) Have I believed that I fell awfully in Adam? Have I seen myself an enemy of God, and that I deserve the wrath of God to all eternity on its account? (4) Have I discovered the value of Christ as a Saviour to lost sinners? Is he precious to my soul, and is he in my estimation altogether lovely? (5) Does my soul desire to know him more, and to love him better, to enjoy more of his fellowship, and to be more conformable to his image?’

Four children were born into the humble Elias home, but only two survived infancy. Elias’s wife kept a shop in the village to provide for them all till her death in 1829. When it was necessary for the children to be away from home at school, the kind of loving counsel they received from their parents illustrates the spirit which reigned in the homes of believers in those days. Elias writes thus to his son: ‘Avoid more carefully the things that injure thy soul: abhor those things as the most bloody murderers, yea the murderers of thy soul: thou knowest what they are; levity and jesting, hastiness and passion. . . Think of the great God, who is everywhere present with thee, and seeth thee at all times–think of thy soul, which is immortal, and to endure everlastingly–think of the shortness of thy time, it is but little; when a day has passed, there is no possibility of recalling it in order to be spent again. Think frequently of death; of the judgment day; of eternity, we shall soon be there! Think of Jesus dying, and be amazed and happy.’ ‘My dear daughter,’ he writes in another letter, ‘spend not the time of thy youth in vanity and sin; thou must ere long give an account to God of every day and every hour of thy life, and for every word and action! Do not allow thyself to live in any known sin, nor in the neglect of any known duty. O! do not neglect secret prayer, but go to the throne of grace as you are, and humbly commend thyself to God through the Mediator Jesus Christ–implore his mercy to pardon you, his Spirit to direct you, his providence to protect you.’ Both children grew up to adorn the Gospel.

It is not possible in an article of this size to give a chronological account of Elias’s life, but surely enough has been said to cause us seriously to attend to the following questions. Wherein lay the power of this man’s ministry? Why has such power departed from us today? What was there in his life and doctrine which led to the great usefulness of his preaching? Where is the contrast between him and us most evident? In an understanding of such questions lies the only hope for the visible church to-day. We can answer them by looking at Elias first in terms of his private life, in reference to his doctrine.

Elias obtained his strength and authority from very close communion with God. ‘Satan is not afraid of the soldiers,’ he writes to a fellow minister, ‘though they are armed, or of the knowledge or gifts of any preacher; but he is afraid of the presence of God, the leader of the true army. As the Philistines cried out, “Woe to us, God is come to the camp.” So a cry would be made in hell, and a great alarm in the regiment of Satan, if God should be pleased to appear among you.’ Elias was well acquainted with ‘appearances’ in his own home. His daughter said of him. ‘To live in his family was to a great degree heaven upon earth. I can never forget the light that followed our family worship. And never can I forget the tears I saw on the chair in his study by which he bent on his knees; though nothing was heard, we were well aware that he was pouring out a profusion of tears in his secret prayers. Many times did I observe him coming out from his chamber, like Moses coming down from the mountain, with so much of the image of God upon his countenance that no one could look him in the face.’

Sentences like the following recur throughout his letters, and illustrate what was uppermost in his heart: ‘The ministers of the Gospel are under great necessity of being experimentally acquainted with the work of the Holy Ghost. . . Oh, that we might have more of the communion and fellowship of the Holy Ghost! O, may each carefully observe that nothing separates or darkens between his soul and God. Cherish a tender conscience, and a broken heart avoid an indifferent spirit, a hard heart, and a sleepy conscience. Press on for more intimate fellowship with God in private!’ ‘O, brethren, be not easy without his presence. I often fear that many are now in the churches that know no difference between the hiding and the shining of his countenance.’ ‘O, be not satisfied with anything instead of him. Let us cry earnestly that we may be made more heavenly continually; we shall be here but a short time. The greatest loss I feel, is that of the Spirit, and earnestness of secret prayer.’ ‘If private prayers were more frequent and earnest, the public ministry would be more effectual.’ There is room to give only one instance of the remarkable answers which attended Elias’s prayers. Once at Carnarvon, he found some mountebanks were corrupting the place with their sinful amusements. On their refusing to desist, Elias in a Chapel meeting prayed to the Lord to put a stop to their proceedings. ‘Many,’ says Morgan, ‘were struck with the fervency, and power of his prayer, as being extraordinary. The next day, awful to relate, three of the players came to an untimely death; the wagon in which they travelled was overturned, and they were killed! Two others, in the act of dancing on the rope, fell and broke their necks!’

‘Elias’s character,’ writes Morgan, ‘was composed of determination, perseverance, and mental energy, to a high degree. . . The character of pious gravity was stamped on all he did. He reflected Christ’s image upon the world. He was never known to have cast off the livery of his noble calling upon any occasion. The seriousness of his appearance would repel any disposition in others to levity and frivolity.’ Owen Jones truly comments, ‘The strength of his character as a preacher lay in the hold which the great truths of the Gospel had taken upon his own spirit.’ This was in no small measure due to the high value Elias placed upon study. He never allowed his constant preaching and long itinerant journeys to lessen his deep conviction of the relationship between hard study and powerful preaching. Although he never had any regular schooling, he not only mastered the English language (having been brought up to speak only Welsh), but studied sufficient Greek and Hebrew to he able to consult the original Scriptures. Such writers as John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards were his constant text books; in his letters we find him recommending such Puritans as Brooks and Flavel. Dr. Jenkyn said of Elias ‘that he had collected more of the Puritan theology into his mind than any man of his age.’ Reflecting on his early ministry Elias wrote,  was enabled to persevere day and night at my studies without fatigue and delay. I am now even in my 67th year, learning; and see greater need of knowledge daily.’ Again he writes ‘It is not in an easy, careless manner, that we get learning, understanding, and knowledge; no, it must be by labour, industry, and toil. Prov. 2:3-4.’ ‘Those who knew him best,’ says Morgan, ‘testified that his sermons cost him many a tear, many an earnest prayer, yea many a sleepless night!’ His chief delight was in his study, and he would even bring his Bible down with him to his meals.

In the latter years of Elias’s life there was a noticeable withdrawal of the powerful operations of the Spirit from the land in general. Writing in 1837, he says, ‘The light, power, and authority, formerly experienced under the preaching of the word, are not known in these days! The ministry neither alarms terrifies, nor disturbs the thousands of ungodly persons who sit under it . . . No experimental, thoughtful Christian, can deny but that God has withdrawn himself from us, as to the particular operations of his Spirit, and its especial manifestations of his Sovereign grace.’ The explanation Elias gives of this declension illustrates his doctrinal position, and his consciousness that the preservation of the favour of God depended upon their maintenance of the Word in its purity. He believed that nothing so ruined churches or dishonoured God as erroneous teaching: ‘It is an awful thing to misrepresent God and his mind in his holy word!’ ‘The Lord,’ he wrote, ‘hath favoured us, poor Methodists, with the glorious truths of the gospel in their perfection. Alas! errors surround us, and satan, changing himself into an angel of light, sets these pernicious evils before us, as great truths!’ These evils, as the following quotation from his diary shows, were the appearance of Arminian errors in Wales in the nineteenth century. ‘The connexion’ (that is, the church, which arose in Wales in the eighteenth century awakening) ‘was not called Calvinistic Methodists at first, as there was not a body of the Arminian Methodists in the country. But when the Wesleyans came amongst us, it was necessary to add the word Calvinistic, to show the difference. There were, before this, union and concord, in the great things of the gospel, amongst the different denominations of Christians in Wales. The Independents agreed fully with the Methodists in the doctrines of grace. They used to acknowledge the Westminster Catechism, as containing the substance of their doctrine. . . All from the least to the greatest, preached very clearly and plainly. The chief subjects of their discourses were these: the fall and total corruption of man; his miserable state under the curse, and the just indignation of God; his total inability to deliver and save himself; free salvation, by the sovereign grace and love of God. . .’ It was a departure from these truths that caused his deep concern. ‘The great depth of the fall, and the total depravity of man, and his awful misery, are not exhibited in many sermons in scriptural language, it is not plainly declared that all the human race are by nature, “the children of wrath,” — that none can save himself — that no one deserves to be rescued, and that none will come to Christ to have life. There are but few ministers that fully show that salvation springs entirely out of the sovereign grace of God.’

The Arminian teaching was that Christ has purchased redemption for all, but that the effectual application of that redemption is limited and determined by the will of man. To Elias such teaching involved a denial of the completeness of Christ’s work and offices, it led to an underestimation of the effects of the fall upon man, and therefore to correspondingly low views of the necessity of the Spirit’s Almighty work in conversion. ‘I do not know,’ he writes, ‘how those that deny the total corruption of the human nature, and that salvation as to its plan, its performance, its application, is of grace only, can be considered as faithful ministers. . . Unsound and slight thoughts of the work of the Holy Spirit are entertained by many in these days, and he is grieved thereby. Is there not a want of perceiving the corruption, obstinacy, and spiritual deadness of man, and the consequent necessity of the Almighty Spirit to enlighten and overcome him? He opens the eyes of the blind; subduing the disobedient, making them willing in the day of his power; yea, he even raises up the spiritually dead! It is entirely the work of the Holy Ghost to apply to us the free and gracious salvation, planned by the Father in eternity, and executed by the Son in time. Nothing of ours is wanted to complete it. . . Man, under the fall, is as incapable to apply salvation to himself, as to plan and to accomplish it.’

No one saw the dangers which threatened the visible church from these errors more clearly than Elias. Towards the end of his life he writes, ‘It is a dark night on the church, the depth of winter, when she is sleepy and ready to die. It is still more awful, if while they are asleep they should think themselves awake, and imagine that they see the sun at midnight! . . . The watchmen are not very alert and observant. The multitude of enemies that surround the castle walls, bear deceitful colours; not many of the watchmen know them! They are for opening the gates to many a hostile regiment! Oh let it never be said of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists,”Their watchmen are blind.”‘ He knew of no remedy for such a situation save a restoration of the truth in its purity. ‘If people are anxious for the favour of God’s presence, as the early fathers in the connexion were blessed with, let them take care that they be of the same principles, under the guidance of the same Spirit . . . When the Spirit is more fully poured on people, those precious pillars of truth will be raised up out of their dusty holes; then the things of God shall be spoken in “words taught by the Holy Ghost,” and the corrupt reasonings of men will be silenced by the strong light of divine truth. May the Lord restore a pure lip to the ministers, and may the old paths be sought, where the road is good, and may we walk in it; there is no danger there.’

John Elias died on June 8, 1841. Some 10,000 people attended his funeral at Llanfaes in Anglesey, a multitude of solemn feelings possessing their hearts. ‘Ah,’ writes Morgan, ‘the thought of seeing him no more till the last day! the day he frequently and seriously dwelt upon in his discourses, with power almost inspired. Oh Mona! Oh Wales! Oh ye multitudes of men, how wilt it be with you, when you will next see that most eminent minister?’ ‘Remember them,’commands the Apostle, ‘who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. Jesus Christ the same yesterday and to-day, and for ever.’ Heb. 13:7-8.

More on John Elias and his Contemporaries

    John Elias

    Life, Letters and Essays

    by Edward Morgan

    price £14.50
    Avg. Rating


    There have been men who made the most profound impression upon their own generation, yet whose very names are well-nigh forgotten by posterity. Man ‘fleeth as a shadow and continueth not,’ and another generation takes his place upon the stage of life. Such is the shortness of life that few find time to obey that […]

    image of the Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of wales
    price £40.00
    Avg. Rating


    There have been men who made the most profound impression upon their own generation, yet whose very names are well-nigh forgotten by posterity. Man ‘fleeth as a shadow and continueth not,’ and another generation takes his place upon the stage of life. Such is the shortness of life that few find time to obey that […]

    cover image for Seven Leaders by Iain Murray

    Seven Leaders

    preachers and pastors

    by Iain H. Murray

    price From: £8.00
    Avg. Rating


    There have been men who made the most profound impression upon their own generation, yet whose very names are well-nigh forgotten by posterity. Man ‘fleeth as a shadow and continueth not,’ and another generation takes his place upon the stage of life. Such is the shortness of life that few find time to obey that […]

Latest Articles

God: A Soul-Satisfying Portion 21 March 2023

As God is an inexhaustible portion, so God is a soul-satisfying portion, Psa. 17:15. He is a portion that gives the soul full satisfaction and content: Psa. 16:5, 6, ‘The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, […]

The God Who Hides Himself 16 March 2023

The life of faith is rarely straightforward and uncomplicated. Every moment of every day we have to contend with ‘the world, the flesh and the devil.’ Added to this triumvirate of enemies, there is the reality that our circumstances often seem in opposition to God’s promises. These hard facts are one reason why Christians should […]