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Howell Harris – Division and Restoration

Category Articles
Date January 10, 2003

Harris must be regarded as the principal founder of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism and the greatest spiritual force in the principality of his day

At the Westminster Conference in Westminster Chapel London 11th December 2002 Rev. Graham Harrison of Newport gave a paper on Howell Harris, the greatest of all Welsh Evangelists.

There has been an outpouring of books on the greatest of all Welsh Evangelists, Howel Harris. Both the 19th century biographies by Hugh Hughes and by Edward Morgan have been recently reprinted, the latter in the USA by Need of the Times Publishers (PO Box 50632, Denton, TX76205). Tom Beynon gathered material from Harris’s voluminous diaries in three volumes today all out of print. The Banner of Truth in 1962 published the first English translation of Richard Bennett’s hundred year old work, "The Early Life of Howell Harris". Geoffrey Nuttall wrote his slim biography, "The Last Enthusiast" in 1965, and Eifion Evans wrote his biography in 1974 to commemorate the bicentenary of the evangelist’s death. Two years ago Geraint Tudur completed a definitive work on the evangelist, "Howell Harris: From Conversion to Separation, 1735-1750" (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000. Reprinted 2002). Now Geraint Tudur is in the process of transcribing the "Diaries of Howell Harris of Trevecka," leading to a second volume on his life and work

So there is a wealth of material to study on Harris, and in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth there are almost 300 diaries which Harris wrote (in his impossible spidery handwriting) which have been summarised and extracted, but never published in full. There are also hundreds of letters. Yet with all this material what an enigmatic figure he is. No writer, old or contemporary, has succeeded in making him an affectionate figure. Yet he was the pioneer of open air preaching to great crowds of people in the entire Great Awakening whether in the USA or in Europe. God blessed his labours with much fruit, but we are often frustrated with Harris. The Banner of Truth biography by Bennett sold slowly, much to Dr Lloyd-Jones’ perplexity.

His life story is this: Harris was born at Talgarth, Brecon, of humble parents in 1714. He intended at an early age to enter the ministry of the established church, and for a time he supported himself as a schoolmaster, but he underwent a vital conversion experience in 1735. He went to Oxford but spent only a week there, returning to Wales to begin to read to his neighbours and then to preach to them. There was an enormous interest in his ministry. He aroused first the south by his manly appearance, powerful voice, and passion, and though he was often threatened by mobs and magistrates he extended his activities with equal success to the north in 1739.

Harris must be regarded as the principal founder of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism and the greatest spiritual force in the principality of his day, but he was awkward in the presence of other evangelical leaders, and quarrelled with both Rowland and Whitefield. Many influences – Wesleyan, Moravian, and Antinomian – molded his thought. But his excursions into theology are not impressive – he was an exhorter, not a systematizer. In 1752 he retired to a house at Trefeca which he built up as a center for revivalist activity and a farming commune. He was supported by the Countess of Huntingdon, who after 1768 encouraged students to go to Trefeca. Harris died before he was sixty.

Graham Harrison examined the two major controversies in Harris’ life, his patripassianism (which Graham considered to be an exaggerated and unwise tendency rather than a heresy) and Harris’ infatuation with Mrs. Sidney Griffith of Sir Caernarfon which the speaker considered a disastrous error of judgment, even though he agreed with the famous footnote of Geraint Tudur in his biography resisting secular Welsh scholarship which affirms that no adultery had taken place.

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