On 15 February 1733 the Rev. Griffith Jones of Llanddowror wrote to his friend, Mrs. Bridget Bevan of Laugharne, as follows:
"...If we consider how numerous and shameless, I may say, how common and impudent the despisers and opposers of serious piety are in our days, what shall we think but that the enemy is coming in like a water-flood, and threatens to overflow our land with a worse deluge than that which drowned the world in the days of Noah. And though for any thing I know, it may be suffered to proceed to a greater extremity, than we have yet seen, yet in God's due time, I trust he will seasonably and surprisingly lift up a standard against the enemies and persecutors of Jesus Christ;...Reasons and human means only, will not serve to stop the tide of iniquity, which now flows so fast upon us. No standard will suffice to oppose it but that of the Holy Spirit's lifting up."
On 11 March 1735 he wrote again to the same lady:
"Our neglect of religion, especially the spiritual part of it, has caused our sins to increase to a vast height; and it is evident, that we ripen very fast for some terrible judgment, which we must expect to feel soon, if God in infinite mercy prevents it not by sending a double portion of a reforming spirit among us."
Griffith Jones's confidence was soon justified. Even when he was writing of the necessity of "a double portion of a reforming spirit, "during that very month the word of the Lord came to Howell Harris, a young man from Breconshire, and it did not cease to work in him until he was made a special messenger of Heaven to his age and nation.
As to his circumstances, he was of the common people. No long pedigree could be drawn up for him, connecting him with a rich and noble ancestry. About the year 1700 a carpenter from Carmarthenshire came to live in the district of Talgarth in Breconshire. His name was Howell Powell, or Harris. His sole capital, as far as we know, was a certificate declaring that the parish of Llangado would support him if ever he needed parochial charity in his new home. In 1702 he married a young girl named Susannah Powell and they lived among her people in the hamlet of Trevecka, near Talgarth. There, in the carpenter's cottage, the children were born--Joseph, Anne, Thomas, and the youngest, who was born in January 1714, and was named after his father, Howell Harris.
It seems that his parents walked circumspectly, and they used to attend the public service in their parish church, together with their children. We have reason to think, too, that they did not fully neglect another important duty--religious instruction in their home. The youngest child vividly remembered himself as a boy of seven walking to Talgarth church with his brother to recite his catechism. He experienced profound impressions at times at that tender age. God's greatness and the importance of eternity pressed so heavily on his mind that if he saw the village children playing on the Sabbath he could not refrain from rebuking them.
His first teacher and his best friend was his brother Joseph; but he soon lost him. Joseph was a blacksmith, but he soon showed that he was no ordinary man. We do not know what prowess he showed before he left home, but we know that somehow he drew attention to himself and that he was as inexplicable to his fellows and as insane in their sight as his youngest brother afterwards became. He was a taciturn man, always keeping his sorrow and his joy to himself and burying himself in study and scientific experiments. But between the joints of this armour an arrow reached his heart. In a mansion the other side of the valley there lived a young lady of about his own age. He fell in love with her in spite of the difference in their stations, and one day he ventured to reveal to her the state of his feelings. The young lady was furious and commanded him not to think of her and not to utter a word to her ever again. The blow was too severe. He determined to leave home, and sought to assuage his sorrow by going away as far from her as he possibly could. He was in London for many years, winning for himself a good position, and publishing a book on some branch of his favourite study; but his sorrow was not mitigated. Once and again he visited the West Indies for many months, but in spite of his travels and many vicissitudes, the maid of Tredwstan was in his thoughts wherever he went. After spending a period of his life in this miserable condition, he at last divulged the cause of his discontent to his brother. Howell took upon himself the task of interceding with the lady on his brother's behalf, and before long they were united together in marriage. We understand that some of their descendants have an honoured place to this day among the Breconshire gentry.
In all his joys and sorrows Joseph Harris kept up his interest in his relatives in Wales and cared for them. As Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah of old, he was the counsellor and defender of his father's house in all difficulties. But Howell, the youngest of the family, was his Benjamin, his dear one. He urged his parents to give him a better education than was usual in those days, and persuaded them from time to time not to be disheartened by their straitened circumstances. In 1725 he wrote to his parents saying how glad he was to hear of their design to send Howell to school, promising them every help within his power. This was an elementary school, kept probably in one of the local churches. But in 1728 he was placed in a grammar school kept at Llwyn-llwyd in the parish of Llanigon near Hay.
At Llwyn-llwyd Harris studied the rudiments of Greek and Latin and mastered them to some extent. He uses a good deal of Latin in his earlier diaries. He used to say in later years that he was then conversant with history, politics, games and much else that would make him an interesting companion to rich and poor alike. With such a vivacious and animated nature he could not be very moderate in anything he took in hand. He threw himself into amusements and innocent mischief of his fellow-students. We can scarcely believe that he went far astray while he was there, though there are some statements in the diaries which suggest it. He was dangerously ill during the end of the summer of 1729, and doubtless this checked him somewhat.
He had not yet chosen his calling, but his brother, in August 1730, pressed upon him to do so in order to give a more definite trend to his studies. It seems that he thought of the ministry of the Church at that time. In October 1730 Joseph sailed for the second time to Jamaica, and before setting out he wrote home to this effect:
"I would not have my Brother be in the least disconsolate at my departure. I go upon a Sure footing, and I Shall have it at heart to See him in a way of getting his livelyhood, to do which no endeavours of mine Shall be wanting. I reckon he is Now almost gone thro' the Grammar School, and if ever he Should be a Clergyman it is not so very material whether he has had an University Education. Let him mind his Classicks and take care not to forget what he has already learnt; the Latin and Greek Tongues will be a key to him to read other Books which hereafter he may have occasion for. I would have him also endeavour to inform himself in writing, and then he'll have another String to his Bow. I wish he Could get a School or Some Such thing to Employ him in the Countrey till I return, and I hope you'll do your Endeavours to keep him from any Servile Employment for that Time."
But a greater loss than the departure of his brother was near. In March 1731 his father died. Thus, Howell was obliged to leave Llwyn-llwyd at the end of the term and go out to seek for some means of earning his living.
In January 1732 he was appointed schoolmaster at Llan-gors, a small township near Syfaddan Lake, not far from his home. He was there for eighteen months at least possibly a few months longer. His mother was anxious on his account, predicting adversity; for Llan-gors bore a doubtful reputation in those days. He himself, by then, was a youth of eighteen, without much to occupy him, with no father to rule him and no brother at hand to give him advice. Thus he was given a free rein at a dangerous period of his life, and it is sad to relate that he rapidly went down hill. He spent his leisure in the counsel of the ungodly and in the seat of the scornful. He neglected his classics, reading plays and such vanities. He was the soul of every company, and the source of fun in all the exploits and games of the locality. He was ready to debate on every question, and he delighted in mocking the few Nonconformists in the neighbourhood. The memory of Llan-gors was sore to him throughout his life, "the place where I first broke out in the devil's service." "Many of you used to go with me towards hell," he once said while preaching there, "and God's grace must have been free, or else I would not have received it, because I was the worst of you all." And the saddest part of the story is that no one tried to check him in his course, not even the Non-conformists, "They were very ready to debate with me concerning outward things," he said, "but no one told me that I was on the way to hell."
Yet he could not find peace of spirit in this way. An occasional sermon would give him a distaste for frivolity, awakening memories and creating a yearning for better things. He once dreamed that the great Day of Judgment had arrived, and that he was standing before the judgment-seat and compelled to give an account of himself. These things drove him to vow to mend his ways, and even to attempt praying. "I tried to turn to God in my own power, but I did not succeed until the day of His power came." And this, at length, was drawing nigh.
During his stay at Llan-gors his brother returned from Jamaica and he visited his relatives in Wales. He was so pleased with his young brother that he revealed to him the secret concerning Miss Anne Jones. It seems, however, that Howell was unsatisfied with his position in life, for we find Joseph advising him to resign himself for a while, promising to look for something better for him as soon as he could. Joseph wrote to his brother in August 1732:
"I hope you'll always remember what past betwixt us at Bristol, and keep entirely to yourself the Secret I entrusted you with. You may believe I Shall always be glad to hear whatever you can inform me from that quarter... it is with pleasure I Say that your behaviour and Character I had of you in the Countrey, adds to the opinion I had of you. You know how to behave always humble and affable; That, with a Sincerity and Care in discharging the trust you take upon you, will always gain you the good will of every body."
Joseph was as good as his word. A friend of his lived in Oxford, one Mr. W. Harte, the vice-principal of St. Margaret Hall. Through his good offices, he found a remunerative appointment for Howell, in Hampshire, as a schoolmaster. In November 1734 he writes to him concerning the place. "I hope the thing will be worth your Acceptance for the present, especially as you'll have an Opportunity of taking a degree at Oxford as well as if you was to Serve your time there." By this time Howell had left Llan-gors, and was in charge of a school on the other side of the lake, in the old church of Llangasty (Tal-y-llyn). He lodged with a gentleman named Mr. Lewis Jones, of Trebinsiwn Mansion in that parish; Mr. Jones's children were with him at school--Lewis taking well to his Latin, and Billy wholly otherwise. As a rule Howell spent his week-ends at his mother's home, attending the Sunday services fairly regularly at Talgarth church. But although he was now twenty-one years of age, and his mind set upon the ministry for years, he had never yet approached the Lord's Table. It is quite possible that the cause of this was complete indifference; but it is equally possible that a measure of tenderness in his conscience kept him from trifling with the most sacred things while following such a loose life.
Some difficulty or other kept on recurring with regard to the school in Hampshire, so that Harris was at Llan-gasty until November 1735. He tells us time and again that he himself had no hand in the cause of this confusion, but before long he came to see the finger of God in it all, for the "great turning-point" in his life was now at hand, through which the insignificant schoolmaster of Llangasty became, not a school teacher in England, but the Apostle of Jesus Christ to the Welsh people, who at that time were in a condition of utter spiritual destitution.
As it has already been said, religion had sunk to a very low level in the Established Church at that time. But the Lord had left to the Church ''a handful of corn." Yet gleaning-grapes shall be left in it, as the shaking of an olive-tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost fruitful branches thereof." We shall have occasion to refer to some of them later on. The majority of the clergy were content to leave their parishioners to live just as they pleased. They did not care for anything except collecting their tithes and enjoying their own corrupt pleasures. Mercifully, there was found among these churchmen another class, men who were relatively cultured and moral. These men had a higher view of the responsibility of their office, and attempted to fulfil their duties. They saw to it that the prescribed services were held regularly in their churches. They supported the English schools of the S.P.C.K. and the efforts of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. Behind their labour, no doubt, there was some desire to promote the good of the people, but little success if any followed their efforts. This is not surprising, because the Doctrine of Grace had vanished from the pulpits. For the most part, they preached a dry morality, so that neither they nor their hearers felt much authority or life-giving power in the ministry. As a result they placed all the emphasis on outward authority, bitterly opposing all who, in their view, lacked it. It was from these men who, like Saul of Tarsus of old, were more highly gifted and irreproachable in their conduct than the majority of their brethren, that Nonconformity and Methodism received the most stubborn and resolute opposition.
The Rev. Pryce Davies, the vicar of Talgarth, was one of this class. Having said that he gave much of his time to the following of hounds and that at times he was guilty of overindulgence in strong drink, with the result that he tended to forget that the servant of the Lord should not strive, we have said the worst about him. He did his work with much faithfulness. His church would never be found closed nor his pulpit alone. But in spite of the law, and some sort of gospel, no sign of reformation was to be seen. Few came to hear the Word, and fewer still came to the Lord's Table. The Sunday before Easter in the spring of 1735, Mr. Davies preached on the necessity of partaking of the Holy Communion, and among other things he made the following remark: "You say that you are not fit to pray; yea, you are not fit to live and neither are you fit to die."
The young schoolmaster of Llangasty had come to the service that morning quite unconcerned, as usual. But the vicar's remark pierced through all his indifference and reached his heart like a sword-thrust. He there and then determined to come to the Table on the following Sunday. On the way home he met one of his best friends, Joseph Saunders, a smith in the hamlet of Trevecka, and he repeated the vicar's words to him in such solemn and earnest tones that their echo was in the smith's ears for a long time; and they were eventually blessed as the means of his conversion. Further on he met another villager, Evan the Weaver. Although they were at enmity, yet, in obedience to the injunction read at the end of the sermon, he approached him, and, admitting his fault, begged his forgiveness, and the two became reconciled. This was the first time for Harris to act in opposition to the low inclinations of his own nature. This serious-mindedness persisted to some degree throughout the week. In the chancel the following Sunday, the impression was deepened by the thought that he had come unworthily to the Lord's Table. He saw that it was not enough to attend Holy Communion, and he resolved to follow a new life from that hour. We do not know how far he clung to his resolution, but we do know that the impression made upon his mind gradually weakened. Only a fear of turning back and losing something prevented him from reverting to his old habits.
At last, the fourth Sunday--2o April 1735--drew near, an ever-memorable day in the history of Howell Harris. For some reason he did not return to his home that week-end, according to his custom, but he stayed at his lodging at Trebinsiwn Mansion. About nine o clock on Sunday morning, when the resolutions and impressions of the previous three weeks were well-nigh blotted out and forgotten, he picked up as it were accidentally an old book, The Whole Duty of Man. He turned the pages to and fro without purpose, until at last his eyes were fixed on a particular page. He began to read the headings on self-examination, and suddenly a light....above the brightness of the sun flashed upon his mind, so that he knew himself for the first time a lost and ruined sinner.
"All my natural faculties were confounded in the shock." The fear of turning back now became terribly strong--for in that way lay damnation. But the light he had received so far, cast but little light on the future; it showed up the danger without pointing out the deliverance from it. He thus groped in the darkness seeking relief. He knew nothing himself of the way of salvation; and since he had no one to guide him, it is no wonder that he went astray. He began to work his way towards freedom under the testament that begets bondage. He returned to Trevecka on Friday evening, and on Saturday he told Joseph Saunders of the light he had received on his condition, and his resolve to fight his way towards life. He found in the smith a man ready and eager to join him. The first task they took in hand was an endeavour to keep the Sabbath. They arose early next morning and kept away from the villagers all, day so as not to be tempted to speak of worldly things; and they stayed out late before retiring to sleep. On the first Sunday in May, four Trevecka people endeavoured to keep the Sabbath, and five the following Sunday.
Harris spent these weeks in reading, prayer and fasting, striving against sin. He renounced everything--all his pleasures, all his friends, rich and poor (he states that he was then acquainted with some of the leading people of the county); his fine clothes, which he had once prized so much; and every thought of worldly promotion. He lived on bread and water; he fasted for a day, then for two days, .and before long for three days every week; he repaid everybody he had occasioned any loss, as far as he could remember; and he shared the little money he had left among the poor. He feared in his heart to utter a single word on the Sabbath lest he should pollute the day; and he considered it nothing to retrace his steps a long distance if he could not remember for certain whether he had closed gates, etc. After living for some time like a hermit, in a manner wholly different from his former practice, his sense of restlessness began to quieten again. He felt that at last he really was fleeing from all evil, and following all that was good. He became sufficiently confident to challenge his conscience to convict him of anything, if it could. If anyone would be saved, he was the man, for he had done his best. The only danger was backsliding; and in order to use every diligence to avoid this he spent all his leisure in secret prayer.
But this was a short and treacherous lull. Shortly the storm renewed itself; his confidence was but a spider's web. About this time, if I am not mistaken, he went to Talgarth church one Sunday fairly confident in his minds A young man named Badham was preaching there, and his subject was the necessity of growing in grace. This threw Harris into terrible perplexity once more, because it was all he could do to keep himself from backsliding, not to mention any progress! About the same time he read in a book that he who had led others astray should do his utmost to bring them back again to the right way; as otherwise he would be held responsible for them. Behold, another burden laid upon him, utterly overwhelming him! Formerly he longed to escape from the world's turmoil and fly away to the solitude of the wilderness, so that he might not fall away. But he dared not look that way any more, with the bloodhounds at his heels. He began to exhort a little, first of all to his mother, then to Joseph and Evan, to his uncle and aunt next door, and the two John Prossers, etc. But his mind became more and more disturbed. He became conscious of some inner voice whispering to him, "Since there is no God, why bother? Are you not free? Throw away every yoke, and take your own way." He never knew before the strength of the enemy's assaults, as he had always give way to them. He became now, at times, almost a terror to himself.
One day, about the middle of May, he retired to pray in the belfry of Llangasty church. There, in his agony, he felt a strong urge coming upon his spirit to give himself to God. He had never before heard of such a thing, and he had no idea how to do so, or why. The tempter warned him to be wary--he would not have his own way any longer if he did so. But the strange compulsion produced a strong persuasion in his mind, quite different from anything he had experienced before. It did not terrorise him as his former fears had done, neither did it compel him as a brute beast, but so irresistibly did it influence him that he was made perfectly willing to give himself absolutely to the Lord.
Though his burden had become somewhat lighter after "the great struggle," as he calls it, he had not yet received a testimony that God would accept him. Besides, what if God, after all, did not exist? The strong man armed had seen the danger of losing his goods. The temptation to Atheism returned ten times stronger than before. He had given himself to a God he did not yet know, with the result that he knew not what to hold on to, at the approach of the enemy. Sometimes, when the sky was clear, he would write on a piece of paper, "I believe and I know that God exists." Then, when the assault came, he would run to his paper for deliverance. But the devil made short work of the paper. In this state of confusion he came to realise little by little not only his own sinfulness but to some extent his inability to save himself.
It seems that his chief guide at this juncture was the book, The Practice of Piety. He read there that deliverance from all temptations that assail mankind could be found in the Sacrament, provided one went to it believing that was so. And that forgiveness for every sin, confessed and acknowledged, could be had in the same place if one had faith to believe this. (This is the first glimpse given to him of the place of faith in his salvation.) His hopes revived at this, as Whitsunday and the Sacrament were at hand. He came home from Llangasty on the preceding Wednesday; and on the Thursday morning, on his knees, he began to write a list of his known sins since the age of four, in order that he might confess them before God so as to obtain pardon. He continued at it until Saturday evening, fasting during the whole time.
On Whitsunday morning, in obedience to the exhortations and warnings of their young neighbour, the majority of the villagers wended their way to church, he himself among them. The story of that service is to be found here and there throughout the diaries. "After being in hell for five weeks, I came to church fully expecting that I should lose my burden. About twelve o'clock, at the end of the sermon, the temptation fell upon me more fiercely than ever. Satan roared dreadfully within me, so that I could almost have shouted out, 'There is no God.' He had but a short season to reign, and he rent me in unspeakable fashion, breathing into my heart the most blasphemous thoughts--that I was above God, and tempting me to laugh at Him. I was wholly passive, without power to do anything, or to bring any argument to defend myself; that was just as well, otherwise I should have been fighting Satan with his own weapons, and should have been overcome. I simply said, 'If there is no God, how was the Communion ever invented, and why are so many wise people deceived?' But immediately before the Sacrament, the One who is stronger came in (after I had found power to open the door to Him a few days previously, when I was made willing); and if Satan was not then cast out, I know not when he went. At the Table, Christ bleeding on the cross kept before my eyes constantly; and strength was given me to believe that I was receiving pardon on account of that blood. I lost my burden: I went home leaping for joy; and I said to a neighbour who was sad, 'Why are you sad? I know my sins have been forgiven,' though I had not heard that such a thing was to be found, except in this book (The Practice of Piety). Oh, blessed day! would that I might remember it gratefully evermore.''
He began to live a new life from that day onward. He completely lost the anxiety for his own happiness, together with every fear of falling away. A view of the great Pardoner's love towards him quickened love in his own soul, which could not be satisfied until it showed itself in acts of obedience and devotion to its Object. On Monday, forgetting his weakness, he resolved not to sin any more, but to live entirely to the Lord. He adopted the directions of The Practice of Piety and The Whole Duty of Man to regulate his life; and in order to keep a closer watch on himself than ever before, he began to keep a diary. In the beginning this was to be something between himself and God alone. He recorded everything in it--his most secret thoughts, every whim that flitted through his heart, and even his dreams. At first he could do so without giving any offence to the reader, because his soul was dancing ecstatically in the warmth of his first love. And in a fortnight or three weeks that love burst forth into a blazing fire, consuming his whole nature.
Doubtless, the experience of forgiveness in Talgarth church was sweet. Yet it left a feeling of further need in his soul which he could not define. But when he was at secret prayer in Llangasty church, the sacred spot where he had given himself to God, God now gave Himself to him:
There his earnest prayer was answered,
There was heard his urgent plea,
And his hungry soul was sated
By Jehovah One in Three.
The richest biblical terms are heaped one on another in an attempt to give expression to his experience at that time. He was there cleansed from all his idols, and the love of God was shed abroad in his heart. Christ had come in previously, but now He began to sup with him; now he received the Spirit of adoption, teaching him to cry Abba Father, and with it a desire to depart and be with Christ. All his fears vanished for months, and pure love took their place.
Immediately after this he was annoyed by one of his pupils and he "felt some risings of anger" in his heart. Instantly the devil asserted in his face, "You have fallen from grace, and forfeited all your treasure." For a moment he was staggered. He was strongly tempted to commit suicide, but mercifully he was restrained from so doing. In the fury of the storm the words, "I, the Lord, change not," shot into his mind with such power that the turbulent sea within him was quieted. He had never heard before of this word of Scripture, but to his dying day he loved it more than any other word. In the darkest periods, when every star was obscured and all hope had vanished, his soul clung to this verse. This was his sure anchor, and it kept its hold a thousand times after all else had given way. This verse brought him to "the glorious liberty of the children of God" and to realise that what alone mattered was God's "mighty grasp of him." That is why we find in the diary the words, "The work was finished about June."
As the early diaries are written in Latin, we must gather the story of these first months from the later diaries. This is a disadvantage; because the same things appear in different aspects to Harris in various periods of his life. He does not relate the story of an incident in his inner life in the same form in 1736 as he does in 1738 or 1740. At the beginning he was in a sense somewhat ignorant. He went through the great changes noted in the last chapter in almost complete ignorance of the terms that would commonly be used to describe them. Although he had experience of these things, he could not always relate them in an orderly and consistent manner to others. When he began to think of matters theologically, he was a rank Arminian. But about 1737 he embraced Calvinism--and henceforward all accounts of his early history are coloured by that system. Whenever he received a fuller revelation of some truth, that would fill his mind for a season, and he would view everything in the light of it. The first heaven and the first earth would not be remembered, and no thought would be given to them. After some years he saw in a new light the work of the Second Person of the Trinity in his salvation, and after that there are many statements in the diary to the effect that he knew nothing of Christ until 1738. Similarly he says that he knew nothing of faith, nor of the work of the Holy Spirit, until he met George Whitefield in 1739. But in calmer moments these wild words are withdrawn, and he thanks God for the old mercies of Talgarth and Llangasty. The reader will perceive that it is no easy task to weave one consistent story from these seeming inconsistencies.
These months again were spent in Llangasty, and he greatly loved the loneliness and the seclusion he found there. He read, prayed and fasted again, as before, denying himself all things in order to mortify the flesh, until the state of his health was impaired. He knew of no other way of pleasing God whom he loved so much. Every book he read, every sermon he heard, tended to engage him more and more with duty, keeping him away from Christ. He complains bitterly that he never heard the Gospel being preached during this period of his life. Serious defects must be admitted in him, too, such as his insufficient knowledge of the Word of God, and his unfaithfulness to the revelation he had received directly in his own heart during the various stages of his conversion. His faith was strengthened somewhat by reading the first part of Hand's Practical Catechism. Often after this he would compare his faith with Abraham's, wondering whether he could have left his country and all else, and whether he could believe that which was seemingly impossible at the command of his Lord. He greatly revered his unevangelical teachers, although his soul would have starved if he had depended upon them. In some measure he saw his danger, and in August we find him entreating his vicar for a monthly administration of the Sacrament, so that the heavenly spark might not be quenched.
But in spite of the low Arminianism which was thrust into his head, his heart was at the same time filled with the love of God. There was a great difference between his theology and his faith. "He filled me with His love years before He taught me how He redeemed and saved me." Oftentimes he doubted his faith, and he denied it completely many times, but he never doubted his love. He walked in full assurance of this. He states that he lived on love like a child eating fruit, without knowing anything of the tree on which it grew. A constantly repeated expression in moments of exaltation in later years is, "I have not found myself so full of God since the first year." Sin fled when he looked upwards. Whenever unbelief suggested that he was unfit to be with Christ, his heart would answer at once that Christ could make him fit in a moment. "Though I knew not the meaning of grace, I knew that God loved me. The question 'who maketh thee to differ from another?' filled my mind constantly, and the realisation that He loved me above all others, in turn made me love Him too with all my heart. Were it not for the love I had tasted, I should have given up; I never could have gone against the current. Love fell in showers on my soul, so that I could scarcely contain myself. I had no fear, or any doubt of my salvation; but yet," he says, mixing his experience with his theology, "I must then have been under the law."
This love kept away from his heart every particle of love for the world. He lost every care with regard to his circumstances, and for the future. He cast himself on the bare promise of the "God that cannot lie," and he was cared for; although he was often penniless and sometimes in debt, he never lacked anything. "I received the Spirit of Christ seven years ago," he wrote in the summer of 1742, "and I never after that knew anything of the love of money, or the love of the world, although I was plagued by every other corruption. If I had ten thousand pounds a year, I would freely share all between the lambs. Oh, that I had been born in the days of the Apostles, when everything was so simple, with zeal burning and flaming."
Another effect of this love was to fill him with courage to counsel every one he met concerning their souls. Some say that his portrait shows a man courageous by nature, ''made without fear.'' But he himself always held that he was by nature as timid as a hare, and that what courage he possessed was a gift from above, given to him directly from heaven for the sake of his work. "I felt I was all love--so full of it that I could not ask for more. I walked in the light of God's countenance, I met Him in all things; and the strength of the love I experienced enabled me to go through all oppositions that came up against me. All fears vanished, and I was as one established upon a rock, living in faith and power, having renounced all worldly things. I was supported by an unseen power, and I was comfortably and powerfully led by perpetual outpourings of love into my soul almost every time I prayed. Such a coward was I by nature, and such power the Lord gave unto me!"
It was gradually that this courage began to show itself. "In June, I began to read to some of my neighbours in my mother's house concerning the Sacrament and church attendance. Then I read in a book that it was my duty to visit the sick, and to read to them. This led me to the village of Tredwstan to see an old man, a hundred years of age, named Jenkin Laurence; and there, while I was reading to him, the neighbours gathered to listen. This made me feel much ashamed, lest I should be called a preacher, a name I hated. Afterwards I thought I ought to go and exhort all those with whom I had formerly sinned; and so I went to three villages--one on each side of our village. In this way I spent my Sunday afternoons, and would also come home during the week, travelling by foot four miles from the place where I kept school. I could not rest without seeing them, and although I did not have much authority (in exhorting them), I felt that I had to go. I shared a little money between them until I had given all away. Oh! the beginning was small indeed. Behold what a great bonfire came from a little spark! How can I show it honestly to the coming ages, to the praise of God's glory? It was He who began it, wholly of Himself, and from Himself He continues to carry it on."
This small company formed a kind of "society," many months before such a thing was heard of. In a letter which Harris sent to Vicar Davies, requesting that they might receive the Sacrament more frequently, he mentions that many had joined him in strict observance of their duties, and that they had for some time sincerely endeavoured to practice the excellent doctrines they had received from his pulpit. And that they had vowed and resolved, by God's help, to direct their course towards heaven, in spite of all obstacles. This simple movement can be looked upon as the seed of Welsh (Calvinistic) Methodism. But the people of Trevecka and the surrounding district proved to be unresponsive soil, and much of the seed became unfruitful.
"Thank God for Joseph Saunders," said Harris more than once. He greatly enjoyed his fellowship with the warm-hearted blacksmith. But in spite of all his excellent qualities, it is to be feared that the other Joseph--his brother--was a man of the world, one whose portion was in this life only. He sometimes spoke disrespectfully of the Bible, and abused religious people. He had no sympathy with the new line his brother had taken. In consequence Howell could hardly feel free to open his heart in his letters to London as he does in the diary. In the latter he writes as if on wings in the spacious heavens; but in the former his feet are generally firmly on earth. Yet, in spite of his respect for his brother, his greatest benefactor, he would not be unfaithful to his convictions in order to win anybody's approbation. He wrote to his brother early in June, and, among other things, he said:
"I am very much oblig'd to you for your sudden answer, but your not hearing from Mr. Harte since does not give me so much uneasiness as formerly less matters did.... I don't in ye least fear or Doubt of a Livelyhood and such a one as a better Judge than Man will see best,... I hope I am design'd for some publick good, nor shall I think any labour or Pain too much for my qualifying me for such a Work, but if I find no other approbation than Human I shall hardly think all Qualifications sufficient. I pity poor Mankind and wish I could do good to all, but now my wish is all and I hope my own Heart is at last made Steady and Unshaken by ye frowns or Smiles of Fortune. I hope ye applause or Censure of ye world shall never touch me so near as it has....
Don't think me to be so Melancholy as you Imagine; I enjoy a Treasure of Joy which Indeed I can't know how to communicate, (Grief is allmost a stranger). I would not exchange Conditions with a great many that seem to be happier than I am.... It is not lowness of Spirit but an Alteration in Notions and Principles and Resolutions that makes me so applaud solitude and Despise Riches to Excess. No, I have got a great Degree of what I would wish all had--Content, inward undisturbed Happiness grounded, I hope, on true Humility....
Allow me so much seriousness as sincerely to deal honestly and justly with my soul, and make my eternal Happiness sure; and then I'll with as much cheerfullness as you please be your Companion, and am happy of Course here. But 'tis to be lamented that this Happiness pure and Conscious is grown such an absolete talk, that he is a Subject of Ridicule that offers to start it in Discourse or Letter; speak no where of it but in the Pulpit. But where there are those of my way of thinking, I long to be acquainted with them. If I found such a Person I'd sooner part with Life than such a Precious gem. You see I am unshaken in my Resolutions and therefore don't dissuade me, but direct me in this road,..."
Joseph visited Wales in the autumn, and before he came down Howell wrote to him as follows:
"When you come here you shall hear various opinions of me; some call me melancholy, some mad, and some are so favourable to me as to give me ye greatest Title, of being religious, but (Thank God) they are all alike to me. Applause is not my study. Nothing affects me more that ye Precious Time I abus'd, which I am endeavouring to redeem as fast as I can."
"At present, I am where I was the first year," said Harris once, "without any creature between me and God." It cost him dearly to reach this height inasmuch as "one creature" had already won a special place in his heart. The most prominent and the most important person, perhaps, in the parish of Llangasty at that time was Mrs. Parry, of Tal-y-llyn Mansion. She was the lady of the manor, and the patroness of the ecclesiastical living. She was a young widow, of good character, and in very comfortable circumstances. But the poor schoolmaster's heart ventured to cross the social gulf, and there commenced a repetition of the story of Syfaddan of old, in exactly the same place. We cannot say when Mrs. Parry came to know of the affectionate homage paid to her. I believe that she is darkly referred to in the desire for a "friend" in some of Harris's letters in the beginning of summer, 1735. He writes:
"I Think a Friend is, if such a thing to be found, ye greatest Happiness we can enjoy here.... I am in Raptures when I read in Milton ye Friendship between our first Parents before self Designs came to ye World. I almost utterly Despair of having this gem in this World.... But there is an unsurmountable obstacle in my Way, viz. Meaness of estate.... But, I think that Happiness is come so far to my sight that I can say I am in hopes of attaining it,... and perhaps when I am just entering to my Happiness I am knock'd off so that Perhaps I am to be allways swimming but never reaching ye shore.... I have done all I can to find such a Thing, but never could amongst my equals. If by favour and admittance I thought I saw those Qualities of such a Friend I long'd for in superiors, there Fortune would stare me in ye Face, and when I had a mind to utter something ye fear of being term'd a fool designing or an Impudent made me stifle my notions for fear of Disobliging."
He gave up Mrs. Parry, as he did everything else; but he once confesses that his affection for her mingled in his thoughts, at times, with more spiritual matters. When his brother came home, he and Howell, I believe, visited Tal-y-llyn, and in future "--'' is often mentioned in his papers. She had considerable influence on Harris, for the most part wholesome, until her death in 1738; and he grieved bitterly after her. It is strange that not one of his biographers refers to the first patroness-- if not, indeed, the fiancée--of their hero--The Lady of the Lake.
SINCE it is wellnigh impossible to decipher the Latin diaries, this chapter again will contain an imperfect record. It seems that Harris had no strong inclination to enter the university after his conversion. In a letter to his brother, written in May, he says: "I Thirst for Improvement but I have had such a Notion of an Oxford Life that I am in a strait what to do, but as I know you'll conscientiously tender my future Happiness....
I'll be entirely directed by your advice." In the autumn when his brother returned to London, Howell accompanied him to Oxford. For all we know to the contrary, it was intended that he should remain there for a term; we have no explanation of his leaving the place before the week was out apart from the following quotations: "In November I was taken to Oxford, but the Lord brought me again from there. I entered my name at St. Margaret Hall. I took the oath of allegiance to his Majesty the King the day I matriculated. When I began to wear better clothes, my pride revived, and I lost some of my watchfulness. I soon tired of the place, and I longed for my freedom, which I soon obtained. I came home, and my brother offered to have me to live with him; but God had such a hold on me that I could not go. Soon afterwards I left my school, and I devoted myself to exhorting everyone I met to flee from the wrath to come."
As far as he himself was concerned, Harris, I believe, bade farewell for ever to Oxford at that time. But it seems that his brother did not agree that his connection with the university should end so suddenly, not necessarily for educational reasons, but because of the advantage which an Oxford degree would give him in entering the ministry. There are a few references to this matter in the family correspondence which has survived, and we place them here before the reader.
Joseph to Howell, 31 May 1735:
"I received yours which I am sorry to find So full of melancholy reflections. You Should not quarrel with the world before you know it, and instead of talking of retirement at Your age, You should rather resolve to undertake with chearfullness whatever Providence may throw in Your way. You do not want for capacity, and a willing mind and an upright heart are the best qualifications for any undertaking. If you was in orders, I might easier do something for you that way than any other. There are Livings to be disposed of often, but preferment of other kind are very Scarce. I do not think Logick to be of much, if it is of any use, but a degree from the University may be of use to a Clergyman, and upon that account I Should have been glad if You could get one without Spending much time for it."
Howell to Joseph, 30 December 1735:
I don't know whether it be advisable to come (to Talgarth to keep a school) against ye Parson's approbation and to begin before I go once to Oxon,...I should be glad to know if possible when I shall be called to Oxford. Some Oxonians here advise me to keep three Terms at once and go up in March that then I may be dispensed with for a whole twelve month and that ye three Terms may be kept with ten or twelve weeks."
Joseph to his mother, 17 January 1736:
"I hope Now he (Howell) is in a fair way of doing well, and I fancy he is pleased with his Oxford Journey, where he is to go again Some time in the Spring."
Howell to Joseph, 21 January 1736:
"Mrs. Anne Jones, of Tredwstan) offered me ye Reading of some Books, but I am tyed up to Latin and Greek you know. I have been reading Pearson on ye Creed for some time which I shall have done with next week. Then I intend to fall to my Classicks.... I shan't think my time lost as long as I have Books but this unavoidable evil of Classical Study must take my Time for ye Future. Mr. Hart and your self know best when I am to go to Oxford."
Joseph to Howell, 24 January 1736:
"You'll find in this Box an old Suit of mine which my brother has altered for you with two pair of Breeches belonging to it, also my old leather breeches. These may do you a good deal of Service for common wear either in the Countrey or at Oxford. Your old clothes are so bad you had better give them away, if they are worth any body's having."
Joseph to Howell, 20 March 1736:
"I Suppose You'll go to Oxford against next term, when it begins I do not justly know, but Mr. Harte will inform me."
Joseph to Howell, 24 April 1736:
"The next term at Oxford begins the 5th of May, but I am entirely of your Sentiment that you had best Stay till Talgarth School is vacant, and try if you can get into Orders before you go there; all that may be done before the Succeeding term."
Harris offered himself for orders in July 1736, but he was churlishly refused because of his activity in going about the country to exhort. He preferred to renounce everything rather than to cease from warning his fellowmen of their danger; and he thought little or nothing afterwards about going to the university. It is true that, at times, in view of the positive opposition of Churchmen, and of some Nonconformists, to a lay ministry, a wave of depression would overwhelm him and he would speak of giving up his work, or of entering upon a further course of education in order to fit himself for orders in the Established Church. But he would not remain long in his cave. In spite of his saying, as Jeremiah of old, that he would speak no more in the name of the Lord, the Word was as fire in his bones, and the sight of the multitude indulging themselves in frivolity and dissipation, or a request for help from some Cornelius would cause the flame to blaze as brightly as ever.
It is stated in A Brief Account of the Life of Howell Harris, that Harris stayed a whole term at Oxford. This, of course, is incorrect. Mr. Beriah Gwynfe Evans, in his book, The Reformers of Wales was the first to draw attention to this inaccuracy. But Mr. Evans is mistaken when he makes Harris himself responsible for this inaccurate statement. The original manuscript is lost. The book was printed in 1791, and it is unfair to hold an author responsible for any inaccuracies which appear in a work published nearly twenty years after his death. It is difficult enough to get a faultless work through the press even when the author is alive and can correct the proof-sheets. John Wesley complained bitterly of printers' errors. They distorted the meaning completely in many instances in his writings. He thought of publishing a correct edition of his works before he died, but he failed miserably in his endeavours. If it is not right to hold Mr. Wesley responsible for the inaccuracies in his works, much less should we hold Howell Harris responsible for any inaccuracies in the autobiography. It is known that editors in the old days, as well as printers, took much liberty with the writings of deceased authors, and there is reason to believe that this happened with Harris's papers. In the autobiography, a number of letters were included, the originals of which still exist. On these we can still see the marks of the pen of the editor--whoever he was--deleting paragraphs and inserting words here and there so that the meaning is slightly changed in some sentences. It is possible that what was done with the letters was also done with the other part of the book. But the most likely explanation is that the editor has misread one word in the author's manuscript, which, as Mr. Evans notes, is full of abbreviations and difficult to decipher. It is much easier to believe this than to suppose that a man like Harris was mistaken, or that he deliberately misleads his readers on a point of fact while leaving behind him so many proofs that would bring the inaccuracy to light. What end would be gained by leading anyone to believe that he had stayed six weeks in Oxford, while complaining at the same time of the ungodliness of the place? It is well known that from his conversion to his death he attached greater importance to godliness than to learning; and his temptation surely would be to shorten, rather than to lengthen, his stay in such a place.
WHEN Harris was in the throes of his great crisis, fighting against the temptation to Atheism, the thought came to him sometimes that God must be a splendid Master, and that it would be wonderful to serve Him--if he could but believe in Him. In spite of the fact that the strong man armed had been cast out in May, he was not divested of all his armour at once. But in December, in reading Pearson on the Creed, the remaining roots of unbelief were completely removed from Harris's heart, and he yielded himself and his members anew to the Almighty. By now he had relinquished his school at Llangasty. He also gave up fasting as unprofitable; he stopped praying from a book, and soon gave up reading, since he had no longer any leisure.
"Now (December) a strong necessity was laid upon me, that I could not rest, but must go to the utmost of my ability to exhort. I could not meet or travel with anybody, rich or poor, young or old, without speaking to them of religion and concerning their souls. Persuaded by my neighbours, I went during the festive season from house to house in our parish, and the parishes of Llan-gors and Llangasty, until persecution became too hot. I was absolutely dark and ignorant with regard to the reasons of religion; I was drawn onwards by the love I had experienced, as a blind man is led, and therefore I could not take notice of anything in my way. My food and drink was praising my God. A fire was kindled in my soul and I was clothed with power and made altogether dead to all earthly things. I could have spoken to the King were he within reach--such power and authority did I feel in my soul over every spirit....
I lifted up my voice with authority, and fear and terror would be seen on all faces. I went to the Talgarth fairs denouncing the swearers and cursers without fear or favour. At first I knew nothing at all, but God opened my mouth (full of ignorance), filling it with terrors and threatenings. I was given a commission to break and rend sinners in the most dreadful manner. I thundered greatly, denouncing the gentry, the carnal clergy, and everybody. My subjects, mostly, were death and judgment, without any mention of Christ. I had no order, and hardly any time to read, except a few pages now and then, because of constant busyness and haste. But when I came to the people matter enough was given to me, and I received fluency of speech and great earnestness, although I was inclined by nature to levity and frivolity."
His usual method was to commence by reading the Lord's Prayer, or the Creed, or a chapter from The Whole Duty of Man, or some other book; and then he would speak by way of exposition on what had been read, allowing himself to be led with complete passivity under the extraordinary inspiration which possessed him at that time. He began to speak hundreds of times without having any idea as to what he was going to say. He would go on thus, pouring out old things and new for two, three, or even four hours. Indeed, we have instances of his services continuing without a break for six hours. Possibly the meetings were briefer in this, his first campaign, but, according to his own opinion, his ministry was never more powerful than it was then. His highest praise for his most outstanding services at the peak of his influence was to say that "the power of the first year has returned." Many innocent people thought that all they heard came from a book, and he made no attempt to correct this impression. He was very much afraid of undertaking a work which he was not authorised to do, and so did all he could to avoid the semblance of "preaching." Thus, for the first two years, his practice was to go from place to place "reading." He did not make much use of the Bible in those days. In spite of his reverence for it, for a long time Satan worked in him a curious disinclination to use the Word of God. Nevertheless, he often refers to certain scriptures, such as that word in Jeremiah, "But I have made Esau bare, I have uncovered his secret places, and he shall not be able to hide himself." It would be difficult to find a better description of his own ministry in the early days, and indeed, to some extent, throughout his life, than what is expressed in that verse.
The first gift he received was one of "similitudes and apt comparisons." They were all very simple and easily understood by the dullest of his hearers. Someone out on the open mountain having lost his way, and darkness overtaking him. A house on fire with the door locked, and the family refusing to open the door, etc. Such things spiritualised, flowing out scorching hot from the speaker's heart, would leave a wonderful effect on the minds of many of his hearers. He was very acceptable for some weeks. But as the novelty wore away, and when he himself began to particularise, pouncing upon the besetting sins of the age and the particular locality, some were disgusted and others were terrified. Vicar Davies opposed him from the beginning, and now he took advantage of his opportunity and sent him a nasty, imperious letter commanding him to give up the work immediately and warning him that he would lose the favour of his brother and others, together with every hope of obtaining Holy Orders. At the same time a more friendly Justice of the Peace advised him to beware of Puritanical zeal, and the people were threatened that they would be fined £20 for admitting him to their houses. It was in the face of such things that Harris's first public attack on the ramparts of the enemy came to an end in February 1736, after lasting barely three months.
He might have addressed his opposers in the words spoken to Eliab of old, "What have I now done? Is there not a cause?" During these months he wrote to his brother reproaching him with regard to his religious ideas. He writes:
"I hope as to Religion you are not what you seem to be, some expressions of yours return so upon me that when I am merriest they make me serious.... I sincerely wish you would read more Divinity... . Ye Scandalous character of ye Clergy can't invalidate their Doctrine, Tho' some of them are contemptible Creatures, Religion must not suffer for that. Christ's commands are as authentick now as when He was on Earth, ... I think there is a Spark within my Breast which fairly begins to kindle, which if I shall be able to keep alive, must in its own Nature shew it self in Time and I hope to ye publick good... . My being so long in ye Country has given me an opportunity to make my observations on man from ye highest to ye Lowest, and I have hardly met a man that rightly understands what a soul is, much less its faculties: ye Rich are employ'd about their diversion etc., ye Drunkard, Dancer or ye Huntsman is ye only Man of Repute."
It seems that much success attended his labours before the vicar's opposition came into the open. In writing to Mrs. Parry he says:
"What gave me ye greatest Satisfaction was your non-opposition of that Heavenly work I took in Hand which [showed] itself to all such as were blind were it only ye success of it, and the interruption I met in it by those in Authority, when I had Surmounted all the Reproach of false [names] they Honoured me with, gave me great inward uneasiness, and I desisted not out of fear of them, for that I had learnt long ago to surmount, but least I should be said to resist Authority, or be supposed to Commit a crime."
In a letter written to his brother, dated 29 March 1736, he says:
"God has done great Things for you and, if I could stoop to be a Schoolboy Scholar again for a twelve-month, I see something in myself much above my Birth. God imparts greatness often where 'tis least expected and there 'tis the more conspicuous and greater glory redounds to Him.... I have my share of sweets and bitters every day, but my Happiness is within myself. Ye Private Joys of a Religious Life are rather Conceivable than to be describ'd. That, with Content and ye Satisfaction I enjoy in ye Society and favour of -- (Mrs. Parry?) makes me easy amidst many Waves That beat upon me. Ye Reformation of so many People has drawn upon me ye Envy of some mean, narrow thinking Parsons (tho' none that know me), who endeavour to disturb my Peace as much as they can, and seem already to dread ye Piety and True Christian Zeal of one who being not guilty of their Practices may not be afraid to expose 'em in Time. If thereby any good can be done.
N.B.--When I was stricken, about February, 1736, I thought I was dying, and I could not but be joyful, longing for my dissolution."
It is not known whether this was a bout of sickness or something resulting from persecution, but its effects lasted for some weeks. On 20 March 1736 he wrote to Mrs. Parry:
"When first I had incurred your Indignation at the discovery of which I was not able to hide any Longer, I was fully resolved to give you no further Room to be offended on that account, but such was ye yearning that I felt I could not help sometimes to enjoy that happiness of seeing you, which now I see ye folly of. My Desires were so Honourable and love of such an uncommon nature that I own I make no Apologie for it, but to the Contrary.... I write after having had some infallible signs of an approaching Death and have order'd they should not be deliver'd till after my Death and that by a Hand you can trust, tho' much I wish'd to see you, but was afraid to raise confusion in you, and that I should part with this world in your favour which next with God's I have always been most desirous to retain."
Within a week he was restored to such an extent as to be able to visit Tay-y-llyn, spending a day or two there most comfortably.
As it has been already suggested, he half-expected an appointment to a school in Talgarth at this time. During his stay in the district the previous autumn, Joseph Harris had visited a gentleman named Counsellor Williams, in whose hands lay the chief control of the school. It seems that there was a disagreement with regard to education in Talgarth at the time, and that one party was withholding its subscriptions for some reason. As a result the schoolmaster gave notice of his resignation, as he could not live on the reduced salary. In order to keep the school going Counsellor Williams suggested to his visitor that the place would well suit his brother-- that he would probably give greater general satisfaction and gain monetary support from the disaffected party. But the old schoolmaster was unwilling to leave when it came to the point. Harris wrote to his brother:
"I told you in my Last ye particulars about my School and I saw ye Councellor Since that. He seems resolv'd to turn ye Schoolmaster away after a quarter's notice, but I don't know whether it be advisable to come against ye Parson's approbation,... I should be glad to know if possible,...that I may give an answer to ye Councellor, least he should turn that man away in ye meantime and give ye School to another Master....I am very much censur'd now for attempting (as they call it) to take away ye poor Schoolmaster's Bread, and really it carries some guilt with it, for twas not fair....I must see ye Councellor soon. He, I believe, would do anything in his Power to my advantage as ye Vicar would to ye Contrary, but still there is a Being that over rules all and in Him I repose my present and future Tranquility."