What ministers and churches were made of: Glimpses into early Welsh Calvinistic Methodism

Taken, adapted and condensed from “Welsh Calvinistic Methodism”
A Historical Sketch of the Presbyterian Church of Wales
Written by William Williams

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Howell Harris was in the habit of attending the parish church at Talgarth on Sabbath morning…

At the close of the service he usually went out and stood on a tombstone, or on the wall of the churchyard, to address the dispersing congregation. On one of those occasions there stood among his audience a young medical student from Carmarthen shire, who was at the time pursuing his studies at the neighboring town of Hay. The words to which he then listened were blessed to his conversion, and he eventually resolved to relinquish his medical studies and to devote himself to the ministry of the gospel.

This young man became one of the mightiest instruments of the revival. He afterwards became known as the Rev. William Williams of Pantycelyn, eminent as a minister of the gospel, but more eminent still as the sacred poet of Wales. Very often in those early days was the smoldering fire which had been kindled by the sermon fanned into a flame by a hymn of Williams’s which was sung at the close. It is not too much to say that his Welsh hymns have never been approached by the productions of any other writer in the language; and now that every denomination has its own hymn-book, the great majority in each selection, including that of the Establishment, are the hymns of William Williams. He also wrote some English hymns, several of which, such as “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,” and “O’er those gloomy hills of darkness,” are found in very many selections in that language. Mr. Williams took Deacon’s Orders in the Establishment in 1740, but his Church career was a short one. In his first church he gave so much offence that a representation was made to the Bishop, containing no less than nineteen charges against him. One of these was, that he did not use the Sign of the cross in baptism, and another, that he omitted some portions of the service; and another, that he did not confine his ministrations to the church, but went out to the highways and hedges and preached wherever he could get people to hear him. We have not been able to ascertain what were the other sixteen, but it is reasonable to infer that they looked in the same direction as the above three. When he came to the Bishop for his Orders, he was peremptorily refused, and he therefore withdrew from the Establishment and gave himself to work among the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists.

A somewhat later onto the scene was that of the Rev. Peter Williams, a native of Llaugharne in the county of Carmarthen. He was from his early childhood of a serious turn of mind, and was educated for the ministry. While he was a student at Carmarthen College, the renowned George Whitfield came to preach to the town, and so full of prejudice was the tutor against the fanatical preacher,” that he gave strict orders that none of the students should go to hear him. Four young men ventured to disobey this injunction, and one of these was Peter Williams. The sermon so deeply affected him, that he lost all taste for his former amusements, and became so earnestly religious, that he was thenceforth regarded by his tutor and fellow- students as a Methodist.”  –“And their opinion,” he writes, “was sufficient to cover me with eternal disgrace.” He after wards took Orders in the Church, and served several churches for exceedingly brief periods— for his earnest ministry gave such universal dissatisfaction, that he likewise was obliged to withdraw, and fully identify himself with those despised people whose spirit he had already so largely imbibed. These two young men, W. Williams and P. Williams, though they came a few years later on the scene, are always associated the ones that preceded them as the reformers of Wales and the founders of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism.

They were all young men, and so were Whitfield and his colleagues, by whose instrumentality the Lord was, at the same time, carrying on a great work in England. The laborers in the Principality knew nothing of that which was done by their brethren on the other Side of the Severn, but by some means, reports of the former reached the ears of the latter, and in 1738 Howell Harris, to his great delight, received an encouraging letter from George Whitfield, and before the expiration of that year the two met for the first time at Cardiff in Glamorgan shire. When the Welsh brethren were making preliminary arrangements for their first “Association,” which in Wales means the same thing as a General Assembly in Scotland, it was resolved to invite the Rev. G. Whitfield to attend. He acceded to the invitation, and presided at the meetings of the Assembly. This first Association of Welsh Calvinistic Methodists was held at Watford, in the county of Glamorgan, in the year 1742. Besides the chairman, there were present Daniel Rowlands, Howell Harris, W. Williams, J. Powell, and other preachers and exhorters. They were met to devise means to bring the numerous converts which had been already made under some spiritual supervision, and to concert measures for the further extension of the great work; and it is worthy of remark, that all the leading Spirits of this important assembly were young men varying from twenty-one to twenty—nine years of age.

Of the tremendous power of their ministry it is difficult now to form an adequate conception. Howell Harris was a veritable Boanerges (Son of Thunder). We can judge from his portrait that he was a person with a most commanding presence. The owner of those flashing eyes and firmly set mouth was not a man to be trifled with. It was not seldom that thousands in his presence experienced had many of the same sensations as the assembly of Israel at the foot of Sinai. Often there were giants in iniquity, who had come for the express purpose of disturbing the services, made to quail before his fiery glance, or driven home trembling in every limb after listening for a few minutes to the thunder of his voice. A congregation of 2000 people have been known to stand for upwards of two hours in a drenching rain to hear him preach. It is said that during the first few years of his ministry there was scarcely one instance of his preaching without being the means of bringing a number under conviction. For some time he confined his ministry to his own neighborhood. He was afterwards invited to Visit other counties, and soon he extended his travels into North Wales, everywhere lifting his voice like a trumpet against the prevailing irreligion and sin, and apprising the crowds that assembled to hear him of their impending doom. Everywhere he found the people like those of old who dwelt in the land of Zabulon and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, sitting in darkness and in the region and shadow of death; but it was a most unusual thing for him to leave a town, village, or hamlet without leaving behind him the nucleus of a religious community. His indomitable spirit triumphed over the rough usage to which he was exposed by his burning zeal for his Master’s glory and the salvation of immortal souls. And his sufferings were neither light nor few.

On several occasions, Howell Harris, like another apostle, was pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that he despaired even of life when in the hands of an infuriated mob; but after barely escaping alive, with torn raiment and a bruised and bleeding body, he would again fearlessly face the storm. He went to fairs, wakes, and revels to preach the gospel, thus invading the kingdom of darkness, and attacking sin on its own territories. The gentry regarded him as a disturber of the peace, and threatened him with legal proceedings. The clergy looked upon him as a false prophet, and however badly off they might be for sermons, were never at a loss for a text when he was in the neighborhood. The mob regarded him as a defenseless individual, whom they could have the inexpressible delight of belaboring with impunity to their hearts’ content – and they often did so without mercy. But it was useless to attempt by any such means to arrest him in his mighty career. Often while he was addressing an assembly in the open air did a magistrate appear on the scene, commanding the crowd to disperse, and enforcing his orders with the reading of the Riot Act. Harris would reply to the magnate by reading the sentence pronounced by the Judge of all upon his own guilty soul.

When the rabble hooted him, his voice was heard above their loudest howls, telling them of judgment to come. When dragged about and beaten by a mob maddened by drink, and by devils, he preached between the blows, and urged his savage assailants to hasten their escape from the stormy wind and tempest. Such is a faint picture of this extraordinary man. He believed and therefore spoke, and with such power and effect that many thousands in the Principality of Wales were turned to righteousness.

However, as powerful a Christian as Harris was, Rowlands was by far the greater preacher. Harris never made a sermon. He made it a point to abstain from formal premeditation, but spoke as he was moved and enabled at the time. Rowlands, on the contrary, carefully prepared, and his published sermons are full of matter, and of matter forcibly and eloquently arranged. He possessed extraordinary powers of mind, and was a speaker of unsurpassed eloquence; but after all, the secret of his tremendous power must be sought for in the depth and intensity of his own religious convictions. On Sabbath mornings he generally rose early, and as much as possible avoided conversation, even with his most intimate friends; but on some occasions, when his studies had been unsuccessful, it was difficult to get him out of his bed in time before the service. He was then “unwell, could not preach without any message from God to the people.” Sometimes his servant had to help him in a half -fainting condition from his house to the pulpit, but once there he was at home; and it has been observed that it was on such occasions he usually preached with the greatest power.

The people could see that he intensely felt all he said. Once in his prayer before sermon, while dwelling on the sufferings of the Savior for us, he seemed to have Him before his eye, and exclaimed, “Oh, those emptied veins Oh, that pallid countenance!” and then, overwhelmed by emotion, he fainted away. After a while he recovered, and mighty indeed was the sermon that followed. Howell Harris’s ministry for many years was wholly itinerant, but Rowlands, having a regular charge, confined his labors chiefly to Llangeitho, though he made occasional evangelistic tours to other districts, and from time to time visited every part of the Principality. But his ministry at Llangeitho alone exerted a mighty influence far and wide, for it soon began to attract hearers from the most distant parts of Wales. It was by no means an uncommon thing to see as many as thirty of the people of Bala, which is above Sixty miles distant from Llangeitho, among his congregation on Sabbath morning. Those people started early on Saturday morning, each taking with him the provision necessary for the journey. There were well – known halting- places on the road, —on the banks of streams, from which they could moisten their morsel, and there they sat and refreshed themselves. They travelled far into the night, got a few hours’ rest in such places as they could find, started again with the early dawn, and were right glad if they could reach Llangeitho in time for the morning service.

On their pilgrimage homewards they had something to talk of— the sermons to which they had listened on the preceding day; and often was the resting place by the brook was a veritable Bethel, and echoed the sounds of joy and praise. On one occasion forty-five people from Carnarvon went towards Llangeitho by sea as far as Aberystwyth, where they left the Ship, intending to return in the same manner. But by Monday the wind had Shifted, and they were obliged to walk the whole distance, which could not be much short of a hundred miles. On their journey homewards their large number created quite a sensation in the towns and Villages through which they passed. At Aberdovey they were recognized as “Methodists,” and hooted well as they passed. At Towyn, the population came out to meet them, and attempted to prevent them from passing through the place. At Barmouth, which they reached against night, in a pelting storm, some of them found accommodation in the town, while others were lodged in farm -houses farther on. One house in the town, at which they had been angrily refused, took fire, and was completely destroyed before the morning. Resuming their journey next day, they had to pass through Harlech, and here the people rose enmasse to stone them. Some were struck in their heads and badly wounded; and one man was so injured by a blow on his foot that he was lame for weeks. This incident will give an idea of the burning zeal of the early Calvinistic Methodists, and of the inveterate hatred with which they were regarded by the great mass of the people.

A large number of the early converts being men of some talent, felt it to be their duty to preach unto others that gospel which they had found so precious themselves. They were for the most part men of little education, who scarcely knew anything of any book in existence but the Welsh Bible; but they preached wherever they could find an opening, and were known and recognized, not as ministers, but as exhorters.” Numbers of these, from every part of Wales, congregated at Llangeitho on the monthly Sabbath. The effect of this periodical contact with the ministry of Rowlands was most beneficial to themselves, and by their means his ministry t old on the whole of the Principality. They caught the fire themselves, and, like Samson’s foxes, spread it throughout the length and breadth of the land.

It is not strange, therefore, that their labors produced great results. In 1742, six years from the beginning of the movement, we find that there were laboring in conjunction with the episcopally ordained clergy, who by this time had become ten in number, as many as forty exhorters. We have no more statistics of that date, but we find that by 1744, two years later, there had been formed, in South Wales alone, 140 “Societies,” which in process of time came to be designated as Churches.

As churches and districts became established, overseers were required to furnish a periodical report to the Association of the districts or subdistricts, as the case might be. The following is an example:

DEAR BRETHREN IN THE LORD, 

This is to inform you what a wide door has been opened unto me by the Almighty God in the Societies named underneath, and what successful progress the gospel makes among them. I verily believe that they excel every other part which is known to me in the Principality of Wales, in love to God and His gospel, in their carefulness to walk in accordance with its precepts, as well as in their unity with each other: not being persecuted or disturbed by any, excepting a little persecution that happened lately at Lampeter, in the county of Cardigan. While the members of the Society were together Singing psalms and praying to God, a Justice of the Peace, with his servants, came upon them to disturb them, and the man who was praying at the time was taken prisoner; but through the providence of God the persecution has somewhat moderated, and the prisoner has been set at liberty, but the Justices continue their threatening’s.

Cayo Society contains 60 members, 27 of whom enjoy liberty, the others are under the law.
Talley Society contains 68 members, 24 of whom have obtained deliverance through Christ, the others are under the law. William John, exhorter; Thomas Griffith, steward.
Llangathen Society contains 14 members, 5 of whom are free in Christ, and the others under the law. Morris John, exhorter.
Llanfynydd Society contains 54 members, 23 of whom are free in Christ, and the others under the law. Morris John is exhorter here also.
Llansawel Society contains 47 members, 18 of whom are free in Christ, and the others under the law. Joseph John, exhorter, and John David, steward.
Cilycwm Society contains 26 members; 9 free, and the others under the law. John Thomas, exhorter, and Isaac David, steward.
Lampeter Society contains 28 members; 13 free, and the others under the law. “David Williams, an exhorter at Llanfynydd, has left me and gone to keep a school. Thomas John has not been settled in any place.

This from your fellow-traveler and unworthy brother in Christ,

JAMES WILLIAMS.

Sometimes these reports descended to even more minute details. Take the following examples:

Builth Society— Thomas James, overseer; Thomas Bowen, exhorter.

Thomas James, a full and abiding testimony.
Thomas Bowen, enjoying much liberty.
Evan Evans, having obtained a testimony, but weak in grace.
Sarah Williams justified, and coming out of the furnace.
Sarah Jones, a full testimony, but under heavy bondage.
Ann Baisdel, a sweet experience, but yet weak.
Mary Bowen, seeking the Lord Jesus in earnest.”

Etc., etc.

So it was at the time, and so it continued for many years afterwards.

Able men were willing and anxious to devote all their time and energies to the service of the cause, but the Societies were either unable or indisposed to give them the means of living, and they were therefore obliged to turn for subsistence to other sources. These good man, after itinerating for long periods of time, often for twenty-five years or more, would eventually settle down as Independent Ministers, but at the same time they would retained as long as they would live, their connection with the Calvinistic Methodists.