The Life and Ministry of Howell Harris

Howell Harris (1714-1773) was one of the greatest leaders of the Evangelical Awakening and Revival in Wales and England in the mid-1700s. Along with Daniel Rowlands, he was also one of the founders of Methodism in Wales. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called him “one of the great heroic figures of the Christian church.” The story of his life is both convicting and encouraging as a demonstration of the Spirit’s mighty work in revival.

Conviction, Conversion, and Assurance

Howell Harris was born in the small hamlet of Trevecka, Wales in 1714, but was not converted until 1735 when he was twenty-one years old. Harris became a school master, and was among a number of people who were urged by their parish minister to go to the Lord’s Table. The vicar said, “If you are not fit to come to the Lord’s Table, you are not fit to come to church; you are not fit to live, not fit to die.”

This deeply impressed Harris, and in response to the exhortation, he attended the Lord’s Table on Easter Sunday. During the service he repeated the words of the Confession, “The remembrance of our sins is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.” Those words set his heart to reflecting whether this was true of himself, and he soon discovered that his confession was nothing more than empty words, for he had felt no inward grief over his sins.

Over the next few weeks Harris became even more serious about his pursuit of God. The reading of a book designed as a help for self-examination convinced him that “in every branch of my duty to God, to myself to my neighbors, I was guilty.” Conviction over his sin was increasing.

The more I searched into the nature of things, the more I saw myself, and all others that I conversed with, to be in the broad way of destruction. I was soon convinced that I was empty of all spiritual life. I came to find I was carnal, and sold under sin. I felt I could no more believe, or mourn for my sins, than I could ascend to heaven . . . I had no knowledge of the Blood of Jesus, the only Fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness . . . I was still a total stranger to the life of faith.

Despite his efforts to reform his life, he continued in this state of misery for several weeks. He finally found relief in discovering that through simply trusting in Christ he could receive forgiveness for all of his sins.

I was convinced by the Holy Spirit that Christ died for me, and that all my sins were laid on him. I was now acquitted at the bar of Justice, and also in my conscience . . . . At the table, Christ bleeding on the Cross was kept before my eyes constantly; and strength was given to 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 my neighbour who was sad, Why are you sad? I know my sins have been forgiven, though I had not heard that such a thing to be found except in this book [Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety]. Oh blessed day! Would that I might remember it gratefully ever more!

This led to deep peace and happiness of soul, as his faith grew into an unshakable assurance. “I also found myself a stranger here,” he wrote. “All my heart was drawn from the world and visible things, and was in pursuit of more valuable riches. I began to be more happy, and could not help telling . . . that I knew my sins were forgiven me; though I had never heard anyone make that confession before, or say that it could be obtained. But was so deeply convinced that nothing could shake my assurance of it.”

Passion for God’s Glory and Early Signs of Revival

In the weeks and months following, God brought further spiritual blessing to Howell Harris. On June 18, 1735 during a time of secret prayer, Harris experienced an unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which accounted for the remarkable power and boldness that would come to mark his ministry. This was a defining moment to which Harris looked back upon for the rest of his life.

Being in secret prayer, I felt suddenly my heart melting within me, like wax before the fire, with love to God my Saviour. I felt not only love and peace, but longing to be dissolved and to be with Christ. Then was a cry in my inmost soul, which I was totally unacquainted with before. “Abba Father!” I could not help calling God, “my Father.” I knew that I was His child, and that He loved me, and heard me. My soul being filled and satiated, I cried, “‘Tis enough, I am satisfied. Give me strength, and I will follow Thee through fire and water.” I could say I was happy indeed! There was in me a well of water, springing up to everlasting life . . . The love of God was shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Spirit.

It was not long before this newly found joy and assurance began to overflow in a passion for God to be glorified in the lives of others. He set up family worship at his mother’s house and became deeply burdened by the lack of zeal among ministers. Like the prophet of old, the fire in his bones had to be expressed, and he soon began exhorting people, who would flock to hear him on Sunday evenings.

The fire of God did so burn in my soul that I could not rest day or night without doing something for my God and Saviour. Nor could I go with satisfaction to sleep, if I had not done something for His glory that day.

As he visited people from house to house, they began to assemble in larger and larger numbers. The word came in great power – so much so “that many on the spot cried out to God for pardon of their sins.” Sinners confessed their sins. Broken relationships were reconciled. Family worship was set up in many homes. And churches were crowded as people flocked to worship and the Lord’s Table. Revival had begun.

Revival and Persecution

During the next few years, the revival continued to spread as Howell Harris preached abroad in South Wales. Several counties now showed signs of awakening and revival as “public entertainments became unfashionable, and religion became the common talk.”

The Lord was stirring in other places and through other men, as well. Daniel Rowlands had been converted under the ministry of Griffith Jones and had begun preaching in the same manner as Harris. William Williams came to Christ under the preaching of Harris, and became a great preacher who wrote the famous hymn “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” And, of course, George Whitefield and the Wesleys were seeing similar stirrings in England. In 1737 Harris first heard about Whitefield who “preached four times a day and was much blessed.” They met one another in Cardiff in March of 1739.

But as interest in Howell Harris’s ministry grew, so did opposition. By 1737, Harris was experiencing persecution. People formed into mobs that reviled and opposed him, while magistrates threatened him and imposed fines upon those who met for worship in their homes. Even the clergy were opposed to Harris and preached against him, branding him a false prophet and deceiver.

Mobs often attacked Harris in all kinds of ways. He was shot at with pistols and pelted with apples and pears, dung and dirt, eggs and stones, and even a dead dog. In 1740, while ministering with William Seward in Caerleon, the two preachers were attacked so severely that that Seward eventually went blind in both eyes.

Boldness in the Preaching of Basic Christian Doctrine

But despite the persecution, Harris continued to preach with boldness and authority. Once he went to Long-Town in Herefordshire, deeply burdened with the young people who gathered there to “feast” in a way that dishonored God. When he confronted a few of them whom he overheard swearing, a crowd quickly grew around him, numbering close to two thousand people! “The Lord gave me courage to attack the Devil in his own quarters,” Harris wrote, “and made my face as a flint – supplying me with words to speak.”

His journals reflect an amazing insight into the spiritual needs of the people he regularly addressed. This insight would often shape the direction of his preaching. For example, in 1742, he became grieved in seeing how many people “abused the liberty of the Gospel, by turning the grace of God into wantonness.” This led him to preach strongly on “the genuine fruits of real faith, and the necessary consequences of Divine truth savingly believed in the heart.” In 1746 he “saw another spirit creeping into the work: the spirit of levity, pride, foolish-jesting, unwatchfulness, and carnal rejoicing.” He adjusted his preaching to meet this need. In 1750 Harris became deeply convinced that many professing believers had been deceived into thinking they were born again “when they are really nothing else but what our Saviour termed the whited walls and painted sepulchers.” His analysis of this spiritual condition is quite penetrating:

I saw clearly that there is such a thing as knowing Christ after the flesh, by a kind of prophetical knowledge and views of Him at a distance, such as Balaam had, and from those views to have a certain confidence in Him, and a kind of love for Him, and seemingly great joy and happiness, as the seed on the stony ground. Yet the heart will be self-righteous and worldly amidst all this; and the spirit carnal, asleep, unawakened and in bondage to the god of this world. Such a person will never be convinced of the sin of nature, or the evil of unbelief. They will not see the difficulty of believing in the Saviour while a sinner, and of obeying the call given to such in the Gospel. They look back to something that they had done or felt at different times, and from thence they draw the conclusion that they are in the Covenant and belong to God, and shall therefore be saved. I saw plainly that this was the religion of most who called themselves Christians. They form a faith for themselves without coming as lost damned sinners to the Cross, and looking to Him as the Israelites looked to the Brazen-Serpent; and without fleeing to Christ as the man fled from the avenger of blood into the City of Refuge.

These reflections in his journals, and many others like them, reveal the dominant themes in his preaching: the law of God and the sinfulness of sin, the inadequacy of human works to save the soul, the necessity of new birth, the divinity of Christ and the sufficiency of his atoning blood to cover sin, salvation by grace through faith alone, and the genuineness true faith evidenced in spiritual affections for God and transformed living. In other words, it was the bold proclamation of basic Christian doctrine that the Lord blessed in this reviving work. Those who know well the writings of Jonathan Edwards will immediately recognize the similarities.

But Harris never held theology in abstract from life. In fact, he firmly believed exactly the opposite: “I was led to find that every truth, when revealed by the Spirit, is practical, and will have its proper influence on the soul by humbling the sinner and exalting the Saviour.” He describes as an example the effects of understanding “the glory of God displayed in our nature” (i.e. through the incarnation of Christ):

I felt it increased my faith, and my love became more habitual, my joy more solid, my resignation more entire, my spirit more smooth and quiet, and I had more depth of compassion and mercy towards sinners.

The Trevecka Community

In 1752, after seventeen years of labor in itinerant preaching throughout Wales and in parts of England, Howell Harris settled in Trevecka, Wales. There he founded a society of believers who lived in mutual dependence upon one another and the Lord. Harris was so sick in the early years of this work that after preaching he could not even move from his chair, but would have to be carried to bed. “I was all this time in continual hopes of going home to my dear Saviour, and expecting it with earnest desire,” he said.

Yet the Lord spared his life, and the Trevecka “family” began to take shape. A large building was constructed as the Lord miraculously provided for its construction and maintenance in much the same way he later provided for George Mueller’s orphanage in Bristol. Eventually over one hundred people, among whom were ten families, came to live together in the Trevecka house. Harris served as their preacher, watchman, and overseer. Over forty people – many of them children – died from small pox in the late 1750’s, testifying in their dying moments their deep faith in the Lord Jesus. In 1759, Harris described the community and their pattern of life together:

We have buried since the beginning of this work about forty persons, and there are still about the same number in the family, and about thirty in the farms. The Word has been preached here, I trust, with power and authority, three times a day, and four times every Sunday, this seven years. Surely I can say that this is the Lord’s work, for He has hitherto been pleased to own it, by bringing and keeping people here; and by giving me a spirit of faith to stand in the face of my own, and other’s sins, and many other impossibilities.

Final Years and Dying Desires

Excepting his three year service in the militia from 1760-63, Howell Harris lived the remainder of his life in Trevecka. In 1768-69, with assistance from the Countess of Huntington (who also greatly aided the work of Whitefield in England), he began a college for training young preachers. George Whitefield preached when the College was opened, and Harris devoted much of his energy to this work in the final years of his life.

His health began to decline in the early 1770s, but as his outer man perished, his inner man was renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). His faith remained vibrant to the end. During his last sickness he wrote these words:

I must have the Saviour, for He is my all. All that others have, in the world, in religion and in themselves, I have in Thee. Pleasures, riches, safety, honour, life, righteousness, holiness, wisdom, bliss, joy, and happiness; and by the same rule that each of these is dear to others, He must be dear to me. And as a child longs for his father; a traveler, for the end of his journey; a workman, to finish his work; a prisoner, for his liberty; an heir, for the full possession of his estate; so, in all these respects, I can’t help longing to go home.

And go home, he did, at sixty years of age on July 21, 1773, testifying through all of his final sufferings his great love and concern for his flock and his great confidence and trust in the gracious God who had saved him nearly forty years before.


All quotations are from Howell Harris: His Own Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Eighteenth Century Revival (Bridge Publishing, 1984) or “Howell Harris and Revival” in D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987).

This article was originally published in Heartcry! A Journal on Revival and Spiritual Awakening, Issue 33, Fall 2005.


mikew116 said...

Great man, great post. Thanks for sharing this.

ConstitutionGirl said...

That's amazing! Thanks for the wonderful long post, it's almost a biography. :D I hadn't heard of Rev. Harris before, and it looks like he might be a subject of further study for me now!

Stanley said...

I came across this name while listening to Tim Keller's message on the Wounded Spirit and decided to check out Howell Harris. Greatly encouraged by this mini biography of a man who desired God, sought him and found him. And God can be found today in much the same way as Howell found Him. Reading about him reminded me of Rev. John S. Mahon of Grace Community International of Houston Texas.