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Turning points in church history

1 March 2010 | by John Legg

Turning points in church history

11. The year 1739

How marvellous to have been a fly on the wall at the Town Hall in Cardiff on 7 March 1739. On that day the great, but still young, English preacher, George Whitefield, met the slightly older Welsh ‘exhorter’, Howel Harris. They felt an instant bond. ‘When I first saw him’ wrote Whitefield in his journal, ‘my heart was knit closely to him. I wanted to catch some of his fire and gave him the right hand of fellowship with all my heart’. Harris’s diary records that the first thing Whitefield said to him was ‘Do you know your sins are forgiven?’. To appreciate the significance of this meeting we must go back four years to see how they were converted and then look forward.

George Whitefield

Since the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the expulsion of most of the evangelicals from the Church of England in 1662, the condition of the church had deteriorated terribly. The Anglican clergy were almost completely ignorant of the gospel. An exception, in Wales, was Griffith Jones of Llanddowror, who had started his Circulating Schools, which increased both literacy and gospel knowledge. The Presbyterians had largely lapsed into Arianism, denying Christ’s deity. The Independents, apart from Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge, were little better. In Wales, the orthodox ministers were taken up with disputation. Howel Harris recorded of those in his locality, ‘They were very ready to debate with me concerning outward things, but no one told me that I was on the way to hell’.

George Whitefield was born in December 1714 and lived in the Bell Inn, Gloucester. In 1733 he went up to Oxford University as a sort of second-class student and felt honoured to be welcomed into the so-called ‘Holy Club’. These men, including John and Charles Wesley, were older than Whitefield and were known as ‘Methodists’, because they ordered their religious lives in a methodical way. However, they knew nothing of the gospel. Like the older men, Whitefield tried to gain acceptance with God by his extreme devotions and good works. Eventually, in 1735, with the help of a book, The life of God in the soul of man, he found peace with God. After a time-out, due to the harmful effects of his extreme devotions, he returned to Oxford to lead the Holy Club. He busied himself conducting services in the prisons, reading the Bible and religious books, which he called ‘exhorting’.

He was ordained in June 1736 and preached his first sermon a week later. After a quiet start, he ‘perceived the fire kindled’ and ‘was enabled to speak with some degree of Gospel authority’. He heard that a complaint had been made to the bishop that he had driven fifteen people mad! The bishop, however, merely ‘wished that the madness might not be forgotten before next Sunday’. He decided to become a missionary to Georgia, following the (still unconverted) Wesleys. While he waited to sail there with the Governor, he preached ‘generally nine times a week’, with amazing effects. Though these were ‘charity sermons’ to raise funds for the Colony, hundreds followed him from church to church, producing not only excitement but also lasting results. He was heard eagerly by both the poor and middle classes, and even the nobility. Lady Huntingdon was one enthusiastic supporter and invited her friends to go to hear him. The notoriously proud Duchess of Buckingham accepted her invitation, although she commented acidly on Whitefield’s preaching:

It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that your Ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.

When Whitefield returned to England in November 1738, he found that the work was continuing; the Wesleys had been converted in May and were now preaching the gospel. He found some pulpits closed to him because of his bold preaching of the gospel, but continued to preach where he could and also in the Religious Societies. Then he visited Griffith Jones, who had been preaching in a limited way in the open air for twenty years, and heard of Howel Harris, who for three years had been ‘exhorting’ huge crowds of his countrymen out of doors to great effect. Wishing to meet Harris, he corresponded with him.

Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland

Harris, too, was born in 1714, in Trefecca. He was well-brought-up and had a good education which enabled him to become a schoolmaster at the age of seventeen. However, he was also proud and worldly, so he soon left teaching and ‘broke out into the Devil’s service’: drinking, playing dice and love-making. Then, on Palm Sunday 1735, God intervened. Howel heard the vicar in Talgarth church say, ‘If you are not fit to come to the Lord’s Table, you are not fit to live and you are not fit to die’. He laboured under conviction of sin until Whit Sunday, when after a great struggle he found peace. He wrote:

At the Table Christ bleeding on the cross was 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.

Harris began to witness by speaking to his former companions in sin and then by ‘exhorting’. He read from a book and then applied this to his hearers. He did not call it preaching, because he was not an ordained minister. Hundreds were converted under his fervent and powerful ministry over a wide area of South Wales. These converts he gathered together into Religious Societies, as Whitefield had done in England. His activity aroused violent opposition and, although he applied for ordination three times, he was always rejected. All this started a year before Whitefield began preaching and two years before the Wesleys were even converted. By the time he met Whitefield, he was supervising thirty Societies.

Also converted in 1735 was Daniel Rowland, an ordained clergyman, who according to Harris’ letter to Whitefield, had been ‘much owned and blessed in Carmarthenshire’. He preached with such power that he became known as ‘the angry clergyman’; the whole neighbourhood was stirred. Such was the power of the Spirit on him that, while he was simply reading from the Anglican Prayer Book, many of the people fell to the ground in conviction. Harris went fifteen miles to hear him preach and described him on that occasion as ‘surrounded with glory in the pulpit’. The two soon met again and began to work together in the gospel.

Methodists together

In early 1739 Harris and Whitefield corresponded, resulting in the meeting in Cardiff. After this Whitefield and Harris went together round the Bristol area and South Wales. Whitefield increasingly preached outdoors and eventually, urged by him, John Wesley too went out into the open air. ‘I submitted’, he wrote, ‘to be more vile’. He said that until then he had been ‘so tenacious of every point of decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church’. Later that year Whitefield again crossed the Atlantic – he did this thirteen times in all – and when he returned in March 1741 he found the situation considerably altered. John Wesley had taken over the leadership of the work in England and the theological direction had also changed. Whitefield had always followed the Calvinism of the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles and his acquaintance with Jonathan Edwards and the Tennent family in America had only confirmed him in these beliefs. Wesley’s opposition to these, plus his advocacy of ‘Christian Perfection’, caused a serious breach, which, although minimized in later years, split and harmed the movement severely. Although Wesley visited Wales at intervals in the following years, he was never as popular there as in England, partly it seems because of his rejection of Calvinistic views. Thus there was a division between Wesleyan and Calvinistic Methodists.

Whitefield encouraged the Welsh leaders, especially Harris and Rowland, and chaired a meeting of them and five others at Watford near Caerphilly in early 1743. This, together with a further meeting three months later, marked the formation of ‘The Calvinistic Methodist Association’, which transformed Wales. While Wesley maintained his position of leadership until his death in 1791, Whitefield not only spent much of his time in America but also died a relatively early death in 1770. So, although his early support was immensely important, the work was carried on by many other Welsh leaders, like William Williams (Pantycelyn), Thomas Charles of Bala and John Elias. The fruit of that meeting in Cardiff in 1739 was thus tremendous. In a real sense, the Evangelical Movement of Wales began there.

John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.

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