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21: Howel Harris

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It is difficult to write about religion without giving offence. Religion will come into politics, and must come into history. It has given much, perhaps most, of its strength to modern Wales; it has given it many, if not most, of its political difficulties.

There are periods of religious calm and periods of religious fervour in the life of every nation. I do not know whether it is necessary, but it is certainly the fact—the two periods condemn each other with great energy. With regard to creed—the life of religion—you will find that the periods of energy tend to be Calvinistic—an intense belief that man is a mere instrument in the hands of God, working out plans he does not understand; while in periods of rest it tends to be Arminian—a comfortable belief that man sees his future clearly, and that he can guide it as he likes. With regard to the Church—the body of religion—it is fortunate, in times of calm, if it is established, to keep the spirit of religion alive; it is fortunate, in times of fervour, if it is free, in order that the new life may give it a more perfect shape.

Now we must remember that there can be no calm without a little indifference, and that there can be no enthusiasm without a little intolerance. So men call each other fanatics and bigots and hypocrites, because they have not taken the trouble to realise that there is much variety in human character and in the workings of the human mind. Perhaps it is also worth remembering that an institution is not placed at the mercy of a reformer, but gradually changed.

The eighteenth century was a century of indifference in religion in Wales, the nineteenth century was a century of enthusiasm. The Church at the beginning of the eighteenth century, at any rate as far as the higher clergy were concerned, was apathetic to religion, and alive only to selfish interests. The Whig bishops were appointed for political reasons; they hated the Tory principles of the Welsh squires, and they neglected and despised the Welsh people they had never tried to understand. In England, the Defoes and the Swifts of literature were encouraged and utilised by the political parties; in Wales, where clergymen were the only writers, the Whig bishops distrusted them, and silenced them where they could, because they wrote Welsh. The Church did not show more misapplication of revenue than the State, perhaps; but, while the people could not leave the State as a protest against corruption, they could leave the Church. And, during the middle of the eighteenth century, a great national awakening began.

The trumpet blast of the awakening was Howel Harris. He was a Breconshire peasant, of strong passion which became sanctified by a life-long struggle, of devouring ambition which he nearly succeeded in taming to a life of intense service to God. Many bitter things have been said about him, but nothing more bitter than he has said about himself in the volumes of prayers and recriminations he wrote to torture his own soul, and to goad himself into harder work. The fame of his eloquence filled the land, and districts expected his appearance anxiously, as in old times they expected Owen Glendower. Howel Harris was, however, no political agitator. He had an imperious will, and he wished to rule his brethren; he was aggressive and military in spirit; God to him was the Lord of Hosts; he preached the gospel of peace in the uniform of an officer of the militia, and he sent many of his converts to fight abroad in the battles of the century. He had a love of organisation; he established at Trevecca what was partly a religious community, and partly a co-operative manufacturing company. But, wherever he stood to proclaim the wrath of God, no shower of stones or condemnation of minister or justice could make those who heard him forget him, or believe that what he said was wrong.

If I were writing for antiquarians, and not for those who read history in order to see why things are now as they are, I would write details—important and instructive—about the Church of the eighteenth century, and about the congregations of Dissenters which the seventeenth century handed over to the eighteenth to persecute and despise. The Independents and Baptists sturdily maintained their principles of religious liberty, but they found the century a stiff- necked one, and their congregations were content with merely existing. The Quakers maintained that war was wrong while Britain passed through war fever after war fever—the Seven Years' War and the wars against Napoleon. Howel Harris' voice might have been a voice crying in the wilderness, if it had not been for the spiritual life of the existing congregations, conformist and dissenting. Modern ideas in Wales have been profoundly affected by the Quakers, and especially in districts from which, as a sect, they have long passed away.

The voice of Howel Harris called all these to a new life; and it is about that new life, in the variety given it by all the different actors in it, that I want you to think now. It made preaching necessary, for one thing; and it was followed by a century of great pulpit oratory. It profoundly affected literature. It gave Wales, to begin with, a hymn literature that no country in the world has surpassed. The contrast between the Reformation and the Revival is very striking—one gave the people a Church government established by law and a literature of translations, the other gave it institutions of its own making and original living thought. The Revival gave literature in every branch a new strength and greater wealth.

It created a demand for education. Griffith Jones of Llanddowror established a system of circulating schools, the teachers moving from place to place as a room was offered them—sometimes a church and sometimes a barn. Charles of Bala established a system of Sunday Schools, and the whole nation gradually joined it. The Press became active, newspapers appeared. It became quite clear that a new life throbbed in the land.

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