After the rediscovery of Justification by Faith and the key doctrine of the New Birth the genius of the 18th Century Awakening was outdoor evangelistic preaching!
That may not sound very radical to us but in those days church was confined to…well, church! Church buildings were the legitimate context for church services and the few that gathered did so without making any noise or disturbing the culture outside.
There was, however, one Welshman who arose to shake up the status quo. Born in 1714 and born again in 1735 (the same year as Whitefield), Howell Harris could not stay silent!
In fact, Harris would not shut up! He had a job as a schoolmaster, but had not yet gone on to University or to ordination in the Church of England in Wales. Later on, he was rejected for both.
The failure of legalism and the triumph of faith
His youth was filled with rebellion and he lamented, ‘no one told me that I was on the way to hell.’ (Richard Bennett, Howell Harris and the Dawn of Revival, Evangelical Press of Wales, p.16)
Bennett tells us that ‘the majority of the clergy were content to leave their parishioners to live just as they pleased.’ (ibid p.19)
But in 1735 Harris became powerfully convicted of his sinfulness and then, like George Whitefield, launched into a highly legalistic and superstitious set of ritual and religion that brought no relief whatsoever. He later described it as ‘being in hell for five weeks’ (ibid p.25)
Finally, as he was taking communion one Sunday, he was enabled to ‘believe that I was receiving pardon on account of that blood.’ He describes the freedom that followed: ‘I lost my burden. I went home leaping for joy, and I said to my neighbour…I know my sins have been forgiven!’ (ibid p.26)
Baptism in the Spirit
He was truly set free and yet his soul yearned for more. About three weeks later he experienced what many would describe as a ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ and this truly marked him out and empowered him for service.
While not quoting Harris verbatim (which is disappointing) Bennett conveys Harris’ experience: ‘when he was at…the sacred spot where he had given himself to God, God now gave Himself to him…The richest biblical terms are heaped one on another in an attempt to give expression to his experience at that time. He was 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…’ (ibid p.27)
Harris himself tells us the result: ‘I devoted myself to exhorting everyone I met to flee from the wrath to come!’ (ibid p.36)
Rejected by men
In 1736 he offered himself as a candidate for ordination within the Church of England but it had become known that Harris was already preaching evangelistically (Harris preferred to call his preaching ‘exhorting’ or ‘reading’ out of deference to the fact that only ordained clergy were really authorised to ‘preach’).
This unofficial preaching was considered inappropriate. Preaching to the people in streets, and at fairs and in homes was irregular and unrefined. Not the dignified behaviour for a potential vicar, or priest of the Church of England. His application was rejected.
His brother was keen to try and get him to Oxford so that he might be ordained after having obtained a degree. But things were moving way too fast for the hero of the Welsh awakening: ‘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.’ (ibid p. 41)
What is the source of your authority?
The question for Harris, and one that troubled him for much of his life, was this: ‘What is the source of your authority?’ – not ordained by the establishment church, not having obtained a degree, therefore unrecognised by both English religion and English academia, was the power of the Holy Spirit really enough to authorise this young man to preach?
And could that young man really awaken a nation and bring his people to Christ? And could that young man really begin a preaching phenomena that released the gospel from the confines of religious walls to actually impact and shape the surrounding culture?
Oh yes! The answer is yes!
The source of authority was the word of God and the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God calling him to the work, but I must refrain.
Read more about Howell Harris here
© 2009 Lex Loizides