69. Howell Harris
Thinkers (94 votes)
1714 – 1773
Founder of Welsh Methodism and ‘the last great enthusiast’
More than just a pioneer of Methodism, Howell Harris contributed to a broader culture of religious diversity in Wales the traces of which persist to this day.
A schoolmaster and compulsive diarist, he converted to Methodism after receiving a divine revelation in church. He became a fiery itinerant preacher, travelling the hills of mid and south Wales. William Williams of Pantycelyn - the ‘sweet singer’ and writer of hundreds of hymns- was a follower.
Wales was fertile ground for these highly motivated dissenters -‘revivalists’ as they were known. The spread of Methodism was assisted by the inability the Anglican hierarchy to speak Welsh –still the language of the masses.
Yet this challenge to the established order could also provoke the hostility of the mob. Harris and his fellow Methodists required considerable personal courage to carry on their ministry in the face of both threats and actual violence. In 1740 the ‘Methodist Martyr’ William Seward was stoned to death at Hay-on-Wye.
A determined man of unshakeable beliefs, Harris’s enthusiasm could also be a stumbling block and he did not take kindly to those who begged to differ. His close relationship with Madam Sidney Griffith, a self-proclaimed prophetess, was also the subject of unflattering gossip.
His obstinacy contributed to the split -or ‘separation’- of Welsh Methodism in 1750 that isolated Harris and forced him to change direction. ‘Y Teulu’ (the family) the religious community he founded at his Breconshire birthplace a vibrant and industrious place, even boasting its own publishing house.
Harris himself invented agricultural machinery and developed new farming methods. Today Coleg Trefeca is home to a museum and conference centre dedicated to the memory of its dynamic founder.
More than 20,000 people attended Harris’s funeral, a mark of the widespread following he had commanded. The dissenting culture that he epitomised and promoted led eventually to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1912.