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Only 100!?

Meirion Morris

I have recently been reading about a visit Joseph Williams of Kidderminster made to Trefeca in 1746. Now, I expect that there are things in that opening sentence which might be unfamiliar, so I will begin with a word of explanation.

I expect that you are aware that Trefeca was the home of Howel Harris, one of the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening in Wales. His conversion in 1735, as well the conversion of Daniel Rowland in the same year, was the catalyst for the revival in Wales. A similar revival began in England under the leadership of George Whitfield and later in the same year, under the Wesley brothers, and also in New England, under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards.

With respect to Joseph Williams of Kidderminster, well, this man has only come to my attention in the last few weeks. Williams was a Dissenter, a successful cloth merchant in that town, having inherited the family business following the death of his father in 1719. My interest lies in the fact that during his life he kept a journal, a journal which was edited and published following his death by his minister, Benjamin Fawcett. Such was the popularity of the Journal that 14 editions were printed by 1816. A fuller version of the journal was published in 1853, and the title of the volume was, ‘The Christian Merchant: a Practical Way to Make “The best of both worlds” Exhibited in the Life and Writings of Joseph Williams of Kidderminster’

Another interesting aspect of the journal is that it was written by a lay member within the church. He was a member of the congregation where Richard Baxter, the author of ‘The Reformed Pastor’ ministered, who, according to J C Ryle was the best of all pastors. The examples which survive in print of the work of some of the significant lay leaders that God has used wonderfully in His church are rare, and so also is our awareness of them. In the case of Joseph Williams, following the death of his father, he refers in the journal to the godly example he saw in him. This man would ‘…be up at 4.00 a.m. each morning in order to spend 2-3 hours reading, meditating and praying’ before attending to his work. Speaking of himself in a letter to friend in 1754, he says:

A left quotation mark ‘I am an old man. In man’s account, a Dissenter, in God’s, I trust, a Christian. I am also a tradesman, of no small account in this town and neighbourhood. But I trust my more Beloved, because most gainful trade or traffic lies in a far country…my traffic is to the country beyond Jordan, and my chief correspondence with the King of Zion, a good friend to merchantmen. He furnished me with stock, made me many valuable remittances, and has firmly assured me of an infinitely great and good inheritance…an inheritance which I will sail to possess when the time of my sailing arrives.’

Having provided something of the context, why speak of Joseph Williams in the context of Cant i Gymru? Well, he was one of Howel Harris’ friends, and they corresponded regularly. At the same time, Williams was a constant traveller, and he spent a lot of time travelling to seek new buyers for his cloth materials. During these journeys he would often seek out evangelical ministry from the leaders of the Revival. He often refers to preaching services led by Whitfield, John Wesley and others in his journal, and these would bring him great joy. Despite being a Dissenter, he saw that the lives and ministry of many dissenting leaders were lifeless, but that this wasn’t true of those whom God had raised from within the Church of England of all places! He notes in his journal that, ‘…the most, if not only profitable preachers of the Gospel are those who can, and do, preach experimentally’. As was the case with Richard Baxter a century before this time, Williams looked for preachers who ‘preached as a dying man to dying men’.

He had already invited and received Howel Harris to his home in Kidderminster, and at the end of June 1746 he visited Harris at his home in Trefeca. While there he found himself at a meeting of the leaders of the Methodists in Wales, at an Association. In addition to Harris, Daniel Rowland and William Williams Pantycelyn were present, as was Howel Davies, who was later to be known as ‘the Apostle of Pembrokeshire’. He also refers to the presence of about 20 exhorters (preachers), including one William Richard Llwyd from Llangeitho, who proceeded to preach for two hours in Welsh. Despite Joseph Williams recording in his journal that the experience was ‘somewhat painful…understanding nothing’ yet, the response of the congregation, and the clear work of the Holy Spirit on each and every one made this a memorable experience for him. Following a further sermon by Howel Davies, they retired to spend some time in fellowship. It was during this time that Joseph Williams heard something of the story of the work in Wales. I include below the entry as it is recorded in his journal on the Saturday following his return to Kidderminster.

‘I learnt from them that the Lord had remarkably raised up the Revd. Mr Rowlands in Cardiganshire, & Mr Howel Harris in Breconshire, at one & the same time with Mr Whitfield & the Wesleys & all independent of each other, & had wonderfully owned their endeavours, & spread their influence over the greatest part of Wales, & all in the space of 11 years from the first beginning of it, so that within the Principality of Wales about 6 or 7 clergymen, 40 Exhorters, & 140 religious Societies, were now preaching & receiving the pure Gospel of Christ: that they had met with great opposition, & much persecution, but all had contributed to the furtherance of the Gospel, so that now they seemed to bear down opposition by their numbers & Mr Rowlands, who holds two livings, & preaches at two churches every Lord’s Day, & at two chapels on weekdays could tell me that he had 3,000 communicants, & Mr Davies told me that he has 2,000 in Pembrokeshire. So mightily has the Word of God grown & prevailed there. Shan’t I rejoice in these triumphs of the Cross of Christ? But I shall see greater things than these.’

Have a look at that final sentence again – he expected to see more! When Ben shared his vision for Cant i Gymru, I have to admit that I was taken aback by the conviction and confidence that he obviously possessed with regard to what God had laid on his heart. This is not what I usually hear, if I hear it at all, especially in Welsh-language Wales. But, what an advantage we have in some knowledge of God’s dealings with His people in the past. At the Association in Trefeca, Joseph Williams learnt of 140 societies planted throughout Wales, and that this had been seen in the space of just eleven years, and that Rowlands and Howel Davies could speak of 5,000 communicants! Just for information: despite a rift between Harris and Rowlands in 1751 which led to a period of arid growth, by 1760 there were 283 societies in South Wales and a further 56 in the North.

I also want to point out what the respective age of each of the leaders was in 1746. Harris was now 32, Rowlands 33, William Williams was 29 and Howel Davies was 30. As someone who is getting older, it is difficult occasionally to entrust the work to much younger people. Think of these leaders, and their ages, and remember that some of them had already been leading for 11 years!

Only 100? I suspect, as in the case of Elisha’s servant, face to face with the enormity of the opposition and difficulties, it would be good for us to be reminded again, ‘…. those who are with us are more than those who are with them’, praying, as Elisha prayed, that the Lord would open our eyes to see this anew.