Fiery Evangelist of Wales
WALES IS OFTEN CALLED THE LAND OF REVIVALS. It is called that because of the number and frequency of its spiritual visitations. Wales first experience of revival was the Great Awakening in 1740-42. The prominent leader in that work was the little-known Daniel Rowland (1713-90). What George Whitefield was to New England’s Great Awakening, Rowland was to Wales.
The spiritual power that accompanied his preaching was nothing short of phenomenal. Upon hearing him for the first time Howell Harris, a fellow minister, noted in his diary.
“I was last Sunday at the Ordinance [communion] with brother Rowland where I saw, felt, and heard such things as I can’t put on paper any idea of. The power that continues with him is uncommon.”[i]
Harris then tries to describe the scene, but gives up in verbal exasperation, realizing the inadequacy of words to describe the felt power of God’s manifest presence through a public sermon.
This “power” in Rowland’s ministry was the norm not the exception. For example, early in his ministry, while reading the Anglican church liturgy[ii]
“An overwhelming force came upon his soul as he was praying…‘by thine agony and bloody sweat, by thy cross and passion, by thy precious death and burial, by thy glorious resurrection and ascension’ …As he uttered these words, a sudden amazing power seized his whole frame; and no sooner did it seize on him, than it ran instantly, like an electrifying shock, through all the people in the church, so that many of them fell down on the ground where they had been standing in a large mass together, there being no pews in the church.”[iii]
(Notice that the pews had been removed so that more people could crowd in, the demand to hear his preaching was so great.)
“The power that continues with him is uncommon.”
George Whitefield, one of the great preachers of history, was a friend of Rowlands. Under Rowland’s ministry “he had often felt his heart burn within him, and had never forgotten the sight of some ten thousand people (open air) during the preaching of a sermon by Rowland ‘crying glory!’ ‘praise’, and ready to leap for joy.”
Thirty years later another eye witness remembered him and claimed, ‘Surely he is the greatest preacher in Europe.’”[iv] Long after Rowland’s death the famous Welsh minister, Christmas Evans, also an eyewitness to Rowland’s ministry in his youth, wrote, “Rowland was a star of the greatest magnitude that appeared in the last century in the Principality, and perhaps there has not been his like in Wales since the days of the apostles.”[v]
Daniel Rowland was first and foremost a preacher. Through his ministry thousands were converted, and God brought thousands more to maturity under his searching ministry. Of Rowland J. C. Ryle writes in the 1870s, “The effect of Rowland’s ministry…to his life’s end was something so vast and prodigious, that it almost takes away one’s breath to hear of it.”[vi]
A Birmingham minister, who came accidentally to a place in Wales where Rowland was preaching to an immense open-air crowd, wrote: “I never witnessed such a scene before. The striking appearance of the preacher, and his zeal, animation, and fervour were beyond description. Rowland’s countenance was most expressive; it glowed almost like an angel’s.”[vii]
Perhaps more than anything else, his greatest recommendations are the sacrifices that people would make to hear him. Today, people will all go to great lengths to experience God’s presence. We might fly in a warm, comfortable, jet cross-country to hear someone preach with supernatural power. But, to hear Rowland people would walk 40 or 60 miles, a two or three-day journey, across the rugged Welsh mountains, even in winter, to sit under the power of his preaching. “The people on these occasions, notes J. C. Ryle, “would go together in companies, like the Jews going up to the temple feast in Jerusalem, and would return home afterwards singing hymns and psalms on their journey, caring nothing for fatigue.”[viii]
Nothing can explain these exertions but the manifest presence of God.
All of this from a man with little education —at a time when nearly all ministers graduated from Oxford or Cambridge— who never held a higher position than curate (assistant pastor). Who was Daniel Rowland and what can we learn from his life and testimony?
Very little is known about Rowland, especially his youth and conversion. After his death Lady Huntington; a member of the aristocracy, converted in the revival, who was also a patron of many of its leaders; acquired Rowlands letters and papers. She planned to write his biography, but she died before the work could be done, and the materials were subsequently destroyed in a fire and have been lost to posterity.
Here is what we know about him. Daniel was born in 1713 in Cardiganshire, Wales to a 54 year-old father and a forty-five year old mother. His father was also the village Vicar.
At age 20 he was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England, but he was not yet converted. Ryle testifies that Daniel was “very adroit and successful in all games and athletic amusements, and as ready as anyone, after doing duty in church on Sunday morning, to spend the rest of God’s day in sports and revels, if not in drunkenness.”[ix]
At age 22 he married Elinor Davies. They were married 57 years. They had nine children. Only two died in infancy.
During this period his preaching was a dismal failure—testifying to the truth that his natural gifts alone could not explain his subsequent success. Even though he preached his heart out, his congregation got smaller and smaller. They were more attracted to a minister in a neighboring town.
Finally, in desperation he went to hear the great Welsh evangelist Griffith Jones. It was about 1735. Jones was about 55. Noticing Rowland’s obvious conceit and worldliness, Jones stopped in the middle of his sermon, pointed at young man, and prayed that God would convert him and use him to reach the lost. God heard Jones’ prayer.
The year was l738. Rowland was 25, and his life and ministry passed through a complete spiritual transformation. We know none of the details, but the effect upon his ministry was astounding. Where people before avoided his church, they now came in droves. “The churches where he preached were now crowded to suffocation,” notes Ryle.[x] Not only were the churches filled, but also the church-yards. People were unable to get inside.
However, for the next four years, lacking a full understanding of God’s love and grace, he preached a legalistic gospel. Even in this state God used Him greatly. However, in 1742 (the height of the Great Awakening) he received a deeper revelation of God’s love. His preaching softened. He now emphasized grace, and an additional dimension of power attended his work from that day forward.
For 50 plus years, crowds hungry for God’s presence followed Rowland as he labored faithfully in Wales. He preached to his own church on almost every Sunday morning. During the week he preached at other churches throughout Wales.
He also brought almost 100 young men into the ministry.
As we have seen, God’s presence often brings persecution. Hecklers threatened him. Ruffians threw excrement at him while he preached, and numerous death threats were made against his life.
In addition, the Church of England persecuted him. He was more than an ordained a curate —assistant pastor— first to his brother John at age twenty, and after John died to his son. Why? Because the Bishop feared Rowland’s popularity and power. Therefore, he was denied his own parish. At age fifty, after thirty years of faithful service, the Church of England ejected him from his pulpit. They had the effrontery to deliver the notice during his Sunday sermon.
A humble man obedient to Romans 13, he read the notice then submissively asked the congregation to accompany him outside. He finished his sermon in the open air rather than disobey the Bishop’s demands by preaching in the Bishop’s building.
The people of Llangeitho were furious. They built a chapel for Rowland. Since all churches in England were State funded in those days, this was an unusual thing to do. Nevertheless, he drew huge crowds until his death, twenty-seven years later.
There are many witnesses to Rowlands ministry. The accepted evaluation at the time was simple. Only one man preached as well, George Whitefield. Only eight Rowland sermons survive. Here is an except from his sermon on Rom 8:28 “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
Observe what he says. Make thou no exception, when he makes none.
Remember he excepts nothing.
Be thou confirmed in thy faith; give glory to God, and resolve, with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” The Almighty may seem for a season to be your enemy, in order that he may become your eternal friend. Oh believers, after all your tribulation and anguish, you must conclude with David, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.” Under all your disquietudes you must exclaim, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”
His glory is seen when he works by means; it is more seen when he works without means. It is seen, above all, when he works contrary to means.
It was a great work to open the eyes of the blind; it was a greater still to do it by applying clay and spittle, things more likely, some think, to take away sight than to restore.
He sent a horror of great darkness on Abraham, when he was preparing to give him the best light.
He touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, and lamed him, when he was going to bless him.
He smote Paul with blindness, when he was intending to open the eyes of his mind.
He refused the request of the woman of Canaan for a while, but afterwards she obtained her desire.
See, therefore, that all the paths of the Lord are mercy, and that all things work together for good.[xi]
When he died in 1790 all of Wales mourned the loss of a great spiritual father. According to Dr. Martyn Llyod-Jones a revival broke out on the day of his death.
Lessons For Today’s Man of God
The first lesson we learn from Rowland is the need to wed spiritual power and orthodoxy. Rowland was mostly self-educated, but educated he was. Like all good preachers he was constantly devouring books. His sermons are peppered with references to the early church fathers, Augustine, Calvin, etc. One of today’s great problems is the separation of power and orthodoxy. Pentecostals and Calvinists do not hang out together. Not so Rowland. He was always first a man of the word and second a pursuer of spiritual power.
The second lesson we learn from the life of Rowland is that to the degree that we possess God’s power we will suffer. Many were jealous of Rowland. Others did not understand him. Anyone person or church that seeks God’s power should be clear about this. The greater the anointing the greater the spiritual resistance.
The third lesson we learn from Rowland’s life is the supremacy of spiritual gifting and calling over ecclesiastical accreditation. Here was a man with no title higher than “assistant pastor” who was probably the most effective spiritual leader in Welsh history. Rowland’s life proved Proverbs 18:16, “A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great.” In Rowland’s case the gift was the presence and power of God. These always open locked doors. Pursue God. His presence and power will give you more promotion you can handle. If you obtain influence for any other reason it will leave you unsatisfied.
The fourth lesson we learn from Rowland is the importance of preaching. Rowland let nothing stand between him and the pulpit. He noted that preaching was the work of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles. He carried a great conviction that it was “the work” that mattered. He refused to let counseling, administration, and church business get in the way of sermon preparation. He continually read, enriching his mind with the writings of the seventeenth century Puritans. He read the Puritan fathers—men like Charnock, Baxter, Owen, Sibbes, and Bunyan. The supernatural focus of their writings infused Rowland with the glories of eternity—necessary fodder for every great preacher.
The fifth lesson we learn from Rowland’s life is that humility and self-denial are precedents to spiritual power. According to Ryle,
“He had a deep and abiding sense of his own sinfulness, weakness, and corruption, and his constant need of God’s grace. On seeing a vast concourse of people coming to hear him, he would frequently exclaim: ‘Oh, may the Lord have mercy and help me, a poor worm, sinful and dust and ashes!’”[xii]
God, raise up men of Daniel Rowland’s stature in the church of today!
[i] Daniel Rowland, Eifon Evans, Banner of Truth, pg 5
[ii] At the time most Welshmen were Anglican. Separate non-State affiliated denominations were just beginning to appear.
[iii] Ibid pg 50,51
[iv] Ibid pg 1
[v] Ibid pg 2
[vi] Christian Leaders Of The Eighteenth Century, J.C. Ryle, Banner of Truth, 1978, pg 186
[vii] Ibid, Ryle, pg 205
[viii] Ibid, Ryle, pg 186
[ix] Ibid Ryle, pg 183
[x] Ibid Ryle pg 184
[xi] Ibid, Ryle, pg. 206 .
[xii] Ibid, Ryle, pg 211, 212
Rowland’s conversion is according to most authors winter 1734/5. I thought this account was exceptionally good.