Daniel Rowland (1711-1790)
For modern readers Daniel Rowland must be the most frustrating figure of the eighteenth-century awakening. Contemporaries paid tribute to his outstanding gifts as a preacher, a verdict which has been sustained by many later writers. Some have considered him the greatest preacher in an age which was exceptionally blessed with such men. In spite of the evidence which supports such claims, every effort to discover the man himself leaves a sense of disappointment. Dr Eifion Evans has placed us all in his debt by his modern biography which makes available so much more material especially for those of us who cannot read Welsh. Nevertheless gaps remain and when all the writers have written it has to be admitted that Rowland does not stand out against his background with the clarity of George Whitefield or John Wesley. The explanation must largely be the loss of Rowland's personal papers and also the fact that, although a body of anecdotal information was handed on verbally, none of his close associates seems to have had time to write much about him. Difficulties notwithstanding, the eminence of Daniel Rowland as a Christian leader demands that the two hundredth anniversary of his death should not be forgotten.
As Rowland lay dying in October 1790 he was but a few miles from the house in which, almost eighty years earlier, he had been born. Although during his life he had travelled widely in Wales and had made significant journeys into England, his life's work had been centred on the remote Cardiganshire hamlet of Llangeitho. The old preacher could recall changes such as men dream of today. A land notorious for ignorance and ungodliness had been favoured with wave upon wave of blessing and as God had worked so wondrously he had been at the centre of these visitations. What he was not, of course, to know was that, within a month of his death, Llangeitho was yet again to be the scene of revival.
1. Rowland's Life
Modern historians accept 1711 as the year of Rowland's birth. At that time his father, also Daniel, was rector of Llangeitho and incumbent of a cluster of small neighbouring benefices. He continued as rector until succeeded by his elder son John in 1730. Daniel Junior never went to a university but received a thorough classical education, at first locally and then at Hereford Grammar School. In his youth there appears to have been little real godliness in the Rowland family. However, Daniel was to follow his father and his elder brother into the ordained ministry of the Church of England. Eighteenth-century Welsh bishops preferred London to Wales and so in March 1734 Daniel presented himself at Westminster to be made deacon by Nicholas Claggett, Bishop of St David's. He made the journey in both directions on foot. With the bishop's appointment in his pocket he returned to Llangeitho to become curate to his brother.
Not long after the commencement of Daniel's curacy in Llangeitho, he came under the most intense conviction of sin. This appears to have happened after he heard the preaching of one of the noted evangelical clergymen in Wales in the 1730s. The preacher was Griffiths Jones of Llanddowror. One account of this service suggests that Rowland attended with such obvious resentment that Griffiths Jones paused and cried, 'Oh for a word to reach your heart young man!' From this time both the life and preaching of Rowland were profoundly changed. At first he understood better how to thunder out the demands of the law than to preach the gospel. A neighbouring Dissenting minister, Philip Pugh, offered him invaluable advice.
Preach the gospel to the people, dear sir ... if you go on preaching the law in this manner, you will kill half the people in the country, for you thunder out the curses of the law, and preach in such a terrific manner, that no one can stand before you.' To Rowland's objection that he was unsure of his own faith, Pugh replied. 'Preach on it till you feel it that way; no doubt it will come.
In August 1735 the Bishop, then in Wales, ordained Rowland a priest. By that time he was no longer the careless worldly parson who had entered the ministry nearly eighteen months earlier but a faithful pastor and an earnest evangelist. It would seem, however, that he did not have a clear view of the gospel until some time in 1737. By then his congregations were to be counted in their hundreds. Howell Harris, who visited Llangeitho in December 1737, estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 people, mostly standing, were crushed into the church. People were beginning to travel considerable distances to the services. Many of these urged Rowland to come to their spiritually destitute areas to preach. After Rowland came into the liberty of the gospel it was not simply the size of the congregations which was a source of wonder. More significant were the evidences of a powerful work of the Spirit of God as men and women were cut down by sharp convictions of sin often evidenced by their agonised cries, while others were brought into the glorious liberty of the gospel with profound expressions of joy. It is claimed that there were seven distinct times of revival during Rowland's ministry, beginning with the one in the late 1730s. Regrettably, details of these distinct occasions have been lost although it is known that none occurred between 1750 and 1762, a time of controversy which involved Rowland and his close friend and colleague Howell Harris.
It was in 1737 that Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris first met. Harris was an evangelist from Trevecca in Breconshire. Several times Harris offered himself for ordination but was always rejected by the bishop because of his evangelistic zeal and his association with the Methodists, George Whitefield and John Wesley. Harris, like Rowland, was a powerful evangelist and in addition he was a very good organiser. Rowland and Harris together pioneered Methodism with its evangelism, emphasis on Christian experience and promotion of societies of Christians for mutual spiritual counsel. Methodism was still a movement within the Established Church although it was regarded with grave suspicion by senior members of the hierarchy. Like George Whitefield, from whom they received much help and encouragement, both Rowland and Harris were Calvinistic Methodists.
For many years Rowland and Harris co-operated in the work of preaching the gospel, organising societies and encouraging others in the work of the Christian ministry. Sadly tensions began to build up between them during the 1740s. Harris was blessed with remarkable experiences of the love of God, but seemed to use these as a standard to assess the experiences of others. He also became confused on aspects of the doctrine of the person of Christ and impatient of all attempts to help him. After a period of much strain the differences erupted in 1750 and a serious breach of fellowship between the two men followed. Harris gave up his evangelistic travels and withdrew to Trevecca where many of his friends joined him. Welsh Calvinistic Methodism was divided. Wonderfully, after years of separation the breach was healed in 1762 and the two great leaders resumed their co-operation. This restoration of fellowship led on to a time of blessing outstanding even in Rowland's ministry. The revival was not limited to the area around Llangeitho. In Dr Evans's judgment, 'the Awakening now became virtually general throughout Wales' (Daniel Rowland, p. 314).
This time of great blessing was to precede one of the most bitter experiences in Rowland's life. His position at Llangeitho was insecure as he was never a fully beneficed clergyman. When his brother John died in 1760, Daniel was not appointed rector although he had done most of the work for years. Instead the benefice was given to his own son, also John, who never ministered in the village. Although a Methodist, Rowland always considered himself to be a loyal member of the Established Church whose discipline with one important exception he was careful to respect. He insisted that only episcopally ordained ministers administered the sacrament of the Lord's Supper or officiated in the parish churches. His loyalty was strained as various bishops refused to ordain good men simply because they were Methodists. Amongst these was his close friend William Williams, who never received priests' orders and whose activities in the state church were in consequence limited. Rowland's evangelicalism was of course an offence to the ecclesiastical authorities. He compounded this by his most serious breach of the rules of the Established Church: he frequently preached in the parishes of other men without their permission. This was an offence committed frequently by the Methodists, English as well as Welsh. For these reasons the Bishop was persuaded to withdraw his curate's licence, which effectively ended his ministry in the Established Church. Notice of this was served upon Rowland during a service just as he was about to preach on a Sunday in July 1763. He announced what had happened and led the congregation out of the building and preached in the open air. Over a hundred years later Bishop Ryle was to comment, 'a more unhappy, ill-timed, blundering exercise of episcopal power than this, it is literally impossible to conceive.'
Rowland continued to minister in the village of Llangeitho where a large chapel was built for him. His ejection was no hindrance to his continued usefulness. The loser was the Established Church in Wales. Great blessing continued to attend his ministry. He still considered himself a minister of the Established Church and used its liturgy. Influential laymen made efforts to secure his reinstatement either at Llangeitho or in another parish but each of these efforts proved abortive as Rowland always refused to give the demanded assurances that he would restrict his ministry to his own parish. The needs of Wales were too great for that.
So Rowland continued his labours in close association with Howell Harris and the hymn writer and preacher, William Williams. Harris died in 1773. Williams outlived Rowland by a few months. By 1790 other men were emerging in the great succession of gospel preachers. Although in his last year travel was curtailed, Rowland continued to preach at Llangeitho until the Sunday before his death, which occurred on Saturday 16th October 1790. He was seriously ill only for a few days. As he approached his end he was reminded of the thousands converted under his ministry. 'It is nothing; he said, declaring that his only support was 'the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, which cleanses us from all sin.' Although his age and the years of incessant toil made it likely that he could not long continue, the news that Rowland's ministry had ended was received with profound grief when it came. Men realised that under God he had played a leading part in events which had changed the character of a nation.
2. The Significance of Daniel Rowland
Rowland belonged to the select band of outstanding preachers. Such men are rare. The eighteenth century was singularly blessed with able preachers but even among them Rowland was outstanding. Inevitably comparisons are made with George Whitefield. Eifion Evans quotes from Edward Morgan's Life of Rowland:
A friend once asked an old gentleman of considerable intelligence, now dead, who had often heard both Whitefield and Rowland, respecting their comparative merits as preachers. He decidedly gave preference on the whole to the latter. Whitefield, he said, was greater perhaps in the power of alarming the unconcerned. But Rowland excelled in building up, strengthening, and comforting the Christian. His sermons were more methodical and contained more matter and more point. Whitefield's sermons would be soon forgotten; but those of Rowland would be remembered and retained through life. This, I believe, was true; for I have heard old people often mention what they heard from Mr. Rowland though he has been dead now nearly forty years. There is another point in which the superiority, according to this old gentleman's opinion, belonged to Mr. Rowland. Whitefield, at times, when much animated, lost his matter, his feelings impeding the operations of his mind. But this was never the case with Rowland; the more animated he was, the greater was his matter, the more weighty was what he said.Evans, op. cit., p. 4
The great Welsh Baptist preacher, Christmas Evans, left his impressions of Rowland as a preacher:
I seem to see him now, dressed in his black gown, opening the little door that led from the outside to the pulpit, and making his appearance to the multitude. His whole countenance was clothed with a majesty that betokened sense, eloquence and authority. His forehead was high; his eyes were keen and piercing; his nose was Roman or aquiline; his lips comely, and his chin projecting and rising a little; and his voice sonorous and high-toned.
He went on: The whole assembly were all ears, as if they were going to hear some evangelical oracle, and the eyes of all were fixed upon him. He had some stirring thought, as a small ointment-box before opening the great one of the sermon, which he opened, and the odours of its ointments spread over the whole congregation, and prepared them to expect the opening of the other boxes, one after the other, throughout the sermon: (which he did) until the whole house was filled with the heavenly odour, as Bethany formerly with the odour of Mary's alabaster-box of ointment.Quoted in the Banner of Truth magazine, 215-6, p. 69
Rowland's long ministry was marked by consistent orthodoxy. Once he had established his doctrinal position in the 1730s he maintained it. As already indicated he was a Calvinist standing in the doctrinal tradition which flowed from the Reformation. There was no straining after doctrinal or exegetical novelties in his preaching. He acknowledged his debt to the great Puritan preachers of the previous century as well as to the Erskines in Scotland in his own century. He resisted the inroads of Arminianism and Antinomianism as well as Sandemanianism which gained popularity in his lifetime.
Rowland was given great gifts of oratory; he was orthodox in his divinity, but all would have been of little avail spiritually if he had not been an outstanding man of prayer. His biographer, John Owen of Thrussington, wrote, 'prayer was deemed by him a most important duty; and it was what he himself practised much, not only in private, and on public occasions, but while abroad, walking or riding'. He recorded an incident when Rowland had been seen leaving his house to preach but was delayed on the way. He was discovered after the time for the commencement of public worship on his knees in a little copse. As the searchers arrived he arose with an apology for delay, adding, 'Dear brethren, I have had a sweet opportunity in that place.' Owen commented, 'And this was afterward made apparent; for he delivered his message with amazing power and effect.'
Rowland was a significant figure in his own century. As God's instrument he helped to give Welsh Christianity its distinctive character. A mighty preacher raised up for the times, he combined Calvinistic orthodoxy with Methodist devotion and evangelistic zeal. Although an Anglican minister who never formally seceded from the Established Church, his life and ministry were to be fundamental to the emergence of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. However, like all great Christian leaders his significance extends beyond a denomination or even a nation. He remains an inspiration to all who are concerned about the glory of God and the progress of the gospel. He was what he was by the grace of God and the God who so abundantly blessed and used Daniel Rowland is still attentive to the cries of his people.