Henry Rees: 'Best Preacher Ever'?
Daniel Rowland and John Elias are generally acknowledged to be among the greatest preachers in the history of Wales. But Owen Thomas, doyen of Calvinistic Methodist historians in the last century, believed that there was one man whose preaching gifts were greater still:
In Henry Rees the pulpit reached the highest state of perfection ever attained in our land, and we know of nobody, in any land or age, whose sermons we would be ready to acknowledge as surpassing those preached by him.
Is there not some exaggeration here? Leaving Rowland and Elias aside, what about Chrysostom, Augustine and Luther? What about Whitefield, Wesley and Spurgeon? And in any case, is there not something unwholesome about comparing preachers? This is surely the spirit of the Corinthian Christians, some of whom were supporters of Apollos, others of Paul, and a few even of Christ.
Be that as it may, Owen Thomas's assertion above (which was echoed by other contemporary witnesses) suggests at least that there was something exceptional about Henry Rees. Yet today he is largely forgotten, even in the land of his birth. Perhaps this is partly because his life was without dramatic incident as such. He was born exactly two hundred years ago in the parish of Llansannan in the old Denbighshire, but both he and his brother William (who is perhaps better known because of his literary interests) spent most of their ministerial lives in Liverpool, which at the time was the unofficial capital of north Wales. Historically speaking, his main significance was to take on the mantle of John Elias after the latter died in 1841 until his own death in 1896, both theologically and in leading the Calvinistic Methodists in Wales.
As far as his contemporaries were concerned, however, it was for his preaching that he was renowned, and that too in what is generally regarded as the golden age of preachers in Wales. There are a number of reasons for this renown:
His Theological Views
First of all, Henry Rees stood in a rich and honourable tradition as regards his theological views. This is how one observer described him:
On the foundation of those old doctrines — stern and grand, firm and glorious — the doctrines of Paul and the Apostles; Augustine, Anselm and Calvin; ... Dr Owen, Jonathan Edwards and Chalmers; the English Puritans, Scottish Covenanters, and Welsh Methodist Fathers — on these great old lines was Mr. Rees formed both as a Christian and as a preacher.
As the list clearly demonstrates, these are the views among preachers which over the centuries have been honoured by the Holy Spirit. But of all the above names, one theologian was to exert particular influence over Henry Rees, and that was John Owen. In his own words,
Coming into contact with Dr Owen ... was the means of forming a new period in my life both as a Christian and as a preacher ... Every time I read him I receive higher thoughts of Christ, I am stimulated to renewed efforts against sin, and I am instructed how to prosecute those efforts lawfully and successfully.
Havoc in the Heart
John Owen's influence permeated his whole ministry, but it was felt particularly in his close dealings with the hearts of his hearers. He acknowledged his debt to Owen in this respect:
With the dexterity of the man who knows the human heart through experience and deep familiarity, he drew (my spiritual disease) out in detail so that my mind could see it in its root, its actions, its occasions, its effects, and all its fatal characteristics.
It was through being shown the condition of his own heart by Owen that Henry Rees developed his particular gift of applying biblical truth to the human heart. The following description of Rees portrays the spiritual surgeon at work:
We never saw anybody who could create such havoc in the human heart! ... He enters boldly into its most secret recesses, he declares its most hidden secrets, he traces its most twisting paths and its most deceitful devices, until he lays bare the inner man, revealing it to the person concerned and causing him to blush with shame at the sight of his own self! ... His words sweep away every false refuge of the unrepentant sinner, destroy his empty excuses, lay bare the secrets of his heart ... until, having been totally driven out of every hiding-place, he is 'shut up' to the faith of the Gospel.
The Contemporary Scene
One has to ask whether this is the kind of heart-searching faith that is recognised as Christianity today. In second place in the 'Top Ten' of best-selling Christian books in Britain in May 1998 was a volume called The Day I Fell Down the Toilet. Top of the list was a book associated with the Alpha course, used to convey basic truths of the Christian faith. (A number of other entries in the list were also Alpha-related books.) Amazingly, however, the Alpha course has no mention whatsoever of conviction of sin, and does not use the word 'repentance' at all. Perhaps this is in line with the thinking of the influential evangelist Michael Green, who recently wrote that we should shift the emphasis in evangelism from sin and guilt to the fact that 'God is in the celebration business'. What would Henry Rees — not to mention John Owen! — have made of all this?
But we need also to apply this to ourselves if we are preachers. How often do we preach sermons which search hearts, which touch a spiritual nerve, which blow away all self-confidence and lurking hypocrisy and compel us to face the truth of what we really are in ourselves? Henry Rees, his Puritan mentors, and his fellow Methodists valued intellectual edification, but aimed primarily at bringing the truth of God to bear on the consciences of their congregations. And it may well be that it is the absence of such preaching that lies at the root of much of today's superficial and lack-lustre religion.
Prayer and Godliness
Any assessment of Henry Rees's greatness as a preacher must obviously concentrate on his deep and detailed knowledge of his own heart, and consequently of the hearts of those listening to him. Allied to this knowledge, however, was an awareness of complete dependence on the Holy Spirit to change men's hearts. In the words of John Elias:
Well, it's no wonder at all that Mr. Henry Rees is such a remarkable preacher. He draws his power from the Almighty himself. This very morning, without his knowing, I heard him between four and five o'clock in earnest pleadings with his heavenly Father to have his own spirit in the right frame for the day's work, and to have God's face shine upon him in that work.
Moreover, it was the testimony of those closest to him that the godliness of his personal living adorned the doctrine that he preached. In fact, one preacher who had better opportunity than most to see him at close quarters declared that Henry Rees was nothing as a preacher compared to what he was as a Christian. This reminds us of Robert Murray M'Cheyne's remark that his people's greatest need was his own personal holiness. Is it really possible to have God-honoured preaching without God-honouring living?
Henry Rees will be unknown to most readers. The fact that his published sermons are all in Welsh means that he is at present inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the language. Was he really the best preacher ever? Owen Thomas — no mean judge — was in no doubt: Henry Rees was 'the holiest man with whom I ever came into contact, and the most perfect preacher I ever knew'. But Henry Rees himself would have rejected this comment out of hand. Of all men he knew how the heart may be beguiled by the temptations that lie behind such thinking. And, more still, he knew that ultimately he was answerable not to human opinion but to his God:
The question is always pressing itself: What do the people think of me? I would desire to rise above all such concerns ... from an increasing conviction that 'he that judgeth me is the Lord', and that what is important to me is to be acceptable to him.