David Howell was one of the most influential preachers and spiritual leaders of the 19th Century.
During his long and varied career as a minister, Archdeacon and Dean David Howell forged new connections between: church and chapel worshippers, urban and rural areas, as well as English and Welsh speaking communities. He worked and preached across all part of the Principality, reaching out to help the poorest in a caring and genuine manner. His spirituality and deeds are an inspiration to us all today.
David Howell was awarded an Honorary Degree and ended his career as Dean of St David’s Cathedral – but he was born and raised here, in Treoes. His story is a remarkable one.
David was born in 1831 to John and Catherine Howell, a highly respected religious, farming family. They lived in Parc Newydd in Treoes, but when David was still a young boy the family moved to Bryncwtyn farm, near Pencoed. The farm has now long been demolished, making way for new industry.
Because of Catherine Howell’s poor health David was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Mary Griffiths, at Tyn y Caeau in Treoes. Mary was a strong supporter of St Mary Hill’s Church, drawing her inspiration from David Jones’s evangelical preaching some 30 years previously.
Mary would regularly take the young David to Saron Chapel, where Welsh sermons and hymns had a deep and profound impact on him.
David’s grandfather was a different character though, and was said to have ‘wet habits.’ When he started taking the impressionable 15 year old David to taverns Mary was so concerned that she persuaded his mother to take him back at Bryncwtyn.
Within a year the strict discipline inflicted by his father was too much for the free spirited young David. He pleaded to his grandmother to allow him to return to Tyn y Caeau. She welcomed him back.
During his brief period back at his parent’s farm David started attending Salem Chapel in Pencoed, where he heard some of the most powerful preachers of the day, who had themselves been influenced by David Jones. Their passionate style of preaching would have a strong bearing on David Howell.
Salem Chapel also brought David into contact with his future wife, Ann Powell. She was just 16 and 3 years younger than him. They became lovers and it wasn’t long before Ann discovered that she was pregnant.
David and Ann must have been terrified when they had to announce to their parents that they were expecting a child. His grandmother Mary was more understanding – but also more determined than ever to guide David onto a more spiritual and respected path
David and Ann married in September 1851 at St Mary’s Hill Church and five months later they were back to christen their new son, Taliesin. The Reverend John Griffiths, the vicar at St Mary’s Church, recognised and encouraged David’s talent as a poet – and also persuaded him to enter theological college and to take a new path in life. Supported financially by his grandmother and his mother David took his first tentative steps to become a minister by studying classics at the Eagle Academy in Cowbridge.
In 1852, his grandmother Mary, who had been the most important influence on his life, passed away, leaving David heartbroken with grief. Mary Griffiths must have been a remarkable woman, combining strength of character, compassion and caring. A plaque to her memory stands inside St Mary Hill’s Church.
At the age of 25 and after a period of intensive study David was ordained as a priest. Soon after he took up an offer to follow the Rev John Griffiths to Neath as his curate. During his time in Neath, David was also part of the Church’s Pastoral Aid work. This was a role which allowed him to preach throughout Wales. By the time of the religious revival in 1859 he had built up an extensive reputation as a charismatic and popular preacher and platform speaker in both English and Welsh.
Over this period David also wrote extensively and became a highly respected poet, using the bardic name of Llawdden. The extensive travelling took its toll though, particularly on his wife and young family. The time had come for David to take up a more permanent position.
David accepted his first ministry in 1861 at Pwllhelli, in North Wales. His appointment was not warmly welcomed at first and he faced initial hostility from some of the parishioners. Within a short time he had won them over and made his three years there a great success.
On his final day, both David and his parishioners had tears in their eyes as he boarded the coach that would take him to a new calling – back to South Wales and a most daunting challenge.
In 1864 David was appointed to St John and St Andrew’s in Cardiff – a far cry from rural Pwllheli. Cardiff at that time was booming with the export of coal and there was a high level of drinking and immorality. David’s powerful preaching and soulful voice had an immediate impact and the number attending his services quickly swelled. His pastoral work also included helping the poorest in society, whether they were sick, dying, hungry or without shelter and clothes.
When David announced that after 14 years he was leaving Cardiff a public meeting was held and 1,700 people signed a petition requesting him to stay. Equally moving, a group of poor Irish girls from the potato sheds in the docks came to his door in tears to present him with a sliver salver as a gift for his kindness. David was deeply touched, but he had already accepted his new role and felt obliged to keep his word.
In 1897, at the age of 66, David was appointed to the important role of Dean of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. This was an appointment made by the then Prime Minister Salisbury, despite the initial opposition of John Owen, the newly appointed Bishop of St David’s. After a few years David Howell managed to forge a good working relationship with Bishop Owen.
David’s primary role as Dean was to raise funds for the restoration of the Cathedral, particularly the Lady Chapel which had been in a ruinous state since 1775. Through his immense energy, hard work, charm and spirituality this immense task was achieved within a remarkably short space of time.
In 1903 David passed away. He had lived an extraordinary life and become one of Wales’ most respected preachers, religious leaders and poets.
David’s calling was to St Giles Church in Wrexham, one of the largest parishes in North Wales, where there was a desperate need for Welsh-speaking preachers.
As usual David immersed himself in his work and his passion and energy resulted in an upsurge in attendance. Within a short time, his services filled a 1,600 seater chapel.
David’s efforts were later recognised by the Church when he became Archdeacon of Wrexham. He was also awarded a Batchelor of Divinity from Lambeth University.
When accepting the role of Archdeacon he moved to the quieter rural parish of Gresford, but he’d barely been there a month before he had the saddest of tasks in burying is wife Ann.
David Howell also had his enemies. His strong views were opposed by some traditionalists and within his own quarter – notably Bishop Edwards of St Asaph – some chose to try to undermine him by highlighting his rural background, lack of university education and that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.
His immense contribution is commemorated in St David Cathedral and at St Giles Church in Wrexham – but here, in Treoes, where he spent his formative years, there is nothing to remember him by, only these short words.