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John Howells (1793-1840): Biography

This biography was compiled in January 2010 by W. Bart. Christenson, Jr., Provo, Utah, using the facts currently at hand concerning the life and times of John Howells (1793-1840).

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Perhaps the two societal events in Welsh history that most impacted the life of John Howells were the Non-Conformity Movement and the Industrial Revolution: both events were simultaneously gathering momentum during his forty-seven year lifespan, from 1793 to 1840. Moreover, since we know so very little about his short life, we are left to fill-in the gaps using information from the secular history of Wales.

The few documented facts about John which we do have are as follows: He was born at Wernlas, Penderyn, Brecon, Wales, on 14 September 1793 1, to Jenkin Howell and Gwenllian Jones, the third of eight children, four sons and four daughters. 2 He was christened/baptized John Howell three weeks later, on 6 October 1793, at the Penderyn Parish, in Brecon, Wales. 3

It is not entirely clear when he added the terminal s to his surname, nor for what reason. Nonetheless, on 9 September 1827 (by license rather than by banns), at age 34, as John Howells, he married Gwenllian Price, age 27, in Penderyn Parish. 4 Six children eventually blessed their union, three sons and three daughters: Margaret, Thomas, Rees, Gwenllian, Jenkin, and Amelia. 5

John Howells, farmer, age 47 years died at Penderyn, Brecon/Glamorgan, Wales, on 22 July 1840. The cause of death is not listed. 6 Buried in the Siloam Churchyard at Penderyn, Brecon, Wales 7, he left a grieving forty year old widow and six young children, ranging in age from eleven to two years, to fend alone on the farm. 8

His oldest son, Thomas Howells, my great-grandfather, recorded the following in his short autobiography:

My Father followed the occupation of farming. He died when I was only 10 years of age, and left my Mother a widow with 6 children, 5 [4] of whom were younger than myself [I]. She continued in the farming business for several years after my Father’s death. Being that we were so young and unprofitable to keep servants, she sold all of the stock and implements of husbandry, and put the money in the bank, and we children had to seek other employment besides farming.

Then, almost a decade following his father’s demise, after hearing the Gospel preached in his native land for the first time, Thomas joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), on 12 October 1849. He subsequently immigrated to Utah the next year. 9

His actions precipitated a family crisis that was still festering nearly five decades later when his son, John Francis Howells, my grandfather (John Howells' grandson) returned to Wales as a missionary:

As I was gazing on the stone that marked the place where his bones [were] deposited [John Howell, TPH’s father/JFH’s grandfather] I thought of the night when father came home to his mother’s house [Gwenllian Price Howells, then a widow with her six children, of whom TPH was the oldest son] in the village of Penderyn, in his wet clothes, where he had been to be baptized into the true fold of Christ. [I compared] the spirit that actuated his heart upon that occasion to the one that was in his mother’s and in her house when they found where he had been and what he had done. Some of his brothers and sisters condemn him for that act to this day. But I am told that his mother’s heart was turned to him, or at least it was her heart’s desire to visit him before she died. But, for some reason, her desires weren’t granted her. (3 August 1892) 10

Certainly, it would appear that feelings over family tradition and religion ran very deep amongst Welsh people at the time—especially, in the Howells' household. However, whether John Howells, whose brother Richard was both a farmer and minister 11, would have reacted similarly over his son’s actions as did his wife Gwenllian, is not clear.

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Be that as it may, concerning the secular history of Wales, we learn that the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, eventually smashing the Old Druid order which had prevailed in the land for centuries. By the 3rd Century AD, at the height of the Roman occupation, Christianity arrived in the country, followed by the so-called “Age of the Saints”—which included St. David, the pre-eminent Welsh Christian figure of the period.

Although most of the populace in Britain converted to Christianity, they did not become a united people. Indeed, it took several more centuries under other occupiers, the Saxons and the Vikings, to finally bring them together in the late 8th Century AD. Then, in 1066, with the Pope’s blessing, King William of Orange from the Normandy Coast of France conquered England. At the point of the sword, he brought the Welsh under authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury; he also permitted the Norman lords to raid Wales and carve out feudal lordships.

Thereafter followed centuries of conflict between various princes and bishops, with the country religiously still under the supremacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, following the so-called “Wars of Roses” ending in 1485, the Tudor dynasty, with its family origins in Wales, assumed rule in Britain. Henry VIII, who succeeded his father, the first Tudor king, quarreled with the Pope over a marriage issue. This resulted in England and Wales leaving the Roman Catholic Church, formation of the Church of England (eventually known also as the Anglican or Established Church), and dissolution of former Catholic Church properties and wealth.

By 1542, Wales was incorporated into England, was given representation in Parliament, and what remained of the original Welsh law was abolished—and English was made the sole “official” language throughout Wales. Moreover, as the Protestant Reformation progressed in Wales and England under the Tudor dynasty, except during Mary’s reign, Catholics began to face persecution. A number of them were martyred. Still, most Welsh people seemed to accept the many changes that transpired. And it wasn’t until the time of Elizabeth I, at which time the Bible was translated into Welsh, that they were finally able to transform themselves into a truly Protestant people.

Making the Word of God understandable to the people in this manner was a very important part of the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, the rise in literacy following the translation of the Bible into the vernacular language helped the spread of new ideas in England; some of these in turn spread into the border areas of Wales, as well. The Civil War of the 1640’s was the eventual outcome. It was intertwined with multiple issues relating to politics, economic and social change, and religion. By 1649, a Protestant Republic was established throughout the country.

What followed during this time of massive dissent was the formation of multiple new religious groups, a steady rise in literacy, all coupled with new universal educational opportunities—and further religious reformation, the Non-Conformity Movement.

In the early 1700’s, with desired changes waiting to be effected in the Established Church, the Anglican or Church of England, the Methodist Revival in Wales got underway. Several powerful preachers took up the cause. Then by 1851, interestingly, when the only religious census ever taken in the country was completed, it showed that Church of England worshippers in Wales were in the minority—most Christians were by then Nonconformist. 12

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Evidently, Howells family members were part of these ongoing social/religious changes occurring in Wales during the Non-Conformity period, as is shown in two letters received from the Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City, Utah, by Rulon S. Howells, President of the Howells Family Association at the time. The first letter, in 1960, explained problems associated with researching Welsh Non-Conformist records:

It is apparent… by nature of the research on these lines for the last few years that your Welsh ancestors were Non-Conformists. This means that they were connected with some Protestant denomination other than the Church of England as for instance the Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists, Wesleyans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Independents. By 1850 perhaps 30% of the Welsh people [or more] were affiliated with the Non-Conformist congregation, or were 'non-believers.' With few exceptions, this segment of the population was never recorded in the parish registers which chronicled such events as christenings, marriages, and burials.

When doing genealogical research in Wales, one encounters sufficient problems in tracing ancestral lines that are wholly associated with the Church of England even though parochial records are by far the most comprehensive genealogical records to be found in Wales.

However, when the pedigree runs to Non-Conformity as in your case, research becomes even more problematical. First, the religious denomination must be learned along with the name of the chapels or congregations concerned. Second, inquiries have to be made to learn exactly where these chapels were situated and if burial grounds and tombstones still exist.

It seems that very few Non-Conformist chapels enjoyed a long existence in any one locality. Many of these chapels were closed, re-opened, and closed again or passed into the hands of other denominations all in the course of one generation or less. Assuming that the name and location of the Dissenter Chapel can be discovered after more than one hundred years have passed, then it is possible to search for the present minister or secretary of the congregation and find out whether records are still extant or whether records were indeed kept at all.

It is for these and related reasons that research into Non-Conformist ancestry is time consuming and sometimes discouraging…. 13

Excerpts from a second letter, in 1961, reported some newly acquired information about the family:

Our Welsh researcher checked the known data regarding Jenkin Howell, parent of John Howell and the Rev. Richard Howell. Jenkin Howell is said to have associated himself with the Methodist [Baptist, as per the Missionary Journal of Thomas Howells, p. 4] denomination about 1829 and died a year after….

His son John Howell is said to have been born 14 Sept. 1793 at Wernlas, Penderyn….

Richard Howell was a farmer and minister. 14

Thus, it would seem from the above two letters that John Howell’s father Jenkin Howell became a Non-Conformist in 1829, and that John’s brother Richard became a minister [Baptist, as per the Missionary Journal of Thomas Howells, p. 4]. Also, as is further explained in the letters, the fact that subsequent generations of the family evidently belonged to a Nonconformist congregation must be a primary reason for the fact that the bulk of their vital records were not recorded on the rolls of the Established church.

Other correspondence in a series of letters to and from the Genealogical Society during the first half of 1973 further explored this dilemma. 15, 16, 17, 18

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The Industrial Revolution was the other great societal issue in Wales that certainly must have affected the lives of John and his generation. Following the invention of the steam engine in the late 1700’s coupled with resultant expanded emphasis on multiple types of manufacturing, necessary fuel supplies such as coal needed to be harnessed and the required work forces mobilized. As a result, the changes throughout Britain which all of this caused were monumental.

John Howells and his forefathers for generations before him had worked the land as farmers. Now, the traditional agricultural status of such people was being challenged:

In 1750, Wales was still an overwhelmingly rural country. Its population of about 500,000 was, however, gaining an expanding industrial base…

Because of its reliance on coal, steam power had an impact upon the location of industry.

The ironworks of Merthyr Tydfil [not far from John’s hometown of Penderyn and its vast coal fields, in southeast Wales 19-map] gave rise to Wales' first industrial town. By 1830 [this area was] producing half the iron exported by Britain….

By 1851, Wales was the world’s second leading industrial nation, behind England… [, at which time] … two thirds of the families of Wales were supported by activities other than agriculture…. 20

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Consequently, although we learned previously that John’s widow Gwenllian and their children initially remained on the family farm in Penderyn following his early death in 1840, we also know that after only a few years, all of their livestock and farm implements were sold and the children sent out to earn their living else wise—including working in the mines.

Undoubtedly, then, effects of both the Non-Conformity Movement and the Industrial Revolution which were so significantly shaping Wales during the time of John’s short life at the beginning of the 19th Century must have also greatly influenced his overall thinking and actions, as well.

It will be interesting to hear his perspective and to learn more about his mortal life when we meet in the hereafter.

I suspect that with new insights acquired there, he will have already gladly embraced the full Gospel Plan in its entirety.

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Sources of Information:

1. See 1961: 27 January 1961, part 1 letter from the Genealogical Society…, found under Subsequent Events in the Document section of this file.

2. See Jenkin Howell (1758-1830) in the World Connect section on this website.

3. See 1793 John’s christening record, 6 October 1793…, found under Life Happenings (1793-1840) in the Document section of this file.

4. See 1827 (age 34) John's and Gwenllian Price's marriage record, 9 November 1827..., found under Life Happenings… in the Document section of this file.

5. See Selected Documents for Gwenllian's and John Howells' Children, found in the Document section for Gwenllian Price on this website.

6. See 1840 (age 47) Certification of the death of John Howells…, found under Life Happenings… in the Document section of this file.

7. See Image of John's gravestone in the Siloam Churchyard, Penderyn, Brecon, Wales…, found in the Photograph section of this file.

8. See 1841 Wales Census for Upper Ystradvelltey, District 1, Breconshire County the year following John's death…, found under Subsequent Events in the Document section of this file.

9. See Thomas Howells (1831-1883): Autobiography, found under the Thomas Howells (1831-1883): Additional Family History section on this website.

10. See Abstraction of Missionary Journal: April 1892 – March 1894, found under John Francis Howells (1866-1944): Additional Family History on this website.

11. Op. Cit.: 1961: 27 January 1961, part 1 letter from the Genealogical Society…

12. http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/religion/sites/timeline/pages/religion_in_wales_1.shtml.

13. See 1960: 12 August 1960, part 1 and part 2 letters from the Genealogical Society…, found under Subsequent Events in the Document section of this file.

14. Op. Cit.: 1961: 27 January 1961, part 1 letter from the Genealogical Society…

15. See 1973: Copy of a rough draft of a Madoc Historical Society letter..., found under Subsequent Events in the Document section of this file.

16. See 1973: Copy of the 9 March 1973 letter from Theodore M. Burton, President of the Genealogical Society..., found under Subsequent Events in the Document section of this file.

17. See 1973: Copy of the 31 May 1973 response by Rulon S. Howells to the above letter..., found under Subsequent Events in the Document section of this file.

18. See 1973: Copy of the 5 June 1973 answer from Theodore M. Burton, President of the Genealogical Society, to Rulon S. Howells..., found under Subsequent Events in the Document section of this file.

19. See Map of South Wales showing various locales important to John and his family…, found in the Photograph section of this file.

20. http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/guide/ch15_industrial_revolution.shtml.

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