Little is known of his early years; indeed his actual birth day in 1713 is unknown. He was the second son of the Rector (Senior Minister) of Llangeitho, Cardiganshire. It seems his father was 54 when he was born and died when Daniel was just 18. He attended Hereford Grammar School, but apparently no university. Instead he was ordained by the age of 20 in 1733. It is recorded, as a note of his poverty, that he’d travelled to London on foot for the occasion.
His elder brother had succeeded his father in ministry at Llangeitho. Daniel was appointed his Curate (Assistant Minister). But like many in his day, he entered ministry without much sense of his duties and “utterly ignorant of the gospel of Christ”. Being an athletic man, after church on Sunday, he spent the rest of the day “in sports and revels, if not in drunkenness”.
The prime human factor in his conversion seems to have been going to hear preaching by an excellent minister, Griffith Jones. Daniel’s behavior was so full of vanity and levity that Jones stopped his sermon to pray especially for Rowlands that God would touch his heart and make him instrument. From that time, about 1735, a complete change came over his life.
He began to preach as a man who’d discovered that sin and judgment, heaven and hell were real! With great gifts of mind and body, his preaching drew many. However it seems at first, he majored on awakening sinners, and bringing them under the law’s condemnation. Ryle suggests, “He did not yet lift up Christ crucified in all his fullness, as a refuge, a physician, a redeemer, and a friend; and hence, though many were wounded, they were not healed.
Apparently an independent minister, Mr Pugh, then took an interest in Rowlands and urged him to apply the “balm of Gilead” – namely the blood of Christ – to their spiritual wounds so that they see the need of faith in Christ crucified. Ryle sees this as imitating Aquila and Priscilla’s work with Apollos. By about 1742 he was preaching a full, grace-filled gospel.
From this time on thousands flocked to hear him preach in Llangeitho. He was there in church on Sundays for almost 50 years. But following the beseeching of a woman from Ystradffin, who kept coming to hear him, and with the permission of the local clergyman, he visited and preached there as a guest and 30 souls were converted. From then, he also took invitations to preach in chapels or barns or the open air if necessary. He followed up by establishing of methodist societies around much of Wales. Upwards of one hundred ministers in this association regarded him as their spiritual father, a key part of Welsh revival.
His preaching was considered matched only by the great George Whitefield. Ryle observes the following elements to explain Rowlands’ power.
- Firstly the constant presence of Jesus on almost every page. He could never say enough of Christ.
- Secondly, a singular richness of thought, with evidence of deep reading in the Puritans, early church Fathers, and classical writers.
- Thirdly, excellent language, namely pithy, epigrammatic, and vivid sentences that stuck in the memory.
- Lastly, richness in practical teaching, full of warning, advice, encouragement and consolation for Christians, as well as challenges to convert sinners.
Ryle’s research says Rowlands was aided in his ministry by a powerful voice, but also by a character of humility, diligence, fervour, self-denial (he refused two offers of good livings in established churches), courage (he was opposed and his life was threatened for his preaching), and a habit of praying much.
Sadly, Rowlands was forced out of the Church of England. His brother had let Daniel run the ministry, although he was actually minister in charge. But when his brother drowned, the bishop refused to give the living to Daniel, and appointed him curate to Daniel’s 27 year old son instead. It seems the Bishop wanted to keep a rein on Rowlands’ independence.
But then in 1763, the bishop revoked Rowlands’ licence completely, during a Sunday service! Rowlands quietly suggested the congregation should obey a higher authority, and with tears, they moved outside and concluded the morning service by the church gate. Ryle comments that, “A more unhappy, ill-timed, blundering exercise of episcopal power than this, it is literally impossible to conceive.” All the more since at the time, many Welsh clergy were neglectful, or drunkards and gamblers.
But his friends and followers built him a large independent chapel in Llangeitho, and his son let him keep living in the rectory. And Rowlands preached on for another 27 years, dying in 1790, aged 77. So the Church of England gained nothing by ejecting this gospel-preaching man, who had no objection to the 39 Articles or Prayer Book. Nothing that is, except a harvest of odium in Wales that Ryle saw continuing a century later.
Although of course, these things are impossible for humans to measure, Ryle concludes,
Never, perhaps, did any preacher exalt Christ more than Rowlands did, and never did any preacher leave behind such deep and abiding marks in the isolated corner of the world where he laboured.
Source: Five Christian Leaders of the 18th Century by J. C. Ryle (Banner of Truth, 1960).