About a month after receiving the invitation from Mr. Gosset, there came a new call to intercession. Although many drunkards in the village had been gloriously converted, there were some men that they failed to get through. They attended the meetings and showed a desire to follow the Lord, but were such terrible slaves to drink that the enemy still kept his hold on them. There was a need once again to “bind the strong man and spoil his goods”. Actually the intercession proved to be the first step away from a public ministry into a hidden life.
For three years, after his day’s work was done, Rees Howells had been at the mission every night. There were meetings five evenings a week, and the other two were spent in visiting. His work in the pit took him from 7 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., and then he had the two-mile walk each way in all weathers. There was no time to attend any other meetings, for he hardly ever left his flock, except during the week of the Llandrindod Convention to which they took as many of the new converts as possible. The work had become so well established that many people were coming in from the surrounding districts on Sunday evenings, and it was like a continuous revival. The outward effect on the village had been that, whereas three years before the brewery was sending up two wagons and a cart loaded with barrels of beer every fortnight on pay days, it had now come down to one cart, and that only half full. It was a common joke that it would have paid the brewery to have persuaded Rees Howells and his friends to become shareholders! “The only enemy we had,” said Mr. Howells, “was the devil himself! All the people respected us, for they knew we were out for their welfare. Although inwardly we were often going through trials and testings, they were never told of these; it was a perpetual revival with them. Oh, how precious the Name of Jesus was to us! In the open-air meetings, the district rang with ‘Blessed be the Name of the Lord’.”
The difficulty Mr. Howells had was to find time for prayer. Really his only opportunity was on that two-mile walk to the mission, one mile of which was over a lonely common. He always tried to be alone for that mile, and, after leaving the last house behind, would remove his cap, and continue in the attitude of prayer. The conventions of those days made it an unheard-of thing not to wear a head covering when out of doors, but when alone, the presence of God was so real that he always bared his head. This became so much a habit that he never once crossed the common without putting his cap in his pocket, and when returning late at night, after the lights in the town were put out, he would go the whole way like that. But curious though it may seem to us today, nothing would have induced him to go hatless in the day-time! As he said, “The hatless brigade was unknown at that time!”
This apparently trivial habit was the first thing the Spirit used to make him dead to the influence of the public. One Sunday morning very early, he was with the Lord in prayer, he said, “and the glory of that morning was far brighter than the light of the sun. There was such a peace and solemn hush that I felt the place was holy ground. I had felt it sometimes before, but it was far more intense that morning, as though Isaiah’s words had become a fact: ‘And the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days.’ The Lord then showed me that the place of abiding in the intercession to which He had called me, was to keep in the attitude of prayer all day. For the first time I could not take my hat with me! To walk through the town, to go to the mission would be impossible, I could never do it! Never! The glory soon passed away, and the sun had no more light than usual, if anything less, and oh, the darkness that came over me! How I wished I had not gone out that morning. Even fasting was not to be compared with this. Only those at home were involved in the test of fasting, but in this thing I was to be a spectacle before the whole town. Never had they seen a man out of doors without a hat!”
When the time for the mission came, the Holy Ghost told him he was not to go unless he obeyed. While he was on his knees, the Lord asked him his reasons for not wanting to obey. Did he want to go out of the Lord’s presence? No, it wasn’t that. The only reason he could give was that the influence of the public would be too great over him, and he wouldn’t be able to stand it; so the Lord told him that was the very reason why He had asked him to do it, and he was not to preach again on being dead to the world, until he had victory over it. “How much of the world is in us, when we often think we are dead to it!” commented Mr. Howells. “I used to laugh about a man who had put the Salvation Army cap on, but I wished that day that the Holy Ghost would allow me to wear even that! But He would allow no compromise. I had to say, ‘I am a bondslave, You pull me through’.”
He thought if he could avoid his mother, he would not mind so much, because this, on top of the fasting, would be sure to make her think that something was wrong with him, and he would go to any lengths to avoid hurting her feelings. Their family was well known and highly respected in the town, and the thought of disgracing his parents made the test doubly hard. “I was upstairs praying,” he said, “trying to get as much strength as possible, but the Lord seemed to be very far away. Often in a test it seems that there is no God in the world.”
His mother knew he was later than usual and heard him coming downstairs. She came to meet him with his hat in her hand, brushing it for him with a mother’s loving care. “When I told her I was not wearing a hat,” he said, “I thought of old Simeon’s words to Mary, ‘A sword shall pierce through thine own soul also’. What it means for parents to see one of their sons walking on a strange path!
“I shall never forget going through the town that day, and passing people going to other churches. Talk about being dead to the world! Every sensitive nerve in me was alive to its influence! I was not much better than a blind man. It seemed that the devil had gathered all the forces of hell to attack this simple obedience. In itself there was nothing in it; I was only called to spend the day in the attitude of prayer, and that meant a little separation from the world. Oh, the depths of this respectable self-nature — but it was in the process of being changed for the divine nature! It was a deliverance to reach the mission. It was like the City of Refuge from the avenger of blood, and among ourselves there was always a laugh after a test.”
But it was not only on Sundays the attitude of prayer was to be maintained. “Whether working, walking or anything else,” the souls for whom he was praying were to be upon his heart; so that meant going every day without his hat. “To an extent I had victory over that,” he said, “but it was a real death to go to work without it; however, it had now become harder to disobey than to obey, and the people became used to it.”
In separating him to Himself, the Lord was preparing to take him much farther than this. He was going to call him away from public ministry altogether, and the next step came through an attack of the enemy on his special friend and co-worker in the mission. They loved each other ‘and “by nature,” said Mr. Howells, “he was one of the most lovable persons I had ever met, and like Apollos, he was eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures.” But the enemy, through some believers, began to tell him that as long as he remained with Rees Howells in the village, he would never be at his best. He needed to have a work of his own. The Lord showed Mr. Howells the seriousness of this attack, and that he was the only one who could save his friend: “The only way you can do it is by giving him the very thing the enemy says he will never get. Why don’t you give the leadership of the mission to him? Retire behind him and be an intercessor for him. Pray that the mission will be a greater success in his hands than in yours.” And He reminded him that this was one of the very things He had spoken to him about years before at Llandrindod.
He had to face the effect it would have on his life. “For three years I had put all my time, money and everything into the mission,” he said, “and had been over every night. And now, when there were great prospects, He was asking me to step down and help behind my friend, as he had previously helped behind me. The mission was growing, and would become still more popular, and the people naturally would attribute all the success to my friend; they would never seen or remember that it needed someone to put down the foundation. It was a great inward conflict to allow my friend to get the outward success. This was the next grade of self the Holy Ghost was going to deal with; and it was a hard process, allowing it to be replaced by His divine nature. For three days I could not willingly accept it, but I knew I would be pulled through. It was God’s way of working one up to having as much joy in a hidden life as in an open and successful one. If my aim in life was to do God’s will, then I could truly say either way would be equal joy.” He was helped at that time by the story of Madame Guyon, where the process of sanctification was to be seen very plainly. Even in the dungeon she would say, “I ask no more, in good or ill, but union with Thy holy will.”
God brought him through and made another deep change in his nature. Like Jonathan, he was able to love the man who took his place. He talked it over with his friend and told him how God was leading him, and that from henceforth the mission would be his, while he stood behind him in prayer: “Build it as a great mission. The Lord will win souls through you, and I will be praying for you. I want the mission to become a greater success through you than it was through me.”