Powell, Vavasor (DNB00)
POWELL, VAVASOR (1617–1670), nonconformist divine, was born in 1617 at Cnwcglas or Knuclas in the parish of Heyop, Radnorshire. His father, Richard Howell was an ‘ale-keeper’ and ‘badger of oatmeal;’ his mother was Penelope, daughter of William Vavasor of Newtown, Montgomeryshire. He is said to have been employed at home as stable-boy, and to have served as groom to Isaac Thomas, innkeeper and mercer at Bishop's Castle, Shropshire. These particulars may be true, but they are derived from his enemies. His education had not been neglected, and at the age of seventeen he was sent to Jesus College, Oxford, by his uncle, Erasmus Howell, vicar of Clun, Shropshire. He took no degree, probably declining subscription, and, leaving the university, he became schoolmaster at Clun. Here he officiated as his uncle's curate, though not ordained; he describes himself as ‘a reader of common prayer.’ Alexander Griffith [q. v.] tells an improbable story of his obtaining the letters of orders of ‘an old decayed minister (his near kinsman),’ and substituting his own name, for which offence he was tried at the Radnorshire county sessions, and ‘with much ado reprieved from the gallows.’ He wore a clerical habit in his twentieth year, but it was as a schoolmaster that he was at that date reproved by a strict puritan for looking on at Sunday sports. The formation of his deeper religious convictions he assigns to the period 1638–9, when he was influenced by the preaching of Walter Cradock [q. v.] and the writings of Richard Sibbs and William Perkins [q. v.] From about 1639 he adopted the career of an itinerant evangelist; he was possessed of independent property either by inheritance or marriage.
In 1640 he was arrested, with a number of his hearers, for preaching at a house in Breconshire. After passing a night in custody Powell and his friends were examined, and dismissed with a warning. He was again arrested for field preaching in Radnorshire, and committed to the assizes by Hugh Lloyd, the high sheriff, his kinsman. On trial he was acquitted, and invited to dine with the judges, when one of them complimented him on his grace after meat as ‘the best he had ever heard.’ On the outbreak of the civil war he left Wales for London (August 1642).
For a couple of years he preached in and about London, and for two years more at Dartford, Kent, where he stayed through a visitation of the plague, preaching three times a week. When parliament had become master of Wales by the surrender of Raglan Castle in August 1646, Powell was invited to resume his evangelistic work in the principality. He applied to the Westminster assembly for a testimonial. Stephen Marshall [q. v.] objected that he was not ordained. He was willing to be examined, but scrupled at presbyterian ordination. On 11 Sept. 1646 he obtained a certificate of character and gifts, signed by Charles Herle [q. v.], prolocutor of the assembly, and seventeen divines, including Marshall, Joseph Caryl [q. v.], Christopher Love [q. v.], Philip Nye [q. v.], and Peter Sterry. His position at this time was that of an independent; the difficulty about ordination was met by considering him as not fixed to a particular church, but a minister at large. When on a preaching mission to the forces acting against Anglesea (still held for the crown), he received a bullet-wound; in the midst of the fray he fancied himself addressed by a voice from heaven, ‘I have chosen thee to preach the gospel.’ In addition to his itinerant labours, which took him into nearly every parish in Wales, he was the means of erecting some twenty ‘gathered churches,’ and creating a band of missionary preachers. Hence he got the nickname ‘metropolitan of the itinerants.’ He was himself ‘pastor’ of the church at Newtown, Montgomeryshire, and ordained as such. Parliament voted him 100l. a year, of which he received some 60l. a year for about eight years; he denies that he derived any other income from his Welsh work. He certainly refused in 1647 the sinecure rectory of Penstrowed, Montgomeryshire, on the ground of his objection to tithe (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1656, p. 140). In 1649 he built himself a house at Goitre in the parish of Kerry, Montgomeryshire; this estate was probably derived from his wife. He had purchased church lands, yielding 70l. a year, which at the Restoration he lost.
Towards the end of 1649 he visited London, to obtain fresh powers for his Welsh mission. He preached on 10 Dec. 1649 before the lord mayor (Thomas Foot), and on 28 Feb. 1650 before parliament. Between these dates he held a discussion (31 Dec.) with John Goodwin [q. v.] on universal redemption. On 22 Feb. 1650 an act was passed appointing a commission ‘for the better propagation and preaching of the gospel in Wales, and redress of some grievances.’ Powell was one of twenty-five ministers by whose approbation and recommendation the commissioners were to proceed; the commission was to last for three years from 25 March 1650. At the head of the commission and the director of its policy was Thomas Harrison (1606–1660) [q. v.]; but no one was more active than Powell in the business of displacing clergy for alleged incompetence, and substituting puritan preachers, often unordained. Walker, who analyses the proceedings of the commission at great length (relying, however, on Griffith, without noticing Powell's tracts in reply), thinks it proof of the sufficiency of the sequestered clergy that they were graduates. Baxter, who regarded Powell as ‘an honest injudicious zealot,’ was yet of opinion that the clergy whom he displaced were ‘all weak, and bad enough for the most part.’ Towards the end of 1651 Powell (and Cradock also) was commanding a troop of horse under Harrison in the north (ib. 29 Nov. 1651). On 11 June 1652 Powell issued a challenge to discuss with any minister in Wales the two points of ordination and separation. The challenge was accepted on 13 June by George Griffith [q. v.] in a Latin letter, to which Powell returned (19 June) an answer in very halting latinity. The discussion came off on 23 July. Each published his own account of it, and claimed the victory. It seems agreed that Powell showed no familiarity with the academic mode of disputation.
On the expiry of the commission he returned to London. As a republican he strenuously opposed the recognition of Cromwell as lord protector, and on the very day when the lord protector was proclaimed (Monday, 19 Dec. 1653), preaching in the evening at Blackfriars (ib. xliv. 305), he denounced the proceeding. He was taken (21 Dec.), with Christopher Feake [q. v.], before the council of state at Whitehall, (where he preached to the people while waiting in the anteroom), and detained in custody for some days. Being released (24 Dec.), he preached in a similar strain in the afternoon of Christmas day at Christ Church, Newgate, and an order for his arrest was issued on 10 Jan. Returning to Wales, he drew up (1655) a ‘testimony’ (printed in Thurloe, iv. 380) against the usurpation, which was signed by three hundred persons. For this he was apprehended at Aberbechan, Montgomeryshire, and brought before Major-general James Berry [q. v.] at Worcester. Berry's letter to Cromwell (21 Nov. 1655; Thurloe, iv. 228) shows that he did not think Powell's ‘testimony’ meant more than the relieving of his conscience. Powell had preached four times at Worcester ‘very honestly and soberly,’ had dined with Berry, and been dismissed under promise to appear when sent for.
The recognition of Cromwell's new position made a division among the Welsh independents. Cradock drew up a counter-address, which was signed by 758 persons, and presented to Cromwell. This may account in part for Powell's somewhat sudden transition to the baptist section of the independents. By 24 Feb. 1654 he was reported as preaching against the baptism of infants, yet in the same year he emphasised his differences with the ‘rebaptised people,’ led in Wales by John Myles [q. v.] On 1 Jan. 1656 Thurloe writes of him as ‘lately rebaptised, and several other of his party.’ The presumption is that he was baptised by Henry Jessey [q. v.]; he certainly adopted Jessey's view of baptism, not making it, with Myles, a term of communion. At baptism he used imposition of hands; he practised the ceremony of anointing, for the restoration of the sick. Toulmin errs in supposing him to have become a seventh-day baptist. The change in his views made no diminution of his popularity; his open-air preachings were largely attended; the alarm of the authorities was excited by the concurrence of persons disaffected to Cromwell's government, but the suspicion that Powell aimed to be a leader of insurgents was groundless. His republicanism was of the theocratic type, and in this sense he was a fifth-monarchy man; but he took no part in the struggles of practical politics.
Wood reports that in 1657 Powell was at Oxford, preaching on Wednesday, 15 July, in All Saints' Church, and denouncing Henry Hickman [q. v.] for admitting that the church of Rome might be a true church. This agrees with his biographer's remark that he reckoned popery the ‘common public enemy of mankind;’ but it hardly consists with Wood's statement, on the authority of M. Ll. (i.e. Martin Lluelyn [q. v.]), that Powell ‘was wont to say that there were but two sorts of people that had religion, viz. the gathered churches and the Rom. catholicks.’
Powell is said to have been the first nonconformist who got into trouble at the Restoration. There was nothing against him but his preaching; and his preaching, in addition to its irregularity, gave offence by its theocratic tone, which was interpreted as tending to sedition. As early as 28 April 1660 he was arrested at Goitre by a company of soldiers. It is said that he was warned of his arrest by a dream, and refused to take measures for his escape. He was taken to Welshpool, Montgomeryshire, and thence to Shrewsbury; after nine weeks' imprisonment he was liberated by an order of the king in council. Twenty-four days later he was again arrested on the warrant of Sir Matthew Price, high sheriff of Montgomeryshire, for refusing to abstain from preaching. When brought up at the assizes he objected to the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, on the ground that these oaths were meant for papists. Hence he was sent back to prison, and shortly afterwards summoned before the privy council. He was not actually brought before the council, but committed to the Fleet, where he lay for nearly two years in rigid confinement, under offensive conditions which impaired his health. On 30 Sept. 1662 he was removed, with Colonel Nathaniel Rich, to Southsea Castle, near Portsmouth. Here he was confined for five years. After the fall of Clarendon (30 Aug. 1667) he sued for a writ of habeas corpus, and obtained his release by an order in council (November 1667). Nine months later he started from Bristol on a preaching tour in Wales, and was arrested at Merthyr Tydvil, Glamorganshire, and conveyed to Cardiff. On 17 Oct. 1668 he was examined at Cowbridge, Glamorganshire, on a charge of irregular preaching, and committed (30 Oct.) to prison. He refused to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, and objected also to the ceremony of swearing on the Bible. Under a writ of habeas corpus he was sent to London on 16 Oct., and appeared at the common pleas on 22–23 Oct. Though the legality of the proceedings against him was not sustained, he was committed to ‘Karoone House, then the Fleet prison, Lambeth,’ where he ended his days. His confinement does not seem to have been strict; he was allowed to preach in the prison, ‘many being admitted to hear him,’ and he appears to have been let out occasionally on parole. He died on 27 Oct. 1670, and he was buried in Bunhill Fields, where a monument (not now extant) was erected to his memory, bearing an epitaph written by Edward Bagshaw the younger [q. v.] His constitution was strong, ‘a body of steel,’ according to his biographer. No portrait of him is known; an ‘elogy’ by J. M. (John Myles?) speaks of his ‘stature mean,’ and says he ‘died childless.’ He was twice married. His first wife was the widow of Paul Quarrel of Presteign, Radnorshire. According to Griffith, she had been a ‘walking pedlar’ of ‘hot-waters.’ His second wife, Katherine (baptised 20 Oct. 1638), youngest child of Colonel Gilbert Gerard of Crewood, Cheshire, governor of Chester Castle; she survived him, and married John Evans, by whom she became the mother of John Evans, D.D. [q. v.]; she was living in 1705. Thomas Hardcastle [q. v.] married her sister Anne.
Though not a man of learning, Powell, according to his biographer, was ‘well read in history and geography, a good natural philosopher, and skilled in physic.’ Some of these acquirements belong to the last ten years of his life, when he ‘turned his prison into an academy.’ He wrote little, but his style is forcible and earnest, and very temperate in manner. His forte was preaching. ‘I would not,’ he says, ‘neglect, for the printing of a thousand books, the preaching of one sermon.’ His services were sometimes prolonged to seven hours' length. He probably did not sanction conjoint singing, but is said to have been ‘excellent at extempore hymns.’ Noted for the fearlessness of his reproofs, his habitual tone was tender rather than denunciatory, and his sermons were filled with vivid illustration drawn from familiar life. He was deficient in power of organisation, and (though himself a frequent visitor from house to house) he relied too much on preaching as a means of evangelisation; but there can be no doubt that the effect of his work was in the direction of moral improvement and practical religion. His use of travelling preachers anticipated and probably suggested George Fox's employment of the same agency. He was a generous entertainer, especially of the poor, keeping open house for his friends, and telling them he had ‘room for twelve in his beds, a hundred in his barns, and a thousand in his heart.’ A fifth of his income he devoted to charity. His seal bore a skeleton, seated on the tree of life, holding in the right hand a dart, in the left an hour-glass.
He published: 1. ‘The Scripture's Concord; or a Catechisme,’ &c., 1646, 8vo; 5th edit., 1653, 8vo; 1673, 8vo (this was translated into Welsh, with title ‘Cordiad yr Isgrythyran,’ 1647, 8vo). 2. ‘God the Father Glorified,’ &c., 1649, 4to; 2nd edit., 1650, 8vo. 3. ‘Truth's Conflict with Error,’ &c., 1650, 4to (contains the disputation with Goodwin, from the shorthand of John Weeks). 4. ‘Christ and Moses Excellency,’ &c., 1650, 8vo (the second half is a concordance of Scripture promises). 5. ‘Three Hymnes,’ &c., 1650, 8vo (one by Powell). 6. ‘Christ Exalted,’ &c., 1651, 8vo. 7. ‘Saving Faith … Three Dialogues,’ &c., 1651, 8vo (in Welsh, same year, with title ‘Canwyll Crist’). 8. ‘The Challenge of an Itinerant Preacher,’ &c., 1652, 4to. 9. ‘A Narrative of a Disputation between Dr. Griffith and … Powell,’ &c., 1653, 4to. 10. ‘Spirituall Experiences,’ &c.; 2nd edition, 1653, 12mo. 11. ‘Hymn sung in Christ Church, London,’ &c., 1654, 4to. 12. ‘A Word for God,’ &c., 1655, 8vo (in Welsh, same year, with title ‘Gair tros Dduw’). 13. ‘A Small Curb to the Bishops' Career; or Imposed Liturgies Tried,’ &c., 1660, 4to. 14. ‘Common-Prayer-Book no Divine Service,’ &c., 1660, 4to; enlarged, 1661, 4to. 15. ‘צופר בפת, or the Bird in the Cage, Chirping,’ &c., 1661, 8vo; 1662, 8vo. 16. ‘The Sufferer's Catechisme’ (Wood). 17. ‘Brief Narrative concerning the Proceedings of the Commissioners in Wales,’ &c. (Wood). 18. ‘Sinful and Sinless Swearing’ (Wood). Posthumous were: 19. ‘An Account of … Conversion and Ministry,’ &c., 1671, 8vo (with appended hymns and other pieces). 20. ‘A New … Concordance of the Bible,’ &c., 1671, 8vo; 1673, 8vo (finished by N. P. and J. F. [James Fitten?], &c., commended to the reader by Bagshaw and Hardcastle, and in the second edition by John Owen, D.D. (1616–1683) [q. v.]). 21. ‘A Description of the Threefold State … Nature, Grace, and Glory,’ &c., 1673, 8vo. 22. ‘The Golden Sayings,’ &c., 1675? broadsheet, edited by J. Conniers. 23. ‘Divine Love,’ &c., 1682 (Rees). ‘The Young Man's Conflict with the Devil,’ 8vo, attributed to Powell by Wood, is more likely by Thomas Powell (fl. 1675) [see under Powell, Thomas, 1572?–1635?].
Specimens of his extempore hymns are given in the ‘Strena’ and elsewhere; some have been translated into Welsh by D. Richards; although they are rhapsodical and want finish, they have an interesting bearing on the development of modern hymnody. The editions of the Welsh New Testament and Welsh Bible, 1654, 8vo, were brought out by Powell and Cradock.[The Life and Death of Mr. Vavasor Powell, 1671, is attributed by Richard Baxter to Edward Bagshaw the younger. Wood questions this on no good ground; it includes Powell's autobiographical account, and has been reprinted by the Religious Tract Society, and in Howell's Hist. of the Old Baptist Church at Olchon, 1887. A. Griffith's three pamphlets—Mercurius Cambro-Britannicus, 1652, Strena Vavasoriensis … A Hue and Cry after Mr. Vavasor Powell, 1654, and A True and Perfect Relation, 1654—are criticised in Vavasoris Examen et Purgamen, 1654, by Edward Allen, John Griffith (1622?–1700) [q. v.], James Quarrell, and Charles Lloyd. A Winding-Sheet for Mr. Baxter's Dead, 1685, contains an able estimate of Powell's character; Cal. of State Papers (Dom.), 1660, pp. 123 seq.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iii. 911 seq.; Reliquiæ Baxterianæ, 1696, iii. 72; Walker's Sufferings of the Clergy, 1714, i. 147 seq.; Calamy's Church and Dissenters compared as to Persecution, 1719, pp. 46 seq.; Crosby's Hist. of the Baptists, 1738, i. 217 seq., 373 seq.; Thurloe State Papers (Birch), 1742 ii. 93, 116 seq.; iii. 252; iv. 228, 373, 380; Peck's Desiderata Curiosa, 1779, ii. 507 seq.; Palmer's Nonconformist's Memorial, 1803, iii. 517; Richard's Welsh Nonconformist's Memorial, 1820, pp. 141 seq. (an excellent account); Neal's Hist. of Puritans (Toulmin), 1822, iv. 108 seq., 411 seq., v. 128 seq.; Life, by T. Jackson, 1837; Records of Broadmead, Bristol (Hanserd Knollys Soc.), 1847, pp. 108 seq., 115 seq., 516; Ormerod's Cheshire (Helsby), 1882, ii. 132; Rees's Hist. Prot. Nonconf. in Wales, 1883, pp. 85 seq., 97 seq., 145 seq., 511 seq.; Jeremy's Presbyt. Fund, 1885, p. 110; Palmer's Nonconf. of Wrexham (1889), pp. 28, 55; R. H. Williams's Montgomeryshire Worthies, 1894.]