Early BC itinerant, and the first theologian of the movement. He was born at Northlew, Devon, about nine miles south east of Shebbear, on 14 February 1795, but nothing certain is known of his family origins.
He exhibited an early interest in religion and reading the scriptures, which suggests a devout family background. In about 1812, reading particularly John Wesley’s sermon on ‘Salvation by Faith’, he was drawn to find that salvation himself. It might be deduced from this that perhaps he had a Methodist background, but this cannot be ascertained for sure. He would seem to have become a Wesleyan local preacher in 1813. Then in about 1816, both attracted and disturbed by the rumours reaching his home of the doings of William O’Bryan, Major set out to visit places where the young BC movement had established itself. He was already endued with a powerful evangelical spirit, and he was delighted and encouraged towards the end of his tour by the almost daily conversions that he was seeing. His experiences fully convinced him that the movement was of God. “I never saw such a work before,” he declared, and from then on saw it his duty to do “all in his power to help it on.”
Offering his services to O’Bryan, he was sent to work in Kilkhampton, in the northern extremity of Cornwall in 1817, although at that date there was just one circuit, and one Quarterly Meeting. When in 1818 the work was divided into three, Major was set down officially as at Kilkhampton. The first Conference was held the next year, and its first Minutes saw him stationed at Shebbear. However, the vigorous evangelism of the early days saw him dispatched to the Luxulyan circuit, based in O’Bryan’s home area and there, while still officially stationed at Shebbear, he was instrumental in founding the BC work in St. Austell.
As the expansion continued Major found himself being stationed across the Connexion from St. Austell toBristol, to London, to Guernsey, never more than three years anywhere, and that only once, and often being temporarily moved to another station.
His grasp of sacramental theology became an important gift to the infant denomination. When a wide range of opinions among the itinerant preachers over baptism began to appear in 1821, with one adopting the Baptist doctrine, and another insisting on immersion, the issue was addressed by William O’Bryan seeking the observations of William Reed and Harry Major. Major produced a statement for the 1822 Conference, which seems to have been accepted: Conference answered its question ‘What are our views on Baptism ?’ with the answer ‘We believe it has generally been used as an initiating ordinance into the Christian Church.’
Major had put forward a ‘Covenant’ doctrine, in which Infant Baptism was the equivalent to circumcision, but for believers in Christ now a seal of the New Covenant of grace. Thus the ceremony should always take place in the midst of the congregation, and children so baptized belonged to the visible Church of Christ. (Paul Robins in 1850 regarded it therefore right and proper that baptized children should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.) Although Major’s theology remained without explicit challenge or variance throughout the life of the Connexion, by the time the Book of Services was produced in 1896 the order suggested for Infant Baptism had lost any explicit Covenant theology stress.
Later, turning his attention to the sacrament of Holy Communion, Major identified the significance of the sacrament as lying in its close connection with the sacrificial work of Christ in atonement. The fundamental stress was memorialist rather than presence, and the Book of Services referred to the bread as ‘an emblem of the body of our Saviour’, and the wine as taken ‘in remembrance of the blood of our Lord’. Yet alongside that the 1896 service departs for Major’s primary stress on the atonement, for though it does not eliminate it entirely, it declares that ‘We come to this table not to testify that we are righteous, but that we desire to be true disciples of our Lord and Saviour, …’ and after the supper, ‘By partaking of this holy ordinance we have all professed ourselves to be the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ This discipleship stress, unique in Methodism, is not explicit in Major’s theology. He, in addition, held that only ministers should officiate at the sacrament, a practice which preaching plans show as not often maintained by the end of the century.
Major was secretary of the General Committee 1823-25, Book Steward 1825-26 and President of the Conference in 1830. He died at Shebbear on 2 September 1839.