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Welsh Christianity’s Surprising Rise and Decline

In 1800, 15-year-old Mary Jones walked around 25 miles to purchase a Bible in her own language. The story of the Welsh weaver’s daughter and her journey to get a copy of God’s word in her own language encouraged the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which continues to translate and distribute Bibles around the world. Acts of faithfulness, however small, can set global movements in motion,

Christianity in Wales has had a big effect on church history, not merely through a long walk by a teenager hungry for Scripture. For the first time in English and in a single volume, A History of Christianity in Wales connects stories of Wales’s Christian past to present day readers. This engaging book is not just for historians, but for those who want to be encouraged by seeing how God has worked in and through the Welsh people.

I had a chance to interview one of the authors about the book. David Ceri Jones, reader in early modern history at Aberystwyth University in Wales, highlighted some of the contours of Welsh Christianity.

Many American evangelical Christians are at least aware of the Welsh revival of the 18th century, but this book traces the whole history of Christianity in Wales. Why is looking at one nation’s Christian history important?

The distinctive story of the Welsh Christian past is very little known beyond the borders of Wales, and sometimes even within contemporary Wales too. Many people would recognize Martyn Lloyd-Jones but might struggle to name another prominent Welsh Christian.

There are lots of reasons for this, perhaps the main one being that the history of Wales has often been overshadowed by the story of its larger neighbor––England. Wales is also a very small country, jutting out into the Irish Sea, with a population of little more than 3 million people.

It’s one of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and for much of its history, most of its citizens have spoken a different language to the inhabitants of the rest of the British Isles.

The history of Christianity in Wales provides a case study that can help Christians understand the cultural currents that enabled the evangelization of much of the nation but later led to the drastic decline of gospel belief.

How are Welsh Christianity and the Welsh language related? How does that play out in the history of Wales and affect the way ministry occurs in the contemporary Welsh church?

For much of its history, the vast majority of Welsh people spoke Welsh and only Welsh.

When the first attempts to teach the Welsh to read took place in the 18th century, the “circulating schools” of Anglican clergyman Griffith Jones taught people to read in Welsh. This wasn’t primarily out of a love of the language but to allow Jones and other evangelical clergy to reach people more effectively with the gospel and give them the skills to read the Bible for themselves.

The linguistic makeup of Wales changed decisively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the growth of heavy industry—coal mining in particular—brought a large influx of non-Welsh speakers into the country. Some have argued the decline of the Welsh language went hand in hand with the decline of nonconformist religion in the 20th century. That may oversimplify the reasons for Christian decline, which were, of course, not peculiar to Wales.

Today, according to the latest census figures, just under 18 percent of Welsh people speak Welsh.

Wales is therefore a bilingual country, and gospel ministry often reflects that. In some parts of Wales, there are fairly recently established Welsh language evangelical churches, while in other parts of the country, evangelicals try to sensitively bring the gospel to speakers of both languages.

This can sometimes create tensions, and the linguistic divide can loom especially large and prove a hindrance to the expression of evangelical unity on a local level. Sadly, for the majority of Welsh evangelical Christians today, many of the riches of the Welsh Christian tradition are inaccessible as they’re written in Welsh.

The consequence is that a distinctive Welsh spirituality is in danger of being lost, as influences from the wider evangelical movement exert a greater pull on Welsh evangelical attentions.

What role did Welsh Christians play in bringing literacy to Wales? Why was that effort significant for the history of the country? How did Christian publishing contribute to the evangelization of the nation?

The pioneering schools of Griffith Jones, the vicar of Llanddowror in Carmarthenshire, made the Welsh one of the most literate peoples in the whole of Europe.

A distinctive Welsh spirituality is in danger of being lost, as influences from the wider evangelical movement exert a greater pull on Welsh evangelical attentions.

Between the 1730s and 1760s, almost 300,000 men, women, and children were taught to read—mainly in Welsh. And that in a population of not much more than 450,000 souls.

There was a direct link between this newly acquired literacy and receptiveness to the preaching of the Methodists Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in 1735 and afterward. One historian has written that it was really only at this point that the Protestant Reformation came of age in Wales. That might have been something of an overstatement, but there’s some truth to it.

The translation of the Bible into Welsh had taken place in 1588, and the Welsh had had access to the Scriptures in their own tongue for almost two centuries by the time of the advent of Methodism. All the same, Protestantism hadn’t become a genuinely popular movement until the evangelical revivals brought preaching and songs to the broader culture. A close fusion occurred between popular evangelical faith and the use of the Welsh language to express the exhilaration of the experience of the new birth when the hymns of William Williams Pantycelyn were published.

There was barely a year between 1762 and 1905 when there wasn’t a revival reported in some corner of the country. These revivals produced a religious culture that was both learned and populist, and supported a high level of theological discourse through a diverse periodical press and the publication of works of sophisticated Reformed theological insight in the Welsh language. These were revivals that helped transform Wales into a nation of nonconformists.

Some sense of the richness of this tradition for those who don’t read Welsh may be gleaned from D. Densil Morgan’s two-volume history of Welsh theology, Theologia Cambrensis: Protestant Religion and Theology in Wales.

Who is Daniel Rowland and why is he important in church history?

Daniel Rowland was one of the triumvirate of Methodist leaders who led the Welsh evangelical revivals of the 18th century. An Anglican clergyman, his ministry was concentrated in southwest Wales, especially his own parish of Llangeitho.

However, our knowledge of Rowland is sketchy at best. Eifion Evans’s biography is the best account of his life, but this has been largely pieced together from sources other than those left by Rowland himself. Beyond a handful of sermons, Rowland’s writings have all been lost.

There was barely a year between 1762 and 1905 when there wasn’t a revival reported in some corner of the country.

Our knowledge of him therefore comes mainly through the writings of his colleague in the revivals, Howell Harris. Harris penned thousands of letters and kept a highly detailed private diary—running to almost 250 volumes (all of which survive in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth).

Rowland’s reputation rests on his popularity as a preacher, and he frequently attracted congregations in the tens of thousands to Llangeitho, especially for open-air communion services. A fresh outbreak of revival in 1762, centered on Llangeitho and sparked by a new volume of hymns written by William Williams Pantycelyn, was the impetus for the substantial growth of Methodism. This also contributed to its eventual secession from the Church of England in 1811, albeit long after Rowland’s death.

But Rowland is only one name among many that feature in this history of Welsh Christianity, many of which deserve to be more widely known.

William Morgan, the Bible translator, did for the Welsh language what William Tyndale did for English. Harris, a layman, established hundreds of small cell groups all over south Wales that proved to be the bedrock of the Calvinistic Methodist denomination. Thomas Charles of Bala founded the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804, while Lewis Edwards planted Welsh Calvinistic Methodism firmly within the soil of Reformed Presbyterianism, especially of the Scottish variety. All these figures and many more feature in this new account of Christianity in Wales.

What’s something you wish more Christians knew about Christianity in Wales?

Lloyd-Jones once claimed that 18th-century Welsh Calvinistic Methodism was first-century apostolic Christianity. Quite a claim!

If he was right, then the evangelical world has much to learn from the riches of the Welsh Christian tradition. It’s my hope that this volume will introduce evangelical readers to a Christian story hitherto only sketchily known. I hope it’ll whet the appetites of readers for further exploration of the people and events recorded in this whistle-stop tour of Wales and its Christian past.


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