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Chapter 14: Influence of Methodism

As far as Welsh literature is concerned, before the Nonconformist movement could develop fully, however, and especially that part dominated by the Methodists, there had to be a groundwork laid in the field of general education among the masses, mostly ignorant and all too often ignored by those in authority. Hand in hand with the work of the religious reformers, there was a burst of activity in more secular matters, such as teaching the people to read and write.

The enthusiasm of the new preaching brought home the need for literacy and thus the demand for printed works. The number of books printed in Welsh increased rapidly in the fifty years after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. As so often in Welsh history, the impetus came from outside: in 1674 a charitable organization, the Welsh Trust, was set up in London by Thomas Gouge to establish English schools in Wales and to publish books in Welsh. Over 500 books came off the printing presses set up in Wales in 1718 and 1721 at Trefhedyn and Carmarthen respectively. Many of these were translations of popular English works, mainly Protestant tracts that encouraged private worship and prayers, but along with the six major editions of the Bible that appeared during the same period, they had the unpredicted effect of ensuring the survival of the language in an age where many scholars (as usual) were predicting its rapid demise. Of equal importance were the cheap catechisms and prayer books highly prized by rural families who read them in family groups during the long, dark winter nights. One English writer in 1721 commented:

There is, I believe, no part of the Nation [Britain] more inclined to be religious, and to be delighted with it, than the poor inhabitants of these mountains. (Erasmus Saunders: "View of Religion in the Diocese of St. David's").
So successful were educators, benefactors and itinerant teachers that perhaps as many as one third or more of the population of Wales could read their scriptures by the time of Griffith Jones' death in 1761. Jones had realized that preaching alone was insufficient to ensure his people's salvation: they needed to read the scriptures for themselves. In 1740 he wrote:
What length of time. . . how many hundreds of years must be allowed for the general attainment of English, and the dying away of the Welsh language: . . And in the meantime, while this is adoing . . . what myriads of poor ignorant souls must launch forth into the dreadful abyss of eternity , and perish for want of knowledge. ("Welch Piety" 1740)
Though not intended as such by Jones (the rector of Llanddowror and therefore not a Nonconformist minister) his writings created a substantial Welsh reading public able to receive the appeal of the Methodists, whose ability in such preachers as Hywel Harris was matched by their eloquence in the pulpit, and who obviously filled a great need among the masses. One influential convert was Thomas Charles who joined in 1784, and who set up the successful Sunday School movement in North Wales that had such a profound and lasting influence on the language and culture of that region. Under his leadership, the British and Foreign Bible Society published the standardized text of their first Welsh Bible, and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge published an edition of the New Testament. His Bible of 1814, the year of his death, was also a major achievement.

Daniel Rowland had converted in 1737 after hearing a sermon by Griffith Jones. With Hywel Harris. he assumed the leadership of the Methodist Revival. His famous sermons at his chapel at Llangeitho were published in two popular volumes along with a number of other works in Welsh. Rowland's enthusiasm along with that of his colleagues, attracted thousands of converts, and though they intended at first to work within the framework of the established church, opposition from their Bishops, all of whom had little real interest in Wales and knew nothing of its language and culture, led finally to the schism of 1811 when an independent union was founded. This was the Calvinistic Methodist Church; it is today known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales.

The Methodist Revival in Wales swept everyone along. In 1752, Richard Morris wrote in a letter to the Bishop of Bangor setting out some of the reasons:

(That) the mad Methodists... have in a manner bewitched the major part of the inhabitants is generally attributed to the indolence and... ignorance of too many of the parochial ministers.
It was Methodism that provided the excitement and fervor that the established church had been lacking for so long. It certainly did much to pave the way for the rapid growth of the other non-conformist sects such as the Baptists and Independents. The movement also was responsible for producing two names that are outstanding in the cultural history of Wales: William Williams (1717-91) and Ann Griffiths (1776-1805).

Much has been written about William Williams, the greatest of all the Welsh literary Methodists. Williams was converted after hearing a sermon preached by Hywel Harris at Talgarth. He adopted the name of his farm Pantycelyn in Carmarthenshire as his bardic title. Refused admission into the established Church, Williams became a preacher and organizer of Methodist societies, but he is best remembered as a hymn writer, giving to the movement a firm literary base through his hymnologies. The most important hymn writer in the history of his country, Williams also wrote numerous prose works, rebuking the Welsh people for their sinful state and providing spiritual guidance for those who wished to mend their ways by converting to Methodism.

As a lover of the fields and hills around Pantycelyn, Williams put into his hymns much that reflected his love of nature, mixing views of the Welsh landscape with those of Biblical scenes. Both backgrounds provided fertile grounds for the progress of man's spiritual journey that is best exemplified in his most well-known English-language hymn: "Guide me, O thou great Jehovah" (Usually sung in Wales to the tune "Cwm Rhondda"). In a period of about ten years, Williams produced the great classical body of Welsh hymnody, a collection of over 130 hymns: "Caniadau y rhai sydd ar y Mor o Wydr" (Songs of those that are on the Sea of Glass). John Wesley has an interesting entry in his journal dated 27 August, 1763 concerning his fellow preacher Williams:

It is common in the congregations attended by Mr. W.W., and one or two other clergymen, after the preaching is over, for anyone that has a mind to give out a verse of a hymn. This they sing over and over with all their might, perhaps above thirty, yea, forty times. Meanwhile the bodies of two or three, sometimes ten or twelve, are violently agitated and they leap up and down, in all manner of postures, frequently for hours together.
One of Williams's lovely hymns is "I Gaze Across the Distant Hills", of which a translation of three stanzas gives some idea of the intensity of the poet's emotion:
I gaze across the distant hills,
Thy coming to espy;
Beloved, haste, the day grows late;
The sun sinks down the sky.

All the old loves I followed once
Are now unfaithful found;
But a sweet sickness holds me yet
Of love that has no bound!

Regard is dead and lust is dead
For the world's gilded toys;
Her ways are nought but barrenness,
And vain are all her joys.

In his hymns, Williams was able to effectively utilize that quality known as hiraeth, a nostalgic longing for home and the people and things connected with it that seems to many to be a particularly Welsh characteristic. His achievements inspired many contemporaries, including Dafydd Jones (Caio, 1771-77) who translated many of the hymns of Isaas Watts; Morgan Rhys (1716-79); David William (Llandeilo Fach, 1720-94), whose most well-known hymn and a popular Welsh classic is "Ebenezer"; Peter Jones (Peter Fardd 1775-1845), who was a master of the traditional poetic forms with their strict rules of rime and alliteration.

Another religious leader influenced by Williams was David Charles (1762-1834), whose brother Thomas founded the Welsh Sunday School movement and who himself wrote many fine hymns, including "Llef" (A Cry) with its opening lines: "O Iesu Mawr, rho d'anian bur" and the equally classic funeral hymn "Crug y Bar"; and Evan Evans (1795-1855), whose parents founded the Methodist movement in Trefriw in the Conwy Valley and who won many eisteddfod prizes for his poems. Of all his contemporaries, however, some of them masters of their craft, only one was able to match William Williams in the sheer intensity and power of their writing, and that was Ann Griffiths.

Ann Griffiths (1776-1805), was converted at the age of twenty and devoted the rest of her all-to-short life to the Methodist cause. Often compared to St. Teresa in her mystical devotion to Christ, Ann came from Dolwar Fach, a little village in Montgomeryshire, which subsequently became a centre of Methodist preaching. Her intense spiritual and sensuous hymns, of which seventy-four survive, show her abilities as a poet using rhythmic, melodious language to show her intensity of feeling for and devotion to Jesus, her personal saviour and object of an almost obsessive love. Ann died giving birth to a child before her thirtieth birthday, but she left behind a collection of letters, poems and hymns that vividly reflect not only her own religious awakening but also indicate the great emotion experienced by the movement in general. She is regarded as the most important female writer in the history of Welsh literature before the twentieth century.

Such a young person, but such a powerful spirit! It is generally recognized that the hymns Ann Griffiths produced on her spiritual pilgrimage make her not only one of the great poets of her native Wales but also of Europe. Though she had little formal schooling, she managed to take full advantage of the opportunities provided at Dolwar Fach, in an area rich in traditional culture and where the art of carol and ballad singing is retained today. According to Alan Luff, the making of poetry was and is taken for granted in such a Welsh community. Meic Stephens also sees much of her work influenced by the folk-song and seasonal carols of her native district, the hymns and sermons she heard weekly, but especially by the Bible.

As expressions of intense personal spiritual experiences, Ann Griffith's poetry was not intended to be sung by the congregation. On her twenty-mile journeys to take part in religious services at Bala, the center of Methodism in North Wales, she was accompanied by Ruth Evans, her maid. As Ann herself committed very little of her work to paper, it was because of their deep, spiritual fellowship that Ann's hymns have been preserved. Ruth could not read or write, but her intense memory of Ann's recitations enabled her to dictate the hymns to her husband after the death of her friend. They represent works of distinction and power; the intensity of her faith and love of Christ is astonishing in one so young.

The three main themes, expressed in rhythmic, melodious language are the person and sacrifice of Christ, Anne's great love for Jesus, and her longing for sanctity and heaven. Though it is not her most well-known hymn, her "Rhyfedd, rhyfedd gan angylion" (Freedom through the angels) is regarded by modern Welsh poet Saunders Lewis as "one of the greatest religious poems in any European language" (Stephens, 226). Another of her great hymns, still very popular is "Dyma babell y cyfarfod" (Here is the Tabernacle).

The most famous of Ann's hymns, however, and the one most often sung today (to the tune "Cwm Rhondda") is "Wele'n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd" (See him standing among the myrtles). A translation by H.Idris Bell gives some idea of the power of Ann's devotion to Christ:

Lo, between the myrtles standing,
One who merits well my love,
Though His worth I guess but dimly,
High all earthly things above;
Happy morning
When at last I see Him clear!

Rose of Sharon, so men name Him;
White and red his cheeks adorn;
Store untold of earthly treasure
Will His merit put to scorn
Friend of sinners,
He their pilot o'er the deep.

What can weigh with me henceforward
All the idols of the earth?
One and all I here proclaim them,
Matched with Jesus, nothing worth;
O to rest me
All my lifetime in His love!

Ann's poetic gifts still amaze us. If this were not enough, her surviving letters, reflecting vividly the atmosphere of the Methodist meetings at Bala under the leadership of Thomas Charles, are considered to be the most sublime examples of religious prose in the Welsh language. She was the last of her kind.

The earnestness of the new religion, and of those numerous other denominations it spawned, did much to shape the Welsh character for the next two centuries (we can see the same kind of development taking place in Scotland, where severe Calvinism replaced a native Celtic joy in life). Sin and evil were emphasized at the expense of delight in a natural spontaneity and love of life in all its forms. The Methodist hymns, powerful and majestic became practically the only form of music known to much of the population of Wales. Traditional forms of music, folk dancing and long-practiced games and customs went by the wayside, many forever, creating an atmosphere that lasted right up until the end of World War II unless preserved by a few gypsy families such as that of Abram Wood, in North Wales. The author knows many Welsh men and women who were warned as children to beware the Gypsy family of Abram Wood (teulu Abram Wood). Ironically, the greatest Welsh triple harpist of this century, Nansi Richards was trained by a member of this family.

Yet, all that took place was not doom and gloom; there were some remarkable individuals and some striking events that, in many ways, acted as a counterbalance to the religious atmosphere created by the Methodist Revival. It wasn't only Methodism that changed life in Wales, for an impressive literary renaissance and a giant industrial revolution made their own permanent imprints upon the life of a nation that stubbornly clung to its separate identity within the British Isles.

Chapter 15: 19th Century

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