Chapter 14


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Methodism and the Reinvention of the Welsh Nation

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 religious reformers, then, there was a burst of activity in more secular matters, such as teaching the people to read and write.

The new preaching zeal, with its emphasis on individual salvation, and especially by its emphasis on "the word," brought home the need for literacy and education and thus the demand for more 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.

There were impressive results: over 500 books came off the printing presses 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, the books had the unpredicted effect of ensuring the survival of the language in an age where more than one scholar was 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.
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 churchman Griffith Jones' death in 1761. Jones had been greatly aided by such men as Stephen Hughes, who published religious literature in Welsh; wealthy landowner and patron Mrs. Bridget Bevan of Laugharne; and Sir John Philipps of Picton, one of the founders of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. These three philanthropists started a large number of charity schools in 1699.

In these schools, in an attempt to deal with the widespread problems of poverty and ignorance, the Society allowed the use of Welsh alongside that of English and set up libraries in many of the towns. Jones, who had married John Philipps' sister, 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
Consequently, Jones persuaded the Society to donate Welsh Bibles from which he could teach people to read. As there were not enough qualified teachers in each parish to maintain a school, itinerant ministers were employed, and by this method, schools were conducted in almost every parish in Wales. Evening classes were set up for the laborers and farm workers and those who worked in the trades, and the "circulating schools" as they were called, have been regarded as one of the few great success stories in the long history of Wales.

Eighteenth century Wales was thus made one of the most literate countries in Europe, with much of its population acquainted with the literary language of the Bible. Jones provided details each year of the number of pupils attending the circulating schools that showed almost half the total population of Wales was affected: once again the Welsh had found a way to hold on to their language, of which Jones wrote (in his Welch Piety):
She has not lost her charms, her chasteness, remains unalterably the same...still retains the beauties of her youth, grown old in years, but not decayed. I pray that due regard may be had to her great age, her intrinsic usefulness, and that her long standing repute may not be stained by wrong imputation. Let her stay the appointed time to expire a peaceful and natural death, which we trust will not be till the consummation of tall things, when all the languages of the world will be reduced into one again.
Though not intended by Jones (the rector of Llanddowror Parish and therefore not a Nonconformist minister) his writings created a substantial Welsh reading public. The were primed and ready 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.

It is to Hywel Harris that the title of the Father of the Methodist Revival in Wales can be given. Refused ordination by his Bishop at Oxford University because of his preaching activities, he converted to the Methodist cause in 1735. He worked closely with other religious enthusiasts such as Daniel Rowland, William Williams, and Peter Williams, who produced a very popular version of the Bible and John Wesley, the English evangelist.

Chapter 14 Continued
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