Chapter 14


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Methodism and the Reinvention of the Welsh Nation

Another influential convert to Methodism 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. Charles' own publication of the Welsh Bible in 1814, the year of his death, was also a major achievement.

Hywel Harris shared the leadership of the Methodist Revival in Wales with Daniel Rowland, who had converted in 1737 after hearing a sermon by Griffith Jones. His sermons held at the chapel at Llangeitho that made him famous were published in two volumes along with a number of other works in Welsh. Rowland's enthusiasm, along with that of his colleagues attracted thousands of converts. Though their initial intention was to work within the Established Church, opposition from their Bishops, all of who had little real interest in Wales and knew practically 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 that is today known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales.

The overwhelming success of the Methodist Revival in Wales, especially its espousal of the Welsh language, created a flood tide of energy and vitality. 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.
Some members of the landed gentry clung to the established anglicized Church; just about everyone else joined the new religion. The new movement 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. In addition, Methodism was responsible for producing two names that are outstanding in the cultural history of Wales are William Williams and Ann Griffiths.

Much has been written about William Williams (1717-91), 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 Pantycelyn (the name of his family farm in Carmarthenshire) as his bardic title. Refused priest's orders for his radicalism, even though he had been ordained as a curate, Williams became a preacher and organizer of Methodist societies, but he is best remembered as a the most important hymn writer that Wales has ever produced. In ten years, he produced a collection of over 130 hymns, the great classical body of Welsh hymnody, "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 William 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' lovely hymns is "I Gaze Across the Distant Hills," of which a translation of three stanzas can give 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.
Williams' best-known hymn has remained a standard, sung throughout Wales (even at rugby football games): Cwm Rhondda, sung to the words "Guide me, oh, thou great Jehovah." He was particularly fond of using the quality known as "the hiraeth" -- a word that describes a nostalgic longing for home and things long-missed that is said to be an essential part of the Welshman's character. 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.

William Williams inspired many contemporaries. These include Dafydd Jones (Caio: 1771-77) who translated many of the hymns of Isaac 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; 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.

Chapter 14 Continued
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