Methodism and the Reinvention of the Welsh Nation|
Of all his contemporaries, only one was able to match William Williams in the sheer intensity and power of his writing, and that was Ann Griffiths (1776-1805). She converted at the age of twenty to devote the rest of her life to the Methodist cause. From Dolwar Fach, a little village in Montgomeryshire, which subsequently became a centre of Methodist preaching, her intense spiritual and sensuous hymns show her abilities as a poet using rhythmic, melodious language that expresses so well her religious intensity and devotion to Jesus, her personal savior and object of an almost obsessive love.
Ann is regarded as the most important female writer in the history of Welsh literature before the 20th century. Though she died giving birth to a child before her 30th birthday, 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. It is generally recognized that the hymns she produced on her spiritual pilgrimage makes her one of the great poets of her native Wales, but also of Europe.
Ann had little formal schooling, but she was lucky enough to be raised at Dolwar Fach, in an area rich in traditional culture and where the art of carol and ballad singing is retained today. According to author Alan Luff, the making of poetry was and is taken for granted in such a Welsh community. Historian Meic Stephens also sees much of Anne's work influenced by the folk-song and seasonal carols of her native district by the hymns and sermons she heard weekly, but especially by the Bible.
Ann's poetry were expressions of intense personal spiritual experiences and not written for publication or use by congregations. 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, who memorized what Ann was composing and singing to herself. 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. Though it is not her most well known hymn, Ann's "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."
Another one of Anne's great hymns, still very popular is "Dyma babell y cyfarfod" (This is the Temple of Meeting). 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 between 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;
When at last I see Him clear!
Ann's poetic gifts still amaze us. If this were not enough, her surviving letters, vividly reflecting 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.
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!
The earnestness of the new religion, out of which sprang William Williams and Ann Griffiths, and those other numerous denominations, 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 by much of the population of Wales. Traditional forms of music, folk dancing and long-practiced games and customs went by the wayside, many forever, unless preserved by a few gypsy families such as that of Abram Wood, (Teulu Abram Wood) in North Wales. The chapel became the main focal point of so much social life in Wales, creating an atmosphere that lasted right up until the end of World War II.
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. And to be fair, it was Methodism that greatly aided the people of Wales in their ever-lasting struggle to retain their spirituality, their language and their sense of independence.
It wasn't only Methodism that changed life in Wales during the 18th century. Other great changes were about to take place that not only included an impressive literary renaissance but also the coming of a giant industrial revolution. Both were to make permanent imprints upon the life of a nation that somehow continued to cling stubbornly to its separate identity within the British Isles.
Chapter 15: Industry
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