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Welsh Christianity's Surprising Rise and Decline – The Gospel Coalition

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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 anyone who wants to be encouraged by seeing how God has worked in and through the Welsh people.
I interviewed one of the authors about the book. David Ceri Jones, reader in early modern history at Aberystwyth University in Wales, highlighted some contours of Welsh Christianity.
Christianity, in its Catholic, Protestant and Nonconformist forms, has played an enormous role in the history of Wales and in the defining and shaping of Welsh identity over the past two thousand years. Yet for many in contemporary Wales, the story of the development of Christianity in their country remains little known. This is the first single-volume history of Welsh Christianity from its origins in Roman Britain to the present day.
The distinctive story of the Welsh Christian past is 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 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.
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, a little less than 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.
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 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.
Barely a year passed between 1762 and 1905 without 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 revivals 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.
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.
Barely a year passed between 1762 and 1905 without 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.
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.
Andrew Spencer (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as associate editor for books at The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of Hope for God’s Creation: Stewardship in an Age of Futility and Doctrine in Shades of Green: Theological Perspective for Environmental Ethics, editor of The Christian Mind of C. S. Lewis: Essays in Honor of Michael Travers, and a contributor to Baptist Political Theology. Spencer is an elder at CrossPointe Church. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children and live in southeast Michigan.
David Ceri Jones is reader in early modern history at Aberystwyth University in Wales. He is coauthor of A History of Christianity in Wales, author of “A Glorious Work in the World”: Welsh Methodism and the International Evangelical Revival, 1735–1750, and coeditor of Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of “The Doctor” and Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century.
It’s the biblical nativity story in the style of ‘Glee’ and ‘High School Musical.’ What could go wrong?

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Written by: Christianity Today

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