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‘The Lord’s gift’: Thomas Charles (1755–1814)

October 2014 | by Gwyn Davies

If I were ever to be cast away on a desert island, with only one person from the whole history of Christianity for company, I think I would choose Thomas Charles (although it would be a close call between him and William Williams Pantycelyn).

Why Thomas Charles? On the 200th anniversary of his death (this month), perhaps a closer look at this remarkable man will provide an answer.

While Charles’s name is inextricably linked with Bala in North Wales, he was in fact a native of Carmarthenshire. His birth in 1755 occurred 20 years after the conversions of Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland, and it was through the latter’s preaching that he came to full assurance of faith in Christ:

‘January 20, 1773, I went to hear Mr Rowland preach at New Chapel [Llangeitho]. His text was Hebrews 4:15. A day much to be remembered by me as long as I live … I had such a view of Christ as our High Priest, of his love, compassion, power and all-sufficiency, as filled my soul with astonishment — with joy unspeakable and full of glory’.

Sally Jones

In 1775 Charles went to Jesus College, Oxford, and after graduating served as a curate in Somerset. In more than one sense, however, his heart lay in Wales. While visiting Bala in 1778, he had fallen in love with Sally Jones, an attractive and godly young woman. And there was a bonus: her parents owned a shop that offered a means of financial support for any would-be suitor.

When he began to write to her from Somerset, she was naturally cautious, no doubt wondering about his real motives. The ardour of his letters and the gradual thaw in her response make fascinating reading. Indeed, their relationship is one of the great love stories of Welsh history.

Because of her responsibilities towards her parents, she was unwilling to leave Bala. Charles therefore bade farewell to Somerset and came to North Wales. They were married in 1783 and lived above the shop. Their marriage was one of enduring love; they died in 1814, within three weeks of each other.

Apart from the shop, Charles had no visible means of support. His attempts to minister in various parishes were terminated because of his Methodism. John Newton wondered whether this was a sign that he should return to England. Charles, however, was committed to serving God in Wales: ‘I feel myself much inclined to take Wales, as I did my wife, “for better, for worse, till death us do part”.’

England’s loss was undoubtedly Wales’ gain. In 1784 Charles gave up seeking curacies in the Church of England and threw in his lot with the Calvinistic Methodists. For the next 30 years he devoted himself to promoting the cause of the gospel throughout North Wales.

Sunday schools

One of the most important challenges facing him was widespread spiritual ignorance in the north. Griffith Jones’s circulating schools, which had taught people of all ages to read the Bible, had effectively come to an end after 1779. In 1785, therefore, Charles began to organise schools on a similar pattern, with no little success.

Each school lasted for between six and nine months, before moving to another area. However, this created new challenges: how to provide further spiritual instruction for those who could now read the Welsh Bible, and more basic biblical literacy for those — both children and adults — who had been unable to attend.

Beginning around 1787, Charles addressed these issues by setting up Welsh-language Sunday schools. He was not the first to hold Sunday schools in Wales or England, but his organisational skills and energetic support turned them into a popular movement that became a very influential part of Welsh religious life.

Charles soon realised the importance of reading material for those attending the schools. To begin with, he prepared simple catechisms and a reading aid. In 1799, he and Thomas Jones of Denbigh began to publish Trysorfa Ysbrydol (‘Spiritual treasury’), the first Christian magazine in Welsh.

He also published the works of Walter Cradoc (1800), thereby linking the Calvinistic Methodists with the Puritans; and a collection of hymns (1806) that included the first printing of the remarkable poetic work of Ann Griffiths.

Even more important was his magisterial Geiriadur Ysgrythyrol (‘Scriptural dictionary, 1801–1811’), which, although dated in some respects, is still of immense value today. The contents reflect Charles’s conviction that all life and knowledge have their ultimate meaning in the Creator.

Articles, including how to catch a crocodile and the health benefits of breast milk, honey, and mustard, are often mini-sermons. The entire volume is characterised by a deep spirituality missing from many modern Bible dictionaries.

Mary Jones

His 1807 catechism Yr Hyfforddwr — the full title echoed Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis — was reprinted time and time again.

Mari Lewis, a godly character in a famous Welsh novel, declared that ‘the Bible is God’s book, and I’m not afraid to say that the next book to it is Charles’s Hyfforddwr’. Its succinct presentation of the essential truths of the gospel made it as important in the spiritual life of Wales as the Westminster Shorter Catechism in that of Scotland.

Most important of all, however, was a supply of cheap Welsh Bibles for those attending the schools and the wider population. This need was vividly impressed on him by the famous 25-mile journey of the young Mary Jones, from her cottage in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant to his home at Bala, to obtain a copy of the Scriptures.

As a result, he laid the need for a supply of Welsh Bibles before the Religious Tract Society in London. ‘If Bibles for Wales, why not Bibles for the whole world?’ asked Joseph Hughes of Battersea — the eventual outcome was the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804.

Charles was himself responsible for an edition of the Welsh Bible in 1807. He also helped to correct the proofs of the 1810 edition, and prepared yet another for publication in 1814, the year of his death.

Welsh Calvinistic Methodism

After Williams Pantycelyn’s death in 1791, it was Charles who to all intents and purposes was leader of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists. Despite initial reservations, he formed them into a separate denomination in 1811 and guided the new body with much wisdom until his death in 1814.

Charles brought an element of stability to the Calvinistic Methodists. Through his indefatigable efforts to teach biblical truth far and wide, he ensured that the Methodist emphasis on the experience of the heart was accompanied by a thoroughgoing understanding of Scripture and its doctrine.

It was this powerful combination of vibrant experience and biblical theology that made Calvinistic Methodism such a force in Welsh Christianity.

Charles was perhaps not the most powerful Welsh preacher of his day, but his ministry was valued for its spiritual nourishment and warm sincerity. He himself knew the reality of revival at Bala in 1791, beginning, without any previous indications, ‘towards the close of the evening service’.

His frequent journeys across the North Wales hills in all weathers, with the aim of encouraging scattered groups of Methodists and preaching the gospel whenever opportunity offered itself, were nothing short of heroic.

As a result of one of these journeys in 1800, he lost a thumb from frostbite. Many feared for his life and one old Christian prayed that God would grant him another 15 years, ‘for my brethren’s sake … and for my neighbours’ too’. In the event, Charles lived for just six weeks short of those fifteen years and was buried at Llanycil, just outside Bala.

‘Charles’, declared Daniel Rowland, ‘is the Lord’s gift to the north [North Wales]’.

‘And to the south too’, added Thomas Jones of Denbigh, the greatest of Welsh theologians. ‘Yes, and to the whole world’.

A companion for all reasons

Perhaps you can see now why I should be delighted to have him as a companion on my desert island. It would be fascinating and instructive to talk to him about his life, experiences and ministry.

Given our circumstances, the comfort and encouragement I would derive from his warm spirituality and equable temperament would be no less valuable. No doubt, I would become increasingly aware of his failings and weaknesses, and he would gently point out mine. But I’m sure that he would also go out of his way to put up with me and raise my spirits.

If I were lost in a jungle, I should choose somebody like Howel Harris: he would strain every sinew to find a way out. But on a desert island Harris’s restless energy and autocratic tendencies would inevitably create tensions.

By contrast, Charles’s all-round wisdom and winsomeness, godliness and graciousness, humility and humanity — as demonstrated, for example, in Thomas Charles’ spiritual counsels (Banner of Truth) — would be an invaluable and unceasing source of encouragement in our adversity.

Indeed, if I were to see a ship on the horizon coming to ‘rescue’ us, I might even be a little disappointed!

Gwyn Davies

Now retired, Dr Davies was a lecturer in church history at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology