Last month, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Charles of Bala, we rehearsed the well-known story of ‘Mary Jones and her Bible’. However, Mary’s story is not just that of a young girl walking to Bala — there is more to it than that.
The plight of Mary Jones, and others like her, showed how great was the need for Bibles in Wales. Soon after starting his circulating schools, Thomas Charles and others began to plead for cheap Welsh Bibles, which were in great demand among the common people.
God’s Spirit was working in a mighty way at that time and tens of thousands were longing to read and know the Word of God. Thomas Charles’ schools had enabled a goodly number to read for themselves.
At last, in December 1799, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) published 10,000 Bibles and 2,000 New Testaments in Welsh. It was some of these that Mr Charles gave Mary Jones.
But these Bibles were quickly sold — indeed, they could have sold four times as many! Thomas Charles saw clearly that some means had to be found to provide more affordable Welsh Bibles. The SPCK could do nothing further, so how could the problem be solved?
At the end of 1802 Thomas Charles went to London for a while as a guest preacher. During his stay there the idea came to him that the way to provide a regular supply of Welsh Bibles was to form a new society for that purpose.
Charles was a member of the Religious Tract Society, formed a few years earlier to produce and distribute Christian literature. His opportunity to speak of the great demand for Bibles in Wales came at a committee meeting of that society held in London on 7 December. It was then (it is said) that he related the story of Mary’s walk to Bala.
At that committee meeting he asked them seriously to consider setting up a new society.
Not for Wales only
In the company sat another Welshman, Joseph Hughes. He was a Baptist minister at Battersea in London and the secretary of the Religious Tract Society. After listening to Thomas Charles’ urgent plea, Joseph Hughes stood on his feet. ‘Indeed,’ he said, ‘a society could be formed to produce Bibles for Wales, and if for Wales, why not for the Empire and the whole world?’
So it was decided to form a new society to publish and distribute Bibles, not only for Wales but for the whole world. And on 7 March 1804, in a public meeting in London, the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed.
Fittingly enough, publishing Welsh Bibles was the society’s first task. In September 1806, 10,000 copies of the New Testament came from the press, and then in 1807, 20,000 copies of the complete Welsh Bible were published.
By 1854, after fifty years, the society had distributed over 850,000 Bibles and Testaments in over a hundred languages worldwide. Before the Bible Society was formed, the Bible had been translated into about 50 languages. Some of them had only the New Testament, and most of the languages were European.
Today it is possible to read the whole Bible or New Testament in over 850 languages, and portions have been translated into nearly a thousand other languages. The Bible can now be found in almost every country; and the Bible Society has played an important part in this work.
The first copies of the Bible Society’s Welsh New Testament reached Bala in September 1806. A week before they arrived the people of the town and surrounding districts heard that they were on their way. The news was on everyone’s lips and the atmosphere was electric.
On the day the Testaments were expected the scenes in Bala were extraordinary. From the first light of day, companies of people could be seen gathering from the outlying country, and when news came that the load was approaching the town, crowds rushed out to meet it.
The tired old mare was taken from the cart shafts, and strong young lads took her place. Then they pulled the cartload joyfully to town where they received a rapturous welcome from the crowd thronging the streets.
Thomas Charles hardly had time to unload the Testaments before they were all sold, such was the people’s desire for God’s Word. That twenty-fifth day of September 1806 was a day long to be remembered in Bala and indeed throughout Wales.
Precious gift of God’s right hand
From its very beginning in 1804, Mary Jones was a keen supporter of the Bible Society. Although poor, she gave generously to the work of the society. She kept bees and sold the honey and wax. Each year she would give half the money from the sale of the beeswax to the Bible Society — often a large sum for one so poor.
The Bible and the good news it contained of a Saviour were very precious to Mary Jones all her life. She would lovingly turn its pages and learn much of it by heart. Indeed, she read it through four times from cover to cover. And when she died, the Bible she had obtained in Bala some 64 years before was on the table beside her.
Well could she sing that well-known Welsh hymn (here translated):
This is Jesu’s dear Bible,
Precious gift of God’s right hand;
There we find the rule for living
And the path to Canaan’s land;
There we read our ruin’s story,
Eden’s sad and sorry loss;
There we find the way to glory
Through my Jesus and His cross.
But despite her long life, it is the story of Mary’s walk to Bala when she was fifteen that has made her famous. And if you visit Llanfihangel-y-Pennant today, you will find a monument to her memory among the ruins of the old cottage where she lived.
Of course, Mary Jones was not the only one to walk a long distance to get a Bible. There were many young people in Wales in those days who were willing to struggle and sacrifice much to get a copy of God’s Holy Word. But it is her story that has lived on.