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Griffith Jones (1683 – 1761)


Griffith Jones

1683 – 1761

All who thank God for the 18th century revival long to see its flames leap across two centuries and set ablaze today’s frozen church and wooden-hearted society. Hoping to gain information and inspiration from our foreparents’ awakening in Britain, we immerse ourselves in the work and works of the “three-fold cord not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12); namely, John and Charles Wesley, together with George Whitefield. Few of us, however, are aware of Griffith Jones, the “morning star” of the revival, a man whose name is fragrant in Wales to this day.

In 1649 Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentary leader during the “Interregnum” (the brief period following the English Civil War when Puritan rule replaced royalty), insisted that Wales be given 150 ministers as well as one schoolteacher in every market town. Cromwell wanted to relieve the many-faceted darkness that had kept the Welsh people iniquitous and ignorant in equal measure. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, however, Charles II (the royal family’s all-time “playboy”) immediately suspended the nascent work in Wales, pleased to see the darkness reclaim the people.

Light was to come forth, none the less, from that “morning star” which didn’t merely scintillate but rather burned brightly as a flare, providing illumination beyond anyone’s capacity to foresee it. Twenty years before the Wesleys and Whitefield were even “lit”, Jones was doing what the three Englishmen would subsequently render notorious: a forthright declaration of the gospel, without fear or favour, to the neglected poor and the smirking rich; a compassion for those either alienated from the church or unaware of its mission; outdoor preaching that reached men and women who were otherwise never going to hear the word of life; alleviation of shocking material distresses and deprivations; and, most ominously, persecution from ecclesiastical authorities.

Jones was born into a Dissenting church family that early acquainted him with “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) Overwhelmed one day by means of a vision (unusual in that visions are more typically found among Roman Catholics), Jones had seared upon his heart the immensity of God’s mercy, humankind’s helpless enthrallment to systemic sinnership, and the final fixity both eternal blessedness and ultimate loss. An unmistakable, undeniable vocation to the ministry accompanied the vision. Jones set about preparing himself for this work. With preparation ended, he moved from the Dissenting denomination of his upbringing to the Anglican Church. (No one knows why, as no one knows why John Wesley’s mother, Susanna Annesley, made the same move when only a young teenager.) Upon ordination in 1709 Jones began travelling beyond his parish into the mountain villages of south Wales. And just as quickly an ecclesiastical indicted and tried him on charges that he had neglected his own parish and was encroaching, uninvited, upon the precincts of other Anglican clergy, even preaching outside church buildings. The trial disclosed something entirely different. He preached in other parishes only when the incumbent invited him to, and he preached outdoors only when sanctuaries couldn’t contain the thousands who hungered for the bread of life. Now exonerated, and having turned the tables on his accusers, Jones laid before the presiding bishop incontrovertible evidence of cavalierly negligent clergy and spiritually destitute people whose total existence (not merely their “religious life”) was dissolute and desolate.

In 1716 Jones was installed as rector of the parish of Lladowror, where he ministered until his death 45 years later. As is always the case when the whole Christ wholly possesses the preacher, Jones scrabbled unashamedly to provide his people with food, clothing and medicine.

In the course of conducting his wintertime catechism class in the rectory Jones noticed that far too many of his people couldn’t read. He begged money to provide salaries for schoolteachers, trained them himself (they had to be godly but they didn’t have to be Anglicans), and then had them itinerate as Methodist ministers were to do so very effectively two decades later. The teachers of these “Charity Schools” remained in a village for three months at a time, instructing young and old alike intensively, only then to move on to another village but of course to return in order to move students ahead to the next level. The students weren’t children alone. Adults up to age 70 flooded the schools, soon to be freed gloriously as only the ability to read frees the illiterate. For the first time in the history of Wales servants, labourers and farm workers had access to books. The result was startling, as Wales became the first territory in Europe to have a literate peasantry.

Jones had early seen the pointlessness and futility of having the Welsh people forced to learn in English when they had no opportunity to speak the language with others who knew it well. People with next-to-no English can’t help those with no English to learn it. For this reason Jones resolutely maintained that Welsh had to be the lingua franca, and to this end translated thirty books himself from English to Welsh, these books being the chief texts of his “Charity School” curriculum. Within 30 years 4,000 schools had been set up and 250,000 people enabled to read.

Jones maintained that not only did the gospel address the whole person, thus rendering education an essential aspect of Christian mission; education was essential for the fullest reception of the gospel. In other words, education was as much the condition of evangelism as its fruit, and therefore as much needed for people’s salvation as for their edification. Not surprisingly, he distributed over 30,000 bibles throughout the land.

To this day Jones is deemed one of the makers of modern Wales, and the single most significant factor in the purity and preservation of the Welsh tongue.

Still, if he were able to speak to us now concerning his greatest Kingdom-usefulness he would undoubtedly point not to anything mentioned so far but rather to his three “sons in the gospel”: Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris and Howell Davies. It was these men who, only a few years later, would ignite Wales at the same time as “the threefold cord” torched England. Their “Calvinist Methodist Church” — Calvinist in theology yet Methodist in ethos and expression — would typify the marvellous diversity of the 18th century revival, a reflection, of course, of the diversity of the kingdom itself.

Victor Shepherd             March 2000