How Mary Jones and Thomas Charles triggered a mission to the world, Part 2

Posted in Blog, Mary Jones

As I said yesterday in this blog, my wife, Sheila, and I are looking forward to attending the opening of Mary Jones World at Llanycil, Bala, on Sunday 5 October 2014 – the bicentenary of the death of Thomas Charles from whom Mary received her Bible at the end of her long walk across Welsh mountains. Mary Jones World is the realisation of a dream Bible Society has been praying for – to see the story of Mary Jones and Thomas Charles told to a new generation. A new state-of-the-art visitor and education centre will give residents of Bala, Gwynedd and Wales the chance to learn about the Bible’s impact not only on the Welsh nation but the world. For a wider audience the centre will celebrate the birth of Bible Society which has grown from its roots in the foothills of the majestic Snowdonia National Park to nearly 150 Bible Societies around the world.

Here, then, is the second instalment of the story of how Mary Jones and Thomas Charles triggered a mission to the world.

 Thomas Charles entered Jesus College, Oxford  – the Welshman’s college – and gained his BA degree in 1779.  He got to know some of the leading Christians of his day including John Newton, the former slave trader and author of the hymn Amazing Grace, with whom he spent a summer at Olney.  Charles was ordained priest in 1780 but, after Thomas and Sarah married and settled in Bala, Charles was in effect a freelance minister of the gospel and he soon threw in his lot with the Calvinistic Methodists (now the Presbyterian Church of Wales).  He believed this would give him more freedom to proclaim the good news which so thrilled his heart. 

The Welsh revival was bringing with it a new warmth and evangelistic zeal to church life in Wales. Thomas Charles survived financially because his new wife, Sarah, was gradually taking over the management and ownership of a large and profitable shop in Bala. The business had been built up by her stepfather who was himself a Methodist preacher. The house where Thomas and Sarah lived in Bala High Street is now a bank.

Away to the south-west at Tyn’y-ddôl, Jacob and Mary Jones worked hard to keep warm during one of the coldest winters of the century. Nine days before Christmas, Mary’s first child was born. Three days later, on 19 December 1784, they had her christened “Mary” in the little church at Llanfihangel – though everyone called her “Mari Jacob” after her father and to avoid confusion with her mother. 

Jacob and Mary Jones supplemented their income from weaving through a variety of other activities such as temporary work on local farms and keeping some animals themselves. Life became even harder for the mother and daughter when, in March 1789 a few months after Mary turned four, Jacob died. Poverty increased in rural Wales in the closing years of the eighteenth century partly due to the long war with France.

But there was something which brought brightness and a certain excitement into the mother and daughter’s lives. Although Jacob and Mary had had their baby christened in the Anglican church, they, like the Charleses on the other side of the mountain, had become involved with the Methodists. On a Sunday afternoon, just four years before Mary was born, Robert Jones came to Abergynolwyn, a mile south of Llanfihangel, and preached a powerful sermon – the first to be delivered by a Methodist in the area. 

“There was a cruel, angry look on the large crowd that gathered together,” Robert Jones reported on that historic open-air meeting, “but I was given comparative peace to hold the meeting and there was a measure of unction on it”.

After Robert Jones’s visit to Abergynolwyn, travelling Methodist preachers gradually increased the number of meetings they conducted in the area of Wales between Cadair Idris and the sea.  About the time of Mary’s birth the first seiadau – the fellowship or society meeting which is such a characteristic of Methodism – was formed in the village where Mary grew up.

When Mary was five or six, William Hugh became the first resident preacher in the area.  Hugh lived in Llanfihangel parish and, sometime in the 1770s, he heard Benjamin Evans, then minister of the Independents near Bala, preach. He was surprised by the simplicity of the service and its lack of ceremony compared with services at the parish church. Hugh felt that Evans’s sermon gave him “a clear grasp of the truths of the gospel” and he was probably the first person who lived in Mary’s part of Wales to become a Methodist.

Over in Bala, in the autumn of 1791, a powerful revival broke out which Thomas Charles described in letters to his friends. Sometimes, when Mary was seven, William Hugh collected a party of neighbours from Llanfihangel and they walked together to Bala on a Saturday night, listened to rousing sermons on the Sunday and walked home in the evening. Walking to Bala wasn’t unusual for the sturdy people Llanfihangel. 

Hugh didn’t confine himself to preaching but visited people in their homes to read the Bible and pray with them, and it was almost certainly through his work that Mary Jones heard and came to love the stories of Jesus.

You can read the third episode of this story tomorrow.