If you were ask: “Who is the greatest Welshman?”, you would be given a myriad of answers. We all have our different perspectives, but even then there are some men and women who stand out above others, whose influence has had a lasting effect not only during their own lifetimes but for decades and centuries after their days. Griffith Jones is such a person, who although he was active during the 17th and 18th centuries, his actions still resonate over the whole of Wales today.
Griffith Jones was the son of John ap Gruffydd and Elinor John from Pant-yr-efel, a farm in the Teifi Valley near the village of Penboyr, Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire. The exact date of his birth is not certain and has been given as 1683 or 1684. However, we know that he was christened on 1st May 1684, which might suggest the spring of 1684 as a possible date for his birth. His initial education was in the local village school following a period when he had worked as a Shepherd. During this time he would later describe having had a 'religious experience' whilst working as a Shephard. This period of his life was followed by his admission to the local Grammar School in Carmarthen, where he was educated for the Church, under the tutorship of John Maddocks.
Griffith Jones lived in a period of great religious fervour, when all actions, thoughts, and everyday life were governed by scripture. Non-conformity was only in its infancy at this time and it was the Church that remained dominant. English remained the language of the pulpit, and the Bible had been translated into Welsh by Bishop William Morgan and published, with the approval of Queen Elizabeth, in 1588.
After his initial training in Carmarthen, Griffith Jones sought ordination and according to Rev John Evans, vicar of Eglwys Cymyn, was rejected several times. He was eventually ordained by Bishop George Bull in 1708 and appointed Curate of Penbryn, Cardiganshire. The following year he became Curate at Penrieth, Pembrokeshire for a short time before being appointed Curate of Laugharne in 1709, where he was later appointed Master at the SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) School in Laugharne.
It was during this period that he became known to Sir John Phillips of Picton Castle, Haverfordwest, MP first for the Borough of Pembroke and later for the town of Haverfordwest. As a religious, social and educational reformer Phillips was known for the funding of many schools, including the school at Laugharne.
Sir John Phillips was instrumental in Jones' presentation and induction to the rich parish of Llanddowror, in Carmarthenshire, not far from Pendine, and without such a patronage it would have been unlikely that he would have been appointed to such a prestigious role. During this period the friendship between the two men grew and Griffith Jones married Margaret, the sister of Sir John Phillips, in 1720.
Griffith Jones was no ordinary Anglican priest and he offended many of his more conservative parishioners, who were more content with the natural order of things. As well as looking after the parish of Llanddowror he became an itinerant preacher, preaching at any location or occasion that became available. This behaviour was brought to the attention of the Bishop more than once, but to no avail, as Griffith Jones continued unheeded. He believed that the Word of God was paramount and that preaching and teaching were critical.
In a social sense Wales was also going through great change at this time. The gentry were looking towards England for advancement and had been since the days of the Tudors. This meant that the Anglican Church, which had been attended by all classes, was now starting to become the refuge of the gentry and the English language. A language not understood by the vast majority of the ordinary classes was the language of the Church and though the Bible had been translated into Welsh and published in 1588, few outside the gentry’s class were able to read and were excluded as a consequence.
Griffith Jones recognised the problem of illiteracy and as a Teacher saw that the only solution was to teach children to read, and in particular, to read the Bible. The problem of education had been recognised in the past and some local solutions had been put in place by local reformers but there now seemed a greater need.
In about 1734, at the age of 50, Jones conceived the idea of the circulating schools and looked at his idea as a means of teaching primarily children to read the Bible and recite the Catechism in Welsh, the language of their hearth. His motive was not simply to teach children to read (his classes were not exclusive to children) but to read the Bible specifically.
In this endeavour he received the help and encouragement of Bridget Bevan, of the Vaughan family of Derllys, Carmarthen, who was also a member of the SPCK. Her influence was wide and she was able to acquire funds from as far afield as London and Bath. In many ways it is an irony that it was the money and support from the English cities that supported and fostered the language of Wales in the 18th century.
The method behind the circulating schools was simple. Griffith Jones and Bridget Bevan arranged for a number of people to be trained as Teachers and they would take classes in a village for up to six months using what accommodation was available. Generally these classes would be during the day for the children. However, evening classes were also held for any adults that wished to attend and in some cases the adult classes were as popular as those of the children.
The demand for these schools was high, except in some of the anglicized parts of Pembrokshire, and the success was published in an annual report known as Welsh Piety. He continued this work up to the time of his wife's death when he moved to Laugharne and lived until the end of his days with Bridget Bevan, who continued the work until her own death in 1779.
It has been estimated that by 1761, the year of the death of Griffith Jones, more than half the population of Wales was able to read the Welsh Bible and that the model was looked upon with enthusiasm by Catherine the Great of Russia.
The long term importance of the work of the circulating schools cannot be forgotten. The teaching of Scripture through Welsh gave the language an importance above being the language of the hearth. Through Griffith Jones it also became the language of the pulpit and the reading of the Bible maintained a high standard for the spoken language. As the language for the pulpit it also supported the work of the rising Methodist Movement and it was no accident that in later years many of the preachers of the movement came from the rural communities, who had benefited from the circulating schools.
From the point of education it was recognised that the rural class in Wales were the most educated of the nations by the end of the 18th century and it instilled within the Welsh psyche that importance of education. This attitude was common in the 19th century when often the youngest son was educated through the efforts of his older brothers. The result was that by the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century there was an emergence of a new middle class whose routes were in the educated lower classes of the early 18th century and the pupils of the circulating schools.
Griffith Jones, Sir John Phillips and Bridget Bevan are now widely forgotten, yet their work created the foundation to the success of the Welsh language and brought Wales in many ways into the country it is today.