The legacy of Griffith Jones and Bridget Bevan
This September, around 470,000 children and young people in Wales are going back to school after their summer holidays. The shops are filled with new school uniforms, the aisles of stationery have reappeared and soon the school-run traffic will return. Each year, first-days are markers of how fast children are growing but more widely these days are a great reminder to pray for all children and their educators at the start of the new school year.
This September also marks an important date for the history of education in Wales. It was 291 years ago that Griffith Jones wrote his proposal to establish a new Welsh School in the village of Llanddowror. This was the first step in the creation of the Welsh circulating schools that operated for 123 years before being absorbed into the National Society for Promotion of Education. Whilst these schools have been remembered for their legacy in improving literacy in Wales, for Griffith Jones the schools were a way of bringing more people into a deeper relationship with God.
A need for literacy
Griffith Jones was born in Pant-yr-feel, Penboyr, Carmarthenshire. Receiving his own education in a village school and later a local grammar school, Jones aspired to the clergy. On the 25th of September 1708, he was ordained as a priest and began serving in curacies across west Wales. Whilst working in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, Jones was appointed Master of the school there, funded by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). During this time, Jones grew increasingly concerned with the illiteracy of his parishioners. Whilst supporting the SPCK’s new edition of the Welsh Bible, his concerns grew. A Welsh Bible was a great step forward, but could only do so much if normal men, women and children were unable to read it.
This prompted Jones to conduct a small experiment with his parishioners. He offered to teach them to read and to teach them the church catechism. In the following months, parishioners of all ages came to him ‘cheerfully learning by heart two or three verses from the Holy Scriptures.’ Over time, Jones noticed a change in the faith and lives of many people in the church.
Using this as evidence for the desire and need for education, Jones applied to SPCK in September 1731 to create a new Welsh school in Llanddowror, where he had been rector since 1716. Approval was granted and the funding quickly followed, gifted by local heiress and philanthropist Bridget Bevan. Known locally as ‘Madam Bevan’, Bevan was not a distant supporter of the circulating schools but was actively involved from the beginning.
Griffith Jones’ idea was simple yet effective. Schools were established which would tour rural Welsh parishes. They would stay for only a few months in the winter when there was less farm work that needed to be done, before moving on to the next location. Circulating in this way enabled different communities to access education without the necessity for a permanent school. Night schools were also added for those who couldn’t come during the day.
With the Welsh Bible acting as their textbook, students of all ages were taught how to read and write, whilst simultaneously hearing the gospel. At the end of their time at the school most pupils could read Scripture and had also memorised key Bible passages, prayers and the catechism.
In six years, the number of Welsh circulating schools had grown to 37 with 2,500 pupils in attendance. As the number of schools grew, Jones oversaw their development, training the teachers from his parish in Llanddowror. Meanwhile, Madam Bevan continued to support the schools financially, whilst using her political connections to garner wider support.
Griffith Jones passed away in 1761, at which point 3,495 schools were in operation. He left his remaining money to Madam Bevan with instructions for how she should now assume the management of the schools. Bevan did so faithfully for the next 18 years until her own death in 1779, establishing a further 242 schools during that time.
Jones and Bevan were not without their critics. In the wider church, many disagreed with Jones teaching normal men and women to read, fearing it would disrupt the natural order of society and the position of the church in local communities. Pamphlets appeared attacking Jones and the schools, with formal complaints being lodged against him for a variety of reasons. On multiple occasions Jones was forced to stand in front of the bishop to defend his decisions to ignore church rules by preaching on a weekday.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the Welsh circulating schools is undeniable. At the time of Madam Bevan’s death in 1779 it is estimated that over half of the Welsh population had attended one of these schools, making Wales one of the most literate nations in Europe.
Meeting the needs of the community
Griffith Jones and Bridget Bevan identified a need in their community. They understood that while illiteracy was an educational need, it was having a direct spiritual impact in rural Wales. However, they didn’t stop there as they both dedicated their lives to improving education in Wales so that everyone would be able to read the Bible for themselves and grow in their faith. Together, Jones and Bevan, with their supporters and SPCK, transformed Wales into a reading nation with knowledge of the Scriptures and a love of the gospels specifically. Arguably, through this, Jones paved the way for later reformers in Wales, like Daniel Rowlands, John Wesley and Howell Harris.
What needs exist in our local communities? Are these needs potentially limiting people’s ability to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus? How can we meet that need? These are all questions to ask ourselves as we, like Jones and Bevan, seek to share the gospel with those around us. According to a study in 2010, one in eight Welsh adults ‘lack basic literacy skills’. It is important for us to consider this as we plan to reach those in our communities. Are there changes we can make to our evangelism, outreach events and church services to make sure that no one is excluded from enjoying and receiving the Word of God?
To subscribe to the print edition visit www.evangelicalmagazine.com/subscribe/