Born exactly 400 years ago, Morgan Llwyd was one of the most remarkable Welshmen of the seventeenth century. Originally from Cynfal-fawr, near Maentwrog in Meirionnydd – the house is still there – he spent the most fruitful part of his short life in Wrexham. A memorial to him was erected at the Dissenters’ Burial Ground, now known as the Morgan Llwyd Memorial Park, in Rhos-ddu Road, Wrexham, in 1912. The Welsh-medium secondary school in Wrexham is named in his honour.
To begin with, let’s look at the main events of his life. His father may well have been the celebrated poet and soldier, Huw Llwyd, who died c.1629. His mother then took him to Wrexham. There, aged sixteen, he was converted through the preaching of the Puritan Walter Cradoc, curate at St Giles’ Church. He subsequently followed Cradoc to Llanfaches in Monmouthshire, where they were associated with the beginning of Welsh Nonconformity through the founding of the Independent church in 1639. While there, he married Ann Herbert; they were to have at least eleven children.
During the Civil War, he served initially as a chaplain in the Parliamentary army. In 1644 Parliament sent him to north Wales as a travelling preacher. He chose Wrexham as a base for his activities and became the leader of the Independent church there. Under the ecclesiastical settlement introduced by the Commonwealth, in 1659 he was appointed the minister of St Giles’ Church but died that year aged only 40.
Llwyd was perhaps the most powerful of the Welsh Puritan preachers. His labours at Wrexham were certainly impressive. Under his leadership, the Independent church there (whose roots went as far back as 1582) became the most important such congregation in north Wales.
But his continuing reputation is founded mainly on his literary accomplishments. He published a total of eight books in Welsh and three in English. The Welsh works, in particular, reveal his genius as a writer of both prose and poetry. The influence of the Bible on his writings is clear, but he was also well versed in the riches of the Welsh language and Welsh poetic tradition. His Llythyr i’r Cymry Cariadus (A Letter to the Beloved Welsh, 1653) was a milestone in the history of Welsh prose on account of its dazzling use of imagery and rhythm, while Llyfr y Tri Aderyn (The Book of the Three Birds, also 1653) is one of the classics of Welsh literature for the same reason.
But was Llwyd also a heretic? In seeking an answer, three areas are relevant:
- A Fifth Monarchist?
In the 1640s Llwyd identified himself with the Fifth Monarchists, who regarded the establishing of Christ’s kingdom on earth as imminent. With hindsight, it is easy to dismiss their ideas, but at the time the triumph of Parliament over the monarch in the Civil War persuaded them that they should make political preparations for Christ’s return as King.
However, by the mid-1650s, Llwyd realised his error. In An Honest Discourse between Three Neighbours, he rejected Fifth Monarchist thinking, arguing that Christ’s kingdom should be promoted by spiritual means rather than direct political action.
- A heterodox thinker?
Was Llwyd also guilty of more general doctrinal heresy? Some of his writings are clear and orthodox, but others use dramatic imagery that is open to interpretation. Based on some expressions he has been accused of rejecting Calvinism and embracing antinomianism, but he has also been ably defended on both counts.
The difficulty is that he never set out his beliefs in systematic form; he was a man of imagination rather than an academic theologian. Sometimes that imagination led him to what he and others admitted were ‘dark’ means of expression – some of his statements, taken in isolation, certainly cause raised eyebrows. We should also acknowledge that he was open to ideas from outside mainstream Puritanism. While his proclamation of basic gospel truth is undeniable, in purely theological terms, he was not as consistent or helpful as, say, Walter Cradoc. But the jury is still out on whether he was a ‘heretic’ as such.
- A mystic Quaker?
As part of the 20th-century theological downgrade, it became fashionable to regard Llwyd as a mystic and quasi-Quaker.
He was certainly attracted by the work of Jacob Boehme (c.1575-1624), a German philosopher of marked mystical tendencies. Much of Boehme’s thinking is incomprehensible, but he seems to have believed that divine light is to be found not only in the Bible but also in creation and in man. Llwyd accepted this teaching but differed from Boehme in viewing the divine light in man as the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the believer.
Llwyd’s position is not entirely without biblical support. It must be added that he emphasised the work of the Spirit because he feared that some Puritans were neglecting genuine Christian experience through a dry scholastic orthodoxy. But people could easily interpret his references to the ‘divine light in man’ as a form of Quakerism. Some of Llwyd’s congregation at Wrexham, in fact, became Quakers. Llwyd himself, however, clearly rejected Quakerism, as indicated in his Lazarus and his Sisters Discoursing of Paradise and Where is Christ? (both 1655).
In recognising the dangers of a mere intellectual faith, he perhaps overemphasised Christian experience. But as Where is Christ? demonstrates, his firm grasp of the essential truths of the Christian faith was rooted in Scripture. If ‘mysticism’ is religious experience independent of objective revelation, Llwyd was no mystic.
Hero or heretic?
Morgan Llwyd was one of the most important literary figures in seventeenth-century Wales, and one of the most prominent members of the Welsh Puritan movement. His gifts as a writer and preacher were quite remarkable. But he was also the most enigmatic figure among the Welsh Puritans. And too often he has been used as a vehicle for the opinions of later writers, especially those who have no sympathy for Puritanism.
It would have been good if he had expressed his beliefs more clearly. If he had lived longer, the uncertainty surrounding some of those beliefs might have been resolved. But we can respect him as one of the most eloquent Welsh gospel preachers of the seventeenth century. And we can give thanks for his God-given gifts as one of the most accomplished prose writers in the Welsh language.