William Morgan (c.1545-1604)
When thinking of the Reformation, one of the first things that comes to mind is the importance of hearing the Bible in a language you understand. Bible translation from Hebrew and Greek texts into English enlivened the church in the United Kingdom, just as Martin Luther’s translation of the Scriptures into German did on the continent.
However, the story of the Bible being translated into Welsh is not one that is often told, though this was something which needed to be done with just as much urgency as translating the Scriptures into English. Several people were key to the Bible being heard in a language understood by the people of Wales in the 16th century and William Morgan was used by God to bring this about.
William Morgan was born in 1545 into just the right conditions to translate the Scriptures into the Welsh language. He was born in the parish of Penmachno in Caernarfonshire. This is very close to the villages where Richard Davies, who would become Bishop of St. Asaph and later of St. David’s, and William Salesbury lived. Both of these men were early pioneers in translating the Scriptures into Welsh. Morgan no doubt learned from them and picked up an enthusiasm for Welsh literature and culture before being sent off to Cambridge University to further his studies.
At Cambridge, Morgan made friends with Richard Vaughan, who would later become Bishop of Bangor and eventually Bishop of London, and Edmwnd Prys who became Archdeacon of Merioneth. These men, alongside the non-Welsh master of Trinity College Cambridge who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, were a tremendous encouragement to Morgan and spurred him on to use his love of Welsh and of the biblical languages to do the important work of translating the Bible into his native tongue.
It must be emphasised that this really was important work. No doubt, there were people in Wales who spoke and understood English well enough but this was not true for everybody. By the middle of the 16th century, the rest of the Church of England, of which the Church in Wales was part, was able to pray the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer in English, and able to hear the Bible read in English. In Wales, a lot of good work had been done but the job was unfinished. The prayer book, the New Testament and the Psalms had been translated into Welsh by 1567 but the Old Testament remained untranslated. John Penry records that whenever Welsh congregations heard the Old Testament lesson for each Sunday read in English, they would say, ‘Y mae yr offeiriad ar y fferen,’ which means, ‘The priest is at mass.’
In other words, for many people in Wales at this time, hearing the Word of God in English was functionally the same as hearing it in Latin had been in the late Middle Ages. It was not something which they understood and therefore they could not hear God’s voice for themselves. The Church of England was failing to live by the spirit of Article 24 of the Articles of Religion which read:
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded by the people.
Queen Elizabeth I had also passed a law in 1563 ordering the Welsh bishops to produce a Welsh translation of the Scriptures based upon this principle but the work was slow. William Morgan and his colleagues understood the urgency of the issue. They grasped that the people of Wales needed to hear the whole of God’s Word in their own language if they were to understand what God had to say to them.
Morgan had a tough task ahead of him. William Salesbury had previously translated the New Testament and Psalms although he was fond of strange spellings that resembled Latin and English. His translation was interesting but, rather like reading Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible in the 21st century, it was not so useful for the common person in the pew.
Morgan undertook the majority of the translation work on his own. He had influential allies in Archbishop Whitgift, Edmwnd Prys and Bishop Richard Vaughan, but the work of translation was a lonely one. As parish minister in Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, Montgomeryshire he was far away from the libraries of Cambridge and relied on others to supply him with books and papers that would help in his work. Furthermore, his time as a parish minister was not an entirely happy one. William Morgan endured difficulties with various members of his congregation, some of whom were even suing him. This proved to be very costly for him financially and no doubt was an emotionally draining experience for him. During this time, Morgan was also tasked with proclaiming the Word of God to his people week after week. All this must have been a tremendous strain.
Nonetheless, the work was completed in 1587. In September 1588, the Privy Council ordered the Welsh bishops to ensure that by Christmas of that year all churches had ordered at least one Bible and two Psalters. The people of Wales were finally able to hear the whole of God’s Word in their own language.
As well as being a gifted linguist, it is said that Morgan was an excellent preacher. Morgan was a man who loved the Scriptures not only because he loved languages, but more importantly because through them he heard the voice of the living God and longed for his countrymen to hear this also. He, like William Salesbury before him, placed Romans 1:16 on the title page of his translation of the Bible. The text in Welsh reads:
Canys nid oes arnaf gywilydd o efengyl Crist: oblegid gallu Duw yw hi er iachawdwriaeth i bob un a’r sydd yn credu; i’r Iddew yn gyntaf, a hefyd i’r Groegwr.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe; to the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Morgan loved the Welsh language, but more than that, he loved the Word of God. He understood that it was vital that Welsh people heard God’s voice in their own language. He did not want Wales and the Welsh people to be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but to hear and believe and thus to receive salvation in Christ.