Come with me on a journey to Wales in the 1730s. In the South, the Methodist Revival, or the Evangelical Awakening, was on the move. People could read the Bible in their native tongue thanks to the ‘circulating’ schools that Griffith Jones had started. Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland and William Williams were all converted. But the North did not follow suit. They considered the Methodists to be ‘wicked’. Howell Harris had a gun drawn on him in Machynlleth and was mercilessly beaten while preaching in Bala in 1741.
A few years later in 1773, a schoolboy from Carmarthen was converted under the preaching of Daniel Rowland. His name was Thomas Charles. He wrote:
January 20, 1773, I went to hear Mr Rowland preach at New Chapel; his text was Hebrews 4:15. A day much to be remembered by me as long as I live. Ever since the happy day I have lived in a new heaven and a new earth. The change a blind man who receives his sight experiences does not exceed the change I at that time experienced in my mind…
Often, in walking in the fields, I looked up to heaven with joy and called that my home, at the same time ardently longing for the appearance of the glorious Saviour to take me forever to himself.
Thomas Charles felt called into the ministry and went to Jesus College, Oxford, where he spent time working for John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace. In 1778, he visited Bala and met and fell in love with Sally Jones. Her mother had been converted under Howell Harris – at the very meeting where Harris had been beaten up! Sally was an only child and couldn’t consider leaving her home, so in 1783, he returned with no income or church, and married Sally at Llanycil, Bala.
Thomas Charles continued to try and find an Established Church, but they did not want him or his preaching. He comments:
Last Sunday, the whole parish with 2 or 3 of the principal inhabitants at their head came to me and accosted me in a rougher strain than I ever have been used to before. They insisted on my preaching no more in their church, for they added, you have cursed us enough already.
He struggled on, believing that he was called to Wales and working where he could to provide an income. In 1785 he moved into Methodism and started to go on preaching tours and seeing people converted.
Thomas Charles began to get a burden for affordable Welsh Bibles and tracts in the Welsh language. At the same time, he developed schools which would teach ordinary folk to read and write through the Bible. He was instrumental in the foundation of Sabbath Schools, the old Welsh Sunday School system where thousands of Welsh children learned to read and recite large portions of Scripture. Many were converted through his endeavours.
Here is his description of the Sabbath schools in 1806:
It has been my delightful work, …every Sunday to catechise publicly, and hear them repeat chapters before thousands of people… In order to give you some idea of the work, I would just mention some of the following particulars, which are strictly true: ‘Whole families, young and old, the governors and the governed, learn the Catechisms together, and chapters of the Bible; they have appeared together, and repeated alternately what they have learnt.
Boys and Girls, from eight to sixteen years old, learn whole books of the Scripture; and repeat what time will permit us to hear, such as the whole epistle to the Ephesians, Hebrews, etc; others learn select chapters to an astonishing number, such as 10, 20, 30.
One little girl learnt seventy-two psalms and chapters; and another the astonishing number of ninety-two, the list of which I have in my possession. Now, we want to feed this fire, so happily kindled in their minds, by putting into their hands a few useful Tracts in the Welsh language.
In 1799, Thomas Charles obtained 10,000 Welsh Bibles, but they sold out straight away. In 1800, 15-year-old Mary Jones walked 26 miles to buy a Bible from Thomas Charles. Thomas Charles made an impassioned plea for help to print more Welsh Bibles, and the response came back, ‘If Bibles for Wales, why not Bibles for the whole world?’ And so began the British and Foreign Bible Society. Within ten years they had supplied 100,000 copies!
There is so much more that can be said about Thomas Charles, but we have run out of time in this short article. Let me give just three lessons for us today from the life and ministry of Thomas Charles.
First, Thomas Charles knew the importance of place. He was known by where he came from – Thomas Charles y Bala. We are meant to be local, placed somewhere to serve God.
Second, Thomas Charles was known for the Bible. We know him as the man that gave the Bible to Mary Jones. But he also wrote books about the Bible, including a Bible dictionary and doctrinal catechisms. The Word of God is vital for life and mission. Thomas wrote in a letter to raise money for the Bible Society:
It has in view to promote the eternal felicity of all the inhabitants of the globe till the end of time, by the most unexceptional and the most effectual means, that is, by the dissemination of Bibles among them.
The Bible is the key to salvation. Don’t miss its importance.
Third, Thomas Charles was blessed. He saw a clear link between mission and blessing. He experienced the ultimate blessing of revival, but he wanted continual blessing too. Thomas Charles sought God’s blessing all the time. He wanted to see Jesus. As Matthew Henry writes,
‘We need desire no more to make us happy, than to have God’s face shine upon us, to have God love us, and let us know that he loves us.’
Thomas obsessed over this. He wrote:
‘The rays of heavenly glory, issuing from Christ, pervade the inmost parts of the soul, and convey new vigour to the spiritual life.’
Christ is like the sun shining in all its brilliance. In fact, this blessing is so amazing that he writes,
‘It is like looking on the midday sun on a clear summers day. Our weak eyes are dazzled with its splendour and unable to look any longer.’
Again he writes,
‘In proportion as the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shines in our hearts, so will our confidence and delight in him increase.’
We need to look to Jesus and see the smile of God! This is the only way we will reach Wales. Some of us aren’t sharing the gospel because we aren’t enjoying Jesus. We need to look to Jesus and find him in his Word! We must let the Spirit shine on him and show him to us and take the gospel out to our land.