Griffith Jones

Griffith Jones (1683-1761)

Welsh Anglican Revivalist and Educationalist

Griffith Jones was born in 1683. Although there are no records to show the exact place of birth it is presumed he was born in the parish of Penboyr, Pembrokeshire. He was baptised the following year in Cilrhedyn church. He was brought up in a Christian home; although sadly his father died when he was very young. Griffith attended the Grammar School at Carmarthen, an intelligent boy he was fortunate to be taught by an eminent classical scholar there. At a young age he decided to go into the Church and his education was organised with that in mind. It does not appear that he went to university. Jones became a deacon in 1708 from the hands of the Bishop of St David’s and became a priest the following year.

He became a curate at Laugharne in Carmarthen and in 1711 he became vicar of Llandilo-Abercowyn. At Laugharne he proved a popular preacher; his sermons being full of evangelical truth. His biographer, D Jones, says that,“His ministry created a profound spiritual awakening in the parish, and his fame spread throughout the surrounding district.” His promotion in 1711 is a sign of the reputation he had earned as he had only been a clergyman for three years. In 1712 Jones was thinking about becoming a missionary in the Indies and applied to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. However, after a year of soul searching, he decided that his own country needed him more. William Williams describes him at this period as, “crowding the churches to capacity, transforming graveyards into churches.” Another witness writes that despite there only being about twelve small families in his parish, there were generally five or six hundred, sometimes a thousand, in his church. In 1714, according to Sir John Phillips of Picton Castle, Jones was had up before the Bishop’s Court for not performing his duties and for preaching in other parishes without permission; these accusations were proved to be untrue. In 1716 he was appointed Rector of Llanddowror by Sir John Phillips and in 1722 he married Sir John’s sister. Sadly, there is little known of his work at Llanddowror until 1732. For an account of the background to the times he lived in; please see ‘Revival – Wales’ on this website.

Jones will be most remembered for his educational work with Circulating Schools in Wales. At this time there were 25 to 30 Grammar Schools and the schools established through the work of Thomas Gouge and others. Also the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge had also provided several schools since it was set up in 1698. Although we have no evidence, it is likely that these schools were infected with the general malaise that went through society at this time and therefore not performing at their best.

Jones’ vision is described in a letter of his dated 1738 (edited). He was catechising (testing on religious truths) some of his people when he noticed that, “the greatest part of those who most wanted such kind of instruction, and the application of it, stood off; being old in ignorance, they were ashamed to be thus taught and catechised publicly. In compassion to the poor, public notice was given in Church on Sunday to summon them, I mean all the poor people, to come thither, at the same time with the rest, to receive a dole of bread provided for them with part of the money the communicants gave at the Sacrament. A few plain and easy questions were asked them, with great tenderness and caution not to puzzle or give them cause to blush. This being repeated once a month, the number of the elderly people increased; and all came willingly, giving opportunity to proceed from easier to harder questions. It pleased God to give such a blessing, that they all improved much, and many of them became visibly conscientious in a good conversation and all religious duties.”

The first school began in 1730 and was paid for by the offerings of his congregation. By 1738 there were 37 schools teaching 2,400 people, both old and young.

Jones tells us in his own words how the schools worked. “Where a Charity School is wanted and desired or likely to be kindly received, no pompous preparations or costly buildings are thought of, but a church or chapel, or untenanted house of convenient situation, is fixed on; and public notice is given immediately, that a Welsh School is to begin there at an appointed time, where all sorts that desire it are to be kindly and freely taught for three months (though the Schools are continued for three months longer, or more, when needful; and then moved to another place where desired.) The people, having no prospect of such an opportunity but for a short limited time, commonly resort to them at once, and keep to them as closely and diligently as they can, though some can afford to come but every other day, or in the night only, because the support of themselves and their family requires their labour. The masters are instructed, hired, and charged to devote all their time, and with all possible diligence, not only to teach the poor to read, but to instruct them daily (at least twice every day) in the principles and duties of religion from the Church Catechism, by the assistance of such explanations of it as they and the scholars are provided with, which they are not only to repeat out of book, but also to give the sense thereof in their own words, with a Psalm and prayer night and morning after catechising. Every master is also obliged to keep a strict account of the names, ages, condition in the world, and progress in learning, of all the scholars; and of the books they learn, and the time and number of months, weeks and days that everyone of them continued in the school; that the masters may be paid accordingly. This account every master is to bring in writing at the end of three months, with proper certificates of the truth thereof, and of their own behaviour, signed by each clergyman as condescended to inspect them, as well as by several other creditable persons living near the Schools.”   

To begin with very few could say the Lord’s Prayer, but in six or eight weeks many could not only read fairly well, but repeat by heart the Church Catechism in Welsh and make pretty good answers to plain questions on faith. It should be remembered that Welsh is easier to learn than English. Generally, after three months the school would move on to another district, but when required they might stay for a second or third term or they might come back for another three months later. These schools were so successful that by 1748 they were in every county in Wales except for Flint. It was calculated that 150,000 people were taught in this way by Jones, but this did not include those who could only come at night to be taught and so this would greatly increase the figures. In 1744 he wrote “The poor people desire and thirst for the knowledge of God, and flock in great numbers to these schools in several places…when they can hardly get bread enough to satisfy their hunger, and were never oppressed with so much poverty before in this country in the memory of man.”

Men and women of all ages came to the schools and some parents leart at home what their children had been taught in the school. One blind woman in her eighties, went to one of the schools to hear the children being taught, but stayed so that she too could learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments etc.

Jones had his hand on every area of the Circular Schools. He thought that they were vital for the revival of religion and he threw all his energies into making them a success. He had to be very watchful so that none of the money he was entrusted with was wasted. He had to be careful that clergymen did not just want a school so that they could receive payment for teaching in it; he had to ensure that the quality of the teaching was up to standard and that the pupils were progressing. He would open schools, raise money for them, advertise them and supervise them. They were not all Welsh speaking schools; if an English speaking one was asked for he was happy to supply it.

Jones was grieved that the system of catechising had fallen into disuse among the churches and like Samuel Walker of Truro (see this website) he believed that this was one of the main reasons for the poor state of religion in the country at this time. He wrote books to help clergy and masters to carry out this necessary work. He had found that the deep ignorance of the people meant that they could not understand much of the preaching he had done for years, and so the schools and catechising created more fertile ground for the sermons of the clergy to do their work.

The limiting factor in this venture was always money. Money was needed to pay masters and in 1741 there were 150 schools with approximately 250 employed masters. Money was needed at times to: rent rooms, pay local clergy and inspectors, bread that sometimes was given to the poor and to pay for the vast numbers of books, including Bibles, that were required for the pupils. Jones wrote that he had little to expect from his own country as most of the people were unable to contribute and the remainder were unwilling. However, Jones trusted in God and He provided when money was required. He writes in 1746, “Though there is still no settled fund, and sometimes not stock enough in hand to defray half the expense of the current year; yet the spontaneous subscriptions, or free will offerings of some benevolent persons or other, have never hitherto failed to come in time, to pay off fully and punctually all debts contracted for this good undertaking.” Apart from a few wealthy sponsors, Jones always received strong support from the Society for Promotion of Christian Knowledge who supplied, many of the books he needed over the years.

These Circulating Schools had a lot of opposition from clergy and gentry alike. Why is it that so often, when there is a work that is so clearly from God which is equally clearly benefiting the local people; it brings with it such opposition from the very people who should be helping and promoting it?  A little over a hundred years later William Booth experienced the same opposition when he began his work with the poor of London.There is no doubt that his enemies made life difficult for him as he was often had up before the Ecclesiastical Courts for disobeying church rules, but Jones was such an avid churchman that it is highly unlikely that there was any substance to these accusations. Possibly the only written evidence of opposition is a pamphlet that a rector published against Jones in 1752. This attack has a whole list of accusations against Jones; most of which try to make him out as a Nonconformist, such as pointing out that he studied Hebrew under a Nonconformist. Another was that nine-tenths of his communicants were Dissenters, who would not enter any parish church but his. He is described as a vile hypocrite, a cruel tyrant and a liar and his followers as thieves, idlers, adulterers and ignorant enthusiasts.

The main evidence of opposition comes from Jones’ letters and reports. He mainly blames the bishops who appointed clergy who were wholly unsuitable and for turning down men who would make really fine vicars. He writes of ‘violent enmity’ and of ‘malicious slanders and calumnies.’ He also writes, “although my endeavours are left to stand alone, without any encouragement, or rather under great discouragement from my brethren the clergy.” Being the type of person Jones was; anything he wrote would have been understated. However, he must have received some support from the clergy because many of his schools were opened at their invitation. There is no doubt that after ten or fifteen years, once the Schools were proved, the opposition subsided; although the pamphlet mentioned above was an exception to this.

There was a great need for good quality school teachers and Jones set himself the task of training them. He established a seminary at Llanddowror for the training of the teachers. Unfortunately he could not find enough quality men from the Established Church and had to employ a considerable number of Nonconformists to fill all the vacancies. This was a source of considerable embarrassment for him as his enemies amongst the clergy and gentry were never slow in firing arrows at him; his employment of Nonconformists giving them a lot of ammunition.

Apart from his work with the schools, he also published thirteen books and tracts; four of which were published in English. All his works were designed to meet the needs of his Circulating Schools. Much of what is known about Jones comes from the annual reports of his Schools and from 160 letters (many were quite long) he wrote to a Mrs Bevan, who was his constant friend and supporter and who carried on his work after his death. The letters began in 1732 and are the first source of any information that we have on Jones. Mrs Bevan’s husband was Member of Parliament for 14 years and died in 1745. She was a woman of some means, intelligent, accomplished and a woman of some influence. She attended his church, was a sounding board for Jones and supported him in everything he did. She opened her home to Jones in 1756, the year after his wife died and he stayed there until his death. She died in 1779.

In his will Jones left all his money (apart from a few legacies) and all the funds that were in hand for the Schools, totalling £7,000, to Mrs Bevan. For the next sixteen years she worked tirelessly for the benefit of the schools and on her death left £10,000 in trust for the work to be continued. However, one of the Trustees, Lady Stepney, questioned the validity of the gift as she had a claim over it as next of kin, so the whole fund was invested by the Court of Chancery; and it remained there pending the final decision of the court. In 1804 the money, which had now grown to £30,000, was assigned to its original purpose by the Court, but it appears to have been used to fund National children’s schools and not adult schools as before. During Mrs Bevan’s eighteen years management, the Schools were every bit as successful as they were under Jones, but with the money being tied up on her death the work ended abruptly leaving 10,000 people without education. Since records of the Schools began in 1737 until their end in 1777, it was reported that 314,051 people were educated out of a population of between 400,000 and half a million. It is not known how many people attended more than one three month course, although it is not impossible that some people attended the course every time it came through their village. Despite that unknown, the number of people who were educated would have had a considerable impact on the society in Wales at that time.

An article in a 1777 magazine describes the type of person Jones was: “He was very charitable to the poor, and his unwearied endeavours to alleviate their distresses will render his memory justly dear to them. He not only fed and clothed them in considerable numbers, but was likewise a physician to their bodies as well as their souls. He had by long study arrived at a great proficiency in medicine, and had large quantities of drugs sent him from London, which he made up and dispensed to the poor gratis, and through God’s blessing, with remarkable success. And when he had cured any of his country people of their bodily distempers, and thereby gained their love and esteem, he never failed to take that opportunity to second it with pathetic, judicious, and seasonable advice, ever exhorting them to an earnest care for their immortal souls, as being of much greater value, in God’s sight than their perishing bodies…. Amongst the people committed to his care, his deportment was courteous and condescending. He would stoop with the utmost cheerfulness to the lowest among them, and carried the spirit of his sermons into his ordinary conversation. He maintained a uniform, affable gravity of behaviour, without suffering his temper either to stiffen into moroseness, or to evaporate into levity. He was cheerful, but not light, serious but not sad. It was his constant business and daily endeavour, to set forward the salvation of his flock.” Jones was also a very humble man who was well aware of his own short comings and was always trying to improve. He was full of love; be it for his Lord, his flock or the work he was commissioned to do.

Family worship was something else that Jones believed was crucial to the revival of religion and he asked his masters to encourage this wherever they went. He travelled extensively over the Principality to promote his schools and often preached on his travels. He would often go travelling during the Easter and Whitsun weeks to counteract the fairs and festivities that would normally take place in the countryside during those weeks.  It was while he was preaching in a neighbouring parish that Mrs Bevan was converted and Daniel Rowland (see this website) was converted under his preaching when he was at Llanddewibrefi. Large crowds would often come to hear him and on such occasions he would have to speak outside. Jones was a powerful preacher and was compared with Daniel Rowland, as one witness writes. “As he advanced, his subject fired him more and more. How spirited was his utterance! His hearers could feel their blood thrill within them. One could plainly see the various passions he would inspire by turns rising in his own breast, and working from the very depth of his heart.” His fame was such that people would come from all around to his church, to hear him preach.

An eye witness account of the power of his preaching comes from the diary of a Lady Frances Hastings. She writes about a meeting that took place in 1748 during a tour of Wales by Lady Huntingdon who was accompanied by Jones, Howel Harris, Daniel Rowland and Howel Davies. On one occasion, “when Mr Griffith Jones preached in a large field…there was an extraordinary manifestation of the grace and power of God over the assembled multitude, so that many were deeply convinced of their misery and guilt, and cried aloud in the most awful manner. When the sermon was ended, Lady Huntingdon inquired of many of those who had been so affected; the cause of their loud bitter cries. Most of them replied that they were so powerfully and deeply convinced of their sinfulness and awful condition in the sight of God, that they were afraid that He would never have mercy on them. The people in general through the whole assembly seemed greatly bowed down and humbled before the Lord, and many said they should never forget the time that God was so gracious unto them.”

Jones was often unwell, but this did not stop his indefatigable work. As a child he had terrible asthma but that eventually cleared up; he also had smallpox as a child and was blind for three weeks. He often wrote that he was sick or weak, but he lived on until 1761. He was buried at his church. One tribute to Jones reads, “Few men, in any age or country, in so humble a position, have exercised a nobler or a wider influence. Few teachers and philanthropists have passed away into eternity, cheered by the review of richer results of their life’s work.”  Jones did something that many are asked to do, but do not do; he saw a problem and stepped out to solve it. As he stepped out in a small way, the Lord opened the doors so that the work could encompass the whole of the country he loved. His Circulating Schools were the basis of Welsh Sunday Schools. Thomas Charles of Bala wrote, “the Circulating Day Schools have been the principal means of erecting Sunday Schools; for without the former, the state of the country was such that we could not obtain teachers to carry on the latter. Besides, Sunday Schools were set up in every place where the day schools had been.” His Schools were also the model for Gaelic Schools that were set up in the Highlands of Scotland to teach the people to read in their own language. So, despite the enemy preventing the release of money to allow his schools to continue; his legacy lived on.

Jones was first and last a churchman. He always remained in the Church of England and always spoke out in support of it even though its bishops and clergy seldom supported him or his schools. Ironically he has been accused of helping the spread of Methodism; which is true, but only because of the terrible weaknesses of the clergy. Those who had been through his schools, because they became more knowledgeable, became more aware of the shortcomings of their vicars and so would be keen to join Methodist or Nonconformist congregations where the truths of the Gospel were preached with more skill and with more accuracy. Jones was fully aware of this. He wrote, “it was not any scruple of conscience about the principles or orders of the Established Church that gave occasion to scarce one in ten of the Dissenters in this country to separate from us at first, whatever objections they may afterwards imbibe against conforming. No, sir; they generally dissent at first for no other reason than for want of plain, practical, pressing and zealous preaching, in a language and dialect they are able to understand; and freedom of friendly access to advise about their spiritual state.” The character and skill of Jones and a few other clergymen in Wales, brought into stark contrast the vast majority of clergy who were of lesser character and ability.

He is remembered as the ‘morning star’ of the awakening in Wales. There is little doubt that his Schools, that began just a few years before the Great Awakening began, enabled Holy Spirit to find richer soil to work on than would have been the case had they not existed. Revival would not have gone so deep and wide in Wales had not many tens of thousands gone through the Circulating Schools. He also impacted the Great Awakening in a significant way through his mentoring both Daniel Rowland and Howel Harris, the great revivalists, at the beginning of their ministries. He also mentored Howel Davies, another revivalist in the Awakening, who was his curate for some years. In 1741 Jones broke with the Methodists as he did not agree with the way they went about things and he was probably fearful of the effect his association with them would have on his Schools. This is why he is now remembered as an educationalist, rather than a pioneer revivalist of the Great Awakening.

The main source for this document is ‘Life and Times of Griffith Jones of Llanddowror’ by D Jones 1902. A secondary source is ‘History of Nonconformity in Wales’ by T Rees 1861

Back to top