When Howell Harris preached in Bala, North Wales, in 1741, one who passed from death to life as a result was Jane Jones who, with the husband she had married in 1737, became one of the leading shop-keepers of the town. David and Jane Jones would have remained unknown to posterity if it had not been for their one child, Sarah, who was born in 1753, sixteen years after their wedding. Twenty-five years later ‘Sally’ Jones, still unmarried, was famed in Merionethshire for her personality, her looks and her earnestness in religion. It seems that news of her certainly played a part in drawing a student at Oxford by the name of Thomas Charles to accept the invitation of a fellow Welsh student to visit North Wales in the summer of 1778. Upon just such seemingly small issues great matters often turn.
Thomas Charles, born near Carmarthen two years after his future wife, was a stranger to the North, and until 1773 he was also a stranger to the experience which made Sally different from so many of her contemporaries. In that year, on January 20, the seventeen-year-old Carmarthen schoolboy heard Daniel Rowland preach and his ‘mind was overwhelmed and overpowered with amazement’ at the truth. He could say: ‘The change a blind man who receives his sight experiences doth not exceed the change I at that time experienced’.
So, with the Christian ministry in view, Charles settled into a course of study at Jesus College, Oxford, in February 1776. The summer vacation of the following year he spent with John Newton at Olney. In 1778, the year when he first saw Sally Jones at Bala, Charles was ordained in the Church of England and settled in a curacy at Shepton Beauchamp in Somerset. Sally remained on his mind, but he had no further contact with her until he began writing to her in December 1779.
Such was the beginning of a courtship which ended in their wedding at the parish church of Llanycil, Bala, on August 20, 1783. The delay had been due to Charles’ inability to find a curacy near enough to Bala for Sally to remain close to her parents, and indeed he had married without any sure source of future income. The course of action which Charles finally took to end his enforced idleness was one which for some time, he tells us, he ‘never thought of.’
In spite of the connection of his parents-in-law with the despised Methodists (Sally’s father preached among them), Charles never seems to have been at their small meetings in Bala. He certainly never preached among them; yet here, unlike the congregations as dead as ‘so many stocks or stones’ which he had faced elsewhere, were people eager to hear the Word of God. With the local clergy declining to use even his unpaid services, Charles went to the Society meeting in Bala in July 1784. Soon he began to preach among them and within a few months he was to be found as an itinerant preacher among the Calvinistic Methodists in North Wales – the first clergyman in the North ever to cast his lot among them.
At twenty-nine years of age he was a comparative youngster among older believers. When the aged Daniel Rowland heard Charles at Llangeitho in the summer of 1785 he was in no doubt why the young man had been shut up to Bala: ‘Charles is the Lord’s gift to North Wales’.
At this time, another form of service had opened for Charles. Impressed by the utter ignorance of the children and youth of the town he began ‘charity schools, with a view only to teaching poor children and young people to read the Bible in a language they understand, and teach them the principles of the Christian religion by catechising them.’ Charles found that, with the right help, children of only five years old were capable of memorising many chapters of the Bible. Remarkable effects sometimes followed this practice.
Then in 1791 Bala saw a great awakening – ‘a very great, powerful, and glorious outpouring of the Spirit.’ It marked the beginning of revivals which continued in several districts of North Wales over the three following years and, more occasionally, similar scenes were to be seen there repeatedly over the next forty years. The moral change was immense and permanent for several generations to come. One effect of the circulating schools, and the revival, was a great demand for Welsh Bibles. Charles gave a lead which set in motion events that secured the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society.
The year 1791 also marked the beginning of a passing of spiritual leadership to the North and to Charles. Daniel Rowland had died in 1790, to be followed by his close associate, William Williams in January, 1791. What was needed now was a work of preservation and consolidation. Charles was prepared by God for that role.
Considering the extent of Charles’ labours and travels, one is inclined to think that he was a man of unusually strong physique. That was not the case, and in 1800 his health was particularly low. It was long remembered in Bala how, when his illness looked most serious, an old man named Richard Owen thrilled a prayer meeting with the earnestness of his petition for Charles to be given to them for another fifteen years. Charles lived to within six weeks of the time asked for. He died on October 5, 1814, in his fifty-ninth year, and his beloved Sarah followed him just nineteen days later.[Adapted from Iain H. Murray’s ‘Biographical Introduction’ to the Trust’s publication of Thomas Charles’ Spiritual Counsels. See also the chapters on Thomas Charles in Volume 2 of The Calvinist Methodist Fathers of Wales (pp. 239-342).]