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God’s Providence in the Life of David Charles of Carmarthen

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Date August 7, 2015

Thomas Charles of Bala (1755-1814) remains one of the great figures in the history of Christianity in England and Wales, remembered especially for his work for the Bible Society and Sunday schools in Wales.1 A clergyman of the Church of England, he was one of the leading figures in the emergence of the Calvinistic Methodists of Wales as a separate denomination. Less well-known is his younger brother, David (1762-1834), many of whose hymns passed into common use among the Welsh Methodists, and several of which, in translation, feature in the widely used Christian Hymns. Called to walk a very different path from that of his brother, the life of David Charles speaks to us of how the Lord may call ‘two of a family’, yet mean them for very different work in his vineyard.

David Charles was born on 11 October 1762 at the family farm of Pant-dwfn, near St. Clears, Carmarthenshire. His father, Rees Charles, was a tenant farmer of some substance, and the house was one of the largest in the neighbourhood. Rees Charles’ wife, Jael, was daughter of a one-time Sheriff of the county. As was common in the period, David bore the same name as a son who had died in infancy.2 Thomas, the eldest surviving son, was sent up to Oxford in 1775, and David was thought likely to follow in due course, his father once commenting ‘I do not know what to make of David, unless I bring him up a parson, as he is always in some corner poking over a book’.3 Before David could follow his brother to Oxford, however, catastrophe struck; ill-advised expansion caused Rees Charles’ failure in business. The extensive house and farm had to be given up for more modest accommodation in 1778, and all thoughts of sending David to university had to be abandoned. The bookish younger son would have to follow a trade, rather than his heart.

David Charles was apprenticed to a flax-dresser and rope-maker in Carmarthen shortly after his parents’ forced removal from Pant-dwfn. Reading was not given up; David devoted his evenings to study and sermon reading. It was through this, rather than the services of the parish church, that David’s thoughts were led to his solemn state by nature. The sermons of Ralph Erskine were particularly blessed to him, and shortly after his nineteenth birthday his brother, Thomas, now a clergyman in the Established Church, wrote of David’s being ‘truly in earnest about his soul’.4 Writing to a family friend, Thomas Charles described his younger brother’s state:

It afforded me great comfort to find him seemingly in earnest about his soul. As it is not a sudden thing but has been coming on gradually for years, I am in good hopes he has got the root of the matter within him; which will endure storms of temptations and afflictions, nor will be scorched and withered by ye sun of prosperity shd yt be his lot.5

We possess no clear record of when David Charles came to a saving knowledge of the gospel, but Thomas’ prayers for his younger brother were abundantly answered. When David moved to Bristol in order to learn more of his trade, he scorned the idle play of other apprentices, joining instead with a few like-minded young men for prayer and Bible study after their work was done. His fellows from that period remembered David Charles as a young man possessed of a sound understanding of the doctrines of grace, and a practical knowledge of them in his heart.6

David did not allow reading and spiritual activity to become an excuse for sloth in employment. Such was his character that, after his master died, David was promoted to the position of manager of the rope-works by the man’s widow. On returning to Carmarthen in 1890, David Charles set up in business for himself, and soon possessed enough resources to branch out into paper-making.7 At the same time, he married Sarah, daughter of Samuel Levi Phillips, a Jewish convert to Christianity. Philips was a friend of Rowland Hill, who came at times to Carmarthen, due to her presence, and through whose agency the English-language work in that town commenced.8 David Charles would often preach for and with Rowland Hill in Gloucestershire, and in London.9

Soon after his move to Carmarthen, David Charles was chosen a deacon of the Calvinistic Methodist Society meeting in Water Street. Although nominally part of the Church of England, the Welsh Methodists, dissatisfied with the largely lifeless ministry of the churches, met together for worship and mutual support during the week and on the Lord’s Day. As deacon of the Carmarthen Methodist Society, and brother to one of the leading clerical Methodists, David Charles emerged as an outstanding representative of Calvinistic Methodism in the county. His knowledge and sanctified understanding were coupled with a maturity which caused many to look to him as a leader. David’s experience as an employer gave him a tact in managing disputes and cases of church discipline which many of his contemporaries lacked, and soon he was acting as Chairman of the quarterly meetings of the county association, in addition to his work leading Bible classes and experience meetings.10

David Charles would quite happily have continued as a respected deacon at Water Street, but in 1807, the members of the Society became convinced that the Lord meant their deacon for the ministry of the Word, and in 1808, aged forty-six, he was sent out to preach as an exhorter, or lay-preacher, despite his misgivings.11 His ministry was abundantly blessed to the Calvinistic Methodist societies, and he soon became a favourite preacher with many.

On one occasion, David was due to preach away from home when a paper-mill and other buildings he owned on the river front at Carmarthen took fire on Saturday. After making sure that the fire was under control, David Charles set off for his engagement as usual, a distance of twenty miles. He preached three times, with great power. Only later did the churches to whom he had ministered learn of the preacher’s loss, greeting the news with incredulity – his mind had been so on heavenly things that his earthly loss had not been evident.12 David Charles never accepted a fee for preaching, but, like most of the early Calvinistic Methodist preachers, supported himself by his own industry, with the result that much of his wealth went on the Lord’s work.

David Charles’ sermons are plain and Christ-exalting. Preaching on Titus 2:14, ‘Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works’, David Charles traced the majesty of the text:

Who gave himself for us. He gave not his authority to reign over us, and his power to act for us; nor his influence to plead for us; but HIMSELF a sacrifice for us; a Surety to stand in our law-place, not to obey alone but also to suffer. In all places, and situations, and circumstances, wherein he appeared upon earth, he was there ‘for us’. He was in the manger for us; in the wilderness for us; and in the presence, and under a degree of the power of the devil for us; he was weary and without a place to lay his head, despised and rejected of men, smitten of God and afflicted, for us, and in our stead. He was in the garden, and on the cross for us. The chastisement of our peace was upon him.13

At the same time that the Evangelical Revival was drawing people to Christ, many of the Nonconformist churches founded by those who had left the Established Church in 1662 were drifting towards Unitarianism via Arminianism, especially in Carmarthenshire and the neighbouring county of Cardiganshire. Answering the bold propagators of this heresy, David Charles declared:

There is no worshipping God without worshipping the Father; and there is no way of access unto the Father, nor acceptance with him, but through the Son; and there is no ability with the man without the Spirit. There is no possibility of applying the truth of the Scriptures, in what is essential to salvation, without the practical use of the doctrine of the Trinity. To worship God otherwise than as he exists, in three Divine Persons, is a thing unknown to the Bible.14

A lover of poetry and hymns, David Charles composed many hymns himself. Although he wrote a few English hymns, the majority (and the most powerful) of his compositions were in Welsh, and thus familiar to English readers only in translation. Among these are ‘Great Providence of Heaven’15 and ‘O fryniau Caersalem’ (the hymn beginning ‘From Heavenly Jerusalem’s Towers’ in the translation by Lewis Edwards).16 ‘O fryniau Caersalem’, which speaks of the bliss of the redeemed when in heaven, is one of the best-loved Welsh hymns, often sung at funerals.17

As an exhorter, David Charles had, at this point, to confine his ministrations to the private meetings of the Methodist Societies. Although they met separately, and had their own preachers and deacons, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists were still formally private religious societies within the Church of England, and their meetings merely private gatherings. Men like David Charles could preach, but were unable to administer the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper or Baptism. For these, members of the Methodist Societies were either reliant upon a few sympathetic clergymen, or forced to attend the parish church. For some of these devout souls, it was a heavy trial to receive Communion from a notorious drunkard or leader of persecutors. A few Methodist Societies, such as that at Groes-Wen, near Caerphilly, had solved the problem by becoming Independent churches.18 Yet there were those who did not want to do this, and some of the Methodist clergy, proud of the prominence their status as ordained clergymen gave them, were unwilling to see them take this step. Even Thomas Charles of Bala, who had found himself forced out of several charges for his Methodist views, hesitated on the brink of separation.

As an exhorter, David Charles felt keenly the Methodists’ inability to commemorate the death of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, except on the few occasions when a sympathetic clergyman could be prevailed upon to pay a visit. At an Association at Carmarthen, David Charles came into collision with Nathaniel Rowland, son of Daniel Rowland. Nathaniel had all of his father’s temper, but little of his grace, and when David Charles asked why the Lord’s Supper could not be observed at Water Street, Carmarthen, furiously rounded on the exhorter, telling him that a chapel ten miles off was sufficiently close. David Charles soberly replied that it was not the place of the autocratic Nathaniel Rowland, and gained the assent of the Association to Communion being administered at Carmarthen by an ordained clergyman, David Jones of Llan-gan, near Bridgend. Nathaniel Rowland subsequently fell into public drunkenness and was expelled from the Methodist Societies.19 Nevertheless, the episode highlighted the unwillingness of many clergy sympathetic towards Methodism to recognise the situation of the societies which did not lie close to a faithful ministry.

On the question of the ordinances, David Charles initially tried to soothe the feelings of the more ardent of his brother exhorters. He was at last convinced of the folly of halting between two opinions, and on 30 December, 1810, he baptised the child of two members of the Water Street Society, the first exhorter to administer the ordinance.20 Separation from the Church of England could no longer be avoided. In June 1811, twenty-two men were solemnly set apart to the ministry of Word and sacrament. Thomas Charles questioned the men on the fundamentals of the Christian Faith before their commissioning. Among the eleven ordained in South Wales was David Charles. At last, it seemed, his father’s prediction that David would ‘become a parson’ was fulfilled.

David Charles’ conduct as a minister was sufficient to convince any doubters that God had ordained him to the ministry before ever man had pronounced him so ordained. The manner in which he administered the Lord’s Supper was made a comfort and confirmation to many of the Lord’s family. Mrs Lloyd, a woman of substance who maintained a chapel close by her mansion of Bronwydd, Cardiganshire, preferred to have David Charles at ordinance Sunday above every other minister in Wales.21 On another occasion, at Llandovery, David Charles’ words at the communion, in which he spoke of Christ’s death in the sinner’s place was peculiarly applied to the soul of a young man called Thomas Phillips, who received assurance of salvation there, going on to become a noted minister among the Calvinistic Methodists.22

The death of his elder brother in 1814 came as a severe blow to David. Friends as well as brothers, Thomas and David Charles had spent much energy in seeking to bring the Word of God to the people of Wales, David lending his material resources and acting as agent for the Bible Society, distributing Bibles and copies of Thomas Charles’ Bible Dictionary in South Wales.23

David Charles exercised an extensive itinerant ministry among the Calvinistic Methodist churches of South Wales, preaching in Welsh and English. Lady Barham, who owned an estate on the Gower peninsula, near Swansea, invited him to preach to her tenants and their neighbours. In 1814, and again in 1827, David Charles was asked to supply at the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist cause in London, on the latter occasion preaching also at Surrey Chapel for Rowland Hill, and at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, Spa Fields. One clergyman of the Church of England was so taken with the eloquence of the Calvinistic Methodist that he told David Charles’ daughter ‘if I could, I would make your father a Bishop’.24

Among the Calvinistic Methodists of Wales, David Charles emerged as one of the most prominent of the men ordained in 1811, together with John Elias of Anglesey.25 When, in 1821, it was decided to draft a proper Confession of Faith for the denomination, which had been using an edited version of the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles, David Charles, with John Elias, argued strongly for the inclusion of a strong statement of Particular Redemption, aware that some in the denomination were leaning towards Amyraldian views.26 The Confession of Faith of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists adopted by the denomination in 1823 ruled out any suggestion that Christ stood in the room and stead of any but his elect.27

Whilst working to ensure that the church stood for the faith once delivered to the saints, David Charles was no autocrat. When the proposal to grant Roman Catholics the vote was before Parliament in 1827, he stood firmly against the proposal to send petitions against the Bill to Parliament in the name of the denomination. Whilst opposed to the theological errors of the Church of Rome, David Charles felt that to pass such resolutions would be for the Calvinistic Methodists to assume the same sort of control over their adherents as claimed by the Pope himself!28

Shortly after this, David Charles was called to head up the home missionary efforts of the Calvinistic Methodists. However, this was not to be. At the time of this second visit to London, he had undergone an operation to cure him of a complaint which was making him lethargic.29 In July 1828, David Charles suffered a stroke which left him paralysed, dependent of family and friends for the remaining eight years of his life. His public ministry over, David Charles remained close to the God he had so long served. When able to sit up, he continued to read; otherwise he would have others read to him. He continued to hold daily devotions at home. When necessary, he himself would lead the worship from his chair, whilst his family knelt round him. At times, the preacher’s voice was confused, even unintelligible, yet still he prayed, the sight solemnly impressing visitors to his home. Even a simple giving of thanks at table contained such a wealth of experience and humble submission as to reduce guests to tears.30 He remained conscious almost to the end of his life, which came on 2 September 1834.31

Thomas Charles of Carmarthen was called on to walk a path very different from that of his well-known elder brother. Both men, however, were called by grace, both to partake of the saving grace of God, and to serve the church of Christ in a public capacity. Thomas was to be one of the last Calvinistic Methodist ministers from the ministry of the Church of England. David would be one of the first men ordained by the Methodists in their separation from the Establishment. His life is a reminder that, when God begins with a person, that person has a peculiar path to walk out, distinct even from those members of their family the Lord may also call. Where Thomas Charles passed from school to university and from there to the ministry, David Charles was to have the fair dreams of boyhood dashed, passing not to college, but to the world of work. Yet it was there that he was led to a saving knowledge of the truth, and as a leader of Bible studies, not as a minister of the established Church, did David Charles learn ‘the cure of souls’. The Lord prospered him, allowing David to set up on his own account, and be raised to a position of responsibility among the Methodists of Carmarthen, his experience of business and depth of spiritual life making him a trusted counsellor.

At the comparatively late age of forty-six, David Charles was called to preach, long after his childhood thoughts of being a parson had been forgotten, a reminder that God will have his will in his time. Once called to preach, David Charles found himself caught up in the events surrounding the first ministerial ordinations of the Calvinistic Methodists, and their subsequent organisation as an independent denomination. After twenty years of serving the churches as a preacher, David Charles’ voice was suddenly silenced, and he spent the final years of his life as an example of patient endurance.

David Charles was a man who lived his theology. Despite the hardness of his early life, the disappointments he suffered in business, and the collapse of his health at a period when the churches seemed to need him more than ever, David Charles’ manner was one of cheerful acceptance of his Father’s will. The failure of the family farm had taught David Charles not to look on the things which are seen, but on things unseen:

If Christ is in all, then the way to encounter all, and pass through all without harm, is to go to him. Joseph was all in Egypt once, and the first point was to gain his favour; and so it is with us; the great question is, how do matters stand between us and Christ? The answer to this is an answer to all inferior inquiries. What is there in providence that affects us? Nothing but what he who loves you has appointed – seek to discern him in all things; seek faith, and he will be seen as he is in all.32

David Charles had so learned himself and so learned Christ that he was truly able to account the world and all that is in it ‘these inferior things’ beside Christ. Elvet Lewis, a notable Welsh minister of a later generation, reading ‘O Fryniau Caersalem’, was moved to declare:

The poet has heard ‘the shout of them that triumph’, and he was no longer afraid of the weariness and perplexity of his pilgrimage in the desert. Some day he would reach the cloudless hills of Zion, and look back on the meanderings of the journey, to find that it was the nearest way home.33

David Charles’ hymns, like his sadly-neglected sermons, speak to the heart of the tried believer because here is a man who has himself been tried ‘in the furnace of affliction.’ The rope-maker of Carmarthen could write of the turnings of providence with feeling because he had himself experienced them, but could do so with the confident wonder of a man whose heart is stayed upon his God. The two-verse translation of David Charles’ greatest hymn expresses perfectly the hope of the tried believer. The Christian called to walk an uncertain and tried pathway is made to take their eye off the perplexing wilderness journey which is their lot, and meditate on the end of the journey, where all rough places with be made smooth, and all crooked places will be made straight, and where ‘All the affliction they suffered redounds to the glory of grace’.34

In this vale of tears, where disappointment and trial are often the believer’s lot, and where even a seemingly productive career may be suddenly cut short by illness, the life and example of David Charles of Carmarthen stand as an instance of the way the Lord God often brings his feelingly blind people ‘by a way that they knew not’, through trials and afflictions, though a waste, howling wilderness. Yet David Charles found, wonderfully, that providence’s winding paths, his solitary way, so very different from that of his brother (which was, in its own way, no less tried), was ‘the right way’, leading at last to that city of habitation which is ‘Jerusalem, home of the blest’.

From heavenly Jerusalem’s towers,
The path through the desert they trace:
And every affliction they suffered
Redounds to the glory of grace.
Their look they cast back on the tempests,
On fears, on grim death and the grave,
Rejoicing that now they’re in safety
Through Him that is mighty to save.

And we, from the wilds of the desert,
Shall flee to the land of the blest;
Life’s tears shall be changed to rejoicing,
Its labours and toil into rest:
There we shall find refuge eternal,
From sin, from affliction, from pain,
And in the sweet love of the Saviour,
A joy without end shall attain.

David Charles (tr. Lewis Edwards)35

Notes

  1. See, for example, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, Volume 2, pp. 239-342, and Iain H. Murray’s ‘Biographical Introduction’ to Thomas Charles’ Spiritual Counsels, both published by the Trust.

      • price $65.00 $53.10

        Description

        Thomas Charles of Bala (1755-1814) remains one of the great figures in the history of Christianity in England and Wales, remembered especially for his work for the Bible Society and Sunday schools in Wales.1 A clergyman of the Church of England, he was one of the leading figures in the emergence of the Calvinistic Methodists […]

      • Thomas Charles’ Spiritual Counsels

        Selected From His Letters and Papers by Edward Morgan

        by Thomas Charles


        price $23.00 $20.70
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        Rated 5.00 out of 5

        Description

        Thomas Charles of Bala (1755-1814) remains one of the great figures in the history of Christianity in England and Wales, remembered especially for his work for the Bible Society and Sunday schools in Wales.1 A clergyman of the Church of England, he was one of the leading figures in the emergence of the Calvinistic Methodists […]

  2. D. E. Jenkins, The Life of the Rev. Thomas Charles, B.A. of Bala (Denbigh, 1908), vol. iii, p.644.
  3. H. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, in H. Hughes (ed.), Sermons by the Late Rev. David Charles of Carmarthen (London, 1846), p.5.
  4. Jenkins, Thomas Charles, i, p.302.
  5. Ibid., p.307.
  6. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, p.6.
  7. Jenkins, Thomas Charles, ii, p.75.
  8. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, pp.6-7.
  9. W. Williams, Welsh Calvinistic Methodism (Bridgend, 1998), pp.251-2.
  10. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, pp.7-8. The meetings of the Welsh Methodists for sharing religious experience were closed to all but members and were particularly blessed of God.
  11. Jenkins, Thomas Charles, iii, p.174.
  12. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, pp.8-9.
  13. David Charles, ‘Who Gave Himself for Us’, in H. Hughes (ed.), Sermons by the Late Rev. David Charles of Carmarthen, pp.189-90.
  14. David Charles, ‘Access Unto the Father’, in Hughes (ed.), Sermons by the Late Rev. David Charles of Carmarthen, pp.278-9.
  15. Hymn 87 in Christian Hymns.
  16. Hymn 811 in Christian Hymns.
  17. H. Elvet Lewis, The Sweet Singers of Wales (London, n.d.), p. 89.
  18. D. Huw Owen, The Chapels of Wales (Bridgend, 2012), p.253. There was no settled objection among the Methodists to the ministrations of the Independents. Edmund Jones of Pontypool (‘the Old Prophet’) and the Claytons of London, in addition to Rowland Hill, ministered among them.
  19. Williams, Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, p.210.
  20. Jenkins, Thomas Charles, iii, p. 272.
  21. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, pp. 17-19. The mansion’s ruins were recently cleared, but the chapel, ‘Trinity’, remains.
  22. Goronwy Prys Owen, ‘Worship and Spiritual Life’, in J. Gwynfor Jones (ed.), The History of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, Vol. 3: Growth and Consolidation (Cardiff, 2013), pp. 62-3.
  23. Jenkins, Thomas Charles, iii, p. 183 & 288-9.
  24. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, pp. 44-5.
  25. On John Elias, see the Trust’s The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales (op. cit.), Volume 2, pp. 633-753, and John Elias: Life, Letters and Essays.
      • John Elias

        Life, Letters and Essays

        by Edward Morgan


        price $29.00 $23.40
        Avg. Rating
        Rated 5.00 out of 5

        Description

        Thomas Charles of Bala (1755-1814) remains one of the great figures in the history of Christianity in England and Wales, remembered especially for his work for the Bible Society and Sunday schools in Wales.1 A clergyman of the Church of England, he was one of the leading figures in the emergence of the Calvinistic Methodists […]

  26. D. Densil Morgan, ‘Theology Among the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, c.1811-1914’, History, pp. 74-5.
  27. The History, Constitution, Rules of Discipline and Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists (Caernarfon, 1900), p.74. For a discussion of the nature and extent of the atonement in 18th- and 19th-century Wales, see Owen Thomas, The Atonement Controversy in Welsh Theological Literature and Debate, 1707-1841 (trans. John Aaron), published by the Trust.
      • The Atonement Controversy

        In Welsh Theological Literature and Debate, 1707 - 1841

        by Owen Thomas


        price $30.00 $23.40

        Description

        Thomas Charles of Bala (1755-1814) remains one of the great figures in the history of Christianity in England and Wales, remembered especially for his work for the Bible Society and Sunday schools in Wales.1 A clergyman of the Church of England, he was one of the leading figures in the emergence of the Calvinistic Methodists […]

  28. Hughes, ‘Memoir’, pp. 46-9.
  29. Ibid., pp. 45-6.
  30. Ibid., pp. 52-3.
  31. Ibid., p. 54.
  32. David Charles, ‘Christ all, and in All’, in H. Hughes (ed.), Sermons by the Late Rev. David Charles of Carmarthen, p.335.
  33. H. Elvet Lewis, The Sweet Singers of Wales (London, n.d.), p.89.
  34. David Charles (tr. Lewis Edwards), hymn 811, Christian Hymns (Bridgend, 1977).
  35. Hymn 811, Christian Hymns (Bridgend, 1977).

Taken from Peace & Truth, issue 2015:3, with kind permission of the editor, Gervase Charmley.

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