Professor Bobi Jones (1929-2017)
There was always my dear cousin Bobi. Being an only child, my cousins were important to me and none more so than Bobi who was nine years older than me. He would become my best man on my wedding day in 1964 and we would live more than five decades together in the same small town.
When the war began, he and his younger brother Keith were evacuated for a time, Keith to our home in Merthyr Tudful and Bobi to one of his aunts in the Rhondda valley, Aunt Annie or maybe Auntie Laura. But there was such hiraeth for home, and the bombing was sporadic so that after a time the brothers went home (as did many other evacuees) and saw out the war in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales.
What fun we had when we stayed in one another’s homes. The bed was turned into a stage coach and our dressing gown belts became the horses’ reins, and we shot at the Red Indians who were intent on scalping us — I was John Wayne. Bobi later built a little go-cart for me. I could hardly sleep that night for excitement as I heard him sawing and nailing in the back yard. I was hoping it would be a Rolls Royce of a go-cart but it turned out to be a Mini. I once locked him in our Station House cellar for a prank and went out to play for ages, forgetting all about him. Alas, the Bash Street kids from the Beano had influenced me. Thank God there were other compensating influences!
Bobi’s mother, Edith, and mine, Bess, were inseparable sisters, born in Merthyr Tydfil in the early 20th century. Their mother’s brother, Oliver Bown, was saved during the Welsh Revival, 1904, and became a member of the Porth church, pastored by R.B. Jones. Uncle Oliver opened an antique shop in Pontypridd and was an astute businessman. He was a habitual evangelist, carrying a text around Pontypridd, never missing an opportunity to speak and preach of his Saviour. The family men would go for a walk for an hour in the afternoon at family gatherings, and the women would prepare the tea. Inevitably Oliver would gather the men together on some country path and speak to them all of the Saviour who was Lord of Creation and then pray with them.
Once, on a walk just with Bobi, he drew the lad’s attention to a square yard of pasture, pointing18 out the mosses and tiny flowers that grew there. ‘See this… and that, how beautiful it all is,’ he cried, pointing at the lichen and grasses, ‘Our Lord made all of this!’
‘It was very powerful,’ Bobi said to me, still remembering it 80 years later. On his father, Sid’s side of the family, his grandmother was an exceptionally godly woman and my mother stood in awe of her. They lived outside Merthyr in Cefn Coed y Cymmer but every week she walked the two miles to the prayer meeting in High Street Baptist Church and back.
There was also a quaint humour about them. She bore six children: Will, Annie, Laura, Eunice, and Sid were the first five, the first letter of each of their names spelling out the word Wales. ‘Then,’ said Bobi, ‘They called the next child Glyn; they had started on Glamorgan!’ The family had a thing about names. Bobi was born in the month of May, hence his middle name, Maynard. His father was born February 14 and so he was named Sidney Valentine Jones.
Sidney Jones moved from Merthyr to Cardiff and he worked as a draper in Hope Brothers’ Men’s outfitters in the prime shopping street in the city, St Mary Street. He spent much time in the evenings with his sons, and he was a deacon in a local Baptist church. I wore Bobi’s cast-off coats. I loved visiting the Joneses and staying there. They had an air-raid shelter in the back garden which made a wonderful den, if rather musty.
Bobi’s comprehensive brilliance manifested itself very quickly. He was an all rounder, being able to paint (his portrait of a horse hung on the wall), play the piano, and he played rugby for his school, Cathays Grammar School, Cardiff, playing against my future school, Lewis School Pengam where, he observed ruefully, the pitch was ankle-deep in mud. His brother Keith was the sportsman of the duo, playing rugby for Bath and having a trial for Wales when he had to mark the elusive outside half Cliff Morgan with his famous side step, who glided effortlessly past him any time he had the ball.
Keith and I could have been daunted by the effortless achievements of Bobi setting the academic bar so high for is, but Bobi’s own modesty and humility about his intellectual prowess were natural. He was without a grain of snobbery and was earthed into the werin, the common folk of Wales. His mother’s father, Jack Francis, worked for the Great Western Railway and he was a zealous socialist who talked much to his grandson about his social and economic convictions and so Bobi too was radical in his politics. He had that egalitarian spirit, but with his sympathy for Christian schools he never fitted easily into any political party but he always supported Plaid Cymru. We increasingly spoke less and less about our political differences as life was too short and there were so many other themes for the followers of Jesus Christ to talk about.
When he passed the ‘scholarship’ at the age of eleven, he attended Cathays School where he was speedily constrained to make a little decision that changed his whole life. What languages was he to take in school. French, Latin, Welsh? All the boys had to choose two of the three. Derek Swann, the notable Congregationalist minister, was in the same class as him throughout school, and he chose the French and Latin option. Bobi came from a totally English speaking home and so at first he opted for French and Latin — as did the majority of children in South Wales. The Welsh master, superintending the process, coveted this bright boy and challenged his choice, asking him what he was going to do with his French? Bobi was at sea and the option of Welsh was put to him by this advocate, and the boy was persuaded to learn the Welsh language and he loved it from the start. In time he became the most prodigious Welsh scholar that Wales has ever known, professor of Welsh Language and Literature at Aberystwyth university and the author of over one hundred books in the Welsh language, the most anyone has ever written in our precious ancient Celtic language. Among his last major works was one on biblical infallibility and another on the Welsh hymnist, William Williams Pantycelyn. Right to the end of his life, he was writing every day but in those final autumn months of 2017, he returned to his first love, writing poetry.
Bobi went on from the school in Cathays to study at Cardiff University and got his brilliant first class honour degree. Then he studied in Dublin for a year or two and gained an M.A., and soon he had married Beti James of Glynderwen in Pembrokeshire, the local blacksmith’s daughter, and this long, moving romance began with book after book being dedicated to her.
He began his career briefly teaching the Welsh language in two schools. His first school was in Llanidloes, in the county of Powys, and his second school was in the heartland of the Welsh language in Llangefno on the island of Anglesey. There the sixth formers who were fortunate enough to take A Level Welsh under his teaching loved him and through his enthusiastic dedication they attained the best results of any school in Wales.
This was a period when he had to come to some commitment to Christianity, or not… What would he do with this Jesus who is called the Christ? It is a question everyone must face. Bobi had been raised in a Baptist Church in Cardiff but his immersion in the Welsh language resulted in his regular attendance at the Welsh Congregationalist Church in Cardiff in Minnie Street. There he heard a social gospel and meandered under that influence throughout his teenage years and during his time at Cardiff University. He was aware of evangelical Christianity through people like Derek Swann, and the witness of the Christian Union at the university but he viewed its emphases with some suspicion. When attending the National Eisteddfod in Dolgellau in 1949 he went to a special meeting that the Welsh Christian students had organised in their outreach to the Eisteddfod. On August 4 at 10.30pm, this 20 year old new graduate heard the 49 year old Dr. Lloyd-Jones preaching on, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.’ In the sermon, the Doctor contrasted earthly pleasures with the joys that the grace of God in Jesus Christ could bring. But Bobi was unimpressed and untouched by the sermon.
During his time in Llandidloes, he attended China Street Calvinistic Methodist church and there, quite suddenly, at the Lord’s Supper one Sunday night, he received assurance of his interest in the Saviour’s blood. He was henceforth self-consciously a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ and his life from then on was an outworking of the consequences. But in the four or five years during which he taught at two small towns there was no pulpit anywhere near in which the Christianity of the 1823 Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists was being proclaimed, and when he moved to lecture at Trinity College, Carmarthen, then the situation in the Welsh language churches there was similarly one in which the sermon was a presentation of a very horizontal theology. Man’s duty to their fellow man was the supreme theme and the notes of authority, personal repentance, redemption, atonement, and regeneration were absent. It was a frustrating time.
‘What of Rome?’ he asked himself. Would he find such essential emphases there? The great mentor of modern Welsh scholarship and creativity, Saunder Lewis, coming from aristocratic Calvinistic Methodist stock, had forsaken that heritage and become a Roman Catholic, though he was not enchanted when the Latin Mass was abandoned all over Wales for English and so was not often present for the Mass. There was an attraction for Bobi in taking that same route, and he took the claims of Rome seriously. And could there be a coming together of gospel Christianity and Rome? He spoke and wrote about this but he did not find in Rome a spiritual home.
I was a little concerned with this development, being on my own pilgrimage after my conversion in March 1954. Once, when I was a student, I visited the morning Mass in the Roman church in Barry out of curiosity (but to the alarm of my parents). The church was just opposite our home, but apart from the numbers present, it was unimpressive. There was the background buzz of constant talking everywhere in the pews throughout the service and the singing was rare and weak. There was no preaching, nothing like the congregational response of intense concentration and doxology hearing the word preached by Dr. Lloyd-Jones whom I had begun to hear a few years earlier. There was no power, no spiritual presence, and nothing to grip one. I remember in 1958, I gave J.I. Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God to my cousin and subsequently he said to me how important the subject of infallibility was. He always read what I gave him. He was delighted that I had gone to Westminster Seminary… and had returned! I introduced him to Van Til, and told him of the Dutchmen, Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven, and Rookmaaker. He could not escape from the writings of Schaeffer and their influence rose like a rocket in the late sixties. Bobi appreciated the contribution that they all made — we reformed evangelicals seemed to be a force to be reckoned with!
In 1958, Bobi moved to Aberystwyth, joining the Welsh department at the university and in 1980 he was appointed the professor. Soon our parents came to join us in the town, my mother and father lived in the house whose ground floor flat I now occupy while his mother lived upstairs in the first floor flat. When I was seeking a call to the ministry, he gave my name to one of the deacons in the Baptist church in Aberystwyth and I was invited to preach there and subsequently was called there as a minister in 1965.
So we lived a fifteen minute walk from one another for over fifty years. I looked with awe at the flow of books that came from his pen (they were all hand written), novels, short stories, children’s books, poems, hymn translations, and books of literary criticism. He wrote monthly columns in the prestigious Welsh journal, the Barn, and regularly in the Welsh language version of the Evangelical Magazine of Wales. His non-creative work was published under his given name, Robert Maynard Jones. He had a pseudonym for his children’s books. He will live on in hymn books and congregational singing by his moving translations of a number of classical Welsh hymns in the hymnal Christian Hymns. All this was done while running a university department, lecturing, marking papers, and supervising PhD students.
Charles, the son of the Queen, was given the title the Prince of Wales and so it was expected during the preparation for his investiture in 1969 to study for a semester at the Aberystwyth university. His bodyguard lived in a house opposite the manse. He was taught Welsh by an old school friend of Bobi’s, Teddy Millward, while Bobi taught Prince Charles the history of Wales, one to one each day for more than a month. Prince Charles drove down Penglais hill and into the town in his blue MG and each day the crowds faithfully came out and stood on the pavements, cheering and waving at him. Bobi, a republican, found Prince Charles very intelligent, one of the most able students he had ever taught, one who was forthright in his opinions to Bobi on most subjects and on parliamentary figures, but there was little reaction responding to Bobi’s lecture on the birth of Calvinistic Methodism in the 18th century evangelical revival. Bobi used the helpful division of Dr. Lloyd-Jones; ‘Calvinism’ and what that signifies as the fullest presentation of historical biblical Christianity, and ‘Methodism’ and its expressions of an experiential resonse to God, its stress on the Bible, and on conversion, and on the cross of Christ, and on personal piety.
In 1968, some such organisations as UNESCO organised a ‘poetry Olympics’ conference in Mexico City to coincide with the Olympic Games there, and Bobi was chosen to represent Wales. On the plane he had something like a fairly severe heart attack and was at death’s door for some time. One of the stewardesses on the plane had trained as a nurse in a heart ward and her experience and know-how was vital in saving his life. Beti and his two children, Lowri and Rodhri, were utterly helpless so far away. There was an hour when I cast myself on God and prayed for Bobi and I was given the strongest sense of assurance that he was going to get over this. So much so that I got in my car and drove to Beti and told her with the utmost confidence that it was all going to be well, and Bobi was going to come home again. Such an experience had not come to me before that time , nor since, and I do not give it a label, but recognize it as one of the realities of having God as your Father and Shepherd. From this experience there in Mexico, he wrote me a long and wonderful letter, and a poem-saga was later written by him and published, death hammering on the door to be let into Bobi’s life and God declaring ‘no.’ It was almost forty years before God finally permitted death to come to him.
Bobi and Beti spoke well of their minister, H.R. Davies, in Salem Calvinistic Methodist church in Aberystwyth, but they were deeply concerned as modernistic unbelief was unresisted when, for example, the denomination installed a rota system so that ministers who opposed the blood atonement of Jesus Christ, and denied the miraculous and supernatural events of the Bible, had to be received into evangelical pulpits, and when this theology dominated the denomination’s college for training ministers. It became time to secede from the ‘Old Body’ as the connection was known(‘yr hen gorff’). The seceders in Aberystwyth were a very significant group of men; two professors, a local doctor, school teachers, a Welsh detective fiction writer and the deputy head of the further education department were amongst its leaders. The secession took place fifty years ago and the church still stands and has just celebrated its golden jubilee. There were times when Dr. Bobi Jones taught the Sunday School there. The last time Dr. Lloyd-Jones preached in Wales was in Aberystwyth and he and his wife had dinner with Bobi and Beti in their home, his sermons on the Book of Romans having been the companions and teachers of them both for many years.
Welsh evangelical students have until these last years strongly supported the congregation, but now that the meeting place is in a building on the fringes of the town there are fewer of them. There was a remarkable time twenty or more years ago when a group of evangelical students of the most unusual calibre all studied Welsh and no fewer than six of them gained first class honours degrees the same year, and several more gained high second class honours. Amongst them are now some Welsh professors. At his funeral the mourners were invited in lieu of flowers to give gifts to the work of the Welsh Christian Unions of the Colleges of Wales. It was by his support and instigation that a separate Welsh language Christian Union was started with weekly meetings, and Rhodri Brady became its president and the following year he was the president of the English Christian union.
Bobi came to specialize in the methodology of teaching Welsh to adults. He played a pioneering and inspirational role in this for many years. He longed for a mass movement similar to the Ulpan scheme which the modern state of Israel had adopted so successfully so that Hebrew was restored to Israel. Meic Stephens wrote in his obituary of Bobi in the Independent, ‘He was fond of telling the story of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his wife Devora who, after landing in Jaffa in 1881, resolved to speak only Hebrew with each other and swore to become the parents of the first child in modern times to have that language as its mother tongue’ (The Independent, 23 November, 2017).
Bobi suffered with a spinal complaint for the last twenty years of his life. He was unable to sit and so stood or lay down. He never complained, but in the last month a cancer spread. He recovered remarkably from one major operation and two weeks before his death he was in church. His funeral was understated just like himself. Two hymns, a reading, a prayer and a brief sermon. It was all over in forty minutes. The family sang at his graveside a Welsh hymn, ‘We thank you Almighty God for the holy gospel. Hallelujah. Amen.’ He was weary of the funerals of academics from the university when all their achievements were solemnly read out by a senior member of staff. So Bobi insisted that the whole service be in Welsh ‘without a single word of English’ and that not a word about him be said. I am unsure about that. The gospel can be made real through hearing of the work of grace in a man’s life. A dying person’s wishes should be weighed but not necessarily obeyed if the living can be helped and comforted at the service by some references to the deceased. Let us end with his translation of William Williams hymn, ‘Iesu, Iesu, r’wyt ti’n ddigon.’
Jesus, Jesus, all-sufficient,
Beyond telling is Thy worth;
In Thy Name lie greater treasures
Than the richest found on earth.
Is my portion with my God.
In Thy gracious face there’s beauty
Far surpassing everything
Found in all the earth’s great wonders
Mortal eye hath never seen.
Rose of Sharon,
Thou Thyself art heaven’s delight.
William Williams, 1717-91;
tr. by Robert Maynard Jones (Bobi Jones), 1929-2017