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Book Review: ‘Thomas Charles: Of Bala’

 by John Aaron. Published by Banner Of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2022.
  408p. P/b £15.50, ISBN:9781800400955 Kindle ed., 9781800401112.

My wife and I were driving around Wales a few years ago and were surprised to see statues of two great leaders in the Calvinistic Methodist Church – Daniel Rowland in Llangeitho, South Wales (where Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones spent his early years) and Thomas Charles in Bala, North Wales.

It struck me that there was a disconnect between The Five Words of Calvinism ‘To God Be The Glory’ and men who were so revered that they were commemorated with statues outside the churches where they had ministered. But on thinking things through, I came to the view that these statues were, in fact, trophies of Grace in terms of Ephesians 2.10: ‘For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’

These men were shining examples of what God will graciously do in lives, completely surrendered to Him.
Thomas Charles did indeed make a monumental contribution to the Christian Church both in Wales and to the ends of the Earth, as in response to the strenuous efforts of a young girl named Mary Jones to obtain a Bible in Welsh, he was instrumental in the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society (now United Bible Societies). But in a crowded life, he also did so much more.

In 1985 the Trust published ‘Daniel Rowland and The Great Evangelical Awakening In Wales’ by Eifion Evans, dealing largely with Rowland’s life and leadership in South Wales. ‘Thomas Charles Of Bala’ takes us mostly to North Wales, where Charles became the leader of the Awakening there.

John Aaron considers Rowland and Charles to be ‘the two most discerning theologians of the 19th Century; indeed, they were the greatest [Welsh] theologians from 1790 to the present day. (His) aim in this book has been to write an accurate and readable account of Charles’s life, presented against the backcloth of his day and age, and in the light of his extensive network of correspondents, both Welsh and English. (He has) tried to describe and gauge Charles’s strengths and weaknesses and to discuss briefly his scholarship and theology, particularly as expressed in his very popular catechism, ‘Yr Hyfforddwr’ – ‘The Instructor’, published in 1807 and going through eighty editions before 1900, and his magnum opus, the 944-page ‘Geiriadur Ysgrythyrol’ – ‘Scriptural Dictionary’, published in parts from 1805 to 1811.

John Aaron succeeds admirably in achieving his aim as he plants Charles in the foreground of the Welsh Methodist Revival of the 18th and 19th Centuries, informing us that ‘the Revival began twenty years before he was born, he was converted under the preaching of its foremost preacher, Daniel Rowland, participated in a number of the awakenings that contributed to the development of the Revival, and similar awakenings continued for some twenty years or more after his death, joining them at a time when Methodism [in Wales] was at a low ebb’.

It should be noted that Methodism in Wales was distinctly different to that in England and elsewhere. George Whitefield spent a significant amount of time there and had much influence on the denomination, becoming known as the Calvinistic Methodist Church and, more latterly, as the Presbyterian Church of Wales.

Our author counts Thomas Charles as one of five men, born and converted in the early decades of the 18th Century, whose ministries were crucial in Awakening and revival in Wales: Daniel Rowland (1713), Howel Harris (1714), Howel Davies (1716), William Williams and Thomas Charles.

He tells us that ‘The blessing of God upon the subsequent ministries of these men was the predominant factor in the beginning and development of the Methodist Awakening in Wales.

The characteristics of the movement at this early stage were:
• the relative youthfulness of the men involved, all being in their early twenties;
• the fervour and intensity of their itinerant preaching;
• the means they devised to nurture and teach the converts, making use of farms, out-houses, and other dwellings to gather the believers in small groups which they called seiadau (societies), where they prayed, exhorted, studied the Bible, and shared their spiritual experiences.’

Living as we do at a time when so many Christians are living as though there was no yesterday, this whole book shows us the value of travelling through time ‘with our back to the engine,’ as it were.

It shows us that:
• we are not the first generation of Christians to experience the church at a low spiritual ebb;
• but when the church has reached that low ebb, God intervenes in power to raise up fresh leaders after His own heart to drive the church forward;
• there is always an enemy within who, whether motivated by a lust for power, a devilish discontent, a contempt for God-centred Bible-believing faith, a love for the form of religion but denial of its power or a secret allegiance to another parasitic religion, need to be brought to saving faith, countered or nullified;
• the way to do this is to press on, press on and press on, speaking and acting in ways which demonstrate that true Christianity really is the pearl of greatest price;
• there is always the enemy without who must be faced by the Christian putting on the whole armour of God
• ‘from little things, big things grow’; opportunity doesn’t always present itself through the thoughts of the great and famous – the Bible Society came into being because of an importunate young girl’s desire to own a Bible in the language she could understand and a minister’s willingness to answer that need.

In the course of 382 pages, John Aaron has comprehensively told the story of Thomas Charles and his part in the awakening and revival of the church in Wales in such a way as to encourage us today to look back to yesterday and see the ‘great things He hath done’ as we wait and pray and look to the better things God has in store for His people tomorrow.

  • Review by Rev Bob Thomas, for New Life Aus, July 2022. (ed. by doug@nlife.com.au)
  • Image by Banner Of Truth publishing.