The most important Welsh book and the most famous Welsh woman

13.10.2021

The most important book ever to appear in the Welsh language and the world’s most famous Welsh woman are the two focal points of an exhibition running at the National Library of Wales between early October 2021 and early April 2022.

The Beibl i Bawb (‘A Bible for All’) exhibition outlines the history of translating the Bible into Welsh, together with the efforts down the centuries, by people such as Griffith Jones (Llanddowror), Peter Williams and Thomas Charles of Bala, to produce and disseminate copies and to teach people to read the Bible.

The first complete translation of the Bible into Welsh was published in 1588. Often termed the ‘William Morgan Bible’, its influence on Wales, its language and culture has been tremendous. The translators of Y Beibl Cymraeg Newydd (‘The New Welsh Bible’; 1988) went so far as to call the 1588 Bible ‘our nation’s chief religious, cultural and literary treasure’. Indeed, were it not for the 1588 translation, it is quite possible that Welsh would not be a living language today.

Dr John Davies’s remarkable crop of books, 1620–1621
In 1620 a revised version of the ‘William Morgan Bible’ appeared, edited by Dr John Davies of Mallwyd, one of the greatest scholars of the Welsh language. That revised version would remain the standard Bible text in Welsh until the end of the twentieth century; and one of the aims of the current exhibition is to mark the 400th anniversary of the 1620 Bible, a text which has been so influential in Welsh history.

John Davies spent many months in London steering the 1620 Bible through the press. His stay in London also saw the publication of three other very influential books in 1621:

  • a revised edition of the Welsh translation of the Book of Common Prayer, the service book of the Established Church;
  • Edmwnd Prys’s metrical psalms, the first printed book in Welsh to include music;
  • and John Davies’s own Welsh grammar, a major milestone in the study of the language.

This remarkable crop of books all feature in this exhibition.

A unique opportunity to see Mary Jones’s Bibles
In 1800, a poor, 15-year-old girl walked barefoot from her cottage in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant at the foot of Cadair Idris to Bala, a journey of over 25 miles. Her name was Mary Jones. She learnt to read when she was about 10 years old, and subsequently she would walk regularly to a farmhouse about two miles from her home to read the Bible.

She longed to have her own Bible, but they were expensive and she was very poor. However, by 1800 she had saved enough to buy a copy; and her walk to Bala was in order to buy her own copy of the Bible from Thomas Charles, one of the key Christian leaders of the day.

Thomas Charles was very keen to create a steady supply of affordable Bibles for the common people of Wales. At a meeting in London, he appealed for the formation of a society that would publish cheap Welsh Bibles, and the result was the establishment in 1804 of the Bible Society, with the aim of providing Bibles not only for Wales but also for the whole world.

It seems that Thomas Charles during his appeal told of Mary Jones and her efforts to obtain a Bible, and that her story made a profound impression on his listeners.

The story of Mary Jones has become popular all over the world. Many over the years have been touched and inspired by her great efforts, amid her poverty, to obtain a Bible. Her story is now available in about 40 languages, and between that and the prominent presence of her story online, it can be confidently claimed that Mary Jones is the most famous Welsh woman in the world.

One notable aspect of this exhibition is that it contains four items closely related to Mary Jones which have never before been seen together:

  • the iconic copy of the Bible that Mary Jones obtained from Thomas Charles in Bala in 1800, which is on loan from the Bible Society and Cambridge University Library;
  • the copy of the Bible that Mary Jones would walk for years to read before she could afford to buy her own copy, on loan from Denbighshire County Council;
  • the Bible that Mary Jones received from Thomas Charles in 1800 for a relative;
  • a copy of the Bible Society’s 1819 edition of the Welsh New Testament which belonged to Mary Jones.

‘A Bible for all the world’s people’
The Bible Society’s aim was, and remains, to provide ‘a Bible for all the world’s people’, and as well as tracing the history of the Welsh Bible, this exhibition has a distinct international dimension. Over the years many Welsh people have been active in translating the Bible into languages around the world. A number of examples are on display or referred to in the exhibition, including:

  • the work of John Davies (a friend of the hymnist Ann Griffiths) in translating parts of the Bible into the Tahitian language;
  • the work of Griffith John, the Swansea missionary whose bust stands in front of Wuhan’s largest hospital, in translating the New Testament into two of China’s languages;
  • and in our day, the work of Dr Joan Richards, who died in 2020, in translating the New Testament into the Waura language of Brazil.

As the Bible has been central to the survival of the Welsh language, so such translation work has been key to the survival of many of those languages, by giving them a standard written form for the first time.

Pedr ap Llwyd, Chief Executive and Librarian at The National Library of Wales said:
“The Library is very proud to have been able to organize this wonderful exhibition that showcases and celebrates such an important part of our history as Welsh people and how we contributed to the spread of the Bible throughout the world, and the social and educational benefits that resulted.”

Professor E. Wyn James, Emeritus Professor at the School of Welsh, Cardiff University and curator of the exhibition added:
“This is an exhibition which traces the history of the most important book ever published in Welsh and which also outlines the contribution of Welsh people to the world-wide distribution of the Bible. In addition, it is an exhibition that offers a unique opportunity to see together, for the first time ever, the four copies of the Bible closely associated with Mary Jones, the world’s most famous Welsh woman.”

The exhibition is in the Hengwrt Gallery at the National Library of Wales between 1 October 2021 and 2 April 2022. Admission is free by booking a ticket in advance.

The National Library of Wales is grateful to Professor E. Wyn James for curating the exhibition and also the Welsh Government, Denbighshire County Council, the Trustees of Bible Society and Cambridge University Library Special Collections for their generosity and support for the exhibition.

--ENDS--

Futher Information:

Nia Wyn Dafydd

post(at)llgc.org.uk

**Mae'r datganiad yma hefyd ar gael yn y Gymraeg**