Wales and the World
God has privileged the Welsh people to make a very special contribution to the pioneering of the church of Jesus Christ in far flung places. The rich missionary tradition in the Welsh church extends from the late 18th century to the early 1900s and is undoubtedly linked with the awakenings of that period. John Davies was born in Montgomeryshire in 1772, sailed in to Tahiti on the 10th of July, 1801 and died there in 1855. He established the first regular day school in Tahiti, translated most of the New Testament and all the Psalms, composed the first Tahitian hymns and published Tahiti’s first magazine. He was also instrumental in establishing auxiliary missionary societies on many of the surrounding islands.
I well remember visiting this island in 1994 and being fêted by local believers simply because I came from the same country as David Jones and Thomas Bevan, who grew up in Neuaddlwyd, near Aberaeron under the teaching of the Rev. Thomas Phillips. God laid Madagascar on their hearts and they left for that island in 1818, together with their wives and children. Within a few months of arrival, however, all had died, except for David Jones.
British officials there had strongly advised them from seeking to evangelise the ‘wild savages of Madagascar’, but God had been preparing the land, which had now been united under a powerful king. His successor, Radama I, was open to European contact. Jones left for Réunion, following the terrible loss of his family, but returned within 2 years and was received by the king in the capital city. Soon he was joined by other Welsh-speaking missionaries such as David Griffiths and another David Jones. With the king’s support, they devised a new alphabet for the Malagasy language and developed literacy. They set about translating the Bible, completing the New Testament in 1825.
Sadly the king died in 1828 and his queen took control. She disliked Europeans, so David Jones and his team, fearing expulsion, quickened the pace of Bible translation and completed it by 1835. By then the queen’s hostility had begun to take its toll. Ironically, it was on St David’s Day, 1st March 1835, that the queen declared Christianity illegal; the message of the Christians was forbidden and by the end of the following year all missionaries had been expelled.
Yet, the faith of a tiny group of baptised Malagasy Christians had taken root and the church expanded dramatically under persecution in the next decades. The expelled missionaries left behind about 70 copies of the complete Bible. A Malagasy who bade farewell to David Griffiths as he left Antananarivo, the capital, 175 years ago, later recalled his striking words. Holding up a New Testament, Griffiths had said,” I have taught you that this is the Word of God. Your queen says it is only the word of man and she will destroy it, but as we believe that this is really the book of Him who said, ‘ Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My Word shall never pass away’, all that the queen can do will not destroy it, but it will live and grow.”
Robert Jermain Thomas (1839-1866) was born in Llanover, Abergavenny. After graduating from London University, he engaged in pioneer work in Asia. In 1863, he heard that 8,000 Roman Catholics had been massacred in Korea and two years later he met 2 Korean traders. This seemed to spark a concern in him for the country. He engaged in a 4 month secret visit to the country, distributing Chinese Bibles. In 1866, he travelled on the US trading ship, the Admiral Sherman, to PyongYang, the capital of what is today North Korea. The ship got stuck on a sandbank and caught fire. All on board were killed by Korean soldiers on the riverbank. In the act of dying, Thomas opened his cases of Bibles and flung them to the shore. He offered his last Bible to a soldier who reluctantly ran him through with a lance. Thomas’ martyrdom made a great impression on many who saw it. A few managed to rescued some of the Bibles and took them home to their villages. Some apparently even used the pages of the Bible as wallpaper for their homes. As time went on, some people began to read this strange text in Chinese and became believers. When later missionaries arrived, they found some converts already in the country.
On June 22nd June 1841 the first missionary from the Welsh Presbyterian Mission, Rev Thomas Jones and his family, arrived at Cherrapunji. Jones’ wife delivered a child on the second day they arrived in the area. The child died after a short time, but nevertheless, he persevered. He wrote down the language in the Roman alphabet and soon was able to communicate the gospel both by word of mouth and through his writings. In 1846, only 2 natives were baptised – the firstfruits of the mission, partly because of the high standards expected of the converts, but by 1891 the membership had risen to close to 7,000 in 189 churches, after 50 years of ministry.
Other missionaries supported by the Presbyterian Church in Wales followed, the most notable of whom was perhaps Watcyn Roberts (1896-1969) who served in Manipur State. He left Caernarfon soon after the Welsh Revival, arriving in India in 1909 and, with other Welsh missionaries, making an immense impact. J. Edwin Orr subsequently wrote that by far the most significant overseas event influencing the life of the Indian church in the early twentieth century was the Welsh revival of 1904, out of which issued Watcyn Roberts and others.
In the twentieth century, the Welsh church was not so much involved in pioneering new churches in heathen countries. The number of missionaries sent out has declined considerably. Today there are probably fewer than 200 cross-cultural workers from Wales working in other parts of the world, although many Welsh missionaries have served with distinction.
The challenge remains before us of how we renew that vision. Much can be done through the wide distribution of Operation World, which gives information on the state of the church in every country of the world. Welsh churches and pastors who link up with churches in other countries often receive as much as they give, but these twinning links can also be a means of engaging members of our churches, who have not had the privilege of travelling to observe and participate in God’s mission.
Perhaps those churches which do not currently support missionaries could think of adopting a missionary sent out by a mission agency without adequate financial support. It was Alexander Duff who once said, “If I cannot go as a missionary, I’ll send a substitute.” Short-term as well as longer-term teams should not be despised, as all the recent statistical evidence indicates that over 90% of missionaries going out in the last 25 years have been on short-term teams before they went longer term.
Finally, it seems that God had a two-fold strategy for the expansion of His church in the New Testament. The first strand was the sending of sacrificial servants to other cultures, but the second was to bring the world to the church. The story of the Acts of the Apostles is full of people who were converted away from home. In our multicultural world, we are seeing many immigrants, both short-term and longer-term, come to live in Wales, and this provides us with a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel with people when they are away from home and often reviewing their values. In fact, Cardiff may be a better place to reach Somalis than Somalia itself, as it is so difficult to enter that country!
May God be gracious to privilege his people in Wales by giving us a refreshed vision for the needs of the world, both starting in Wales, but also reaching out to the ends of the earth.
Lindsay Brown is the former General Secretary of IFES (the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students).