Thomas Charles of Bala
The name Thomas Charles of Bala had been familiar to me for many years and I knew that he was an eminent evangelical Welsh minister of a bygone day. But beyond that, I confess, I knew next to nothing about him. If any reader of these lines has to make the same admission let me encourage him or her to make Thomas Charles’ acquaintance. He is well worth knowing and John Aaron’s new biography, published by the Banner of Truth Trust, will give you just the introduction to his life, times, and ministry that you need.
The following remarkable statement will help to set the scene. “The Methodist Revival in Wales may be viewed as a season of revival in the country extending over almost a hundred years from 1735 onwards. Looked at in more detail it may be seen as a series of major awakenings for extended periods spread over considerable areas of the country (in 1739, 1762, 1781, 1790, 1805 and 1817, for example), interspersed with more frequent, sudden and powerful visitations confined to smaller localities – a county, a town or village, or even a single congregation” (p.164). Thomas Charles’ life is located within this so favoured hundred year period. He was born in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, in 1755, and died in Bala, North Wales, in 1814.
His connection with the Methodist Revival, however, was much more intimate than that. It was through the preaching of one its most prominent early leaders, Daniel Rowland, for example, that he was converted. And throughout most of his life as a gospel minister he significantly contributed to it by his preaching, his writing, his wise counsel, his work as an educator of the young, his promotion of the Welsh Bible, and his organizational skills.
Charles’ conversion took place on the 20th of January 1773. He was seventeen years old at the time and had been listening to Daniel Rowland preach on Hebrews 4:15. “A day much to be remembered by me as long as I live”, he writes. “Ever since the happy day I have lived in a new heaven and a new earth. The change a blind man who receives his sight experiences does not exceed the change I at that time experienced in my mind…” (p.21). In 1781 he could write, “O the happy return of this most beneficial day! A day to be happily remembered for on it the light of the knowledge of the glorious gospel first shone brightly in my soul in the face of Jesus Christ”.
Charles was ordained a deacon of the Church of England on the 14th of June 1778 and for the next five years he served as a curate in Sparkford in Somerset. The early days were difficult but later on he could write, “I have had reason to believe the Lord has in some degree blessed my poor labours in this dark corner. Some are under concern about their souls and my congregations” – he served other churches too – “in general increase”. Though he was to remain a minister of the Church of England for many years to come a move to Bala in 1783 and a swift dismissal from three successive curacies on account of his evangelical preaching caused him to throw in his lot with the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists.
The principal factor in his move to Bala was his forthcoming marriage to a young lady by the name of Sally Jones. The story of their romance is related in some detail in Aaron’s biography and makes fascinating and delightful reading. Their marriage was a very happy one and death only separated them for a matter of days. “It is surely the case”, says Aaron, “that his love for Sally was an element of God’s providential care of his church in Wales for, without it, it is almost certain that Charles would have followed the natural path, one which he had clearly contemplated at times, of ministry in England”. And if that had been so, he continues, “his energy and leadership would have been lost to the ranks of Welsh Methodism” (p.78).
In Bala Charles had a congregation of about two thousand hearers. In a letter dating from 1785 he relates how “the preaching of the gospel has been attended, especially at seasons, with great visible power, and its effects in civilizing the country at large, and in bringing many to saving knowledge of the truth, are evident to all” (p.114). Greater things were to come. On the first Sunday in October 1791, at the close of the evening service, there broke out what Aaron calls “an extraordinarily powerful revival”. Here is a little of Charles’ own account of it: “In our town of Bala, for some time back, we have had a very great, powerful, and glorious out-pouring of the Holy Spirit of our God, on the people in general, especially young people…Scores of the wildest and most inconsiderate of the people have been awakened…In the course of the eight years I have laboured in this country, I have had frequent opportunities of seeing, and feeling also, much of the divine presence in the Lord’s work and ordinances, and great success attending the ministration of the word; but nothing to equal the present work” (p.164-167).
Charles’ preaching ministry was by no means confined to Bala. He had an itinerant ministry that took him all over Wales and beyond. The biography outlines it at some length. So too his many other activities. We learn about his organizing of Circulating Schools and Sunday Schools for the Christian education of the young, his editorial work on the Welsh Bible, the books he wrote (including a Bible Dictionary in Welsh), the magazines he edited, his involvement in the London Missionary Society, and his leadership of Welsh Methodism. “Once he was assured of what had to be done and of his role in it, he responded with amazing vigour, perseverance and unrelenting labours” (p.357).
He had his periods of ill-health and, on one occasion, a brush with death. Frostbite to a thumb and the pain and infection that followed so weakened him that there were fears for his life. It led to his thumb being amputated and a remarkable answer to prayer. The night before the operation a prayer meeting was held for him. One old man cried out, “Fifteen, Lord; wilt thou not give him to us for fifteen years? For my brethren’s sake, this prayer is made, and for the sake of my neighbours too” (p.184). And the Lord heard! Aaron notes that when Charles died, “he had lived all but seven weeks of the added fifteen years and it is generally accepted that these were the most fruitful fifteen years of his ministry” (p.184).
He was a man to whom it is impossible not to warm. Readers of this biography will feel the attraction of his humility, his zeal, his sense of humour, his love for Sally, his dedication to the cause of Christ, and his hard work. Aaron tells us, however, that “of all his attributes, those mentioned most often by his contemporaries and biographers alike were his spiritual wisdom and balance” (p.355). He then quotes from Thomas Jones of Denbigh, his closest friend: “By grace, he was made an experienced, discerning, warm-hearted, true Christian at the very onset of his career; he was, as it were, old in learning and spiritual experience when still only a boy” (p.355). Nor need today’s Christians take Jones at his word. Aaron’s biography will confirm it. So too Thomas Charles’ own Spiritual Counsels, recently reprinted by the Trust.