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The Welsh Bible

Of all the inventions that changed the face of history forever, the printing press must take its place in the highest rank. Its arrival in Britain coincided with the immigration of the ideas of the humanist movement, spreading north and west from its bases in Italy. It also coincided roughly with the integration of the principality of Wales into the affairs of England. One result of the new learning was to force Welsh scholars to take a close look at their language, especially since the printing press helped ensure the spread of learning into new areas and to new classes of people. The most outstanding of these scholars was William Salesbury who was alarmed at what he considered the baseness of the Welsh tongue, and wrote, in 1547: "And take this advice from me; unless you save and correct and perfect the language before the extinction of the present generation, it will be too late afterwards." ("Oll Synnwyr Pen Kembero Ygyd").

King Henry had broken with Rome; the monasteries were dissolved and the Protestant Reformation was well under way. Thomas Capper, who was burned at Cardiff in 1542 as a follower of the "heretic", Martin Luther, was not part of a popular movement in Wales, which preferred, on the whole, to remain conservative in religious matters. Yet the first book published in the Welsh language was one by John Prys of Brecon, a believer in justification by faith and not through the Church, and who desired to bring the scriptures to the people of Wales in their native tongue. Called "Yn y Lhyvyr hwnn" ("In This book"), it was simply a collection of the Credo, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. It was the first of many translations during the next one hundred years.

Although Welsh was not a language of state, and there was no court and no real urban society in Wales to maintain the new print culture sweeping many European capitals, it was remarkable, how many books were printed in Welsh. Tradition has it that the first book actually printed in Wales itself was "Y Drych Gristianogawl" ("The Christian Mirror") produced in a cave in Llandudno, North Wales as a counter-reformation effort. Despite this minor protest, however, the forces of Protestantism and the Reformation were victorious in Wales, and not just through fear of "Popery and Rome," but because any established church tended to be looked upon in Wales as a symbol of English dominance.

The first Welsh version of the English Prayer Book, the work of Salesbury, appeared in 1549. The author explained his purpose: "If you do not wish to be worse than animals, obtain learning in your own language; if you do not wish to be more unnatural than any other nation under the sun, love your language and those who love it. If you do not wish utterly to depart from the faith of Christ. . .obtain the holy scripture in your own tongue, as your happy ancestors, the ancient British, had it" ("Oll Wynnwyr Pen Kembero Ygyd"). In 1551, Salesbury published "Kynniver Llith a Ban," a translation of the main texts of the new English Prayer Book and though he published works in English and Welsh, covering linguistics, proverbs, science and law, it was for his scholarship and his encouragement of the resources of the Welsh language to translate the scriptures that the Welsh people are most indebted. He collaborated with Richard Davies, Bishop of St. David's on a Welsh version of "The Book of Common Prayer" and "The New Testament" which were published in 1567 after Queen Elizabeth I had approved an Act of Parliament that compelled the Welsh bishops to provide translations into Welsh.

In 1588 came the translation of the whole Bible itself, the climax of the whole movement, making Welsh the language of public worship and thus constituting a crucial event in its survival. It was much more than a generally despised argot of the peasant class. The scholar John Penry of Breconshire had implored the Queen and Parliament that the Welsh people should be taught the scriptures (and the Prayer Book) in their own language. He was helped by the fact that Elizabeth and her courtiers were appalled at the slow progress of the Welsh in learning the English language.
They welcomed Penry's suggestions, and by having Welsh translations placed next to the English texts in church, it was believed the congregations could learn English!! The reverse happened, of course, and the Welsh language was given status and a place of honour by being used as a medium for the holy scriptures; why bother with English?

Perhaps it is because of this that much of the present-day strength of the Welsh language is owed, compared to Irish (which did not get its own Bible until 1690) and Scots Gaelic (which had to wait until 1801). As a sad footnote to the work of John Penry, who was falsely accused of being the author of the infamous "Martin Marprelate Tracts," attacking episcopacy, and as a dissenter and believer in the sovereignty of the individual conscience over that of the Church, was executed for treason in 1593.

The Welsh Bible, a magnificent achievement, was completed after eight years by William Morgan, the vicar at Llanrheadr-ym-Mochnant in Mid Wales, and a group of fellow scholars. It owes much to the pioneering work of the brilliant Richard Davies, whose use of the schism between the old Celtic church and the new "impostor," brought in by St. Augustine and promulgated by the Saxons, had helped make Protestantism acceptable, if not an immediately popular religion. In 1620 Dr. John Davies of Mallwyd and Richard Parry, Bishop of St. Asaph, produced a revision of William Morgan's Bible. Most of the nearly one thousand copies of the earlier book had been lost or worn out, and this revised and corrected edition is the version in which countless generations of Welsh people have been thoroughly immersed ever since. It has been as much a part of their lives as the "Authorised Version" has been to the English-speaking peoples or "Luther's Bible" to the Germans.

In 1630, the Welsh Bible, in a smaller version, "Y Beibl Bach," was introduced into homes in Wales and as the only book affordable to many families, became the one book from which the majority of the people could learn to read and write. Other, poorer families, unable to afford the Bible, were able to share its contents in meetings held at the homes of neighbours or in their churches or chapels. Later on, of course, countless generations of children were taught its contents in Sunday School. It is in this way, therefore, that we can say the Welsh Bible "saved" the language from possible extinction.