SUCCESSIVE Welsh religious revivals produced more than 3000 culture-changing hymns. William Williams single-handedly composed 750, including “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer”. The visionary Ann Griffiths composed just 30, although paradoxical turns of phrase such as “He is the Satisfaction that was between the thieves” still haunt the imagination. Rowan Williams translated Griffiths’s ”Wele’n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd” (Under the dark trees, there He stands) for his enthronement in Canterbury.
Wyn James’s encyclopaedic Flame in the Mountains collates the late Professor “Horse” Hodges’s extensive, elegant, and courteous material on William Williams and Griffiths, including an English metrical and prose translation of Griffiths’s hymns, with commentary. James adds a list of scriptural references and allusions, a helpful key for an otherwise bafflingly T. S. Eliot-like compression.
Decrying an English insularity unable to hear “the Welsh other”, the Yorkshireman Hodges deliberately learnt Welsh, delighting in a hymnody coloured by storms, gales, rough crags, and mountain torrents. KJV’s “the windows of heaven were opened” becomes “all the dams of heaven burst” in the more urgent, weather-battered language of Welsh revival.
Originally Anglican, Williams’s and Griffiths’s spiritual lives were jump-started by a Calvinist conversion dominated by wonder at the graciousness and majesty of Christ, with an intense desire to know and be known by him. They sing of a world of time, where shadows of future good signal an eternity saturated in divine wonders.
Griffiths, an unassuming farmer’s daughter, was fiercely seized by visions, producing hymns that her semi-illiterate maid, Ruth, accurately memorised and later dictated to her schoolmaster husband, John Hughes.
Having lodged at Griffiths’s farmstead, intriguingly Hughes played the phantom in Griffiths’s opera, grounding her in theological rigour.
Wales, surprised by women bishops, can take heart how two centuries back a lowly woman, sidestepping male supremacy, ignited the woof and warp of that nation’s soul.
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is a former Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.
The Flame in the Mountains: William Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and the Welsh hymn
H. A. Hodges (essays and translations)
E. Wyn Jones, editor
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