Mary Jones and her Bible

Tuesday 2 August 2011, 14:16

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The story of Mary Jones and her Bible used to be part of the staple diet of all Welsh children. It is doubtful, these days, if many of the younger generation have ever heard of her - or her amazing journey. Yet it remains a tale well worth telling.

Photograph of a Bible

In the year 1800 Mary Jones, the 15-year-old daughter of a weaver from Llanfihangel-y-Pennant at the foot of Cader Idris, walked 25 miles, barefoot and across rugged mountain country, simply to buy a Bible from the Reverend Thomas Charles of Bala. There is a lot more to the story than that, however, and Mary's epic trip was to have lasting effects throughout the world.

There had been no Welsh version of the Bible until Bishop William Morgan completed his famous translation in 1588.

Before that worshippers in Welsh churches and chapels had to use Latin or, occasionally, English texts. Most of them understood little of either language. Once Morgan's Bible became available things began to change.

However, Bishop Morgan's Bible was both expensive and heavy and, therefore, was restricted to church and chapel use. A smaller and cheaper version was published in 1630 and by the end of the century there were several new editions freely available to all those who could afford them.

When Griffith Jones began his Circulating Schools the Bible was an essential teaching tool and many families, now able to read, bought their own copies so that they could read and digest in the comfort and security of their own homes.

In north Wales the Calvinistic Methodist preacher Thomas Charles, operating from his chapel in Bala, was active in making sure Sunday Schools and, wherever possible, individuals were plentifully supplied with Bibles. Enter Mary Jones.

Mary came from a devoutly pious family. She had learned to read at one of the Circulating Schools and, having been openly religious since the age of eight, was desperate to have a Bible of her own.

The nearest Bible to her house was lodged in a farm two miles away, a long hike every time she wanted to read God's word, and so the young girl began to save her pennies until she had enough to buy a Bible of her own.

The saving took her, apparently, nearly six years. Only then did she reach the target sum of three shillings and six pence. The only person who had copies of the Bible was Thomas Charles of Bala and so, according to legend, Mary Jones set out to walk the 25 miles in order to purchase one. She had no shoes and the journey was both long and exhausting.

When she arrived in Bala Mary Jones was devastated to learn that Thomas Charles had either sold or promised all of the copies he had. But, again according to legend, he was so moved by the girl's faith and determination that he arranged lodgings for her until a new supply of Bibles arrived two days later. Then he sold her three copies for the price of one. Another version of the story says that he gave Mary his own copy.

Two copies of "Mary Jones' Bible" still exist. One is lodged in the archives of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Cambridge, the other is held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The copy in Cambridge actually contains a note, written by Mary, on the final page. The third copy of the Bible has, unfortunately, now been lost.

How much of the story is true will probably never be known. However, Thomas Charles undoubtedly used the story to persuade the Religious Tract Society to establish a new organisation, the British and Foreign Bible Society. This came into existence in 1804 and over the next 200 years distributed thousands of Bibles to people across the world.

The society - often known simply as The Bible Society - still distributes Bibles to places like India and Africa and is an ecumenical and non-sectarian organisation. The story of Mary Jones and her determination to own a Bible was central to its creation and to its work - as well as its publicity. In 1882 the society even published a book about her, a volume that has helped keep her name alive in all quarters of the world.

And Mary herself? Apparently she returned to Llanfihangel-y-Pennant in the same way as she had left it - on foot. This time, however, she sang hymns all the way back, even making up some verses of her own as she skipped happily on her way.

She later married a weaver, Thomas Lewis, and moved to the village of Bryn-crug near Tywyn. She died on 28 December 1866. Two monuments to Mary exist, one being a memorial obelisk on the site of the cottage where she was born, erected by the Sunday Schools of Merioneth. The other memorial is a long and flowing tribute on her gravestone in Bryn-crug.

How much of Mary's story is fact and how much is a piece of fiction invented for publicity purposes may never be known. It is certainly a stirring tale and, as one of the great legends of Wales, is one that needs to be preserved.

Find out more about the history of religion in Wales on the BBC Wales History website.

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