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Apostle and Benefactor

Three and a half centuries ago a mercer's son who was to enrich the lives of his countrymen, though not with silks and fineries, was born in the town of Carmarthen. Like most of our knowledge of his early life, the year of his birth is uncertain, but it is generally thought to be 1622. He grew up to become an apostle and benefactor, but not without suffering the persecutions of an intolerant age. His name was Stephen Hughes.

He was the son of John Hughes, who was to be an alderman and, in 1650, mayor of Carmarthen, and it is possible that he was a pupil of the grammar school that had been founded by Queen Elizabeth in the town during the previous century. Little more is known about his activities until he received the living of Meidrim in 1654, though it is probable that he served earlier in the neighbouring parish of Merthyr. These livings he received following the ejection of the clergy during the earlier years of the Commonwealth, but after the Restoration it was the turn of Hughes and his fellow Dissenters to be ejected and he was deprived of his living in 1662. Later he married a devout and industrious woman in Swansea, where he settled for the rest of his life.

Despite his move to Swansea, Hughes continued to preach in Carmarthenshire, establishing new churches and tending those which he had set up earlier from about the year 1650. He travelled tirelessly all over the county and into south Cardiganshire, and among the congregations he gathered together were those at Carmarthen, Capel Isaac, Henllan, Pantteg, Pencader, Llanybri, Llanedi and Trelech. Most of the Congregational churches in the county are off-shoots of these early foundations.

The first decade of the Restoration was a difficult one for Dissenters and meetings had perforce to be shrouded in secrecy, usually in remote places. Associated with Hughes during this period was the cave at Cwmhwplin near Llandysul. A story is told that while on his way to preach there he saw a company of people dancing in a field and to their leader he said, "If you will accompany me over the mountain, you shall have a better amusement than you can get here." The man accepted the invitation and was astonished to see so large a number in such an inhospitable place. Nevertheless, he was greatly affected and remained a follower of Stephen Hughes. But Hughes was always in fear of arrest, a fate which at last over-took him, with the result that he was incarcerated at Carmarthen "to the prejudice of his health and hazard of his life".

Educating the Peasantry
In the following decade, however, the laws against Dissenters were relaxed a little and in 1672 Hughes received a licence to be a Congregational teacher at Evan Morris's house in Llanstephan; it is claimed by some that this house was Pantyrathro, which name is said to be a corruption of Pentre athraw. It is probable that Hughes kept a number of schools during the years of the Commonwealth and perhaps earlier, for it was his purpose to educate the peasantry, a task he undertook with a dedication which matched that of Griffith Jones in the following century. To this end he published about twenty books in Welsh, some of which ran into several editions; at the end of many of them he printed the Welsh alphabet and simple aids aimed at assisting people to read. This was at a time when there were no printing offices in Wales, and prolonged visits to London had to be made to supervise the production of his works.

Hughes encouraged the more literate to teach their children and servants to read and persuaded many to teach their neighbours; he even succeeded in getting many to learn to read at forty or fifty years of age. To him we owe the appearance of Vicar Prichard's verses in print, for he realised the value of their simplicity and popular appeal. These he published in four parts over a period of years, but brought them into one volume in 1672; in 1681 he produced a further edition of this volume, which he named Canwyll y Cymru (The Welshman's Candle), by which title Vicar Prichard's verses have ever since been known. Having published a cheap edition of the New Testament and the Psalms in 1672, he was able in 1677 to fulfil his most earnest wish the publication of the whole Bible in Welsh at a price which would ensure the widest distribution. This Bible was much better for accuracy and presentation than any other previously published in the language.

Although he received the aid, financial and otherwise, of Thomas Gouge, a Londoner whose Welsh Trust was the means of introducing benevolent works to Wales, Hughes spent much of his own resources in supporting these enterprises, which not only disseminated religious knowledge but helped to conserve the Welsh language; he was the foremost of his time in his efforts to preserve the native language and culture, which some would have allowed to suffer to the advantage of English.

In his work of bringing education to humble folk, Hughes anticipated Griffith Jones of Llanddowror, but his countrymen have not given him the same measure of recognition that has been lavished upon his more famous successor. In other respects the two men had little in common: whereas Jones could be difficult and even cantankerous, Hughes was a modest and benign man who refused to be embittered by persecution and knew only that he must remain steadfast in his chosen work.

He died at Swansea in 1688 the year before the Toleration Act, which legalised Nonconformity and was buried in St. John's in that town. No memorial marked his grave, but he is remembered as the Apostle of Carmarthenshire, who in his time was one of the great benefactors of his people.

Other anniversaries in 1972 are :

W. Llewelyn Williams (1868-1922), a native of Llansadwrn, member of Parliament, lawyer and author, best known for his books Slawer Dydd and The Making of Modern Wales.

'Eliza Carmarthen' otherwise Eliza Phillips Williams (1825-72), daughter of a Carmarthen currier, whose shop was in King Street. An accomplished woman, she was famed for her poetic and musical talent. She died at Hirwaun, where her second husband, John Thomas, was curate, and was buried at Aberdare.

Titus Lewis (1822-77). Not to be confused with his more famous namesake, this Titus was a native of Llanelli who moved to Glamorgan, where he became an antiquary of much repute and was elected FSA. An authority on Welsh literature, he also wrote English verse, much of which was published. He died at Llanstephan.

Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), literary luminary who spent his last years at Llangunnor and was buried in St. Peter's, Carmarthen.
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