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CARMARTHENSHIRE HISTORIANS 14

Joshua Thomas 171997

Joshua Thomas, one of the most distinguished historians of early Nonconformity in Wales, was born the son of Morgan Thomas, Tyhen, Caeo on the 22 February, 1719. He was the eldest and ablest of three brothers, although the other two, Timothy and Zacharia, also served the Baptist cause with distinction.

In 1738, Joshua Thomas went to Hereford to be apprenticed to his uncle, Simon Thomas, a mercer and minister who was author of Hanes y Byd a'r Amseroedd. For some time he attended the Presbyterian College at Hereford, but because there were no Baptists in that city he was obliged to walk thirteen miles to worship at Leominster, where he was baptised in 1740.

After completing his apprenticeship, he returned to Wales in 1743 to spend the following two or three years with his parents. In 1746, he married a Lampeter lady who was closely related to the celebrated David Davies of Castell Hywel and in the same year they settled at Hay. Joshua Thomas was later ordained as assistant pastor at Maesyberllan.

When he received a call in 1753 from the parent chapel at Leominster he was reluctant to accept, as he was inexperienced at preaching in English. However, yielding to persuasion, he started work at Leominster in 1754 and ministered there for the remaining forty-three years of his life. To augment his income, he kept a day school, which he carried on with success for many years. He became an influential figure in the Midland Baptist Association and was also a frequent visitor to the Welsh Association. In a Baptist crusade in north Wales he exerted a powerful influence.

Joshua Thomas entered the book world by translating into Welsh English works which defended the Baptist faith, but it was as an historian that he became famous with the publication of Hanes y Bedyddwyr, printed by J. Ross, Carmarthen in 1778. He had already started collecting material in 1745 before going to Hay, in which area he recorded information given him by old people who remembered traditions which had come down from pioneers. From 1752 onwards he devoted himself to the task in earnest and this entailed a special journey to South Wales in order to pursue his researches. He even went to great pains to secure evidence from America to substantiate claims about the beginnings of the Baptist cause in Wales. A man of unrestricted industry, he rarely rose later than five o'clock in the morning and never failed to squeeze every advantage out of his waking hours.

Before the appearance of Hanes y Bedyddwyr, Joshua Thomas had published in 1751 a pamphlet containing an answer to Griffith Jones's 'Twenty Reasons' concerning infant baptism. Although it was largely a translation of an English work, Thomas added material of his own.

Despite its occasional errors, some of which were corrected in a later pamphlet, Hanes y Bedyddwyr remained a work of sufficient eminence for Thomas Rees to claim, in his History of Protestant Non-conformity in Wales (1861), that it was the "best work on the history of Non-conformity in the Principality ever written". Rees also wrote that Joshau Thomas took more interest in the history of religion in Wales than any of his contemporaries. Claiming for him a rightful place in the role of Carmarthenshire worthies, R. T. Jenkins was moved to say that Thomas's "History of the Welsh Association and his famous Hanes y Bedyddwyr add lustre to the history of the county" (See 'Non-conformity after 1715' in A History of Carmarthenshire (ed. J. E. Lloyd), vol. ii, 1938).

His History of the Welsh Association, 1650-1790, which had previously appeared as a series of articles in the Baptist Register, was published in 1795. Earlier he had published in 1791 a new translation of the Confession of Faith issued by the London Assembly of 1689. There followed Remarks, a spirited response to an attack which had belittled the Baptist cause. Upon his death on 25 August 1797, after a short illness, he left in manuscript 'A History of the Welsh Baptists', an English version of the Welsh work, and 'An Ecclesiastical History of Wales'. These and other material were eventually deposited at the Bristol Baptist College, where his son, Timothy, became a student before ministering for forty-three years in Devonshire Square, London.

Joshau Thomas was too timid by nature to be a forceful preacher, but what he lacked in this respect was more than balanced by his studious qualities. As an historian of the first order he strove scrupulously to ensure accuracy, in which he was generally successful within the limits of his research opportunities. Unlike most historians of the period, he possessed an impartial mind and his work is remarkably free from prejudice. In particular, his Hanes y Bedyddwyr, a distinguished contribution to the treasury of Welsh historical literature, revealed among Welsh practitioners the judicial qualities of a new type of historian with a scientific approach. Such was his reputation as an historian that it spread even over the Border and he was quoted with respect by English writers on religious history.

E.V.J.


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