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CARMARTHENSHIRE HISTORIANS 5

Thomas Rees 1815-85

Thomas Rees, an eminent preacher who knew the inside of a debtors' prison, received but three months' formal education and spoke only Welsh until he was twenty years old, yet he wrote a standard work in English on the history of Nonconformity in Wales.

He was born on 13th December 1815 at Penpontbren, Llanfynydd, the son of Thomas Rees and Hannah Williams, but was brought up by his mother and her family at Banc-y-fer, Llangathen. Although he was clever at basket-making, Rees showed no aptitude for farm work, being "slow, clumsy and lazy", so it was alleged, but he worked hard in the pursuit of knowledge.

Having become a member of Capel Isaac Church, Rees started preaching in 1832, when he was seventeen, but while still a young man he migrated to the Glamorgan coalfield and in 1835 became a collier at Llwydcoed, Aberdare. But he soon abandoned the work, which was too arduous for his health, and opened a school. Before the year 1835 was out he moved the school to Merthyr Tydfil, where he also became minister to the Independents. On his marriage in 1838, he set up shop at Pont Aberbargoed, but it seems that his venture into business was no more successful than his efforts at farming, with the result that the shop failed to prosper and Rees was obliged to become an inmate of the debtors' prison for a week or more.

Rees returned to the ministry in 1840 by taking a pastorate at Ebenezer, Aberdare, moving in 1842 to Llanelli, where he ministered at Siloah for seven years. In 1849 came a move to Beaufort, Monmouthshire and following service there he accepted a call to Ebenezer, Swansea in 1861. He was chairman of the Union of Welsh Independents in 1873 and again in 1875; at the time of his death he was chairman-elect of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, being the first Welsh minister to be appointed to the office. The degree of D. D. was conferred upon him by Marrietta College, America. Rees died at Swansea on 29th April 1885, his wife having predeceased him in 1876.

Although he had little schooling, Thomas Rees was a natural scholar who delighted in research, which he undertook with relentless diligence. A powerful preacher, Rees also wrote a number of hymns and Bible commentaries, besides translating Barnes's commentary on the New Testament into Welsh in 1860. He was one of the founders in 1850 of Yr Adolygydd, the first quarterly review published by the Welsh Independents. But it is as an historian that Thomas Rees is now chiefly remembered, and the fascination which the study of history had for him from an early age resulted in the publication of his History of Protestant Nonconformity in Wales in 1861, an enlarged edition being published in 1883.

Thomas Rees received no academic training in the discipline that attracted his natural interest and it is hardly surprising that he has been criticised as an historian, largely because of his denominational prejudices and his frequent failure to reproduce documentary material precisely, his interpretation of which was not always sound. But these shortcomings are such as not to seriously devalue his work on the contrary, he is revealed as a master in discovering sources and there is no doubt that he collected material diligently, often travelling extensively to acquire it in libraries, record-offices and from private sources. More than any of his contemporaries, he used denominational records and manuscripts. Some of these sources have since disappeared an example is the Cilgwyn (Cardiganshire) register so that Rees remains the only evidence concerning their content. Despite its weaknesses, Rees's history is still a standard work and in some respects remains indispensable.

Rees collaborated with the Rev. John Thomas, D.D. in writing Hanes Eglwysi Annibynol Cymru, a monumental work commonly judged to be among the best of the Welsh denominational histories. Among Rees's other published work is Miscellaneous Papers on Subjects Relating to Wales, 1867, which included essays on The Resources of Wales, The Working Classes of Wales, Education in Wales, Welsh Literature and Welsh Dissent.
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