The Reformation, in Verse

The Reformation, in Verse October 31, 2016

In 2017, we are going to be hearing a great deal about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rather lost in this coverage, though, might be the exceeding slow pace with which Reformation ideas actually permeated many parts of Europe, even those within notionally Protestant states. To illustrate this, I will here tell the story of one of the most successful ventures in popular evangelism in Protestant history – a story that, moreover, has many resonances for anyone interested in the global church today.

Protestantism extolled the Bible, while scorning and actively suppressing much of the older ritual life that had previously lain at the heart of Christian life. That model worked reasonably well in cities and towns, and in rural areas closely dependent on them. It worked horribly badly elsewhere. In such areas, literacy rates were very low, education was difficult to obtain, and the institutional church was often atrociously funded. The widespread presence of minority languages and dialects posed another massive obstacle to spreading Reformed ideas.

As a prime example, we look at Wales, which in 1600 was overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking. The Bible was translated into that language in 1588, but Protestantism at first made very small inroads. In a future post, I will be quoting the account of Erasmus Saunders around 1720, which stresses the powerful Catholic-derived ritual life that still constituted the religious world for most rural believers. Yet even in this account, Saunders notes one great exception. Even his benighted country dwellers, he notes, obtained a lot of their religious instruction from the carols and songs they learned by heart, and specifically from “the Vicar of Llanymddyfry’s poems.” And that reference points to a powerful story.

Llanymddyfri (Llandovery) is a modest market town in West Wales. From 1602, its Anglican vicar was one Rhys Prichard (1579-1644), who should play a much larger part in stories of the Reformation than he actually does. Prichard was definitely a member of the church establishment, who in 1626 became Chancellor of the diocese of St. David’s. He was also a respectable landowner in his own right.

Rhys Prichard desperately wanted to spread Christian and specifically Protestant ideas, morality, and beliefs to a largely illiterate population. So how could he do it? Publishing pamphlets and books was out of the question, and he could not preach personally in every village and town. All he could do was to compose verses, which he did with astonishing success. (He may well have been following the precedent of dissident Catholics who had used poetry for similar effect some decades earlier, as weapons of mass instruction).

Vicar Prichard composed simple and easily memorable Welsh verses, hundreds if not thousands of them. They were ideally suited to an oral culture well used to memorization, and very fond of popular songs, poems and proverbs. As in many such orally based societies, such verses were often devoted to general themes of “wisdom” and lessons in living. To use a common analogy of the time, Prichard’s verses spread like fire in the thatch, or as we would say, like wildfire. People learned them in market towns and carried them home to their farms, each person teaching another. The verses became the standard currency of conversation and pastime. And they carried on being used in that way, recited and repeated, for at least two centuries. If Prichard’s verses did not actually convert Wales to Protestantism all by themselves, they laid a solid foundation for the evangelical revival that swept the country in the eighteenth century.

Prichard himself became famous as a pastor, preacher and spiritual guide, and we hear of wealthy landowners making the arduous trek to hear him personally. Foreshadowing later Methodists and evangelicals, he apparently preached in the open air, and was duly sanctioned for it.

None of his verses was printed in his lifetime, but limited collections appeared in following decades. In the later seventeenth century, Dissenting minister Stephen Hughes spent three decades producing popular Welsh editions of books that would best promote literacy and godliness. That meant the verses of Vicar Prichard, together with a New Testament and Psalms (1672), Pilgrim’s Progress (1688); and the largest and cheapest edition yet produced of the whole Welsh Bible (1677). In 1681, a major collection of Prichard’s work was printed as Canwyll y Cymry, The Candle of the Welsh, the term coined by Hughes

In 1771, an English translation of the verses appeared as The Welchman’s Candle, which brought Prichard to the attention of a whole new audience. With little exaggeration, the introduction declared that

No book perhaps, of human composition, ever better answered the good intentions of its author. For it was no sooner printed than it was immediately in the hands and mouths of almost all – and it is scarce credible with what uncommon pleasure and avidity it was received, read and repeated by them. Instead of idle ballads, satirical lampoons and such like wretched perversions of the sacred art of poetry, which the Welsh were before extravagantly fond of, scarce anything else was to be heard in any house, street or field but these godly songs or carols. They soon made an almost entire change in the morals and behavior of the whole country.

The editor makes one mistake here, in assuming that Prichard’s influence only really took off when his book was printed in Welsh. In fact, the Vicar had already held legendary status for his oral compositions for over half a century before that. The closest analogy I can think of would be the role of Luther’s hymns in spreading his views in German-speaking lands.

Around 1860, an English traveler found himself in Llandovery, where a local insisted on pointing out out a very special place. Do you know who lived there, he asked? The Vicar! No other name or explanation was needed.

It is helpful to compare Prichard’s stories with the spread of Christianity in Africa and other Global South areas, where oral cultures still prevail widely. Popular verses and hymns play their role, alongside Christian videos and gospel music. The technology might have changed totally, but The Vicar would have felt very much at home with the basic principles.

I don’t normally commemorate Reformation Day, but isn’t this an appropriate story for that occasion?

ONE ADDENDUM: My colleague Gordon Melton makes the excellent point that the role of Prichard’s verses in Wales is very comparable to that of Gospel hymns in the US, especially  in the South.





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