How one man made Wales one of the most literate countries in Europe: the extraordinary story of Griffith Jones

Between 1731 and 1771 Griffith Jones’s Circulating Schools managed to teach half of Wales to read. In the space of forty years, around 200,000 people had attended his three-month schooling programmes; including men, women and children. This was quite a feat as they were not government funded.

Jones’s endeavour radically transformed Wales in a spiritual and cultural sense. The renowned preacher did not wish to create educated social climbers, but communities of pure Christians. In his view, the inability to read the Scriptures in an individual’s mother-tongue endangered one’s access to the eternal life. 

Title page of William Morgan’s Welsh Bible, first published in 1588,  – William Morgan’s version of the Welsh Bible was the most utilised text at these Circulating Schools. Early education in Wales centred on the Welsh Bible. National Library of Wales, Public Domain.

Therefore, most classes under Jones’s system were held through the medium of Welsh. These short-term schools not only had a profound effect on literacy in Wales, but they varied the way people experienced the Welsh language. It was now practised more widely in textual and written form, as well as orally.

Across Europe, Jones’s schools were the subject of many a discussion. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, even commissioned a report on his charitable endeavour in 1764.

How did these Circulating Schools operate?

The schools circulated all over Wales and typically lasted three months at each location. Sessions were held at central community hubs: churches, chapels and sometimes farm barns. 

Recruited teachers were often trained beforehand by Griffith Jones himself, at his base in Llanddowror, Carmarthenshire.

This charitable endeavour attracted financial support from far and wide. Patrons as far as London and Somerset donated towards Jones’s Circulating Schools. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge supplied him with generous amounts of religious texts, especially Welsh Bibles, to be used as teaching material in the ‘classroom’. 

It’s worth noting that around two thirds of each ‘classroom’ were adults.

Peter Williams’s ‘Blodau i Blant’, 1758-  This publications was also used as teaching material at the Circulating Schools. It is a reading and spelling book of religious tone. Page 14 reads ‘Cyfarwyddiadau i Ddarllain Cymraeg yn ddeallus’ (‘Instructions on Reading Welsh intelligently’). National Library of Wales, Public Domain.

What were the Circulating Schools’ purpose?

Between 1710 and 1731 Griffith Jones worked avidly as a clergyman and preacher. He was fond of questioning his congregation on their morals and beliefs. 

However, he quickly realised that a large portion of his rural congregation at Llanddowror were incapable of discussing such matters sophisticatedly. Quite simply, because they didn’t have access to an education. As a result, these folk were unable to develop their ability to read widely on religious subjects.

This inspired Jones to set-up his Circulating Schools. It’s no surprise that they placed great emphasis on reading and understanding the Bible, which, in Jones’s view, could save one’s soul.  

William Morgan’s Welsh Bible, 1588 – ‘Llyfr cyntaf Moses, yr hwn a elwir Genesis’ (‘The First Book of Moses, called Genesis’). National Library of Wales, Public Domain.

By Griffith Jones’s death in 1761, a total of 3,495 Circulating Schools had been conducted all over Wales. These schools continued to circulate until 1771.

Elen Haf Jones, Digital Access Projects Officer, National Library of Wales

The blog post is a part of the Rise of Literacy project, where we take you on an exploration of literacy in Europe thanks to the digital preservation of precious textual works from collections across the continent.

Featured image: Cover of ‘The ABC : the first book to start learning Welsh’, National Library of Wales, Public Domain.

One thought on “How one man made Wales one of the most literate countries in Europe: the extraordinary story of Griffith Jones”

  1. Siempre he pensado que una de las actividades de mayor trascendencia que puede hacer el hombre en su vida es la educativa. Esto es enseñar a otros. La educación como ahora la entendemos, no es una función propia del maestro como tal; Es una obligación moral y solidaria de todo ser humano enseñar a sus semejantes. Al enseñar a los individuos a utilizar las letras para trasmitir su pensamiento, y a través de las mismas descodificar el pensamiento de otros, es quizá una de las acciones más tangibles de la educación.
    Pero penemos en la enseñanza de los valores humanos, en la enseñanza del respeto que debemos tener por la naturaleza ambiental y humana, las mil formas de creencias y cosmovisiones que existen y requieren ser valoradas y respetadas para saber vivir y convivir en una amplia diversidad cultural que nos ofrece este mundo, etc. Todos esto nos lleva a una pregunta obligada ¿A quién el toca enseñar esto…?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.