Review: Mae’r Beibl o’n Tu by Gareth Evans-Jones
How do we respond to slavery? At first glance, this sounds like a historical question — distant and irrelevant.
However, as recent as 2015, the ‘S’ word returned to our shores as the UK Government passed the Modern Slavery Act.
The idea of buying and selling flesh and blood continues to haunt and unnerve us to this day…
We’re told by the intelligentsia that we’re living in ‘secular’ days even though concepts like sin and guilt are lodged on our lips; the language of blame and repentance remains; and we repeatedly apologise for the sins of our forefathers. It all seems very theological to me.
Relevance, then, is what struck me when I first saw the cover of Gareth Evans-Jones’ recent book: ‘Mae’r Beibl o’n Tu’ Ymatebion Crefyddol y Cymry i Gaethwasiaeth (1838-1868) / ‘The Bible is with Us’ The Religious Responses of the Welsh in America to Slavery (1838-1868).
The painting visually combines slavery with Scripture. Words from the Beibl cyssegr-lan frame a young slave who poignantly eyes the chains around his wrists.
They appear in the painting like unwanted phylacteries — forged and justified by the same pages that paradoxically provided hope to so many captives.
This recent addition to the impressive ‘Y Meddwl a’r Dychymyg Cymreig’ series reveals the relationship between the Welsh, the Word of God, and those awful chains.
We’re taken back to a time when the Holy Book was lifted-up and dissected by the good, the bad, and the ugly.
‘The Sword of the Spirit’
But how did they respond to slavery? From the outset, we realise that it’s impossible to discuss that subject, and even to ask that question, without considering the Bible.
In the first two chapters, we’re taken to the landscape of the Pentateuch where ancient family trees are explained, and concepts like the Jubilee are unearthed. Names, curses and laws were bandied about in an age-old exercise where Scripture was used for ill.
What’s most striking is that the same material used to justify slavery was also employed by others to fight against it — the ‘Sword of the Spirit’ was unsheathed and wielded effectively.
We should pause here and consider the author’s method.
His quarry is twofold. Firstly, he surveys six popular periodicals that circulated between 1838 and 1868, products of the golden age of the Welsh-language periodical press in America during what was arguably one of the most fascinating periods of the country’s history.
Secondly, the Bible isn’t merely referred to, but it is delved into properly; he’s familiar with its pages, and he consults the Hebrew and Greek languages.
Differing interpretations, opinions, and discourses are presented which, in themselves, contributed to Welsh-language culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
For example, I was fascinated by a section that considered ‘Atonement language’ in the context of slavery, and how Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as a Pseudo-Christ in some of the sources.
His sacrifice ‘sets the prisoners free’ and his death makes ‘atonement’ for the ‘original sin’ of the Americans.
A New Babylon
We proceed from the Pentateuch and consider the Historical Books and Prophecies. The third chapter explores how the Welsh Americans interpreted the Babylonian Captivity as a concept paralleling the contemporary situation in the United States.
This was a land which, in chapter four, had departed from being Christ-like in its behaviour.
Those who were pro-slavery argued that Christ never condemned slavery in the Bible, while those who fought against slavery argued that Christianity inherently opposes the practice.
A new Babylon emerges — a country that passed the controversial Act of 1850 which required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were discovered in the free states.
In this instance, radical, Welsh Christians urged their fellow brothers and sisters that it would be far better to obey God rather than men.
The Forgotten Book
This is a fascinating and well-written book which will interest any student of Welsh literature, religion, theology or history.
Even though there were exceptions — and the Welsh are certainly not without blemish in history — it was encouraging to read that the view expressed most strongly in the Welsh periodicals of the time was against slavery.
It is evident that the story of the Welsh in the USA is much deeper and far more extensive than we initially thought. Jerry Hunter, E. Wyn James and Rhiannon Heledd Williams have already shown this in their innovate work in the field of Welsh American literature and culture.
In English, I can remember reading Daniel G. Williams’ excellent book Black Skin, Blue Books: African Americans and Wales 1845-1945 back in 2012. It’s great that this new work, which considers an important part of the Welsh response to slavery, is being published a decade later.
Library in the wilderness
When I was the custodian of Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, the birthplace of Welsh Bible translator William Morgan (1545-1604), it saddened me when people dumped their old family Bibles outside our door in Tesco carrier bags.
Whatever we think of it, the Bible is an important part of our story as a nation.
Depending on your point of view, that wonderful house was a library in the wilderness or a cemetery of forgotten books.
For so many Welsh Americans, the Bible was a crucial weapon in the fight against injustice; it was neither forgotten nor disregarded. It remained relevant then and, for some of us, it remains relevant still.
‘Mae’r Beibl o’n Tu’ Ymatebion Crefyddol y Cymry i Gaethwasiaeth (1838-1868) by Gareth Evans-Jones is published by the University of Wales Press and is available from all good bookshops.
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Hardly any ethnic group in Europe has avoided being enslaved at one time or another.