Saturday, 23 April 2016

46 William Griffiths 'the Apostle of Gower'

46 Apostle of Gower (photos: Lady Barham, Burry Green, Wm Griffiths, Fairyhill) – 23 April 2016

The life of a nonconformist minister in rural Gower born at the time of the French Revolution might appear of little interest, compared with events elsewhere while Britain was becoming an industrialised nation.  Welsh-speaker William Griffiths, who had served in the militia at the time of the Napoleonic wars, became a familiar and respected figure throughout the peninsula during a lengthy ministry, being described on his gravestone as “The Apostle of Gower”.

Born into a religious family in north Pembrokeshire, William Griffiths was conscripted when aged 19 into the Carmarthenshire militia, which involved such duties as guarding French prisoners of war in Bristol, and marching to Durham to quench a miners’ strike.  In the challenging surroundings of the regiment he stood firm with others of Christian faith.  After five years he was demobbed in Manchester, and replaced his brother as a Pembrokeshire schoolteacher, where he was encouraged to preach in local chapels. 

In peninsular Gower Lady Barham had settled at Fairy Hill to establish chapels and schoolrooms, initially at Burry Green, Cheriton and Penclawdd.  When in 1816 the Calvinistic Methodist meeting in Fishguard received her request for an assistant, they recommended William Griffiths.  So the twenty-nine year-old left his schoolwork and set 1set out for Gower. 

William Cowper’s observation that “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform” would soon be demonstrated in his experience, for Lady Barham changed her mind; possibly she was persuaded to use college-trained ministers like those of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, which used to stand near Swansea Museum.  Since William Griffiths had made the journey, Lady Barham permitted him to stay temporarily to assist in Penclawdd.  When Cheriton’s minister and schoolteacher contracted tuberculosis, Griffiths replaced him, before he was moved to a new work at Pilton Green. 

After two years, church politics intervened: Lady Barham requested that her secretary William Hammerton be ordained minister of Paraclete Chapel, Newton, without the customary probationary period.  This caused her to secede from the Calvinistic Methodists (now the Presbyterian Church of Wales), so out of loyalty to them and to the sadness of his congregation, William Griffiths left her employment.

With several supporters like William Voss of Nicholaston, the abandoned chapel at Oldwalls was repaired to become the centre of Calvinistic Methodist ministry in rural Gower.  The situation changed again after Lady Barham’s death, for her eldest son, who inherited the Burry Green and Cheriton Chapels, employed William Griffiths as their minister, with a manse provided after years of living in lodgings.  His ministry now followed the pattern of a fortnightly circuit of the three chapels, where he became a familiar figure riding his grey mare, as well as holding meetings in homes.  William Griffiths never minced words – when the 1833 equinoctial tides had unearthed Spanish dollars in Rhossili Bay from the fabled wreck of the “dollar ship” during the 17th century, and people rushed to dig in the sands, he deplored their eagerness to grasp transitory earthly treasures rather than seeking enduring heavenly ones.  What would he have said of our modern pre-occupation with entertainment, sport and the lottery? 

For many years he undertook an annual four- to six-week tour of North Wales, preaching twice daily, sometimes taking the paddle steamer to preach in Liverpool.  But the death of Rev. Samuel Phillips of Fairy Hill caused him much concern, for the Llanddewi Vicar had squandered the inheritance of both his wives (one a daughter of Lady Barham), and left servants unpaid and large debts outstanding.  Griffiths called him a “victim of his own extravagance and folly”, but it was a setback to the cause of the Christian gospel. 

When William Griffiths died aged 74 in 1862, his obituary in The Cambrian fittingly described him as “The Apostle of Gower”.  Perhaps his finest memorial is that amid all society’s changes, after 200 years Burry Green Chapel still proclaims the Christian message Sunday by Sunday.            

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