Here’s a thoroughly Welsh hymn-writer, though she never intended to have her poetry published, written into hymns, nor sought anything from writing but the satisfaction of creativity. Today she is considered to be one of Europe’s leading religious poets based on only 73 verses composed within about five years before her death in 1805. We certainly could implement the same creativity and spirituality in this time of social distancing and isolation.
Ann Thomas was born in 1776 near the village of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa, the daughter of a tenant farmer and churchwarden. Her devout parents raised her in the Anglican Church. But around 1794 she followed her brothers into the Calvinistic Methodist revival sweeping northern Wales. Before her conversion, she mocked the Methodist converts she saw going to church and revivals: “Look at the pilgrims on their way to Mecca!” Then she became one of them. Her education can be seen in the poems she composed after her conversion. She generally didn’t write them down but recited them to her maid, Ruth Evans, who memorized them. As she told Ruth, “I do not wish anyone to have them after me. I compose them for my own comfort.” The only extant writing of hers is an undated letter and verse to a friend written between 1800 and 1804. After her parents passed away, she married Thomas Griffiths, an elder of the Calvinistic Methodist church in 1804. She died within a month after childbirth in August 1805 at the age of 29. Ruth Evans recited Ann’s poetry to her husband, John Hughes, and he saw that they were published in 1805, a very quick time frame for publication, and apparently contrary to Ann’s plans for her poetry. Many editions of her work appeared in 19th century Wales. Her hymns are regarded as one of the highlights of Welsh literature and contain some of the great Christian poetry of Europe. Her life became the subject of novels, dramas, and films. Most recently, a biographic musical, Ann! Was performed on stage and later televised and released on CD.
Her hymns were a kind of spiritual diary, a small body of work of 30 hymns. They show a high degree of Biblical knowledge, including the Old Testament. One of her most famous hymns, Wele’n Sefyll Rhwang y Myrtwydd (Lo, He Stands Among the Myrtles) illustrates this. The man standing among the myrtles, a reference to Zechariah 1:8, is Christ. The reference to Rose of Sharon from Song of Solomon 2:1 in the second stanza is Christ. The last verse uses Hosea 14:8 “what have I to do with idols?” This particular hymn was set to the tune Cwm Rhondda written by John Hughes and most commonly known as the tune to “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah”. Think of that tune as you read her translated words:
Lo, He stands among the myrtles
Worthiest object of my love.
Yet in part I know His glory
Towers all earthly things above.
Hail the morning
When I’ll see Him as He is!
He is called the Rose of Sharon,
Sweet and lovely, bright and fair.
He surpasses tens of thousands,
With their earthly glory rare.
Friend of sinners,
He’s their pilot on the sea.
What have I to do henceforward
With vain idols of this earth?
Nothing can I find among them
To compare with His great worth.
I am longing
To abide in His great love.