Ann Griffiths and Her Sea of Wonders

Ann Griffiths and Her Sea of Wonders

            “O to spend my life in a sea of wonders!”[1] Ann wrote in one of her poems. And her life, spent in a Welsh farm in the small village of Dolwar-Fach, was lived in the constant and exciting discovery of God’s revelation.

A Short and Intense Life

            Born in 1776 to a family of farmers, the fourth of the five children, Ann attended the local Anglican church and received a basic education. Her days were spent on the farm, largely spinning wool – the most important product of her region. After the death of her mother, in 1794, Ann became the mistress of the farm, overseeing its administration and workers.

            In 1796, Ann passed by an open-air evangelistic meeting in Llanfyllin, a market town five miles north-east of her home. The Methodist preacher’s fervent message caused a stir in her heart, raising a conviction of sin she couldn’t easily assuage.

            At that time, Welsh Methodists were still formally members of the established Anglican Church, but held independent meetings. They differed from English Methodists in their adherence to the Westminster Confession (English Methodists, after John Wesley, were mostly Arminian).

            Welsh Methodists were often derided for their enthusiasm, and Ann had often joined the mockery. Now, however, she found they could provide answers she had not found in her local church, where neither the depth of human sin, nor the comforting message of the gospel were preached with sufficient clarity.

            Ann reacted to both with uncommon intensity. Once the assurance of God’s grace had filled her soul, she began recording her thoughts in poetry. Today, we call these hymns, because many have been put to music, but this was never Ann’s intention. In fact, she only wrote down a few of them. She mostly recited them to her maid and closest friend Ruth, who memorized them and repeated them to her husband, John Hughes. John, who was also a dear friend of Ann, is credited with their preservation.

            In 1804, Ann married a local farmer and fellow Methodist, Thomas Griffiths, who moved to Dolwar-Fach. Their happiness was short-lived. The next year, their first daughter, Elizabeth, survived only two weeks after her birth and Ann, ill and frail, died about two weeks after the baby. The cause of Ann’s death is not clear, but the stress of childbirth might have aggravated an existing condition – probably tuberculosis, the same disease that later killed both her brother and her husband.

           The Wonder of Apparent Paradoxes

            Most of Ann’s poems, published soon after her death, were set to music and became immediately popular. Even literary critics consider them unique for their ability to weave together biblical verses in a natural expression of the soul’s gratitude to God. In fact, the major dramatist, poet and literary critic Saunders Lewis called her longest hymn, Rhyfedd, rhyfedd gan angylion, (“Wonderful, Wonderful to Angels”) “one of the majestic songs in the religious poetry of Europe.”[2]

            The word “wonder” appears, in various forms, numerous times in Ann’s writings. Her joy came in knowing that the sea of wonders where she intended to spend her life would continue beyond this earthly state, “with never a sight of a boundary or shore.”[3]

            These wonders include all the mysteries of God’s love and wisdom: the fulfilment of ancient prophecies, the unfolding of the Covenant of Redemption, Christ’s humiliation in view of the Atonement, his union with believers, and a taste of his unfathomable wisdom in becoming the God-man forever, for our sakes.

Ann conveys much of the wonder through paradoxes. Her most famous hymn is full of them:

 

Wondrous, wondrous to angels,

  a great wonder in the eyes of faith,

To see the Giver of being,

    the abundant Sustainer

And Ruler of everything that is,

In the manger in swaddling clothes

  and with nowhere to lay his head,

And yet, the bright host of glory

  worshiping him as great Lord.[4]

 

            Ann continues her list of paradoxes: “He is the Satisfaction that was between the thieves … it was him who gave the arms of his executioners the power to nail him to the cross.” Then he was finally laid to rest, “the creation moving in him, and he dead in the tomb.”[5]

            To these wonders, she responds with thanks, “Thanks forever, and a hundred thousand thanks,” not only for the eternal salvation and all its benefits, but for Christ himself, “that there is an Object to worship, the theme of a song to persist forever,” that she will live “to see the Invisible, who was dead and is now alive,” and that she will enjoy “eternal and inseparable communion with my God.”[6]

            More paradoxes appear in Christ’s finished work, when God, in “a servant’s form,” achieved victory and procured gifts for his people.

 

Principalities, dominations,

He their overthrow procured,

Spoiled them all, and jailed the jailer,

Through the passion he endured.

 

When I think upon that battle,

My sad soul leaps up with glee;

See! the law is held in honour,

Yet transgressors walk forth free;

See! our Resurrection’s buried,

And our Life laid underground;

See! our earth with highest heaven

In eternal peace is bound.

 

When on high he reascended,

All his work fulfilled below,

Lofty gates their heads uplifted,

All their wondering joy to show;

Doors flew open, choirs sang welcome

To the Incarnate in that land,

And the Father, glad and radiant,

Bade him sit at his right hand.

 

’Tis enough ’mid flooding waters,

’Tis enough ’mid flames of fire;

Cling to him, my soul, for ever,

Follow him, and never tire.[7]

 

Finding Her Bridegroom in All Scriptures

            Ann’s feeling of wonder is contagious. So is her enthusiasm over God’s word. Her songs are pregnant with Scriptural references, often bringing them to light in new and moving ways. Most famous is her reference to Zechariah 1:10-11, when the prophet talks with the Angel of the Lord (traditionally seen as a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Christ):

 

There he stands among the myrtles,

Worthiest object of my love;

Yet in part I know his glory

Towers all earthly things above;

One glad morning

I shall see him as he is.[8]

 

            I don’t know of anyone else who has been equally moved by these two verses in Zechariah. But Ann didn’t just recognize Christ in all of Scriptures. She greeted him with excitement and cherished those encounters, finding in them so much comfort and joy that she could grow indifferent to both the “vain idols of this earth” and the threatening, “stormy rivers.”

            Ann’s excitement at the discovery of Christ in Scriptures is tempered by the realization that, in this life, we “know in part,” but one day we “shall know fully” and “see him as he is” (1 Cor. 13:12, 1 John 3:2).

            William Williams Pantycelyn, another famous Welsh hymnist, once wondered, “O why may I not begin my heaven now in the world?"[9] Ann seemed to have been able to do just that, reveling in the riches of God’s word as she waited for the full consummation.

 

A Christmas poem

            At this start of the Christmas season, as we end a year that has left most of us baffled, Ann can remind us what we are truly celebrating and why:

 

Lo, to us is born a Brother,

Born for hard and troublous days, 

Faithful, full of consolation,

Worthy of yet higher praise.   

Freedom sealing, sickness healing.

Way to Zion straight and free,

Fount clear-flowing, life bestowing,

God our saving ark is he.[10]

 



[1] E. Wyn James, ed., Flame in the Mountains: Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and the Welsh Hymn, trans. H. A. Hodges (Tal-y-bont, Ceredigion, Wales: Y Lolfa, 2017), hymn XV. (This is an excellent resource, with an in-depth study of Ann’s writings and useful tools, including a Scriptural concordance). See also http://www.anngriffiths.cardiff.ac.uk/contents.html. For a view of the places where Ann lived, see https://rhianprime.wixsite.com/churchinthecommunity/post/walk-in-faith-w...

[2] Ibid., loc. 274

[3] Ibid., III

[4] Ibid., XXII

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., I

[8] Ibid., XIII

[9] Ibid., loc. 1387

[10] Ibid. XXX