CHARLES, THOMAS (1755-1814), Welsh Nonconformist divine, was born of humble parentage at Longmoor, in the parish of Llanfihangel Abercywyn, near St Clears, Carmarthenshire, on the 14th of October 1755. He was educated for the Anglican ministry at Llanddowror and Carmarthen, and at Jesus College, Oxford (1775-1778). In 1777 he studied theology under the evangelical John Newton at Olney. He was ordained deacon in 1778 on the title of the curacies of Shepton Beauchamp and Sparkford, Somerset; and took priest's orders in 1780. He afterwards added to his charge at Sparkford, Lovington, South Barrow and North Barrow, and in September 1782 was presented to the perpetual curacy of South Barrow by the Rev. John Hughes, Coln St Denys. But he never left Sparkford, though the contrary has been maintained, until he resigned all his curacies in June 1783, and returned to Wales, marrying (on August 20th) Sarah Jones of Bala, the orphan of a flourishing shopkeeper. He had early fallen under the influence of the great revival movement in Wales, and at the age of seventeen had been "converted" by a sermon of Daniel Rowland's. This was enough to make him unpopular with many of the Welsh clergy, and being denied the privilege of preaching for nothing at two churches, he helped his old Oxford friend John Mayor, now vicar of Shawbury, Shropshire, from October until January 11th, 1784. On the 25th of January he took charge of Llan yn Mowddwy (14 m. from Bala), but was not allowed to continue there more than three months. Three influential people, among them the rector of Bala, agitated some of the parishioners against him, and persuaded his rector to dismiss him. His preaching, his catechizing of the children after evensong, and his connexion with the Bala Methodists - his wife's step-father being a Methodist preacher - gave great offence. After a fortnight more at Shawbury, he wrote to John Newton and another clergyman friend in London for advice. The Church of England denied him employment, and the Methodists desired his services. His friends advised him to return to England, but it was too late. By September he had crossed the Rubicon, Henry Newman (his rector at Shepton Beauchamp and Sparkford) accompanying him on a tour in Carnarvonshire. In December, he was preaching at the Bont Uchel Association; so that he joined the Methodists (see Calvinistic Methodists) in 1784.
Before taking this step, he had been wont in his enforced leisure to gather the poor children of Bala into his house for instruction, and so thickly did they come that he had to adjourn with them to the chapel. This was the origin of the Welsh Circulating Schools, which he developed on the lines adopted by Griffith Jones (d. 1761), formerly vicar of Llanddowror. First one man was trained for the work by himself, then he was sent to a district for six months, where, (for £8 a year) he taught gratis the children and young people (in fact, all comers) reading and Christian principles. Writing was added later. The expenses were met by collections made in the Calvinistic Methodist Societies, and as the funds increased masters were multiplied, until in 1786 Charles had seven masters to whom he paid £10 per annum; in 1787, twelve; in 1789, fifteen; in 1794, twenty. By this time the salary had been increased to £12; in 1801 it was £14. He had learnt of Raikes's Sunday Schools before he left the Establishment, but he rightly considered the system set on foot by himself far superior; the work and object being the same, he gave six days' tuition for every one given by them, and many people not only objected to working as teachers on Sunday, but thought the children forgot in the six days what they learnt on the one. But Sunday Schools were first adopted by Charles to meet the case of young people in service who could not attend during the week, and even in that form much opposition was shown to them because teaching was thought to be a form of Sabbath breaking. His first Sunday School was in 1787. Wilberforce, Charles Grant, John Thornton and his son Henry, were among the philanthropists who contributed to his funds; in 1798 the Sunday School Society (established 1785) extended its operations to Wales, making him its agent, and Sunday Schools grew rapidly in number and favour. A powerful revival broke out at Bala in the autumn of 1791, and his account of it in letters to correspondents, sent without his knowledge to magazines, kindled a similar fire at Huntly. The scarcity of Welsh bibles was Charles's greatest difficulty in his work. John Thornton and Thomas Scott helped him to secure supplies from the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge from 1787 to 1789, when the stock became all but exhausted. In 1799 a new edition was brought out by the Society, and he managed to secure 700 copies of the 10,000 issued; the Sunday School Society got 3000 testaments printed, and most of them passed into his hands in 1801.
In 1800, when a frost-bitten thumb gave him great pain and much fear for his life, his friend, Rev. Philip Oliver of Chester, died, leaving him director and one of three trustees over his chapel at Boughton; and this added much to his anxiety. The Welsh causes at Manchester and London, too, gave him much uneasiness, and burdened him with great responsibilities at this juncture. In November 1802 he went to London, and on the 7th of December he sat at a committee meeting of the Religious Tract Society, as a country member, when his friend, Joseph Tarn - a member of the Spa Fields and Religious Tract Society committees - introduced the subject of a regular supply of bibles for Wales. Charles was asked to state his case to the committee, and so forcibly did he impress them, that it was there and then decided to move in the matter of a general dispersion of the bible. When he visited London a year later, his friends were ready to discuss the name of a new Society, and the sole object of which should be to supply bibles. Charles returned to Wales on the 30th of January 1804, and the British and Foreign Bible Society was formally and publicly inaugurated on March the 7th. The first Welsh testament issued by that Society appeared on the 6th of May 1806, the bible on the 7th of May 1807 - both being edited by Charles.
Between 1805 and 1811 he issued his Biblical Dictionary in four volumes, which still remains the standard work of its kind in Welsh. Three editions of his Welsh catechism were published for the use of his schools (1789, 1791 and 1794); an English catechism for the use of schools in Lady Huntingdon's Connexion was drawn up by him in 1797; his shorter catechism in Welsh appeared in 1799, and passed through several editions, in Welsh and English, before 1807, when his Instructor (still the Connexional catechism) appeared. From April 1799 to December 1801 six numbers of a Welsh magazine called Trysorfa Ysprydol (Spiritual Treasury) were edited by Thomas Jones of Mold and himself; in March 1809 the first number of the second volume appeared, and the twelfth and last in November 1813.
The London Hibernian Society asked him to accompany Dr David Bogue, the Rev. Joseph Hughes, and Samuel Mills to Ireland in August 1807, to report on the state of Protestant religion in the country. Their report is still extant, and among the movements initiated as a result of their visit was the Circulating School system. In 1810, owing to the growth of Methodism and the lack of ordained ministers, he led the Connexion in the movement for connexionally ordained ministers, and his influence was the chief factor in the success of that important step. From 1811 to 1814 his energy was mainly devoted to establishing auxiliary Bible Societies. By correspondence he stimulated some friends in Edinburgh to establish charity schools in the Highlands, and the Gaelic School Society (1811) was his idea. His last work was a corrected edition of the Welsh Bible issued in small pica by the Bible Society. As a preacher he was in great request, though possessing but few of the qualities of the popular preacher. All his work received very small remuneration; the family was maintained by the profits of a business managed by Mrs Charles - a keen, active and good woman. He died on the 5th of October 1814. His influence is still felt, and he is rightly claimed as one of the makers of modern Wales.
(D. E. J.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)