Sally Jones Charles – Pillar of the Welsh Revival at Bala

Sally Jones Charles – Pillar of the Welsh Revival at Bala

Most accounts of Welsh church history recognize the impressive contributions of Thomas Charles[1], the pastor of a Calvinistic Methodist church in Bala, Wales, in the Welsh Revival of his century, in the establishment of a great number of schools in the region, and in the foundation of the Bible Society.

            Few accounts, however, recognize the importance of his wife, Sally Jones, the only reason why he moved to Bala in the first place and his greatest human source of encouragement and support.

            Sally (Sarah) Jones was born in Bala on November 12, 1753. Her father David died when she was only six, leaving his family with the administration of their shop – a typical store selling “nearly everything required for house hold purposes and personal wear ... from senna to silk hats and scrubbing-brushes to the most delicate of edibles.”[2]

            Sally’s mother Jane soon remarried. The man she chose was Thomas Foulks, a widower and itinerant preacher. The shop brought in enough income to support the family and Foulks’s ministry and to provide hospitality to other itinerant preachers. As Sarah grew, she assumed more responsibilities in the shop, proving to be an excellent businesswoman.

            According to Thomas Charles’s biographer, David Jenkins, for years Sally bore “the brunt of business worries,”striving “to make it easy for her stepfather to fulfil his preaching engagements, week days and week-ends. With him, or without him, she regularly attended the fairs of Chester, Wrexham, Corwen, and many of the smaller accessible towns , trading in the staple wares manufactured at Bala, and buying goods for local use and consumption.”[3]

            Her wisdom, intelligence and piety impressed everyone who met her. According to some records, the famous preacher and hymnwriter William Williams of Pantycelyn[4] was so impressed by Sally that he hoped to see her one day married to his son Jack. In 1776, he sent her a hymn he had composed especially for her.

An Unusual Proposal

            But Sally’s most persistent admirer was Thomas Charles. He first heard about her in 1774, when he was still studying at Carmarthen, Wales and, just from that description, could not get her out of his mind. He briefly met her a few years later, when his friend Simon Lloyd invited him to spend the summer with him in Bala. That meeting only confirmed Charles’s feelings, and his obsession grew.

            “Thus I have explain’d the important affairs which occupy so much of my time and thoughts, but at times, notwithstanding all, Dear Sally steals in insensibly, and before I am aware, gets possession of my heart,” he wrote to Lloyd in 1779. “Haec omnia inter nos [all this just between us],”[5] he clarified. (As it’s usually the case, this confidential confession was included in a book and is now public domain).

            If obsessing for years over a stranger seems odd today, writing her a letter to express one’s feelings is even more unusual – the type of story that fascinates romantic comedies writers.

             “My very dear friend,” Thomas wrote, “such an unexpected address from a person who never saw you but once, and that at such a long interval of time, will I suppose at first not a little surprise you: however I flatter myself that thus circumstanced it comes with the more recommendation, when I assure you that long as the interval is since I had the pleasure of seeing you, you have not been absent from my mind, for a whole day, from that time to this.”

            He described his short meeting with her: “The sight of so much good sense, beauty and unaffected modesty, joined with that genuine piety which eminently adorns your person, administered fuel to the fire already enkindled, and which has continued burning with increasing ardour from that time to this.”[6]

            While he only dared to ask for a continued correspondence, he made his intentions clear: “You are the only person that ever I saw (and the first I ever addressed on the subject), with whom I thought I could spend my life in happy union and felicity, and for whom I possessed that particular affection and esteem requisite for con jugal happiness.”[7]

Caution About Marriage

            How could Sally respond if not with surprise and caution? Unlike her stepfather, who, in her view, thought “everything sincere,”[8] she questioned Charles’s motives, prompting Charles to respond with insistence on his sincerity, and even a small reproof on what he considered a “too cautious scrupulosity on her part.”[9] But who could blame her? She hardly knew Charles, and her successful business raised the suspicion that men could be after her financial security.

            Besides, as she explained in another letter, she was quite content with “the liberty and privileges”[10] of her present unmarried state, although she didn’t exclude the possibility that she might change her mind.

            To the notion that marriage can provide happiness, she could reply, as she did in a later letter, that “our happiness doth not consist in anything transitory.” To this, Charles responded with a long explanation of how “the love of God and of his creatures not only are consistent, but inseparably connected together.”[11]

            Sally conceded to continue a correspondence with Charles, as long as each of them had “free liberty to drop the correspondence at pleasure.” In a later letter, she specified that she didn’t want their correspondence to become known, so she directed Charles to send his letters to her stepfather. Charles agreed. In fact, he suggested they both disguise their handwriting on the outside of their letters, in order to avoid post office gossip.

            It didn’t take long for Sally to open her heart to Charles, sharing some of her perplexities and fears, such as her discouragement over her perceived indifference toward God and her fear of death. Charles could relate to the same fear. It was only when reading 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 that he realized that “death is considered there not so much our enemy as Christ’s.”[12]

            The distance between the two friends (four days on horseback) didn’t slow down their correspondence, and eventually - after much perplexity and renewed doubts – Sally agreed to marry Charles, on condition that she could retain her business. The wedding took place on 20 August 1783.

Mutual Support

            By keeping her shop, Sally was again able to support a minister – not her stepfather, who moved out after her wedding, but Thomas Charles. This way, she can be considered largely responsible for the advances of the gospel in the area, as well as the foundation of schools and Bible societies.

            In this, she was not alone. Thomas Faulks’s first wife, Margaret, a prosperous draper, was considered a pillar of Methodism in Bala. Other important Welsh preachers, such as John Elias of Anglesey, William Roberts of Amlwch, and Abraham Jones, were supported in their work by the income of their wives.

            But Sally offered Thomas much more than her financial support. Her letters to him are full of biblical encouragement. Once, interpreting a gloomy poem he sent her as an indication of his state of mind, she reassured him of God’s unfailing faithfulness. Aware of the fact that she didn’t know all the details, she closed by saying, “I am quite in the dark. Every hint is cast [at] random. Perhaps it wd have been more my prudence if I had held my peace. If I am foolish I am sincere.”[13]

            If business was uncertain, it was Thomas’s time to reassure her that, “If we lose a living or a shop, the disappointment will be none, for our God who is our portion will still remain with us. ... He has every way at his command to supply the wants of his people. When one pipe is stopped we are apt to think that every pipe is stopped and that the fountain can in no other way communicate of its fulness — but this is our infirmity: the Lord can make new pipes, open new channels in a way to us quite unexpected.”[14]

            Sally and Thomas continued to work together and support each other until the end of their earthly lives, which came almost at the same time – both from an illness. Thomas died on 5 October 1814, and Sally three weeks later. They left two sons, Thomas Rice, who continued the family business, and David James, who served as a physician.

            Speaking at a meeting of the Bible Society, John Harries remembered Sally’s indispensable work behind the scenes. “And in this way,” he said, “it seems that for the Bible Society we are indebted, in a large measure, to a woman.”[15]

[2] David E. Jenkins, The Life of the Rev. Thomas Charles, B.A. of Bala: Promotor of Charity & Sunday Schools, Founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Etc, Volume 1, Llewelyn Jenkins, 1908, p. 430

[3] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 138

[6] Ibid, 149-150

[7] Ibid, 147

[8] Sally Jones to Thomas Charles, Bala, January 17, 1780, from the Journal of the Historical  Society of the Presbyterian Church of Wales (June 1946), 39, quoted in Michael A. G. Haykin and Victoria J. Haykin, The Christian Lover, Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009, 49.

[9] Jenkins, The Life of the Rev. Thomas Charles, 146

[10] Ibid., 149

[11] Ibid., 157

[12] Ibid, 157

[13] Ibid, 174

[14] Ibid, 497

[15] David E. Jenkins, The Life of the Rev. Thomas Charles, B.A. of Bala: Promotor of Charity & Sunday Schools, Founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Etc, Volume 3, Llewelyn Jenkins, 1908, p. 549.


Simonetta Carr