This week I’ve read a book that could very well be the sentimental story of a romantic Victorian bestselling novel, but the story isn’t fiction. It did happen in real life. And it’s not an overstatement to say that the story of Mary Jones changed the history of the world. Her amazing journey, though it happened 217 years ago, remains a tale well worth telling.
Mary Jones (1784-1864) was born into a very poor but devout Christian farming family in a tiny village called Llanfihangel-y-Pennant located at the foot of Cader Idris mountains in north Wales. Around the time of her birth, there was a revival going on in Wales and a Calvinistic Methodist preacher named Thomas Charles who was ministering in a chapel in a market town called Bala, made sure that Sunday Schools were taught at churches in the nearby villages. Mary had to walk three miles each way to attend a school started by local Methodists in another village, Abergynolwyn.She learned to read and desperately wanted to have her own copy of the Bible but her mother, who became a widow when her husband died before Mary turned 5, was too poor to buy one for the family. The nearest Bible to her house was in a farm about two miles away which is a long hike for a little girl to do everyday but Mary would often go to read God’s Word whenever she could. At the tender age of 9 she decided to save up her money and for 6 long years she had amassed a total of 17 shillings just enough to buy herself a copy of the Bible. Seventeen shillings is 85 pence in decimal coinage, but back in 1800 it was worth about £40 — a huge sum of money at a time when that amount was a labourer’s one year and a half wage.
So in the summer of 1800, with a bag filled with bread and cheese, the money to purchase the Bible, and a clog (which was too expensive to be worn for the long hike but she would have worn before she knocked on the door of the preacher’s home), Mary walked 25 miles from her home across the treacherous Welsh mountains to Rev. Thomas Charles house in Bala. The rough track over the mountains would have been very rough and lonely to traverse but Mary walked on her own very determined to buy a copy of the Bible she so desperately wanted.
However, when she arrived at Rev. Charles home, she received a disappointing news that the delivery of the Bibles from the printers in London had been delayed. But Mary was graciously offered to stay in the house of the minister’s maid, where she stayed for three days until the Bibles were delivered from London. She would no doubt have welcomed the opportunity to recover from the exhaustion of the long walk before her return journey. Once the Bibles arrived, the preacher gave Mary not just one, but three Bibles for the price of one. Mary then retraced her steps back home to her village, carrying her clogs and the three Bibles, which would have made quite a heavy load for a 15 year old girl to carry since Bibles back then were huge and bulky.
Rev. Thomas Charles was so moved by Mary’s story and was inspired to help establish the British and Foreign Bible Society. Since that day in 1800, over 217 years ago, the British and Foreign Bible Society has become Bible Society — a charity committed to faithfully living out their mission that the Bible should be made available for every man, woman and child in the world.
The story of Mary Jones can best be told in her own words. Here’s what she said during an interview a few months before her death in 1864:
“One stormy Monday morning I was walking to a farmhouse about two miles from my home, a gentleman riding on a white horse and wearing a cloth cape came to meet me and asked me where I was going through such wind and rain. I said I was going to a farmhouse where there was a Bible, that there wasn’t one nearer my home, and that the mistress of the farm said that I could see the Bible, which she kept on a table in the parlour so long as I took my clogs off. I told him that I was saving up every halfpenny this long time to get a Bible but that I did not know where to get one. The gentleman was ‘Charles of Bala’, he told me to come to Bala at a certain time, that he was expecting some from London and that I should have one from him.When the time came my mother put the money and a little bread and cheese in one end of the ‘wallet’ and my clogs in the other, and I set off for Bala on a fine morning, resting where there was a stream of clear water, to eat the bread and cheese. I came to Bala trembling and knocked at the door of Mr Charles’ house. I asked for Mr Charles and was told that he was in his study at the back of the house. I was allowed to go to him and he told me that the Bibles had not arrived. I started to cry because I did not know where to stay. He sent me to stay with an old servant of his who had a house at the bottom of his garden, until the Bibles came. When they came Mr Charles gave me three for the price of one. I set off home with my precious burden, I ran a great part of the way, I was so glad of my Bible”.
Mary died in 1864 at age 80 and was buried at the churchyard in Llanycil (above photos), not too far from where she was born. She came to be known not only for her faithfulness to the Lord and to the church where she was a member of, but also for her generosity and her love of the Word of God. She reads her Bible right through from cover to cover four times in a year. She also memorised a large portions of the Bible that even in old age she could very well recite the Scripture to herself after she had become blind and could no longer read it to herself. Of the three Bibles which Mary received, only two survive. One of them is now owned by the Bible Society and on display in their archive at the University of Cambridge. The other copy is in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The third was given to Mary’s son John who emigrated to America in 1890 where it may have disappeared. (Images show two of Mary’s Bibles that survived and are now housed at the National Museum of Wales and University of Cambridge. Images: Bible Society)
While reading this book, I was reminded once again that so many Christians have sacrificed, some gave their lives — were burned at the stake — just so we could have an English translation of the Bible. Today we simply take for granted having the Word of God at our fingertips. The story of Mary Jones is very moving and highly inspirational; it certainly is one book I’d highly recommend to Christian parents to read to their children from a very young age.
Note: Featured image and the two photos of Cader Idris mountains are from Wales Tourism. Mary Jones would have traversed that landscape from her home to Tala.