Michaelmas, Griffith Jones and the Protective Power of the Word

Reading Time: 4 mins

The theme of guardianship permeates Christian observances of Michaelmas, unifying this wide variety of celebrations.

Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, is a unique feast day on the church calendar. Most saints’ days mark the date of death of the pious person in question or a date assigned by the church when the death date is unknown. However, what about a being who does not abide by the same temporal rules as mere mortals?

St. Michael, the Archangel of eschatological fame, is traditionally celebrated on September 29 in the Western Church. The selection of this date coincided with a Roman basilica dedicated to him in the fifth century. Roman Catholics combine Michael’s feast with Gabriel and Raphael. Protestants celebrate all angels with an emphasis on the archangels, and in the case of the Lutheran churches –– an emphasis on he who is greater than the angels, Christ.

The theme of guardianship permeates Christian observances of Michaelmas, unifying this wide variety of celebrations. In Scripture, Michael is lauded as “the great prince who has charge of your people” (Daniel 12:1) and the leader of the angels in the great showdown between heaven and hell –– a much more forceful image of angels than that which many hold today. The Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century collection of saints’ lives, reflected on the guardianship of the soul in its entry for St. Michael. Michael’s great victory in Revelation emerges in the Christian’s everyday life, in which angels protect the soul against evil, steer the soul to the path of penance, and ultimately convey the Christian to heaven.

Moving into the Reformation, angels retained this vocation of guardianship, as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb 1:10). Rather than conveying the soul to heaven through tedious tending on earth, angels are first and foremost proclaimers of God’s Holy Word who also protect the Church from its mightiest foe. As the burgeoning evangelical church began to shed some of its Roman identity, Martin Luther was emphatic that Michaelmas should remain “one of the feast days of Christ that the Church should celebrate.” It is when they hear “how the Lord used Michael and the angels to deliver His people from the accusations of Satan and cast them out of heaven using the Word of Christ.”

The Secular Nature of Michaelmas

Among Christians in the British Isles, Michaelmas emerged in the Middle Ages as one of the four “quarter days” that marked seasonal change. In addition to Christmas, Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation), and Midsummer (Feast of St. John the Baptist), Michaelmas represented a merging of sacred and secular as religious feast days also provided memorable dates for things like rent collections, legal terms, and hiring fairs. Michaelmas was chiefly noted for its being the end of harvest and the beginning of school terms. To this day, the first academic term in the British academic year is known as the Michaelmas term.

Griffith Jones, Teacher of the Welsh

One man who observed many such Michaelmas terms was the eighteenth-century Anglican cleric, Griffith Jones, who could be called a guardian of the Welsh Church. The simultaneous conclusion of harvest and beginning of the school term served his mission – to teach the Welsh people to read the Bible – splendidly. As something of an itinerant, Jones ministered to congregations in his native Carmarthenshire and elsewhere in rural Wales. Over time he found that parishioners could hardly utter the Lord’s Prayer, much less internalize its meaning and understand the freeing power of the Gospel.

The Church of England in Wales received little support from Canterbury in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the turn of the eighteenth century, only three of the sixty-two presiding bishops of Welsh sees resided in the coastal country. Though preaching increased, pastoral care was limited. These problems intensified under misguided efforts to provide Welsh children with primary education. Wales needed help in angelic proportions.

The simultaneous conclusion of harvest and beginning of the school term served his mission – to teach the Welsh people to read the Bible – splendidly.

Two well-meaning organizations attempted to fill this gaping hole in Welsh church life. The Welsh Trust and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) were London-based philanthropic initiatives that sought to provide the Welsh people with affordable Bibles and the skills to read them. The best intentions could not save the Trust or the SPCK from their self-defeating strategy of printing texts in Welsh while teaching in English. Additionally, the year-round, daily schedules promoted by these urban-based societies were not well-suited to the needs of Wales’ heavily agricultural population. For many parents, it was simply unfeasible to part with their children for so long.

The death of Jones’s patron and friend, Sir John Philipps, in 1737 yielded opportunity for Jones to chart a new course in Welsh religious education. As a native Welshman ministering to native Welsh, Jones understood the two-fold problem emanating from English strategies. From the beginning, Jones insisted on Welsh as the language of instruction. This new direction raised English eyebrows, for it smelled of the sort of rebellion present in Scotland and Ireland. However, Jones insisted that his people expressed their allegiance to the crown in deed better than they could ever have done so in word (Jones, Welch Piety).

This simple adjustment quickly yielded rewards. Jones noted in his annual appeals to donors that students could learn in three to four months under Welsh instruction what would take three to four years in English.

In addition to solving the linguistic issues, Jones adjusted the schools’ schedules from their traditional year-round model to the “circulating” model. This model operated in three to four-month intervals, usually during Michaelmas term (late September to December), when there would be less interference with the agricultural work that dominated the country’s economy. The circulating school proved to be a popular, economical option for impoverished parishes that could not maintain regular clergy or teachers. Historians estimate that this highly mobile model enabled as many as 250,000 children and adults (out of 450,000 Welshmen) to attain basic literacy.

Much like St. Michael, Jones worked tirelessly out of a sense of spiritual responsibility for those under his care.

Jones’s efforts emanated not from the place of a frustrated pastor who struggled to keep his congregations in line. Rather, much like St. Michael, he worked tirelessly out of a sense of spiritual responsibility for those under his care. When Englishmen pushed back at his insistence on Welsh as the language of instruction, he shot back that “the Thing to be cleared up is, Whether the chief and greatest End of all, viz. the Glory of God, the Interest of Religion and Salvation of the poor Welsh People.” Jones’s priorities could not have been clearer.

Occasionally, Jones’s role as guardian worked itself out in peculiar ways. His adamant apologia for the Welsh language defended the consonant-heavy tongue as “favourable to Religion, as being perhaps the chastest [language] in all Europe.” Jones believed its complexity acted as a protective barrier against “wily Jesuits” who failed to snatch any Welsh souls on account of their ignorance of the language (Jones).

These oddities notwithstanding, Jones retained his St. Michael-esque goal of fiercely protecting his people. His work was driven by the prayer that “the life of Religion would soon revive, and exert itself; and the Glory of our established Church, reduced low as it is in too many Places, would again be retrieved and receive a new Lustre” (Jones).