Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember David Griffiths, a Welsh missionary to Madagascar.

It is the 21st of March 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


It’s a Tuesday, and it is time to get exotic. That’s right- today we remember a Welshman who would be a missionary in Madagascar in the 1800s- it’s a story about mission work and the growth of Christianity on the Island off the east coast of Africa but also with some intrigue, anti-Welsh sentiment from the English and a case of plagiarism and deceit within the London Missionary Society.

Our featured character today is David Griffiths- born in 1792 in Glanmeilwch, Gwynfe, Carmarthenshire (and so help me God, Welsh pronunciation is one of the harder things- they stack consonants next to each other and throw “y’s” everywhere). Griffith’s family belonged to the Protestant Congregational church, and David began preaching as a teenager. He attended Wrexham Academy and then a missionary college in Gosport. He was married in 1820 and was the second missionary sent to Madagascar by the London Mission Society- the first, David Jones, a fellow Welshman, arrived six months prior.

This was during the reign of King Radama I of Madagascar. His father had helped consolidate the various tribes on the Island and, by 1810, had taken over for his father. Radama was open to forging relationships with the West and saw helping the London Mission Society and spreading the Christian faith as good foreign policy. It was in the early years of Griffiths's work that he was able to learn Malagasy (the language of the people of Madagascar- called the Malagasy), develop a Latin alphabet for the language and begin translating the Bible, a hymnal, a catechism and devotional works including the Pilgrims Progress in Malagasy. By 1824 Griffiths and Jones were preaching, and the church was growing rapidly. But with the death of Radama, his wife, Ranavalona, became regent and pursued a path of isolationism for the African Island. Griffiths's  10-year permit expired, and Ranavalona permitted him to stay, but only as a merchant. But his continued mission work led to the persecution of Christians by the Queen, and Griffiths would be forced to leave in 1834. A few years later, he returned under the guise of being a merchant but was arrested for helping Malagasy Christians escape persecution. His life sentence was commuted to a fine, and he returned to Wales in 1840, where he would work on a history of Madagascar and Malagasy Grammar in English.

If you are a student of Christianity in Madagascar, you might be more familiar with the names William Ellis and Joseph John Freeman. These were also missionaries from the United Kingdom- Englishmen with the London Mission Society who are often associated with the history of Madagascar and the proliferation of the church there in the early days before French colonization at the end of the century.

But it was Gwyn Campbell’s 2013 work “David Griffiths and the Missionary History of Madagascar” that made rather striking claims that the work of Ellis on the history of Madagascar was plagiarized from Griffiths's work (which before 2013 was only available in Welsh) and that both Englishmen were rather aloof Englishmen cosplaying as Missionaries while Griffiths and Jones did the heavy lifting and early translating and preaching that lead to the Christianization of the later court and formation of a country that today claims 50% of its population as Christian.  

In many places, syncretism remains a problem for the church, with many traditional religious beliefs fused with Christianity. I’ll let the missiologists work with this problem. Still, it does seem that most Christians are syncretistic- sometimes, the moderns might not syncretize animism or ancient beliefs and the Christian faith but nevertheless have their own philosophies and superstitions they interpolate with the Christian faith.

 After leaving Madagascar, Griffiths returned to Wales, where he served in a local Congregational parish. He continued to work on translations of works into Malagasy for the then-persecuted Christian minority on the island. With the death of Ranavalona, her son Radama II welcomed back missionaries who would stay through the next century of French colonization and independence last century.

David Griffiths, the Welsh Missionary and linguist died on the 21st of March in his native Wales in 1863. Born in 1792, he was 70 years old.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from Colossians:

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of March 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. 

The show is produced by a man who reminds you that Wales gave us Bonnie Tyler of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” fame- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who “doesn’t know what to do, I’m always in the dark, we’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks, I really need you tonight, forever’s gonna start tonight” I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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