William Morgan and the Welsh Bible

William Morgan was born in 1545 at Ty Mawr Wybrnant, in the parish of Penmachno, near Betws-y-Coed, North Wales. He attended St John’s College, Cambridge where he studied a range of subjects including Philosophy, Mathematics and Greek.

The Welsh translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures was completed by 1567. It was basically the work of two scholars, William Salesbury and Richard Davies, with Thomas Huet’s translation of the book of Revelation. William Morgan, a Hebrew, Greek, and Latin scholar, later revised their translations, adding his rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures. The complete Bible was finally printed in 1588, and by means of it, the goal ‘that every Welshman could draw the truth of the Scriptures from the fountain-head in his own language’ was realized ( Wales: A History, by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, p.155). Why was royal consent given? For the political expediency of religious uniformity and discouraging Catholicism. The fledgling Anglican Church was committed to national sovereignty over England and Wales, and the disappearance of medieval Catholicism, meant replacing the Mass with scriptural exposition. The Act of 1563 actually stated: ‘that the Welsh people might better learn to love and fear God, to serve and obey their Prince (meaning, Elizabeth I), and to know their duties toward their neighbours’..

Following the publication of the English King James Version in 1611, revisions were made by Morgan’s successor, Richard Parry, whose edition, with modern orthography, has been in use to the present time. But as A Bible for Wales puts it: “Parry’s Bible deprived the Welsh people of some of the advantages of Morgan’s scholarship.

William Morgan’s translation was a remarkable achievement. He also proved to be a master of prose. Yet he had no model to follow, as scarcely any prose had been printed in Welsh up to that time. His warm, dignified style and smoothness of phrase set a standard for the Welsh people that has endured for 400 years. But it did more than that. “If ever one single book saved a language,” says Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, “that book is the Bible in Welsh.” As William Salesbury had said: ‘unless you bestir yourselves to cherish and mend the language before the present generation is no more, it will be too late..’

At the time of his death in 1604, William Morgan was still in debt from the printing of his new Bible translation, but his goal had been achieved. Thanks in great measure to his skill and loving labours, the Bible became a rich heritage for the religiously minded Welsh people.

Morgan largely followed tradition and rendered the name of God, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tetragrammaton,  יהוה, as Arglwydd (Lord), however at Exodus 6:2,3, 33: 19, 34: 5,6, and Psalm 83: 18, he transliterates the Hebrew personal name of God as ‘Iehofa‘. Interesting, too, is his use of the shortened form of the divine name, Iah, in his translation “Halelu-Iah” (“Praise Jah, you people”) in the Christian Greek Scriptures at Gweledigaeth Ioan (Revelation) 19:1, 3, 4, and 6.

The image depicts the first page of Luke, Chapter One in the 1588 Welsh Bible

My thanks to Dewi Williams for supplementary information

One thought on “William Morgan and the Welsh Bible”

  1. A group of us exhibit a very rare collection of First Editions of Welsh Bibles (including the two mentioned in this article) that date from 1567 to 1806 (welshbibles.info)
    We recently updated two bilingual panels in this Exhibition featuring Peter Williams using information from your site.

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