Great Churchmen (No. 25)
Minister, Scholar, Teacher
Published by Church Book Room Press
There is scarcely anything so fascinating as watching how God makes His “polished shafts,” to use the expressive metaphor of the prophet Isaiah in his forty-ninth chapter. It cannot always be done during a man’s life because so often God uses His shafts most effectually towards the end of their time. Thus we now find it appropriate to deal with the life and work of Dr. Griffith Thomas, who was called home just over twenty-five years ago.
The three stages are these: the shaft is chosen, then it is prepared, and finally it is used. This is always God’s order, and in the unfolding of the career now under review, each period is clearly marked and, we may add with confidence, God’s plan most beautifully fulfilled.
The shaft was chosen. “In the shadow of God’s hand it was hidden.” But the choice was unmistakable. One has only to notice how initial trials and disadvantages were overcome to realize that God had selected His instrument. The Lord called from the womb; from the very first God made mention of His servant’s name and said, “Thou art mine.” Yes, the “shining arrow” (to use Helen Spurrell’s lovely translation) was divinely selected out of the forest of youth in the sixties of the last century.
After the choice, the polishing. This always takes time and trouble. It is the work of a skilled and delicate hand. Discipleship means discipline. In former times, when arrows were made by hand, the process took weeks, or even months. Sometimes the shaft was knotty and slow to yield to the artificer’s treatment. In the life now before us, God prepared His servant over a period of about twelve years in order that “He might be glorified.” All the way along one notices the responsiveness of God’s man, the pliability of the shaft under the pressure of God’s hand.
Selection, preparation, demonstration: this is God’s way always. The Lord is a man of war, and in His quiver, there is the polished shaft ready for use whenever His power is to be demonstrated and His foes are to be dispersed. God shot His arrow again and again in London, Oxford, Canada, and the United States, and always it could be said, “This is the Lord’s doing, and marvellous in our eyes.”
WILLIAM HENRY GRIFFITH THOMAS was born on the 2nd of January, 1861, at Oswestry in Shropshire. Widowed before her son’s birth, his mother, Annie Nightingale Griffith, had returned to her old home, there he spent the early years of his life in the care of his grandfather, Dr. William Griffith. Following the old physician’s death, when the boy was eight years old, and the protracted litigation over the estate, his mother (who had married again) took him to a new home at Gobowen, a few miles away in the same county. When Griffith Thomas was 14, he had to leave school owing to the family’s financial embarrassment. In later life this was always a matter of disappointment to him, because he felt he had been handicapped from the start. But this early setback did not deter him, and from it we get an idea of his determined character, since the child is father to the man.
When he was 16, he was prevailed upon, much against his will, to teach a Sunday School class at Holy Trinity Church, Castle Fields, Oswestry. Although he did his best, he became increasingly conscious that he was trying to teach what he had never experienced in his own heart. In this it will be seen that God was at work in His life. At the same time he noticed that some of the other young fellows had something which he did not possess. Then, early in 1878, two Christians, Poole and Preston, who were fellow members of the Young Men’s Society, had a long talk with him, the first of many. No light came at first, Griffith Thomas’ difficulty being that he could not “feel” saved. At length Poole gave him a coin and asked him to put it into his pocket. “Do you feel you’ve got it?” he was asked. “No,” he replied, “I know I have.” “So,” Poole rejoined, “we know we have Christ when we accept Him and believe in His Word, without feeling it.” Kneeling down, they all prayed and light and joy came into the soul of Griffith Thomas. “When I awoke the next morning (March 24th, 1878),” he wrote later, “my soul was simply overflowing with joy, and since then I have never doubted that it was on that Saturday night I was born again, converted to God.”
Immediately he threw himself into all the work of his Church, “his Bible being very precious to him and his joy in Christ very great.” He was confirmed in May the same year and never ceased to be thankful that his confirmation followed his conversion. For a time he wondered whether God were calling him to the foreign field or perhaps the ministry at home. In this connexion he met with a good deal of criticism and opposition, not least from his step-father, but he weathered the storm well, and doubtless it was all part of the polishing.
When the family moved to Wrexham he made the acquaintance of Canon Howell, afterwards Dean of St. David’s, who became a life-long friend and whose influence upon his character was deep and lasting.
At the age of 18, Griffith Thomas went to London for a short stay with his step-father’s brother, Mr. William Charles, in Clerkenwell. While there he was offered a post in his uncle’s office and became much drawn to it because of the better opportunities for study, concerning which he now felt a growing ambition. Guidance received from Mark vii. 31-37, confirmed by a letter from home sanctioning the proposal, was immediately obeyed and within a short time he was settled in the Metropolis.
During the three years he was in his uncle’s office he had to work so hard that his only time for study was from 10.30 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. Much midnight oil was burned and his health suffered a good deal, but he obtained a good knowledge of Greek upon which he concentrated.
Then came the opening which must have illuminated much of his past experience and especially his move to London. The Vicar of the Church he attended, the Rev. B. Oswald Sharp, offered him a lay-curacy which enabled him to have more time for study. Each morning, for a period of 3 years, he attended lectures at King’s College, London, his afternoons and evenings being spent in parish work.
At the end of his course he obtained his Associatship of King’s College “with distinction,” which was most gratifying, having regard to the limited amount of time he had for study. When he was leaving Oxford in 1897 his Vicar, the beloved Canon Christopher, referred to his previous career and said: “He had no advantages whatever in early life, excepting the Grace of God in his heart, brains in his head, and a strong manly body.” It is interesting to recall that one of the last honours that came to him from England was his election as a Fellow and a member of the Corporation of King’s College, London.
Mention must be made here of one of the important formative influences in his life, namely the friendship of Dr. Henry Wace, afterwards Dean of Canterbury. He acknowledged his debt in the Preface to his Principles of Theology. He heard Dr. Wace’s lectures in 1885 at King’s and thus the foundation was well laid. The friendship of the two men, as teacher and student at first, and afterwards as fellow theologians, continued until the younger man died a few months before his old Principal. Griffith Thomas never tired of expressing his gratitude to Dean Wace for introducing him to salmon’s masterpiece on the Roman controversy, The Infallibility of the Church, and his other works.
*The Author is indebted to Mrs Griffith Thomas and her daughter, Mrs E.H. Gillespie, of Lafayette, Louisiana, for much biographical information, and he hereby expresses his gratitude to them for their kind assistance in the writing of this booklet. (August, 1949)