Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mary Jones and the Egryn Lights

The Welsh religious revival of 1904-5 is a fascinating episode in our history. Not in any kind of happy-clappy way you understand but as an example - in my opinion - of mass hysteria. The mania which swept across Wales, led by evangelist Evan Roberts, saw pubs and theatres emptying at an alarming rate. Chapels, on the other hand, were suddenly bursting at the seams. On a daily basis newspapers were filled with reports of mass conversions and widespread religious ecstasy. Wales, it seemed, had become intoxicated with religion.

Last year the Library of Wales re-published Rhys Davies's novel The Withered Root (1927), a fictionalised account of the Revival. Davies took a more Freudian view of events. Evangelists were like proto-rock stars, turning up in towns putting on a performance, bringing a bit of colour to otherwise rather drab lives. He understood, too, that Nonconformist Wales was sexually repressed and that this sudden orgasmic outpouring of religious enthusiasm, with its hot confessions and speaking in tongues, marked a reaction against an unhealthy puritanism. Davies, throughout his novel, also hinted at a dormant pagan need for magic and the miraculous in Wales.

Which is where Mary Jones comes in. Mary (see pic) was a preacher at a chapel at Egryn, Gwynedd. Whenever she preached, strange lights appeared nearby. Sometimes, too, mysterious stars could be seen in the vicinity of her chapel. The lights allegedly gave her divine guidance. It first happened in 1904 and reached its peak in 1905, coinciding with the Revival led by Evan Roberts. Numerous witnesses saw the lights. Such was the public interest in the story that a host of Fleet Street hacks were sent to investigate. Some of them even returned with credulous reports: a ball of fire was seen above the chapel roof while she preached, according to the Daily Mirror. Unsurprisingly articles on her began appearing regularly in the Occult Review.

Mary Jones was 35-years-old at the time - she was a farmer's wife. Her early years were spent at a bleak farmhouse at Islawrfordd. She suffered several bereavements - including the loss of her young son, her sister and her parents. For solace she turned to God. Later she started preaching and before long developed a mystical reputation. She soon became the leading figure of the Revival in North Wales. Whilst Evan Roberts, in south Wales, experienced visions, Mary actually inspired paranormal phenomenon to be visible to others. Which is much cooler. She also had apparitions in which Jesus appeared to her in bodily form. The devil, too, occasionally made an appearance in her world. Mary acquired the nickname of: the Merionethshire Seeress.

Naturally there has been a lot of retrospective speculation about Mary Jones and the Egryn lights. Possible rational explanations of the paranormal light shows that regularly accompanied her in Gwynedd have varied from: marsh gas, luminous insects, St Elmo’s Fire, the Aurora Borealis, the Fata Morgana, to the appearance of the planet Venus. As for Mary Jones her mission ended in 1906 when the Revival ran out of steam. Her fame quickly faded. She died in 1936 and is buried in Horeb cemetery at Dyffryn.