Abergavenny Academy (1757-1781)

In 1757 the Congregational Fund Board decided for doctrinal and disciplinary reasons to withdraw its support from the academy at Carmarthen and establish another academy at Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. This was usually referred to in the minutes as 'the academy in Wales'. David Jardine, who had been ordained as the Independent minister in the town in 1752, was appointed as tutor on 7 March 1757, and his letter of acceptance was received on 4 April. Most of the congregation were Welsh speaking, but the new minister was far from fluent in that language. This, however, was no hindrance to him at the academy. When it opened he had seven students under his care, four of them having come from Carmarthen. Jardine received a salary of £10 a year, and he also received £4 a year as minister. The students were allowed £4 each a year.

An examination took place at the end of the first year, and the examiners included the Revd Edmund Jones of Pontypool (the Old Prophet). He must have had great pleasure in visiting the academy, because he took a leading part in moving it from Carmarthen to Abergavenny. He was a staunch Calvinist, who wielded much influence in Wales. The Congregational Board received the report of the examination with satisfaction.

Eleven students were supported in 1759, and two of them had an extra gift of 40s. each. One student was not to be paid, but the reason for the refusal was not given. Student numbers were quite stable: 9 in 1761, 11 in 1763, and 10 in 1764. Unlike Carmarthen, discipline was not a problem at Abergavenny. Only one student was reported for 'disagreeable conduct both in his House and his church' (CFB minutes, 6 January 1766). The Congregational Board tested candidates according to their gifts, ability, and doctrine. One student was asked to leave because he had changed his doctrinal views since being admitted to the academy. A confession of faith could be brief, while others were quite detailed. Many of them followed the same pattern. Sections would deal with revelation; the deity of Christ and his atoning death; justifying faith; persevering grace; and the blessedness of heaven.

Benjamin Davies was probably chosen as assistant tutor in 1764. He was a former Carmarthen student, who had made rapid progress in languages and theology. The Congregational Board must have regarded him highly, because they paid him £10, the same salary as the tutor. Following Jardine's death in 1766 the Board invited Davies to take his place; they reported his acceptance on 8 December 1766. There was no radical change in the curriculum, because Davies believed that the Carmarthen curriculum was more than satisfactory. He insisted that students should master Latin and Greek before proceeding to theology. Classics, logic, mathematics, and astronomy were still an integral part of the curriculum. The tutor would arrange for the more able students to help him with the lecturing. As a Welsh speaker Davies could converse with the Welsh speaking students. In class, however, he insisted on lecturing through the medium of English, and urged the students to master that language, a hard task for many of them. The course lasted four years, but occasionally the tutor would keep a student for a little longer, especially if there was a possibility of a call to a neighbouring church. About 60 students were educated at Abergavenny, of whom at least 16 went to England.

Two Abergavenny students subsequently became tutors: Edward Williams at Oswestry and Rotherham, and Jenkin Lewis at Wrexham and Leaf Square. Of those ministering to congregations in Wales, John Thomas of Rhayader, John Griffiths of Glandwr, and Benjamin Jones of Pwllheli should be mentioned. John Thomas was one of many Independent ministers deeply influenced by the Methodist revival. He was converted under the ministry of Howel Harris, and preached in Whitefield's chapel in London and in the chapels of Lady Huntingdon. He was also a hymn-writer, and his spritual autobiography, Rhad Ras ('Free Grace'), had a marked influence in Wales. John Griffiths, another of the four students who left the academy at Camarthen for Abergavenny, was well known not only as a preacher but also as a teacher: his school at Glandwr educated many future ministers. Benjamin Jones was a theologian, and his main work was in defence of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

On 28 July 1781, the Congregational Board invited Davies to succeed Daniel Fisher at Homerton Academy. Davies accepted the invitation, and suggested the name of Edward Williams of Oswestry, one of his former students, as his successor. Williams accepted the invitation on the condition that the academy moved to Oswestry, and in February 1782, despite Davies's wish that the academy should remain in south Wales, the Board agreed to Williams's terms.

Noel Gibbard
 


Archives

Information about the academy at Abergavenny can be found in the minutes of the Congregational Fund Board, DWL, MS OD 405-406, and in National Library of Wales, GB 0210 WTOWEN, Papers of the Revd Dr W. T. Owen, Nos 1 and 3; further information about the students can be found in National Library of Wales, Add MS 383D.

Published sources

Owen, Geraint Dyfnallt, Ysgolion a Cholegau yr Annibynwyr (Abertawe, 1939), 96-101.
Owen, John Dyfnallt, 'Jardine, David (1732-1766), Welsh Biography Online.
Owen, W. T., 'Wales and the Congregational Fund Board: "A Beauty Spot of Ecclesiastical
History" ', Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1978), 152-6.
Stephens, Thomas (ed.), Album Aberhonddu (Merthyr Tydfil, 1898).
Thomas, Isaac, 'Y Gronfa Gynulleidfaol ac Annibynwyr Cymru', Y Cofiadur, 28 (1958), 3-32.
Walters, D. Eurof, 'Y Parch. Edward Williams (1750-1813)', Y Cofiadur, 8 and 9 (1932).
 


Noel Gibbard, 'Abergavenny Academy (1757-1781)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, October 2012.