A Celebration of John Penry


John Penry

“Jesu Christ Dechre a Diwed”

A Service of Evensong celebrating John Penry

10 August2014  Llanfechan church near Llangammarch


John Penry at Cefn Brith

This brief service is based on the letter which John Penry wrote to his wife before his execution. It was to have taken place before the main service outside Cefn Brith but was canceled because of the poor weather!

Extract from letter 1

‘To my beloved wife, Hellenor Penry, partaker with me in this kingdom life of the sufferings of the Gospel of the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, and resting with me in the undoubted hope of that glory which shall be revealed. All strength and comfort, with all other spiritual graces, be multiplied through Jesus Christ, my Lord.’

Psalm 37

John Penry commended this Psalm to his wife along with Isa 60 and 61, 62, 63. Matt 20, Exodus 22.22, Job 24 to 27

Do not fret because of the wicked;
   do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
   and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
   and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
   do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
   over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil.…
The righteous shall inherit the land,
   and live in it for ever.
The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
   and their tongues speak justice.
The law of their God is in their hearts;
   their steps do not slip.
The wicked watch for the righteous,
   and seek to kill them.
The Lord will not abandon them to their power,
   or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.

Extract from letter 2

'Be much and often in prayer, day and night, in the reading and meditation of His word, and you shall find that He will grant you your hearts desire, according to His good pleasure and will. Pray with your poor family and children, morning and evening, as you do. Instruct them and your maid in the good ways of God, so that no day may pass over your head wherein you have not taught them—especially her—some one principle of the truth.'  Here, He is a mighty protector and a defence, ready at hand; and his ordinances, you know, He hath commanded to be greatly observed.

To Be a Pilgrim: John Bunyan

John Bunyan was born 35 years after John Penry’s death and in many ways is an inheritor of his beliefs and faith in the power of the written word

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.

There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round

With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.

No lion can him fright,

He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend

Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.

Then fancies fly away,

He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

Extract from letter 3

John Penry’s letter to his wife closes with these words

‘My God knoweth, yea, yourself know, how earnestly and often I have desired that the Lord would vouchsafe my service in the Gospel amongst my sisters, brethren and kindred in Wales, to the saving of their souls, for ever more unto Him. Salute your parents and mine, and our kindred in Northamptonshire: with my poor kinsman Jenkin Jones, and Mr Davidd also, though I had not thought that any outward respect would have made him to withdraw his shoulders from the Lord’s ways; but the Lord will draw him forward in His good time. Salute all ours in Scotland, upon the borders, and every way northward – especially Mr Fuel, always dear unto me. Christ Jesus bless thee and you all, my beloved, even for ever and ever. Let it not be known unto any, save unto the party who shall read this unto you, that I have written at all as yet. I got means, this day, to write this much, whereof no creature living knoweth. This 6th of the fourth month of April 1593. In great haste, with many tears, and yet in great spiritual comfort of my soul, your husband, for a season and your beloved brother for evermore.’

Evensong: A Celebration of John Penry


from a letter by John Penry to Lord Burghley on the eve of his execution

I am a poor young man born and bred in the mountains of Wales: I am the first since the last springing up of the gospel in this latter age that publicly laboured to have the blessed seed thereof sown in these barren mountains… In the earnest desire I had to see the gospel planted in my native country, and the contrary corruptions removed, I forget my own danger… I leave the success of these my labours unto such of my countrymen, as the Lord is to raise up after me for the accomplishing of that work, which in the calling of my country and to the knowledge of Christ’s blessed gospel, I began.


We have a gospel to proclaim
Good news for men in all the earth;
The gospel of a Saviour’s name:
We sing His glory, tell His worth.

Tell of His birth at Bethlehem,

Not in a royal house or hall
But in a stable dark and dim:
The Word made flesh, a light for all.

Tell of His death at Calvary,

Hated by those He came to save;
In lonely suffering on the cross
For all He loved His life He gave.

Tell of that glorious Easter morn:

Empty the tomb, for He was free.
He broke the power of death and hell
That we might share His victory.
Tell of His reign at God’s right hand,
By all creation glorified;
He sends His Spirit on His Church
To live for Him, the Lamb who died.

Now we rejoice to name Him King:
Jesus is Lord of all the earth.
This gospel message we proclaim:
We sing His glory, tell His worth.

Thanksgiving and Confession

In the front page of the notebook John Penry used when he was imprisoned he lists 12 reasons for thankfulness. Our opening Thanksgiving is based on these words, two of which are in Breconshire dialect Welsh

Oh my God it is a long time that I have neglected to call upon thee and take that conscience of my sins that I should take. Now I purpose to begin, help thou me and let me hear of some relief for thy name’s sake

For thy glory we thank you O God

For thy defence over me, thy blessing upon me in my work for your cause and the prosperous success of my journey to thy glory, I thank you

For thy glory we thank you O God

For the increase in the number of thy people and their deliverance out of prison, I thank you

For thy glory we thank you O God

Ein gwŷr, ein gwragedd a’n anwyliaid a genedigaeth ein plant a pethe angenrheidiol i’r bywyd hwn, diolch i chi

(For our husbands, wives and loved ones and the safe deliverance of our children, and for all things necessary for this life, I thank you)

For thy glory we thank you O God

For pardon for our own unthankfulness, I thank you

For thy glory we thank you O God

Scripture readings

Old Testament reading: Ezekiel 2:1-8

This passage from the great Old Testament prophet Ezekiel reflects John Penry’s experience as he sought to bring God’s Word to the people of his time

He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house. But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.

New Testament reading: 1 John 2:1-7

We know that in his last days this was a passage which John Penry read and meditated upon, it is followed by his own reflections on the passage

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked. Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard.

Commentary by John Penry on the passage

The truth was written unto us that we should not sin by walking in any course saving in the same. What should we speak of continuing in the truth except we will walk as the author of truth has taught us? We are not to seek great antiquities out the word, for the ancient commandment is the word, which we have received from the beginning


Mi glywaf dyner lais,
Yn galw arnaf fi,
I ddod a golchi 'meiau gyd.
Yn afon Calfari.
      Arglwydd, dyma fi
      Ar dy alwad di,
      Golch fi'n burlan yn y gwaed
      A gaed ar Galfari.
Yr Iesu sy'n fy ngwadd,
I dderbyn gyda'i saint,
Ffydd, gobaith, cariad pur a hedd,
A phob rhyw nefol fraint.

Yr Iesu sy'n cryfhau,
O'm mewn Ei waith trwy ras;
Mae'n rhoddi nerth i'm henaid gwan,
I faeddu 'mhechod cas.

Gogoniant byth am drefn,

Y cymod a'r glanhad;
Derbyniaf Iesu fel yr wyf,
A chanaf am y gwaed.

The Ballad of John Penry


Sing we the God of John Penry the martyr and prophet
Calling us still though the world’s winds do blow us and buffet
Speaking the Word, what we have followed and heard
None can constrain or control it
Eternal God of the mountains and cities of people
Master of rulers and Queens and the priests of the steeple
Let truth be heard, sounding the power of the Word
Filling the hearts of God’s people
No man can master the freedom of God and love’s power
Beneath no tyrant will we bend and fearfully cower
We hear the Word, and trust in what we have heard
Now is God’s victory: love’s hour

James Ashdown 2014

Tune: Lobe Den Herren (Praise to the Lord the Almighty)

Extempore Prayers: Rev. Lucyann Ashdown

Closing Reflection: John Penry: subversive rebel, respectable martyr or Puritan propagandist?

– a reflection on a John Penry for the 21st-century

Over the years people have viewed John Penry in many different ways

In his own time, apart from a few fervent admirers and fellow Independents, he was viewed as a dangerous and subversive rebel. Thomas Nashe was hired by the establishment to challenge his views but actually spent more time doing a hatchet job on the Welshman, picturing him as an almost monstrous traitor who barely deserved the name of a human being (and, incidentally, so some scholars claim, these sparring partners invented the tradition of English satire!) 

Many years later Penry was discovered by a growing band of Congregationalist ministers/historians who in John Penry saw the first glimmerings of their own fiercely independent Welsh nonconformity. As these chapels were growing in numbers, influence and respectability they reimagined him as a romantic Welsh hero, unjustly martyred. He was seen as a courageous torchbearer for their own brand of free biblical religion. Throughout Wales John Penry was lionized and monuments were raised to him through public subscription, in particular Cefn Brith near Llangammarch was identified as his birthplace and it became a place of pilgrimage. John Penry was firmly established in the Welsh imagination as a respectable and romantic martyr-hero, especially as he was also embraced by Welsh nationalists as a patriot and advocate of the Welsh language.

In more recent years John Penry has received the attention of secular historians. They have sought to explicitly challenge the image of John Penry created by the Congregationalist historians. Pointing out that although concerned for Wales, Penry’s real interest was in the promotion of Puritan ideas rather than nationalist ones and that he actually had very limited knowledge of Wales or of the religious situation here. They even doubt if he was born in Cefn Brith. In their writings John Penry comes across as a Puritan propagandist rather than a romantic hero or rebel.

But now in the 21st-century what are we to make of John Penry? Was he a subversive rebel, a romantic martyr-hero or merely another propagandist for Elizabethan Puritanism? 

I think one thing tends to be missed in all these accounts and that is what an exciting life John Penry lived. Leaving home as a young man he encountered the most radical ideas of his generation and thoroughly embraced them. Guided by his reading of the Bible he found himself compelled to challenge the establishment of state and church to actually reform the church in Wales rather than just talking about it. This led him into an extraordinary career in which for the sake of the gospel he was prepared to risk his own life and challenge the assumptions of his day. Yet in the midst of this he remained a passionate and loving man fathering four daughters in four years (!) and expressing for them a tender, considerate love. He was, as we might say, a man who lived life to the max.

But who might be a John Penry for the 21st-century?

A subversive? Yes, he refused to accept the status quo where it was unjust and hypocritical, but he was inspired by the Bible rather than a rebellious and destructive ideology

A martyr? Yes, a Christian martyr because he lived his body as his words demanded. He walked the walk rather than just talking the talk

A Puritan? Yes, but not the modern stereotype of the killjoy Puritan concerned for respectability and prudence – rather a young man transformed by an encounter with Jesus Christ, who was for him the beginning and the end of joy and life and hope.

The writer who I think brings us closest to the essence of John Penry is Pennar Davies, a Congregationalist minister who was something of a rebel himself and who felt a deep connection with his forefather in the faith. He concludes his 1961 pamphlet on Penry with the following words

Religious sectarianism, helped by historical accident, has robbed Penry of his just praise except in a limited way among those free Christians who have been moved by the story of his devotion and his sacrifice. It is time to right the wrong and to recognize Penry as one of the greatest and noblest of his time or of all time. As a writer, he has been, in more than one sense, one of the inheritors of unfulfilled renown; we know enough of him now to hail him as genius and liberator as well as a patriot and martyr and saint: as a lover of life and a contemner of death and as a joint heir, with all the redeemed, of Christ’s eternal merriment and compassion


Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,

Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight

Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.


Taken from John Penry’s final letter to his four daughters

‘Finally, my daughters – grow in all graces of knowledge and godliness in Christ Jesus. Believe and hope firmly in that salvation which is to be had by Him. Suffer affliction with Him in this poor church. Continue in holy fear unto the end; then shall you and I have a blessed meeting in the great day of His appearance.’


Compiled by James Ashdown August 2014