Latter-day Saint Scholar Named a Welsh Bard, Unveils Plaque at Church History Site
Contributed By Aubrey Eyre, Church News contributor
- Ronald Dennis unveiled a plaque commemorating a historic chapel originally dedicated by his great-great-grandfather.
- Dennis is the first member of the Gorsedd of the Bards in Wales inducted for Church-related contributions.
“This is a body of knowledge that is important to our history and has not been previously known, and I just want to make it known that it is available.” —Ronald Dennis, emeritus professor at Brigham Young University
In 1849, a small chapel located in Llanelli, Wales, was dedicated for use by Dan Jones, president of the Welsh Mission at the time. It was the second building constructed and dedicated by members of the newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the first was the Kirtland Temple—and the first built outside of the United States.
Built near the center of the small town, the building drew large crowds of people looking to learn more about the new faith coming from America. Although humble in appearance, the chapel could accommodate more than 1,000 visitors, according to a letter written by Dan Jones to Parley P. Pratt following the dedication of the building on January 28.
While this historic building, commonly known as the Island Place Meeting House, was demolished just over 10 years ago, its presence and the historic role it played for Church members from Wales has not been forgotten.
Recognition for the past
On August 25 of this year, Ronald Dennis, an emeritus professor at Brigham Young University and great-great-grandchild of Dan Jones, was invited to unveil one of the United Kingdom’s well-recognized blue plaques to commemorate the old chapel and the presence of early Church members in Wales.
The plaque was commissioned and created by the Llanelli Community Heritage group, who wanted to honor the key piece of history. After organizing the plaque installation, they worked with local Church history specialist Jill Morgan and local Latter-day Saints to include the Church in the unveiling efforts.
“One of my responsibilities as a Church history specialist is to document sites of interest to the Church,” Morgan said. And when approached for help to find a well-known Church member to participate in unveiling the plaque to the public, Morgan said Dennis immediately came to mind.
She added that while the group was likely hoping for someone a little more famous to the general public, since Dennis’s great-great-grandfather was the one who dedicated the original building, it was appropriate for him to be the one involved.
“The fact that he was being made a Bard was what swung it with the Llanelli Community Heritage,” Morgan said, noting that the honor alone gave him enough prestige to be considered for the unveiling.
The honor of becoming a Welsh Bard
Just two weeks prior to the plaque unveiling, the 78-year-old Dennis was inducted into the Gorsedd of the Bards in Wales. It’s an honor comparable to the United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom civilian award, explained Grant Vaughn, a federal attorney and close friend of Dennis who assists him with his research.
“It’s important to them and it’s a big, popular event,” Vaughn said.
Of the prestige that comes from being made a Bard, he added, “It really is quite amazing. They have a few awards for Welsh people from outside Wales that have contributed to Welsh culture and society … but it’s really quite rare.”
As far as Dennis is aware, he is the first Church member to be inducted into the Gorsedd, and more particularly, he is the first to be inducted specifically for Church-related contributions.
He was honored in the category of “arts and letters” for his extensive work in translating and making available many documents regarding Church history in Wales.
The Gorsedd induction is held annually as part of a Welsh National Eisteddfod—a weeklong celebration of Welsh culture and language. And for the Gorsedd ceremony, there is pageantry that goes along with it, Dennis explained, detailing the horns blowing, flower girls dancing, people singing, and everyone arriving dressed in regalia particular to the Eisteddfod.
“I’m not particularly fond of [the pageantry], but I thought it might reflect well on the Church to have somebody that has investigated the history of [the Church] in Wales in the 19th century,” Dennis said.
But aside from all the ceremonial parts of the celebration, Dennis expressed how wonderful it was to be amongs a large group where everyone was speaking Welsh.
“Oh, to speak English is heresy,” Dennis said, explaining how the groups involved in the Eisteddfod are all working to preserve and elevate the status of the Welsh culture and language. “That’s what they want more than anything else; it’s almost like a religion.”
The circle of ancestors and language
For the last 40 years, Dennis has had an admitted “bee in his bonnet” regarding the Welsh language and culture.
Ever since he began researching his Welsh ancestry, he has felt driven to unearth more and more information about his ancestors as well as the general history of Church members in Wales. But it wasn’t long after beginning his personal challenge to research the Church in Wales that Dennis realized a giant road block in his research would be the Welsh language.
In the 1840s and ’50s, much of the Welsh population still primarily used Welsh, so missionaries and Church leaders like his great-great-grandfather took on the task of producing Church materials for the people in their own language. As such, most Church records, as well as a Church periodical called Prophet of the Jubilee and later Zion’s Trumpet, were all produced completely in 19th-century Welsh.
Unwilling to let a language barrier stop him from learning more, Dennis took it upon himself to learn Welsh. In 1976, while he was still working as a professor of Portuguese at BYU, Dennis decided to take a sabbatical to Wales, where he spent six months immersing himself in the language as much as possible.
Since that time, he has returned to Wales nearly 25 times for extended visits to continue his work of researching the Church as well as leading tours that help others of Welsh descent to connect to their relatives, both living and deceased.
Having begun his work approximately 40 years ago, Dennis has published nearly 6,000 pages of the periodical Zion’s Trumpet as well as pamphlets, journals, and other documents of the Church there. And if anyone—whether an academic or an individual researching their family history—wants to know something about the Church in Wales, Dennis and his website Welsh Mormon History are usually the first sources to which they turn.
“He is generally recognized as the ‘go-to man,’” Morgan said. “What he’s done is invaluable and certainly inspired.”
And considering it was Dennis’s ancestor Dan Jones who played a key role in making Church doctrine and materials accessible for members in the Welsh language in the 19th century, it seems fitting that his descendant is the one translating his work into English to make it more widely accessible over 140 years later.
“It’s a nice circle of sorts,” Morgan said. “Dan Jones was able to bring people to a knowledge of the gospel through writing in their language, and Ron has turned that back into English for those of us who don’t have that knowledge or skill.”
Taking care to ensure all his work is freely accessible to all, Dennis has worked with the Welsh National Library as well as the BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy to guarantee perpetuity of his work and to allow students and other researchers to add to it.
“I’ve set up an endowment so that young students can keep working on it and expanding it, doing sourcing and connecting it to Family Tree and that sort of thing,” Dennis said.
Since retiring from being a professor 14 years ago, Dennis has spent the majority of his time continuing his Welsh research. In that time he has published nine volumes of Zion’s Trumpet, which he explained average about 400 pages each. And although it’s always been something he loves doing, he said it has gotten a lot easier with the improvements of computers and website databases.
A mission on the earth
Even though Dennis said he hopes others will carry on his work once he is no longer able to, there are still two major projects he wants to complete. First, he wants to finish the biography he is writing about Dan Jones. And second, he wants to gather up and translate all the “anti-Mormon” literature he has found from the 1840s and ’50s.
Pointing to Doctrine and Covenants section 123, in which Joseph Smith encouraged Church members to gather and document the atrocities committed against them for their faith, Dennis said he takes that commission by extension to gather and document opposition that occurred anywhere. “So that’s what I am doing,” Dennis said.
And although he hopes others will carry on his work, Dennis said he recognizes that the barrier of the Welsh language has given him an unintended monopoly on his area of research.
“But someone needs to do it, and I’m happy to do it for as long as I can,” he said. “My purpose in doing this is simply to make it known to historians and descendants of the early converts. But this is a body of knowledge that is important to our history and has not been previously known, and I just want to make it known that it is available.”
There is a phrase that is common to Church members regarding how each person has a mission they need to complete on this earth, Dennis explained.
“Well, I feel that’s been my mission here, and I’ve been happy to do it,” he said. And even though he spent years learning and teaching Portuguese, he added, “My true love is Welsh and the history of the Latter-day Saints.”
Chair of the Carmathenshire County Council, Councilor Mansel Charles, Plaid Cymru of Llanegwad, speaks with Dr. Ronald Dennis, who was recently inducted into the Gorsedd of the Bards in Wales for his extensive translation work of many Welsh Church history documents. Photo courtesy of Grant Vaughn.