William Thomas (‘Pennar’ was added as an adopted name in the 1940s) was educated in Mountain Ash primary and secondary schools, University College of South Wales and Monmouthhsire, in Cardiff, where he graduated with first-class honours degrees in Latin, in 1932 and in English in 1933. Following a year's Teacher Training he went to Balliol College, Oxford, gaining a research degree B.Litt. In 1936, with a Commonwealth Scholarship, he crossed the Atlantic to study for a PhD in Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. He returned to Wales in 1938 continuing his studies on Elizabethan Literature as an University of Wales Fellow, in Cardiff.
An agnostic, he rediscovered the Christian faith of his upbringing in 1938 and became a candidate for the Nonconformist ministry with the Welsh Independents. He returned to Oxford, this time to Mansfield College, and between 1940 and 1943 immersed himself in theology under the guidance of Nathaniel Micklem, Principal of Mansfield, and the liberal theologian C. J. Cadoux, church historian and New Testament scholar.
He married Rosemarie Wolff in 1943, a nurse at Oxford and member of the Lutheran Church, who had fled Hitler's Germany because of her Jewish ancestry. The same year he was ordained minister of the English Independent Chapel, Windsor Road, Cardiff.
Until his conversion, he was set on an academic career, but subsequently he sought to combine creative writing with a commitment to promote the well-being of Wales, religiously, socially and culturally. In the early years of the Second World War he was a member of ‘Cylch Cadwgan’ a group of avant garde writers who met at J. Gwyn Griffiths' home in Pentre, Rhondda Valley. Although his early poems, under the name of ‘Davies Aberpennar’, were published in English, henceforth he wrote in Welsh.
His volumes of poetry Cinio'r Cythraul (1945), his contributions to Cerddi Cadwgan (1953), Naw Wfft (1957) and Yr Efrydd o Lyn Cynon (1961) combined vast knowledge, vivid imagination and innovative discussion of spiritual and love themes. He was appointed to the Chair of Church History at Bala-Bangor College, the Independent Theological College in Bangor in 1946, before taking up the same Chair at Brecon Memorial College in 1950, and promoted Principal in 1952. He was Principal of Swansea Memorial College between 1959 until retiring in 1979.
In addition to his contribution to scholarship (for example, in his daring volume on Celtic Christianity ‘Rhwng Chwedl a Chredo’ (1966), in the 1950s and 1960s creative prose took his attention with the appearance of his novels Anadl o'r Ucheldir (1961) and Meibion Darogan (1968), along with his collection of short stories Caregl Nwyf (1966). The nature of his spirituality was best reflected in his spiritual confessional, Cudd fy Meiau (1958). His most accomplished book of poetry, Y Tlws yn y Lotws, was published in 1971. There was something unique about his spiritual vision, a type of utopian Pelagianism based on the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, seen most clearly in his theological volume, Y Brenin Alltud (1974). He was prominent in the battle for the Welsh language, and was sentenced by Carmarthen assizes in 1979 for turning off the Pencarreg television transmitter in the campaign to establish a Welsh broadcasting service.
Although he continued to be active following his retirement, his last publications did not convey the same creative energy as previous books, and in his final years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. In assessing his contribution the polymathic nature of his genius and his enigmatic charm are repeatedly mentioned. He left a huge impression on all he met, not least the generations of students he prepared for the Christian ministry in Wales and beyond. He was undoubtedly one of the most intellectual creative writers of the twentieth century and he was unrelenting in his efforts to ensure the continuation of Christian Welsh-speaking Wales. He had five children, one daughter and four sons, among them Meirion Pennar, the academic and poet who died in 2010.
Pennar Davies died in Swansea on December 29 1996.
D. Densil Morgan, Lampeter
Published date: 2011