Religion in Wales

Church and chapel


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Powys Digital History Project

Photographs by
kind permission of
Radnorshire Museum


Old puritanism

The resilience of puritanism
Despite persecution and the exodus of many Welsh Quakers, nonconformity in the early eighteenth century clung on in small communities. Old puritanism had survived, and was particularly resilient in Breconshire where Congregationalists and Baptists were the most common sects, often meeting in scattered groups at private houses.

The Toleration Act of 1689 allowed dissenters to worship freely in licensed meeting houses. Even though their members were still excluded from universities and public office, the dissenting sects had some protection in law. Their members were a small but influential minority in society, particularly in anglicised south Wales.

The first chapels in Powys
Among the earliest chapels or meeting houses in Powys were Maesyronnen chapel (above) in Glasbury parish, and the Quaker Meeting House at The Pales near Llandegley (right), both examples being in remote locations.
In the early period in the eighteenth century there was a great surge in the publishing and distribution of Welsh bibles and tracts, and translated works like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  

The Welsh Trust and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge worked hard to distribute subsidised works, and a Welsh bible became a family treasure, even among many poor labouring families. This not only encouraged literacy, but prepared the ground for a grass-roots response to Methodism.


Ripe for the Gospel

Familiarity with the bible
The spread of new church and dissenting schools meant that many of the poorest households had one literate family member who could read the Bible and other works to assembled family and friends, and the resultant familiarity with the bible and awareness of new religious ideas meant that Wales did indeed become, as John Wesley claimed, ‘ripe for the Gospel’.

The Church of England clergy in Wales in the first half of the eighteenth century was a clergy divided by wealth and culture. The bishops were often English or Scottish, with a reluctance to visit their dioceses and an antipathy or indifference to the Welsh language. They tended to appoint like-minded clergy to the more affluent livings, who would then turn over the running of the parish to poverty- stricken clergy who could not carry out their duties effectively. This also affected the poorer mountain livings where clergy struggled to make ends meet.

Uncaring clergy
Many of the clergy appointed by the bishops were not Welsh speakers. This caused much resentment in north Wales, and there grew across Wales a general feeling that many Church of England clergy were uncaring of the needs of their parishioners. The discontented and newly-literate Welsh rural population became exposed to the force of three dynamic personalities which were the engine of revivalism in Wales. These were William Williams, Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris of Trefecca in Breconshire. All three saw themselves as a part of the traditions of the established church, but sought to energise the church and directly involve individual parishioners in an awareness of the gospel message.


Welsh Methodism

The Revival in Wales
From the mid-1730s onward, William Williams, Daniel Rowland, and Howell Harris were involved in an exhausting campaign to bring about this new awareness of the gospel message through preaching. All three were successful in attracting large gatherings of people, who found that the sense of involvement generated at these meetings was more exciting than the formal parish services, or less exclusive than nonconformity. The heady emotional atmosphere of the meetings and their theatricality made them very different to most nonconformist practices.

Although Welsh methodism had close links with Wesley and the English movement it was essentially Calvinist, and had established its own structure through a network of seiadau or regular meetings with their own superintendents. Even so this was a movement aimed at reviving the established church, and members were instructed to take communion at their parish church.

Howell Harris portraitThreat to authority
The senior hierarchy of the Church of England saw the revival as a threat to the natural authority of the gentry. Howell Harris (right) appears to have been refused ordination unless he was willing to give up itinerant preaching and settle in a parish, and he and other prominent Welsh methodist leaders were attacked by angry mobs. The most serious incident at this time was the killing of William Seward at Hay.

Although this early period was important to Welsh religious history, methodism did not become a large scale popular movement until later in the eighteenth century. Some methodist groups left the Church of England, and thus enjoyed the legal protection afforded to licensed nonconformist groups.

Howell Harris himself split the movement in Wales by following a doctrine which claimed that God himself had died on the cross. This led to his disowning by the movement and his concentration on setting up his own religious community at Trefecca.

A church divided

Political awareness
As the eighteenth century progressed the changes in farming and landscape use, particularly the enclosure of common land, and the new opportunities offered by the developing industrial centres, added to the sense of turmoil in Wales. There was also a growing political awareness among the newly literate sections of the working classes. This led to the establishment of a small minority of Arminians and Unitarians, who, unlike the revivalists, believed that man and his powers of reason had a role to play in salvation. At a time when America and France had challenged the old order this was seen as threat and even the relatively reactionary methodists suffered persecution. This led to congregations leaving the Church of England and seeking the protection of the Toleration Act.

Increased influence of methodism
The period 1790 to 1810 was one of consolidation for Welsh methodism, with the movement being strengthened by the spread of sunday schools. Many congregations began to elect their own elders, and the movement away from the established church seemed inevitable to many.

In 1811 the Calvinistic Methodist denomination was founded and, although local congregations probably did not yet see it that way, Welsh methodism had joined the ranks of nonconformity. Although Wesley had not sought Welsh recruits his preaching tours to the principality did have an influence. Wesleyan groups were established with leaders like Thomas Coke of Brecon being active in creating a Welsh Mission.

The chapel pictured (right) near Betws Cedewain dates from 1795. The Wesleyan Conference was highly centralised, however, and even Welsh language congregations were part of an English based structure.

Massive expansion
The first half of the nineteenth century was a period of massive expansion for all nonconformist sects in Wales, with the equivalent of one chapel being built every eight days. Itinerant preachers were able to stir up enthusiasm, particularly in the new industrial areas where the old parish system meant that the Church of England was slow to respond to the needs of the new population centres.

Here local people took up the challenge of creating their own places of worship where ordinary member of the congregation had a genuine sense of involvement, and which were the focus for a great range of other activities.


The Anglican church in Wales

A new network of schools
In contrast to the vibrant nonconformist sects, the Church of England often seemed remote and anglicised and too closely associated with the land owning classes.

The growing number of evangelicals within the church were anxious about the massive success of nonconformity, and the National Society was founded in 1811 with the intention of creating a network of schools where the children of the poor would be taught in accordance with the beliefs of the established church. These schools benefited from the support system of the diocesan structure and the endowments of the gentry.

In 1833 there were almost 150 National schools in Wales, and by 1847 there were a further 231.

Safeguarding Welsh culture
In the early 19th century, Bishop Thomas Burgess of St David’s strove to meet the challenge. He was a supporter of Welsh language preaching in church and was behind the creation of the Cambrian Societies which organised local eisteddfodau. Clergy in border parishes like Kerry and Abergavenny were active in safeguarding Welsh literature and culture.

In 1847 a damning report of a commission into the provision of education in Wales was published. The commissioners totally failed to understand the difficulties of educating Welsh speaking children in English, and their prejudices were further fed by the evidence of some clergy who blamed poor educational performance on a chapel upbringing. There was a violent tide of resentment against this report and against the Anglican Church, and for many years the clergy had to contend with the feeling in many circles that the church had somehow betrayed the Welsh people.


Church and state 

A census on religious belief
The Religious Census of 1851 put the church in second place to nonconformity in Wales, although the substantial minority of people who did not take part in any religious observance are often overlooked in the equation.

The Census fuelled the movement for a break between church and state. If the established church only represented a minority of the people in Wales why should it enjoy the power of the state, and why should it enjoy the tithe payments of the mass of nonconformists? The campaign for a separate Church in Wales electing its own bishops was not completely achieved until 1920, but the second half of the nineteenth century was one in which the Anglican Church in Wales rose to the new challenge and experienced its own revival.

Meeting new needs
Between 1870 and 1920 the Welsh bishops - appointed by successive Prime Ministers - were all Welsh speaking. They successfully addressedDisserth church interior the problems of earlier years like the non-residence of parish clergy, and this was a period of tremendous church construction as parishes were re-drawn to meet the needs of a changing population.

It was also the period of the mass renovation of parish churches, many of which were in a very poor state. Architects like Radnorshire’s Stephen William Williams and Thomas Nicholson built a career around these renovations. They had a huge influence on local architecture, though some now see this period more as that of the ruination of many parish churches rather than their restoration. So widespread was the restoration that box pews like those at Disserth in Radnorshire (above) are today a rare sight in the churches of Powys.


The pressure for change

High church influence
The Oxford movement which sought to introduce some of the ritualAbbey Cwmhir church to the practices of worship had an influence in the long term. Churches like the new parish church at Abbey Cwmhir in Radnorshire (left) reflect some of the High Church influence of this time.
The nonconformists’ resentment at having to pay tithes to a church they had rejected, and their increasing local power through elections onto new local government bodies all put further pressure onto the established church in Wales.

After much bitter debate a separate Church in Wales was created in 1920, which was not part of the state and which lost much of its wealth. Soon after, Bishop Alfred Edwards of St. Asaph was chosen as the first Archbishop of Wales. In 1923 the new Province of Wales created the diocese of Swansea and Brecon from parts of the sprawling diocese of St David’s, and a new diocese of Monmouth was created out of parts of the industrial populations of the diocese of Llandaff.

New English arrivals                                                                                                                    Chapel at Ystradgynlais                 
During the nineteenth century the nonconformist denominations had to respond to the large English or English-speaking influx into Wales as the rapidly growing industries recruited a larger workforce. The Calvinistic Methodists and Independents established new English medium chapels. In the new urban centres chapels were built which were increasingly grand in scale, like the typical example shown (right) in Ystradgynlais, and chapels became a focal point for social activities in the community. Through their active Sunday schools they also played an important role in local education.

The heyday of nonconformity

A vital role in many lives
It is important to remember that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century heyday of the nonconformist movement, the chapel was at the centre of the lives of thousands of people.Chapel at Newbridge-on-Wye

They would meet together for worship and for other gatherings in grand urban buildings like the chapel pictured on the previous page and in modest wayside chapels like the one at Newbridge-on-Wye, Radnorshire in the old photograph shown here, meeting both the spiritual and social needs of families.The photograph below shows a gathering for a baptism at Newbridge during the dominant years of non-conformism.

A long slow decline
Gradually though, developments in science and technology and the spread of Darwinism did lead to a shift away from fundamentalist attitude in some sects and sin and damnation were heard of less in sermons.

The great Revival of 1904/5 did produce a groundswell of nonconformist belief and an extra 80,000 members joined denominations in Wales. By 1912, however, three quarters of these had drifted away and the trend since then has been for a long slow decline with chapels closing across the nation.


 Powys Digital History Project

Photographs by
kind permission of
Radnorshire Museum

Text and Pictures © Powys Digital History Project



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