he roots of Welsh Protestant Nonconformity lay in the Puritan revolution of the mid-seventeenth century when Episcopalianism (i.e. bishop-led church governance) was in disarray, the Book of Common Prayer had been outlawed, and dissident groups of zealous Christians sought to organize themselves in gathered churches of committed believers. The first Independent or Congregational church was founded in Llanfaches, Monmouthshire, in 1639; the Baptists established a presence in various parts of south Wales between 1649 and 1652; and the Quakers, whose main centres would be in Merioneth and Montgomeryshire in the northern and central parts of the country, became active after 1657. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, however, Episcopalianism was reinstated along with the structures and discipline of the Established Church, while the Act of Uniformity of 1662 stipulated that all worship outside the bounds of Church of England would be deemed illegal. A minority chose not to adhere to the law and although penalties were not draconian, Protestant “Dissent,” as it was called, was born. It was perpetuated until and beyond 1689 when William and Mary, the first Hanoverian monarchs, passed the Toleration Act allowing non-Anglicans freedom to worship outside the Established Church and according to their own rites and convictions. Although they still suffered social disabilities and were denied political office, between 1689 and 1760 Congregational witness and the Baptist faith became rooted firmly in Welsh soil. (Meanwhile, many Friends had emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1680s in order to escape persecution thus weaking Welsh Quakerism permanently.) The foundations were laid for what would later become Nonconformist Wales.
Left: Daniel Rowlad. Middle: Howell Harris. Both from Cylchgrawn Cymdeithas Hanes y Methodistiaid Calfinaidd = The Journal of the Calvinistic Methodist Historical Society Right: David Peter. From Hanes crefydd yn nghymru (Ecclesiastical history of Wales) by David Peter (1816). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Still very much a minority affair, Dissent was not influenced by popular piety of the Evangelical Revival until the last decades of the eighteenth century. In Wales the Revival is dated from the conversion of the Anglican schoolmaster Howell Harris (1714-73) of Trevecka, Breconshire, at Eastertide 1735, and the awakening of Daniel Rowland (1713-90), episcopal curate of Llangeitho, Cardiganshire, at roughly the same time. Neither man knew the other, and at the beginning at least, the spiritual awakening which spread from these two centres in mid- and west Wales remained independent of one another. Within a few years William Williams of Pantycelyn (1717-90), soon to become immortalized as the hymnist par excellence of the Revival in Wales, would join them in a leadership role. Rowland and Williams were ordained clergymen, while Harris, a layman, was doggedly committed to perpetuating the Methodist message from within the bounds of the Established Church.
Left: William Williams. Right: Wiliams’s home Pantycelyn. Both from Album Williams, (1890). Clicking on William’s portrait will produce an image of the entire sheet with text on which it appears.
Between 1735 and 1740, there were signs that the renewal of spirituality and heightened evangelistic verve which emanated from the new Methodist movement would energize Welsh Dissent. Rowland found in Philip Pugh, his neighbour and pastor of the Cilgwyn church in Cardiganshire, a wise mentor and sound advisor in the evangelical way. It was Pugh who counselled him to emphasise the gospel rather than the law and to apply the balm of free grace to afflicted souls sooner rather than later while entreating them to come to Christ. Hearing of his startling effectiveness as a peripatetic evangelist, the Independent Edmund Jones, supported by the Baptist Miles Harry, invited Howell Harris to the uplands and valleys of Monmouthshire in 1737-8 to hold public preaching meetings for the edification of all. These were but two of a number of Dissenting ministers from south-east Wales – David Jones of Caerphilly, James Davies of Merthyr Tydfil, Henry Davies of the Vale of Neath and the Baptist James Roberts of Ross were others – who worked in tandem with the young Methodist leaders, contributing to the administrative structures that Harris was beginning to put in place to provide pastoral oversight for new converts. The first Methodist “associations” were open to the evangelical clergy and Dissenting ministers alike.
This openness was not, however, to last. By 1740 the Dissenters had become wary of Harris’ autocratic ways. Also, rather than assisting in the work of establishing fellowship meetings or “societies” of the newly converted who still owed an allegiance to the Established Church, a far more instinctive response among the ministers was to form them into gathered Dissenting congregations. This was anathema to both Harris and Rowland, both of whom would remain staunch Church of England men. Theological dissension occurred, especially in Harris’ case concerning the doctrine of assurance, while for the Baptists the question of believer’s baptism emerged. The Trevecka Methodist would soon accuse Miles Harry of bigotry and a proselytizing zeal, and by late 1740 all meaningful collaboration had ceased (Tudur 76-77). For the next four decades Welsh Methodism (which unlike John Wesley’s English movement was Calvinistic in tone) and evangelical Dissent would develop independently of each other. Until the 1780s it would be Methodist exhorters, often untutored and invariably unordained, who would provide the energy for the spread of the Evangelical Revival: “Every Methodist preacher required stout legs, a good pair of lungs, a willingness to travel in fair and foul weather in order to bring the gospel to wretched sinners” (Jenkins 350). Although still attached to the Established Church, they were free from Episcopal control and often as critical of conventional religion as the regular Church of England clergy were of them. It was an anomalous position which would lead, after the demise of its original leaders, to the secession of the Welsh Calvinistic body from the mother church.
During these decades Welsh Dissent grew slowly rather than spectacularly. Indeed, by the 1760s there were regular complaints, among the Baptists at least, of lifelessness and spiritual torpor. “The lives of many professors are too similar to those of the world,” complained the annual letter of the South Wales Association of 1760; “a lack of success in the means of grace” was noted in 1767 while four years later “the churches were complaining bitterly of deadness and fruitlessness.” Then, quite unexpectedly, baptisms rocketed from 93 to 337 (Morgan 1988 224-32). Thereafter the membership graph climbed steadily, and sometimes startlingly, upward with a renewed eagerness from within the Dissenting churches to propagate the gospel and an uncommon willingness from without to accept it. “This year,” wrote a south Wales pastor in 1785, “God saw fit to pour out the spirit of revival on many of our members” and so intense had the outpouring been that “many are smitten and convicted to such a degree that they cleave to the godly imploring of them what they must do to be saved.” “Our commission,” enthused the 1783 letter, “is to preach to all men going forth into the highways and hedges to proclaim the glad tidings of great joy and that to all sinners.” Whereas such exuberance, especially following the so-called “Llangeitho Revival” of 1762, had been characteristic of Methodism alone, by now the Evangelical Revival was permeating the ranks of orthodox Dissent (White 154-63). “We received much more news,” it was recorded in 1786, “which would cause the hearts of those who love Zion to rejoice. She is giving birth to many sons and daughters, and the hand of the Lord is with his servants prospering the Word uncommonly in many places both north and south.”
What was true of the Baptist was equally true of the Independents. For them the pivotal year was 1785 (R. Tudur Jones 114). Just as Baptist ministers like Christmas Evans (1766-1838) shed their older Dissenting reserve for the spirit of enthusiasm, Independents of the calibre of Benjamin Jones of Pwllheli in Caernarfonshire (1756-1823), George Lewis, Llanuwchllyn in Merioneth (1763-1822), Morgan Jones (1768-1835), David Peter, Carmarthen (1765-1837), the latter two in south Wales, conjoined the older emphases on learning and sound doctrine with a renewed, more extrovert zeal. There were others like David Davies (1763-1816) of Swansea and Azariah Shadrach (1774-1844) who had more in common with the Methodist exhorters than with those who had previously adorned the Dissenting pulpit. “Towards the end of the century,” wrote Tudur Jones, “there arose a generation of proletarian ministers, not educated and not well provided for, whose dowry was their enthusiasm” (118).
This enthusiasm brought orthodox Dissent into the mainstream of the Evangelical Revival, and brought the common people into the meeting houses of a rapidly increasing evangelical Dissent. “Perhaps there never has been such a nation as the Welsh who have been won over so widely to the preaching of the gospel,” wrote Christmas Evans in 1837. “Meeting houses have been erected in each corner of the land and the majority of the common people, nearly all of them, crowd in to listen. There is virtually no other nation whose members have, in such numbers, professed the gospel so widely, in both south Wales and the north” (qtd in Morgan 2008 29). By the first decades of the nineteenth century Welsh Dissent, and with it the life of the people of Wales, was about to be wholly transformed.
Links to Related Material about Protestant Nonconformity in Victorian Wales
Bassett, T. M. The Welsh Baptists. Swansea: Ilston Press, 1977.
Carwardine, Richard. "The Welsh Evangelical Community and 'Finney’s Revival.’" The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 29 (1978): 463-80.
Davies, Pennar. Episodes in the History of Brecknockshire Dissent. Brecon: the Brecknockshire Society, 1959.
Doe, Norman, Ed. A New History of the Church in Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Griffith, W. P. “'Preaching second to no other under the sun:' Edward Matthews, the Nonconformist pulpit and Welsh identity during the mid-nineteenth century," in Religion and National Identity: Wales and Scotland, c. 1700-2000. Ed. Robert Pope. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001. 61-83.
Griffiths, Rhidian. "Songs of Praises," in The History of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, III: Growth and Consolidation (c. 1814-1914). Ed. J. Gwynfor Jones. Cardiff: Presbyterian Church of Wales, 2013. 139-49.
Jenkins, Geraint H. The Foundations of Modern Wales, 1660-1780. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
Jones, David Ceri, Boyd S. Schlenther and Eryn M. White. The Elect Methodists: Calvinistic Methodism in England and Wales, 1735-1811. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012.
Jones, Ieuan Gwynedd and David Williams, Eds. The Religious Census of 1851: A Calendar of the Returns relating to Wales, Vol. 1: South Wales
Jones, R. Tudur. Congregationalism in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004. Lionel Madden, Ed. Methodism in Wales: A Short History of the Wesley Tradition. Llandudno: Welsh Methodist Conference, 2003. Morgan, D. Densil. "'Smoke, fire and light”: Baptists and the revitalization of Welsh Dissent," The Baptist Quarterly 32 (1988): 224-32. Morgan, D. Densil. "Christmas Evans and the birth of Nonconformist Wales," in Wales and the World: Historical Perspectives on Welsh Religion and Identity. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008. 17-30. Morgan, D. Densil. ‘Thomas Jones of Denbigh (1756-1820) and the ordination of 1811’, The Welsh Journal of Religious History 6 (2011): 19-30. Morgan, D. Densil. The Span of the Cross: Christian Religion and Society in Wales, 1914-2000. 2nd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011. Morgan, D. Densil. Theologia Cambrensis: Protestant Religion and Theology in Wales, Vol 2: The Long Nineteenth Century, 1760-1900. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2021. Henry Richard, Letters and Essays on Wales (1866). 2nd ed. London: James Clarke, 1884. Gomer M. Roberts, Ed. Hanes Methodistiaeth Galfinaidd Cymru (‘A History of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism’). Vol. 2. Caernarfon: Gwasg Pantycelyn, 1978. Tudur, Geraint. Howell Harris: From Conversion to Separation, 1735-50. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998. White, Eryn M. "'I will once more shake the heavens:' The 1762 Revival in Wales," in Revival and Resurgence in Christian History. Eds. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008. 154-63. Glanmor Williams, "Fire on Cambria’s Altar," in The Welsh and their Religion: Historical Essays. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991. 1-72. Added 11 August 2022
Jones, R. Tudur. Congregationalism in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004.
Lionel Madden, Ed. Methodism in Wales: A Short History of the Wesley Tradition. Llandudno: Welsh Methodist Conference, 2003.
Morgan, D. Densil. "'Smoke, fire and light”: Baptists and the revitalization of Welsh Dissent," The Baptist Quarterly 32 (1988): 224-32.
Morgan, D. Densil. "Christmas Evans and the birth of Nonconformist Wales," in Wales and the World: Historical Perspectives on Welsh Religion and Identity. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008. 17-30.
Morgan, D. Densil. ‘Thomas Jones of Denbigh (1756-1820) and the ordination of 1811’, The Welsh Journal of Religious History 6 (2011): 19-30.
Morgan, D. Densil. The Span of the Cross: Christian Religion and Society in Wales, 1914-2000. 2nd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.
Morgan, D. Densil. Theologia Cambrensis: Protestant Religion and Theology in Wales, Vol 2: The Long Nineteenth Century, 1760-1900. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2021.
Henry Richard, Letters and Essays on Wales (1866). 2nd ed. London: James Clarke, 1884.
Gomer M. Roberts, Ed. Hanes Methodistiaeth Galfinaidd Cymru (‘A History of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism’). Vol. 2. Caernarfon: Gwasg Pantycelyn, 1978.
Tudur, Geraint. Howell Harris: From Conversion to Separation, 1735-50. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998.
White, Eryn M. "'I will once more shake the heavens:' The 1762 Revival in Wales," in Revival and Resurgence in Christian History. Eds. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008. 154-63.
Glanmor Williams, "Fire on Cambria’s Altar," in The Welsh and their Religion: Historical Essays. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991. 1-72.
Added 11 August 2022