The Early Dissenters
Protestant Dissent in Wales was in the 17th century dominated by the twin movements of the Independents or Congregationalists and the Baptists, although there were Presbyterian congregations often led by clergy ejected from their Anglican livings after defying the 1662 Act of Uniformity. In the 18th century the religious landscape was transformed by the coming of Methodism. This was part of a much wider international religious movement which can be traced to the growth of evangelical Pietism in continental Europe from the later 17th century onwards. Its emphasis on intense personal devotion nurtured by preaching which spoke directly to the individual heart formed the basis for movements which spread to Britain and also to the American colonies. In Wales it resulted in two major denominations, Calvinistic Methodism, later also known as Presbyterianism, and Wesleyan Methodism, or simply Methodism.
Griffith Jones, the rector of Llanddowror, Carmarthenshire is considered to have been the forerunner of the Methodist movement in Wales. In 1731 he started his circulating schools which taught thousands in Wales to read in Welsh, the curriculum at his schools consisting solely in the study of the Bible and the Catechism of the Church of England. In so doing he created a generation of people which would be receptive to Methodist ideas. By his death, in 1761, it is estimated that over 200,000 people, some 45% of the Welsh population, had learnt to read in schools organised by Jones, and had acquired a deep knowledge of the Christian scriptures.He himself also preached in the open air as later Methodist leaders would do.
However, the Methodist movement in Wales really began with the conversion experience of Howell Harris in Talgarth church in 1735. Although he was a layman in the Church of England, he felt impelled to preach and instruct under what he believed to be the direct guidance of God.In 1737 he met Daniel Rowland, curate of Nantcwnlle and Llangeitho, who had himself experienced an intense spiritual awakening under whose inspiration he had become a powerful preacher. In fact, the newly converted Harris visited Griffith Jones for spiritual guidance, and it was through Jones’ preaching at Llanddewi Brefi that Rowland was converted and began to preach Methodist ideas. The third major leader of the early movement was William Williams Pantycelyn who was converted in 1737 as he listened to Harris preaching in Talgarth churchyard. He later became the great hymn-writer of Wales.
These men became leaders of a growing evangelical movement which aimed to revive the Church of England in Wales. Soon they were drawn into association with John Wesley and George Whitefield, English clergymen inspired by similar values. Inevitably, there were tensions within the movement itself. The Welsh Methodists at that time embraced the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, believing that Christ died only for the chosen elect. This doctrine was held by the Welsh Methodist leaders and by Whitefield but was energetically rejected by Wesley who preached the Arminian view that the offer of salvation was open to all. Although Harris and Wesley found it possible to work together at first, this basic difference in the interpretation of Scripture increasingly drove a wedge between the two sides of the early Methodist movement.
Harris and Williams undertook major preaching journeys, starting in south Wales but later venturing north. As they preached they made converts which they then gathered together into organised groups of fellowships (seiadau). As more and more converts were made, more and more evangelists were also created, and by 1750 there were over 400 such fellowship groups in Wales.
Rowland concentrated his efforts on Llangeitho which became a centre for the movement, and by the 1760s Rowland was the movement’s acknowledged leader. In 1762 Llangeitho witnessed extraordinary scenes of religious enthusiasm as people flocked to hear Rowland’s preaching. He was deprived of his curacy by the Church of England in 1763 and consequently his congregation in 1764 built a Calvinistic Methodist chapel for his ministry, Capel Gwynfil in Llangeitho. Meanwhile, Harris founded a self-sufficient community at Trefecca near Talgarth which in 1842 evolved into a Calvinistic Methodist training college.
The early Methodists, both Calvinistic and Wesleyan, evangelised within the Church of England and continued to receive communion at the local Anglican church. They were at pains to avoid being called Nonconformist , and considered their role was to cleanse and revive the Church of England rather than secede from it. When they began to erect their own buildings they were not independent churches or chapels nor even meeting houses (the Nonconformists’ favoured term) but simply a “preaching house” or “new house” of the established church. The first specifically Calvinistic Methodist preaching house was that at Groeswen, near Caerphilly, built in 1742. The steadily accelerating rate of building during the second half of the 18th century gives some indication of the growth of the Methodist movement since by the end of the century the Calvinistic Methodists had built over 200 preaching houses. The largest numbers were in Caernarfonshire, Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire, predominantly Welsh-speaking areas.
Despite John Wesley’s 35 visits and other occasions when he passed through Wales on journeys to and from Ireland, Wesleyan Methodism had made only a small impact in Wales. Wesley made an agreement with Harris leaving most of the responsibility for Wales to him; since he did not speak Welsh, Wesley’s personal impact was almost exclusively on English speakers.
Following Rowland’s and Williams’ death, the leadership of the denomination passed to Thomas Charles. He was based in Bala, but originating from Griffith Jones’ country it is not surprising that he devoted himself to educational work, the organisation of the Welsh Sunday School movement and its associated publishing activities. The movement quickly permeated the other denominations and the Sunday School for all age groups became a distinctly Welsh institution.
The 19th Century
Throughout the 19th century Nonconformity in Wales was dominated by the older Dissenting movements of the Independents and Baptists and the newer Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists. Definitions of membership vary widely between the denominations, making comparisons between the denominations suspect. Even within a single denomination returns are not likely to be equally reliable from every congregation in every period. Nevertheless, it is clear that each of the four main denominations saw enormous increases in their membership throughout the 19th century.
The term “Calvinistic Methodist” was first used in 1801 and in the process of becoming the largest Nonconformist denomination in Wales, the movement separated from the Church of England in 1811 and established a Confession of Faith in 1823. During the 19th century they usually referred to themselves as a Connexion (Cyfundeb) rather than a Church.
The 1851 Religious Census recorded that the Calvinistic Methodists had a total of 807 places of worship. Although there are many questions about the reliability of the statistics in the 1851 Census, the numbers recorded as present at the best attended service – in most cases the Sunday evening service – confirm total attendance of 120,734 at Calvinistic Methodist congregations. The Census also showed that the Calvinistic Methodists were strongest in north Cardiganshire and through north Wales.
Before the 1830s the main denominations, particularly the Methodists, had been conservative in their political attitudes. However, increasingly the Nonconformists acquired a single voice on such issues as denouncing the 1847 report of into Welsh education, the rise of the Oxford Movement within the Church of England, the civil disabilities imposed upon them, and the call for electoral reform. This unity enabled the Welsh Nonconformists to move to a position of considerable political influence which they exercised through a strong allegiance to the Liberal Party to which they looked for liberation from their grievances and with whom they shared a central belief in the importance of individual choice.
The 20th Century
Despite the successes of the 19th century and the hopes raised by the 1904 revival the 20th century was to witness a catastrophic decline in Welsh Nonconformity. Membership of each of the main denominations peaked early in the century. Taking both Welsh- and English-speaking congregations into account the Calvinistic Methodists reached their highest point in 1926 at 189,727 members.
In 1933 the Calvinistic Methodist or Presbyterian Church of Wales Act granted equal standing to both names. As the century progressed the Calvinistic Methodists came increasingly to use the name Presbyterian Church of Wales (Eglwys Bresbyteraidd Cymru). To many Welsh people, however, even today they remain simply the Methodists. The denomination has always been strongest among Welsh speakers but it also has a significant English-speaking membership. As presbyterians, the denomination has a hierarchical form of church government comprising the local congregations, the regional presbyteries, the provinces of the national Association, and the national General Assembly.
The Bible Society’s 1982 census of the churches in Wales showed that the Calvinistic Methodists then had 79,900 members. Challenge to Change, the report of a Welsh Churches Survey conducted by the Bible Society in 1995, showed that there were 885 Calvinistic Methodist chapels (compared with 1169 in 1982). Faith in Wales: Counting for Communities, the report published by Gweini in 2008, estimated that there were 733 Calvinistic Methodist congregations in Wales.
Lionel Madden and Neil Sumner