The Early Dissenters
The early Dissenting movements had their roots in Puritan dissatisfaction with the religious settlement imposed by Elizabeth I as her response to the Protestant Reformation which swept through Europe in the sixteenth century. They were motivated by a desire to recover a purer, more primitive form of Christian belief and organisation based firmly on the teaching of the Bible. The two movements which were to have most significance in Wales were the Baptists and the Independents, also known as the Congregationalists. Both the Independents and the Baptists embraced the idea that each gathered congregation of believers constituted an independent and autonomous church which could appoint its own ministers and officers and was self-governing in all its affairs of spiritual oversight and administrative and financial organisation. To a large extent congregations worked out their own system for themselves while drawing what assistance they could from practice elsewhere. Independents believe their model of church governance fulfils the description of the early church and allows people the most direct relationship with God. For this reason, particularly in the early period, the idea of a denominational structure has never been strong within the movement. Theologically, the Independents were mostly Calvinist in doctrine, believing that Christ died only for the chosen elect.
The first Independent congregation in Wales was established at Llanfaches in Monmouthshire and was led by the Puritan rector of the parish, William Wroth. This gathered congregation was formally incorporated in 1639 by a solemn covenant made and witnessed in the presence of a representative from a recognised Independent congregation in London. Under the missionary zeal of Wroth and his gifted younger associates extensive preaching was undertaken in south Wales and the borders, resulting in the establishment of a second congregation in Cardiff.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and the strong royalist sympathies in the area forced the Llanfaches congregation into a period of exile which, despite its trauma, had the positive advantage of acquainting the leaders with a wider spectrum of Puritan personalities especially in London. As the Parliamentary cause prospered they were able to return to Wales.The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 heralded a turbulent period for both Independent and Baptist congregations. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 and the Conventicle Acts of 1664 and 1670 were intended to enforce obedience to the established Church of England. The Corporation Act of 1661 and Test Act of 1673 reduced the civil rights of dissenters. The level of persecution under these Acts varied at different times and in different parts of Wales, but there is no doubt that many committed members of dissenting congregations suffered significantly.
The Toleration Act of 1689, while it did not remove the civil restraints on dissenters, restored some measure of liberty of worship, albeit within strictly controlled parameters. A very important provision of the Act was that for the first time it allowed dissenters to build their own places of worship. Hitherto they had mostly met in private houses, barns or clearings in woods, but from 1689 onwards both Independents and Baptists began to erect chapels.
The growth of their congregations paved the way for their emergence as major forces in later mainstream Nonconformity. The first Independent chapel was built by the Llanfaches congregation in the nearby hamlet of Carrow Hill. Although the original building, the first dissenting chapel built in Wales, no longer survives, Llanfaches is still regarded as the “Jerusalem of Wales”. Another Independent chapel from this period is Maesyronnen, near Glasbury which was converted from a barn in 1692 and is the earliest surviving chapel in Wales in largely its original form. It is now within the United Reformed Church denomination.
The 19th Century
The spiritual fervour and excitement of the Methodist revival in the mid 18th century inevitably influenced the two major Dissenting groups. In 1775 there were about 100 Independent congregations in Wales and this was steadily increasing. By 1800 there were 28 Independent ministers in south Wales and 18 in the north.The English speaking congregations and some Welsh speaking congregations joined the Congregational Union of England and Wales at its foundation in 1832, while the vast majority of Welsh speaking congregations formed their own Union of Welsh Independents (Undeb yr Annibynwyr Cymraeg ) in 1872. Nowadays, many of the churches which belong to the Undeb conduct services bilingually. The Undeb exists for mutual support but has no authority over the individual congregations.
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. Along with the Calvinistic Methodists, the Independents had the greatest numbers of members and chapels. The 1851 Religious Census recorded 700 Independent 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 96,527 at Independent congregations. The Census also showed that, along with the Baptists, the Independents were strongest in south Wales.
The strength of the Independents in the mid 19th century is demonstrated by Tabernacl, Morriston, an ambitious architectural achievement built in 1873 and rightly regarded as the ‘Cathedral of Nonconformity in Wales’. It is a confident statement in an urban setting and stands in stark contrast to the rural, humble and reticent Maesyronnen. The two buildings exemplify the transformation of Nonconformity in Wales in less than 200 years.
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. 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 Independents or Congregationalists reached their highest point in 1927 at 171,242 members.
The 20th Century
In 1972 most of the English-speaking Congregationalists in Wales and England joined the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church. In 1981 they were joined by the Churches of Christ and in 2000 by the Congregational Union of Scotland. Some congregations decided not to join, and 29 of these are currently affiliated to the Congregational Federation in Wales.
The Bible Society’s 1982 census of the churches in Wales showed that the Independents then had 65,200 members. Challenge to Change, the report of a Welsh Churches Survey conducted by the Bible Society in 1995, showed that there were 642 Independent/Congregationalist chapels (compared with 746 in 1982) and 140 United Reformed chapels. Faith in Wales: Counting for Communities, the report published by Gweini in 2008, estimated that there were 514 Independent congregations and 117 United Reformed congregations.