The Early Dissenters

Brynllywarch Farm
Brynllywarch Farm, Bridgend

Although a relatively small denomination, the Unitarians have a significant place in the story of Dissent and Nonconformity in Wales. Like the Independents and Baptists, Unitarians have 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.

Congregations which were ultimately evolved gradually during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, often developing theologically out of earlier Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist congregations. The first step was towards Arminianism, the belief that man had freedom of choice and could achieve salvation through his own deeds rather than the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, that Christ died only for the chosen elect. A further absorbed doctrine was that of Arianism which rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that God encompasses three persons in one being, in favour of the belief that God is one person. Such anti-Trinitarian views set them apart from other Dissenting movements and indeed were specifically excluded from the provisions of the 1689 Toleration Act, whilst the 1698 Blasphemy Act made the denial of the Trinity a criminal offence.

1733 inscription, Yr Hen Gapel, Llwynrhydowen
Foundation stone from first Llwynrhydowen meeting house of 1733 built into the quoin of the current 1834 building. It possibly reads DEUS NOBIS HAEC O(MNIA) FECIT: “GOD MADE ALL THESE THINGS FOR US”
Sketch of Hen Dŷ Cwrdd 1751
Sketch of Hen Dŷ Cwrdd 1751, image courtesy of Rhondda Cynon Taff Photography Archive

In Wales, as in England, an important catalyst in the growth of Unitarianism was a love of learning and the liberal education provided by the Dissenting Academies which developed in the 18th century owing to the restrictions preventing dissenters’ attendance at Oxford and Cambridge. The majority of Unitarian students were educated at the academies which also provided vocational training for prospective ministers of religion. Samuel Jones, ejected from his Anglican living following the 1662 Act of Uniformity, founded an important academy at Brynllywarch near Bridgend which later transferred to Carmarthen. One of the Carmarthen academy’s most influential tutors was Thomas Perrot and his student Jenkin Jones in 1726 began to preach Arminianism in Ceredigion.

In 1733, Jones built a chapel at Llwynrhydowen, Ceredigion the first Arminian chapel in Wales. A sister chapel followed at Alltyblaca in 1742. Jones and other eminent ministers who followed, including David Lloyd and Dafydd Dafis, influenced other young ministers and congregations in the area. Meanwhile, Arminianism and Arianism were gaining ground in the Merthyr Tydfil area. Puritan dissenters had worshipped secretly, possibly as early as the 1640s, at Blaencanaid farmhouse and subsequently at Cwmyglo, both on the hillside between Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare. The successors of this cause built Hen Dŷ Cwrdd in Cefn Coed y Cymer in 1747 and Hen Dŷ Cwrdd in Trecynon in 1751.

The 18th Century

Tomos Glyn Cothi (Thomas Evans) Memorial Stone at Hen Dŷ Cwrdd, Trecynon
Tomos Glyn Cothi (Thomas Evans) Memorial Stone at Hen Dŷ Cwrdd, Trecynon

The agent of the change from Arianism to Unitarianism in Wales was Thomas Evans, better known as Tomos Glyn Cothi (1764-1833). Evans was a Teifi valley weaver who despite his lack of formal education soon developed a profound desire for learning. He walked to Alltyblaca to hear sermons by David Lloyd and Dafydd Dafis and commenced preaching himself at home in Cwm Cothi, near Brechfa, Carmarthenshire. The leading English Unitarian Theophilus Lindsey sent him English books, including books by himself and the eminent English scientist and Unitarian, Joseph Priestley, which Tomos Glyn Cothi translated into Welsh. In 1796, he established the first truly Unitarian chapel in Wales in Cwm Cothi where his enthusiasm for rational Christianity led to his being dubbed “Priestley Bach”. David Lloyd’s son Charles Lloyd established the first Unitarian causes in Ceredigion, at Pant-y-defaid and Capel y Groes in 1802. Eventually, there were 13 Unitarian chapels in the area, resistant to successive waves of evangelical revival emanating from the epicentre of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, Llangeitho, not far to the north. As such these communities became collectively known to a hostile Methodist historiography as the ‘Black Spot’ (Y Smotyn Du).

Iolo Morganwg
Iolo Morgannwg; Courtesy of Rhondda Cynon Taff Photography Library

Tomos Glyn Cothi fell foul of the authorities when he sang Jacobin songs at a social gathering, including his own Welsh version of the Marseillaise. For this he was pilloried and imprisoned in Carmarthen Gaol from 1803 until 1811 where he wrote radical pamphlets, hymnals and poetry. Following his release, Evans accepted an invitation from the congregation of Hen Dŷ Cwrdd, Trecynon where he ministered as a Unitarian until his death in 1833.
Another pivotal figure was Edward Williams, better known as Iolo Morganwg. Iolo was a man of many talents and interests: monumental mason, poet, theologian, hymn writer, and bardic antiquary. In the 1790s he walked frequently to London where came into close contact with men who sympathised with the French Revolution and also with Unitarian leaders such as Lindsey and Priestley. A vital link between London and the Welsh Unitarian pioneers, he was a close associate of Tomos Glyn Cothi and was the leading spirit in the foundation of the Welsh Unitarian Society in 1802. During this period Hen Dŷ Cwrdd in Cefn Coed y Cymer had also become avowedly Unitarian and other Unitarian congregations had been formed in the Bridgend area, the Neath valley, Trebanos, Carmarthen, Cardiff and Swansea.

The 19th Century

Gwilym Marles (William Thomas)
Gwilym Marles (William Thomas) (1834-1879)

Unitarians believe in a rational theology, and are driven by the humanity and moral authority, as opposed to the deity, of Christ. The transition from Arianism to Unitarianism during the period of the French wars represents a renewed politicisation of the dissenting tradition. Unitarians have been in the vanguard of struggles for civil and religious liberty, and it was not until the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813 that penalties against them were finally removed. They were radical in politics as well as in religion. John Jones and Owen Evans, the ministers at Cefn Coed y Cymer and Trecynon respectively, publicly supported the struggles of the Chartist movement and became marked men by the authorities. The dynamic minister of Llwynrhydowen, William Thomas (Gwilym Marles) defended local farmers’ maltreatment by their landowners with frequent contributions to the press, public lectures and a regular stream of sermons. This led to the notorious 1876 eviction of him and his congregation by the local Tory landlord.

The 1851 Religious Census included returns for 27 Unitarian congregations. Despite missionary activity it would appear that the Unitarians were not committed to aggressive proselytising since by 1905 they had shown a gain of only a single place of worship over the 1851 figure.

The Unitarians were possibly the only Christian denomination in the 19th century not blown off course by the Darwinian revolution; in fact the movement embraced the new thought as it has, in the main, subsequent scientific advances. In the 19th century, Theodore Parker and James Martineau revolutionalised the sterile thinking associated with traditional Unitarian reliance on Biblical texts, taking it forward to a new faith based on reason and the enlightened conscience.

There are currently 22 Unitarian congregations in Wales, 13 of which are Welsh speaking congregations in Ceredigion. All the congregations belong to the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches which is represented in Wales by the Unitarian Welsh Department Committee. The Welsh Department serves as a link between the London based headquarters and the Welsh congregations as well as acting as a link between the two Unitarian Districts, the one in South East Wales and the other taking in the Welsh speaking congregations in West Wales.

Neil Sumner

Unitarian Distribution maps

Unitarian Distribution All