The 18th Century
Protestant Dissent in Wales was in the 17th century dominated by the twin movements of the Independents or Congregationalists and the Baptists, but 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.
John Wesley, along with his brother Charles and fellow cleric George Whitefield were the leaders of an evangelical movement which began in the 1720s in Oxford as the Holy Club, a club for the purpose of study and the pursuit of a devout Christian life. This fellowship was branded as “Methodist” by their fellow students because of the way they used “rule” and “method” to go about their religious affairs. Wesley took the attempted mockery and turned it into a title of honour.
In 1738, Wesley experienced what has come to be called his evangelical conversion, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed”. A key step in the development of Wesley’s ministry was, like Whitefield, to travel and preach outdoors. Moving across Great Britain, Ireland and North America, he helped to form and organise small Christian groups that developed intensive and personal accountability, discipleship and religious instruction. Most importantly, he appointed itinerant, un-ordained evangelists to travel and preach as he did and to care for these groups of people.
Initially the Methodists led by Wesley merely sought reform, by way of a return to the gospel, within the Church of England, but the movement spread with revival and soon a significant number of Anglican clergy became affiliated with the movement in reaction to the perceived apathy of the Church of England. Early Methodists were drawn from all levels of society, including the aristocracy, but the Methodist preachers took the message to labourers and criminals who tended to be left outside organized religion at that time. Methodism is characterized by its emphasis on helping the poor and the average person, its very systematic approach to building the person, and the “church” and its missionary spirit. He organised the new converts locally and in a “Connexion” across the whole of Britain.
Soon John Wesley and George Whitefield were drawn into association with Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland, Welshmen inspired by similar values. Wesley first preached in Wales in 1739 at Harris’ invitation. However, 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. 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. Since Wesley did not speak Welsh this impact was almost exclusively on English speakers. His agreement with Harris leaving most of the responsibility for Wales to him meant that by the end of the 18th century Wesley’s followers in Wales numbered only around 600.
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 earliest surviving is Earlswood, Monmouthshire, built 1791.
The British Wesleyan Methodists formally separated from the Church of England during the 1790s, following Wesley’s death. Under the guidance of Dr Thomas Coke, a native of Brecon, the British Wesleyan Conference resolved in 1800 to send Welsh-speaking preachers to Wales, resulting in the growth of Welsh-speaking congregations. Pendref in Denbigh claims to be the first Welsh-speaking Wesleyan chapel in Wales, built in 1801. Meanwhile, the influx of English-speaking Wesleyans particularly from Cornwall to the rapidly expanding mining areas aided the establishment and expansion of English-speaking congregations. Although the Wesleyans thereafter spread throughout Wales they were always smaller in numbers and influence than the other three major denominations.
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 1851 Religious Census recorded that the Wesleyans had a total of 499 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 53,730 at Wesleyan congregations.
During the 19th century, the Wesleyan Methodist Church experienced many secessions, with the largest of the off-shoots being the Primitive Methodists, who had a particular mission to the working class. They broke away to form their own Connexion when the main body refused to allow open-air preaching and have a strong and interesting distribution pattern in Wales. Other secessionist groups, including the Methodist New Connexion, Bible Christians, Wesleyan Methodist Association and Wesleyan Reformers all had a presence in Wales, mostly among the English-speaking population, though the Wesleyan Methodist Association included those Welsh-speaking chapels known as the Wesle Bach who left the Welsh Wesleyans in a secession that began in 1831. With the exception of the Primitive Methodists all these bodies were gradually to merge, eventually becoming part of the United Methodist Church in 1907, which itself merged with the Wesleyans and Primitives to form the Methodist Church (Yr Eglwys Fethodistaidd) in 1932.
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 Wesleyan Methodists reached their highest point in 1932 with 56,027 members.
The Bible Society’s 1982 census of the churches in Wales showed that the Wesleyan Methodists then had 24,300 members. Challenge to Change, the report of a Welsh Churches Survey conducted by the Bible Society in 1995, showed that there were 396 Wesleyan Methodist chapels (compared with 553 in 1982). Faith in Wales: Counting for Communities, the report published by Gweini in 2008, estimated that there were 341 Wesleyan Methodist congregations in Wales.
Lionel Madden and Neil Sumner