The Foundation of Modern Wales: Wales 1642-1780

By Geraint H. Jenkins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
THE SPIRIT OF ENTHUSIASM

SOME of the most remarkable gains in eighteenth-century Wales were achieved in the field of religion and education. Although the established church still remained a powerful institution which commanded the respect and affection of most regular worshippers in Wales, it was finding it increasingly difficult to rise above its own administrative shortcomings and to meet the challenge of new rivals. Methodism, led by young men of compelling magnetism, struck genuine roots in Wales from the late 1730s onwards. Its attractive combination of powerful preaching, intimate fellowship, and fervent hymn-singing helped to fulfil the unappeased spiritual cravings of middle sorts. From the outset, the seeds of secession were implicit within Methodism and the trend towards schism was reinforced as the growth of revivalism brought about the reinvigoration of Dissent. These developments were accompanied and sustained by the extraordinary success of the Welsh circulating schools, which, by providing common people with easy access to elementary schooling in the vernacular, led to a striking upsurge in literacy rates. In many ways, the emergence of Methodism, the rejuvenation of Dissent, and the growth of literacy were formative forces in the making of modern Wales. They helped, in the longer term, to generate and satisfy much of the demand for piety, morality, education, and self-improvement which characterized Welsh life in the nineteenth century.

The growing challenge to the monopoly and the authority of the established church was partly provoked by a more acute awareness among its own members of its administrative and spiritual inadequacies. As we have seen, the financial malaise of the established church was so deeply rooted that it was powerless to reform itself. Much of its revenue, notably in the southern dioceses, had been siphoned off by lay impropriators and affluent churchmen. Moreover, its administrative structure was so archaic and anomalous that many of its servants were prevented from discharging their duties effectively. Yet, although maldistribution of wealth within the church meant that the quality of religious life varied from see to see and from locality to locality, the influence and popularity of the church remained strong. Throughout this period the majority of worshipping Christians in Wales believed that the Church of England offered the true way of life and belief. The parish church continued to be the focus of the faith of the community and the social life of the parish. Prior to the

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