Magazine article History Today

Welsh Chapels in Crisis

Magazine article History Today

Welsh Chapels in Crisis

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO CAPEL, the Chapels Heritage Society, Welsh chapels are closing at an alarming rate of one per week. This is a real crisis, not just for folks who enjoy rescuing old architecture, but for Wales as a nation. In many ways, Welsh chapels represent the heart and soul of Wales. They symbolise the history of Wales as it transformed from an agricultural nation in the seventeenth century into a leader of the Industrial Revolution. Anthony Jones, author of Welsh Chapels (1996) describes these often peculiar and not always pleasant-looking structures as `the national architecture of Wales,' yet for too long their influence has been overlooked. Often, they have been criticised as a blight on the landscape.

Where other forms of architecture in Wales have received listed status and the state has taken them into its care, the chapel -- the one structure that represents the impact of Nonconformity on virtually every aspect of Welsh society, culture and politics -- has been rejected, at least until recently. In 2000, the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales finally completed an extensive undertaking, surveying and documenting every chapel in Wales. Their intent was to ensure that a record and photographs survive for this vital element of Welsh history, to record for posterity the existence and appearance of these chapels before they disappear without trace.

The Welsh chapel is the only architectural development that Wales can claim as its own. Whereas the castles for which the country is acclaimed were built by outsiders and imposed upon them, the Welsh willingly erected chapels to serve themselves. Virtually every community has at least one. While their distinctive features make them readily recognisable, each is different, emphasising the independence of congregations from each other.

In the early seventeenth century, when Nonconformity was illegal, people came together to worship in private homes, barns and even public houses. The first chapel buildings were converted barns or farm houses, unobtrusive places where preaching could be carried out without attracting unwanted attention. A chapel meant much more than a structure where people worshipped together; the chapel was the congregation itself, the group of people who gathered to hear sermons, often by itinerant preachers.

After the Act of Toleration of 1689, Nonconformity gathered momentum and chapel-building spread. By the end of the eighteenth century, over a hundred new chapels had sprung up in Wales. During the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, a chapel was completed there every eight days: by 1851, some 2,800 existed throughout the countryside. Ultimately, Welsh Nonconformists built some 5,000 chapels within about 250 years.

The first chapels were plain and austere and designed to focus attention on the pulpit, placed at the centre of the wall toward which the worshippers faced. Within 150 years, chapel ornamentation evolved dramatically, and facades became more elaborate. The changing styles reflected the distinct identities and changes within individual Nonconformist communities, who were increasingly playing a role in politics as well as being the social and cultural focus of those they served.

In the census of 1851, Wales boasted that almost a million people, around five-sixths of the population, attended weekly chapel. …

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