Relegion

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), October 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

Relegion


-O-------The historian R. Tudur Jones once claimed that by the 1890s Wales was effectively a Christian country.

Chapels packed to the rafters with earnest worshippers, listening to charismatic preachers and lustily singing Welsh hymns, had once been commonplace. In an age when Wales lacked national institutions, the nonconformist denominations and their preachers were the natural leaders of Welsh society.

When that power was allied to the interests of the Liberal Party after 1850 it created a heady mix.

Yet, for many today, the religiosity of the Welsh past remains completely impenetrable.

However, the actual period of nonconformist influence in Wales was relatively shortlived. Up until the 18th-century Methodist Revival, Protestants had found Wales to be stony ground. It was not until the itinerant evangelism of Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland that a popular evangelical religious movement began to convert many in Wales from nominal to committed Christianity.

What was the secret of their success? The answer to that must lie in a combination of factors; they themselves claimed that they preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, that their success was the consequence of the mercy and grace of God.

But they were also incredibly charismatic and gifted communicators of the Christian message. Preaching in the Welsh language, they sometimes spoke to crowds numbering in the tens of thousands.

Their converts were organised into societies - small cell groups in which men and women (on an equal footing) met to read the Bible, pray, sing, and discuss their spiritual experiences. These groups were effectively mini-churches; when the Methodists finally left the Church of England in 1811 they became the foundation of Wales' largest religious denomination - the Calvinistic Methodists. The evangelical spirit of Methodism soon spilled over to the other Welsh denominations as well, the Baptists and the Independents especially, and wave upon wave of religious revival, between that which took place at Llangeitho in 1762 and the great international awakening of 1859, brought generations to a living faith, feeding the growth and power of nonconformity.

Nonconformity has often had a bad press, due in no small part to vicious caricature of the novelist Caradoc Evans. While it could be authoritarian and sometimes hypocritically moralistic, at its best nonconformist religion was a powerful force, keeping alive the Welsh language, levelling society and opening up quasi-democratic impulses as chapel members chose their ministers, elected their elders and deacons, and sometimes voted them out of office as well.

Looking at the plight of the old Welsh religious denominations today, it can be difficult to imagine a time when they were at the heart of society. …

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