3 The Nonconformist context
Calvinistic Methodism was just one of a number of forms of Christianity that grew in strength and popularity during the eighteenth century. For that reason Wales has been referred to by some historians as a ‘Nonconformist nation’, with the term ‘Nonconformist’ referring to forms of Christianity that were Protestant but did not accept the theology, institutions or authority of the Church of England. The label ‘Nonconformist nation’ is more properly applied to the nineteenth century, yet it was during the eighteenth century that Nonconformity really took root in Wales. So when the Welsh Methodists left the Anglican Church in 1811, they joined a number of other Nonconformist denominations that had been around for at least a century already.
The rise of Nonconformity in Wales can in part be attributed to the ‘circulating schools’ which first appeared during the 1730s and 1740s. This initiative saw teachers moving from village to village, using biblical texts as the basis for teaching both children and adults to read in the Welsh language. This new educational movement did much to improve literacy levels and religious knowledge amongst the Welsh population. It also acted as a catalyst for the growth of both Methodism within the Church of England and Nonconformist denominations outside it.
However Griffith Jones and Bridget Bevan, the leading lights of the circulating school movement, were Anglicans, much like the early Methodists who came after them. Indeed the value of their educational work was recognised across denominations. In 1892, the Welsh Anglican churchman John Morgan wrote:
Everybody, too, who knows anything of Wales, knows its deep indebtedness in the matter to the Rev. Griffith Jones, the Apostolic Vicar of Llanddowror, the founder of the circulating charity schools, and to his friend Madam Bevan, their liberal patron. These schools, humble in their character, as best suited the ignorant and indigent state of the rural districts for which they were primarily intended, and modest in their aim and pretension as compared to modern institutions of the kind, conferred an immense blessing on Wales. Their temporary continuance in one place; the smallness of their number; the inadequacy of the masters’ salaries, owing, of course, to the inadequacy of funds, as well perhaps as the extreme difficulty of finding competent teachers, or of properly training for purposes of public teaching the raw and uninformed Welsh peasant, the only material at hand, militated, it is thought, against their efficiency; but it is certain that for a whole century the only rural spots where even a glimmering of light could be seen were the parishes where these Church-schools circulated and secured the co-operation of the clergy.
Now listen to Audio 1, in which Neil Evans discusses why Nonconformity became so popular in Wales during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He particularly emphasises the democratic nature of Nonconformist religion, as opposed to the strict hierarchy of the Church of England, as well as the power of the Bible to inspire worshippers.
Transcript: Audio 1 Extract from Programme 8, Crisis, of the BBC Radio Wales Millennium History series, The People of Wales (1999)
For much of the 1700s, the largest Nonconformist denominations in Wales were the Baptists and the Congregationalists (sometimes called Independents). The Quakers and the Presbyterians also claimed significant numbers. The rather forbidding fellow in Figure 2 is Christmas Evans, one of the Baptist movement’s most fiery and inspiring speakers. During his career as an itinerant preacher in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Evans eschewed the accumulation of wealth and the comforts of an easy life. Instead he roamed far and wide delivering evangelising sermons to the masses. In those respects he is a great example of Nonconformist forms of ministry in this era.