Methodism in Wales, 1730–1850
Methodism in Wales, 1730–1850

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Methodism in Wales, 1730–1850

4 Nonconformity in figures

Table 1 gives us an idea of the strength of Nonconformity in different parts of Wales in 1715. At that point Methodism had yet to develop, and when it did the movement remained within the Anglican Church until the start of the nineteenth century. The information that the table provides is incomplete – see, for example, the question marks in place of membership figures for Baptists and Quakers in Cardigan.

Table 1 Dissenting congregations in 1715 (the number of congregations for each county is followed by the supposed membership)

(Jenkins, 1991, p. 146)

Activity 1

What does this table tell us about the religious scene in Wales prior to the rise of Methodism?


What the table reveals is that Nonconformist denominations varied greatly in strength depending on which parts of Wales you look at. Monmouth, for example, boasted nearly 3000 Baptists but no Presbyterians. Overall, however, it gives us a figure of almost 23,000 Nonconformists in Wales in 1715. That sounds like a lot, but Wales at that time had an adult population of around 300,000. So Nonconformists made up only about 8 per cent of potential churchgoers Wales. Of course, that does not automatically make everyone else a practising Anglican. In fact, levels of attendance at Anglican services remained fairly low throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Field, 2012, pp. 718–19).

Now let’s step forward in time to 1851. The religious census carried out that year across England and Wales enables us to see how our four denominations fared in Wales during the intervening period. It also gives a useful sense of the success of Calvinistic Methodism, which was by this point also a Nonconformist movement operating beyond the bounds of Anglicanism.

What the census reveals is that, by the mid nineteenth century, Nonconformity in its various forms was in the ascendancy. Out of about 950,000 people attending services in Wales that year, over a quarter were Calvinistic Methodists whilst only a fifth counted themselves as Anglican. The Baptists, meanwhile, claimed only about 25,000 fewer adherents than the Church of England. Wesleyan Methodism (a separate strand from the Calvinistic variety) was also a significant force with over 100,000 ‘hearers’ (meaning people who ‘heard’ services and sermons). Meanwhile, there were almost a quarter of a million Congregationalists in Wales at that time. They were categorised as ‘other’ in the 1851 census because each Congregationalist church was independent, rather than being part of any wider denominational structure. What’s more, a small but significant group of Catholics were still practising their religion in Wales some three centuries after the Reformation. That Catholic contingent would soon be swelled by in-migration from places like Ireland as a result of the growing demand for labour that accompanied industrialisation in south Wales and to a lesser extent north Wales.

Activity 2

To get a better sense of the religious situation in Wales in 1851, go to the Vision of Britain through time [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  website, which uses a host of sources as the basis for a detailed statistical account of British history. Then follow these steps:

  • Click on the ‘Statistical atlas’ tab in the menu bar towards the top of the page.
  • Click on the ‘Roots & Religion’ option.
  • Click on ‘Calvinistic Methodist “Attendances” as Percentage of Total for modern local authorities in 1851’ from the list of options.
  • Explore the map that appears using the zoom tool in the map pane. The darker the shade of brown, the greater the proportion of Calvinistic Methodists in that area.
  • Use the ‘Available rates’ drop-down menu to look at 1851 church attendance maps for other denominations, including Baptists, Church of England, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholics and Wesleyan Methodists.

Please note that for these other denominations you will see a map of Britain as a whole rather than just Wales. You should also be aware that for the statistics on which these maps are based are calculated in relation to attendance rates across Britain as a whole, rather than just in Wales. That is why they don’t necessarily tally with the figures given in the explanation above. Nonetheless, the maps do a great job of emphasising the popularity of Calvinistic Methodism amongst the Welsh in the nineteenth century, and also how specific the denomination was to Wales.

The Vision of Britain through time website can be used to research a whole range of themes in Welsh and British history, and it gives you the facility to focus on specific areas or individual settlements. When you’ve finished this course, please do spend some more time exploring it.

Based on this evidence, the notion of a ‘Nonconformist nation’ is far more applicable to 1851 than 1715. Yet the seeds of Nonconformity’s dominance during the nineteenth century lies in the eighteenth. Indeed, some historians have argued that the very existence of the Baptists, Congregationalists, and other denominations, who were already worshipping beyond the bounds of Anglicanism, created the conditions in which a specifically Welsh form of Methodist nonconformity could arise (Bradley, 1990, pp. 50–60).


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