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

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Methodism in Wales, 1730–1850

9 Religion and identity

To uncover the roots of the connection between religion and identity in Wales, we need to look all the way back in the sixteenth century. It was in that period that two very significant events occurred in Wales at almost the same time. Firstly, laws were passed in the 1530s and 40s which, in legal and administrative terms, made Wales a part of England and also banned the Welsh language from official proceedings and law courts. At the same time, Catholicism had been being largely overtaken in Wales by new Protestant forms of Christianity.

With the accession of Elizabeth I to the English throne in 1558, the Anglican form of Protestantism became the state religion in both England and Wales. One of the main resulting changes was the idea that church services, previously held in Latin, should be in a language that people could actually understand. For that reason, and despite the prohibition on the use of the Welsh language in any official capacity, parliament passed an act in 1563 which sanctioned the translation of the Bible and various other religious texts into the Welsh language. Across the country, services and sermons were soon being delivered in Welsh and by the end of the sixteenth century a steady stream of Welsh-language religious literature was being published (Suggett and White, 2002, pp. 54–60).

The result was the creation of a strong connection between language and religion in Wales that lasted for centuries. Banned from places like law courts and the offices of public officials, Welsh instead became associated with religiosity. This was an association that Welsh Nonconformity inherited, operating as it did primarily through the medium of Welsh (James, 2001, pp. 18–19).

Nevertheless, during the eighteenth century a sense of shared Protestantism had helped to forge a new feeling of Britishness which coexisted with English, Scottish and Welsh identities. The threat of hostile Catholic powers like France and Spain made the disparities between Nonconformists and Anglicans seem pretty minor by comparison, especially following failed French-backed invasion attempts in 1715 and 1745 by Jacobites loyal to the Catholic descendants of the ousted James II (Colley, 1992, pp. 11–54). In that context, Protestant disagreements, even over relatively major points of theology and practice, no longer seemed like the life and death matters they had been in Tudor times or during the civil wars. Meetings like the one pictured below came to be tolerated by the state, whereas even a few decades before those participating would have risked arrest.

Described image
Figure 7 Painting of 1912 by Hugh Williams, depicting a 1743 meeting of Welsh Methodist leaders including Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland and William Williams. Photo supplied by Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

However, that sense of Protestant unity was unsteady and ultimately short-lived. As the Baptists, the Congregationalists, and others denominations grew in strength during the eighteenth century, and were then themselves eclipsed by the soaring popularity of Calvinistic Methodism in the nineteenth century, the Church of England became increasingly seen as alien to Wales. Such views were fuelled by the fact that many Anglican clergy were absentee Englishmen who seldom even came to Wales, whilst by the late nineteenth century not a single bishop in Wales could speak Welsh. The anti-Anglican feeling sparked by the Treachery of the Blue Books fanned the flames further. As a result, Welsh Nonconformists generally and Calvinistic Methodists in particular were able to position themselves as the true guardians of an authentically Welsh form of Christianity.

Activity 7

Now have a look at a letter written in the 1860s by Henry Richard, a leading politician and churchman in Wales during the mid nineteenth century. He is a great example of the self-consciously Welsh form of Nonconformity that came to dominate Wales in the years following the Treachery of the Blue Books. Before you read the letter, it would be a good idea to look up Richard in the Dictionary of Welsh biography [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

To find the letter, go to Richard’s collection of Letters and essays on Wales (1884), available via the Internet Archive. You can either view it online (click on the page to move on) or scroll down to the ‘download options’ section to download a version of it. Downloading takes longer but tends to be more stable. If you do decide to download it, there are various formats listed on the right-hand side of the page. PDF is probably the most straightforward to use.

Read the very first letter, starting on page 1 and ending on page 8 and entitled ‘Past religious and moral conditions of Wales’.

What does the letter tell us about Richard’s view of religious and national identity in Wales?

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Discussion

Whilst he is a little outside of the timespan for this course, Richard’s writings are a great example of how Welsh Nonconformists had come to regard their own national identity by the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In this letter, Richard paints a picture of Welshness based around religion, language and ancestry. In his view, the Church of England failed utterly to foster religious feeling in Wales, and it was only through the development of home-grown forms of Nonconformity that the Welsh acquired their sense of ‘knowledge, virtue and religion’ (1884, p. 6). What this suggests is that the Protestant unity of the eighteenth century, which served to draw the various peoples and denominations of Britain together, was, by the middle of the nineteenth century, on the wane. By this point, religion was being used by some in Wales as a way of expressing their identity as Welsh rather than British.

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