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David Bebbington

The News from Rhosllanerchrugog

On the exemplary fate of Nonconformity in Wales.

In November 1904, R. B. Jones, a visiting Baptist preacher, held a campaign in Penuel Baptist Chapel, Rhosllanerchrugog, a mining village in northeast Wales. Each night for two weeks he preached to crowded congregations and, according to a contemporary report, "swept the people off their feet with his exhortations." On the final day the meeting, now in the largest chapel in the place, was opened to prayers, testimonies, and hymns from members of the congregation while Jones proclaimed the gospel to those who had been unable to gain entry. Many professed conversion. It was one of the high points of the revival that invigorated Wales during 1904-05.

At the time Rhosllanerchrugog, though of no great size, contained as many as 27 chapels. It was an epitome of Wales, a land studded with places of worship belonging to Evangelical Nonconformity. The success of the movement, however, was to evaporate during the 20th century. In 1905, the Congregationalists, whose history is recounted in the first of the books under review, enjoyed the allegiance of over 175,000 church members; by 2001, the denomination retained only about 33,000 members. The collapse was particularly acute in the last years of the century. R. Tudur Jones' Congregationalism in Wales, originally published in Welsh in 1966, has now been brought up-to-date by the editor, Robert Pope of the University of Wales, Bangor, who points out that between 1962 and 2001, membership in the denomination fell by more than two-thirds. A similar tale could be told for the Presbyterians (originally the Calvinistic Methodists, a body emerging in the 18th century), the Wesleyan Methodists (who also derived from the Evangelical Revival), and the Baptists (who, like the Congregationalists, went back to the 17th century). With the Church of England, then the established church of the land, having only just over a quarter of the worshipping population at the opening of the 20th century, the chapels formed the main Christian presence in Wales. By the end of the century, however, each main branch of Nonconformity had fallen on evil days.

Congregationalism in Wales is an authoritative and unusually illuminating denominational history, showing how the movement contributed both to the triumphs and to the decay of Nonconformity. It explains that Congregationalism began as one of the more extreme forms of Puritanism. The first Welsh Congregational church was established in 1639 "according to the New England way." After a period of persecution in the later 17th century, some of the more Presbyterian-inclined churches adopted broader theological views while the more firmly Independent congregations retained their Calvinistic orthodoxy. These churches managed to slipstream the Evangelical Revival, growing in numbers and turning from a largely cerebral to a more emotional style. Congregationalists then shared in the creation of a flourishing Victorian Nonconformist civilization. They possessed features that distinguished them from their English coreligionists: most of their churches long possessed a plurality of elders, a rarity in England; and they held quarterly meetings and fellowship meetings, both imitated from the Calvinistic Methodists. Perhaps the chief omission in this study is the profound influence of the New England school of theology stemming from Jonathan Edwards on Welsh Congregationalists. The doctrinal synthesis of moderate Calvinism that Edwards and his followers propounded is discussed, but it is presented as an indigenous growth in Wales. Virtually every other aspect of denominational life, however, receives rich and thorough treatment.

The author of this admirable account deserves attention in his own right. R. Tudur Jones (1921–98) was professor of church history at the Congregationalists' Bala-Bangor Theological College from 1950 and principal from 1965 until his retirement in 1988. He was an Evangelical who published with the InterVarsity Press, a Calvinist who influenced candidates for the ministry in an orthodox direction, and a consistent exponent of the ideal of a Christian mind. But he was also a leading Welsh intellectual of his generation: the writer of a weekly column in the secular press, a champion of the Welsh language, and a parliamentary candidate for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist Party.

A man is known by his heroes, and the four figures singled out for emulation by Tudur Jones in the preface to Congregationalism tell us a great deal about the author. One is John Penry, the radical Presbyterian of Elizabethan times who urged the need for Welsh preachers and eventually suffered martyrdom at the hands of the English state. Another is the 17th-century Puritan mystic Morgan Llywd. "He knew his Calvin," writes Tudur Jones of Llywd, "and … he, like all the Puritans, was steeped in his Bible. But while his interests were catholic, he set his own personal stamp on all things." The words could apply to the author as much as to the subject. A third individual is Samuel Roberts, always known as "S. R.," a prolific Victorian journalist who expressed a Christian perspective on the public issues of his day. And the final man is Michael D. Jones, a college principal, "a stalwart Independent" and "one of the most original and penetrating thinkers in the second half of the nineteenth century." Michael D. Jones earns particular praise from the author for discerning the connection between the Congregational ideal of a self-governing society under God and the need of Wales to be responsible for its own affairs under the Almighty. Tudur Jones recognized the imperative for Christian scholars to identify the relationship between spiritual and secular affairs.

That concern led Tudur Jones to write another book, the second one under review, also newly translated from Welsh. Faith and the Crisis of a Nation takes the problem of the decay of 20th-century Welsh Nonconformity as its subject and traces the malaise to its roots in the period 1890-1914. The decline of the chapels is associated with a retreat of Welshness. "Wales," according to the opening sentence of the book, "in 1890, was a Christian country." Most of the nation was also profoundly committed to the Welsh language. The chapels, which actively promoted Welsh-language activities for all, were closely bound up with Welsh identity. So an assault on Welshness meant an undermining of Nonconformity. The argument is presented neither simplistically nor over-boldly. It is a great strength of the book that it explicitly disavows any single explanation of the process of secularization that afflicted 20th-century Wales. But the author is willing to contend that from 1890 "the relative uniformity of Welsh society and its robust and homogeneous Welsh-language culture was beginning to yield to pluralism." It is a stimulating hypothesis.

The author discusses the possible social causes of the process. In the first place he considers the notion that urban industrialization was responsible for the decline of the chapels. That supposition was then the reigning theory for Wales and also for the bulk of the English-speaking world outside America, and was only to be overturned by Callum Brown and others during the 1990s.

It is greatly to Tudur Jones' credit that, writing in the 1970s, he anticipated the subsequent reaction against that point of view through a careful sifting of the evidence. He shows that in the Wales of 1905, urban church membership was higher than the equivalent in rural areas. Instead of urban industrialization as a single malign explanation, he points to a variety of social factors as threats to church life. Tudur Jones identifies denominational rivalry as being particularly acute in Wales, dictating an absence of the interdenominational "union churches" so often found elsewhere and creating unnecessary diversions from Christian mission. The pulpit, he argues, was being used for entertainment rather than for edification, and religion was more concerned with experience than with objective teaching. He points to worldliness in churches, as exemplified in a taste for vast chapels and architectural display.

It is true that he exonerates the chapels from the charge of being complacent. On the contrary, there were anxieties abroad, but preoccupation with worries tended to replace spiritual effort. Much of this analysis, firmly based on detailed cases drawn from a vast range of sources, amounts to an arraignment of the rise of respectability during the period. More prosperous families were asserting the dignity of their denomination against others, demanding entertaining sermons and adorning their chapels with superfluous ornaments. There can be little doubt that all these factors were indeed at work.

Intellectual causes, however, were also undermining the confidence of the chapels. The "Evangelical Accord" that, as Tudur Jones rightly says, united nearly the whole national culture, was at risk because of the circulation of novel intellectual currents. There was a fresh willingness to question authority, as a case-study clearly shows. When, in 1900-01, a Calvinistic Methodist minister in Liverpool, W. O. Jones, was found guilty by the ecclesiastical courts of impropriety with alcohol and women, he did not acquiesce but instead set up a new denomination, a "Free Church of the Welsh." Partly in consequence of the crisis of authority, there was a questioning of the Bible, leading to a rash of commentaries that proved tentative in expounding its message. The idea grew up that the Old Testament, with its memorable stories, was suitable for children rather than adults, who were therefore deprived of insights into the relation of theology and culture. There was a revolt against Calvinism, the common doctrinal profession of nearly all the Nonconformists except the Wesleyans. From about 1880 a "New Theology," a form of "progressive orthodoxy" similar to Andover liberalism in America, gained a place in Welsh thinking. By 1915, D. Miall Edwards, a Congregational theologian, was expounding a full-blooded form of theological liberalism.

And there was the rise of socialism, an ideology that began to attract a younger generation of working men. Although often rooted in the chapels, this secular faith presumed to judge the content of revealed religion and so detracted from the influence of authentic Christianity. The social gospel was an attempt at a Christian response, but it merely aimed, in Tudur Jones' view, "to strip Christianity of its 'supernatural' elements." This is one of the very few harsh judgments in the book, and would perhaps have been modified in the light of more recent studies of the social gospel in Wales by Robert Pope. Yet the overall indictment is hard to escape: there was a sapping of the intellectual fiber of the faith during these years.

The resulting analysis is a noble instance of an examination in depth of the relation of gospel and culture. The coverage of intellectual factors alongside the social considerations more familiar to most secular historians is exemplary. "Belief," declares the author in Congregationalism, "is a creative force in society and civilization." Faith and the Crisis of a Nation is a powerful vindication of that conviction. The book, furthermore, does succeed in its aim of showing much of why Nonconformity declined during the century that followed. The associations of respectability, together with novel currents of thought, sapped the energy of the chapels through the avenues isolated here. The book is therefore quite a tour de force, an identification of how the Evangelical dominance of a culture was undermined.

Yet there is a side of the argument that is less satisfying. The Welsh language, it is assumed, was uniformly beneficial for Christianity. Thus Tudur Jones can speak of the language "attracting" people to membership of the chapels, whereas a more likely account would be that other things (good preaching, spiritual anguish, full-throated singing or whatever) did the attracting and Welsh was naturally used by people who were normally Welsh speakers. English culture is justly identified as a vehicle for "ideas critical of Christianity," but it also brought fresh ways of defending the faith. The primary source of intellectual unsettlement is properly identified as Romanticism, leading to an undue exaltation of a poetic sensibility and Hegelian theory at the expense of inherited doctrines. This broad sweep of thought may have reached Wales through England, but its heartland was Germany. In both these countries, as in Wales, currents of thought associated with Romanticism promoted more liberal expressions of Christianity that undermined confidence in the received orthodoxies. A historian less committed to the survival of the Welsh language than Tudur Jones might be inclined to see the vehicle of the English language as a rather less sinister factor, and the Romantic content of fresh ideas as a rather more important solvent of the faith.

A related feature of the argument that is open to doubt relates to the 1870 Education Act. This measure, which applied equally to England and Wales, provided for the first time a system of elementary education for all children. Tudur Jones treats this act as an intrusion by the state, imposing ideas derived from the secular Enlightenment on defenseless children and so weaning them away from Christian allegiance. In reality, however, the curriculum of the board schools created by the act normally contained explicit Bible teaching, instilling the very convictions during the week that the chapels taught on Sunday. There is little doubt that the education system served the Christian churches well into the 20th century by providing a form of state-sponsored pre-evangelism. Tudur Jones, on the other hand, sees the Education Act as an agent of the English state, and it is true that the schools it sponsored were often hostile to the Welsh language. The education system may well have been responsible for detracting from the Welshness of the people, but it long fanned the embers of Christian faith. Tudur Jones seems to have been so eager to believe that the interests of language and faith were bound together that he was unwilling to allow that state education may have assisted the chapels rather than hindering them.

One of the most fascinating sections of Faith and the Crisis of a Nation discusses at length the Welsh Revival of 1904-05. There is an account of how the remark of a teenage girl, "O! I love Jesus with all my heart," led on to a period of spontaneous combustion in Welsh religion. Chapels were open night after night, artless testimonies abounded and people were converted in tens of thousands. Evan Roberts, an enigmatic figure, traveled around stirring up the quest for salvation, seeing visions and offering comments on the unhappy spiritual state of congregations that increasingly aroused contention. Tudur Jones was critical of the revival in Congregationalism, judging it to have been "lamentable rather than creative," and in the later book he is still unhappy with aspects such as the tendency to detach the activity of the Holy Spirit from the work of Christ and the undue laxity in admitting church members without instruction. But in Faith and the Crisis of a Nation Tudur Jones' overall evaluation is favorable. Church membership in 1912, he points out, remained 10 percent higher than in 1903, and the episode itself was "an extremely fruitful blessing." At the centenary of the revival there can be little doubt that, while many in Wales share his ambiguous feelings about aspects of the awakening, they also concur in his verdict that the event was a mighty movement for good. That is certainly the feeling in Rhosllanerchrugog.

David Bebbington is professor of history at the University of Stirling.

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