Llanddowror Church

Culture and religion in early modern Wales (part 2)


In medieval Wales, education was patchily available in monasteries and other religious centres. Universities, particularly Oxford, attracted Welsh students. Education for the laity was an important feature of the Renaissance and literacy was highly regarded by Protestants. Jesus, Oxford's first post-Reformation college, was founded in 1571 with the education of Welshmen central to its purpose.

Sons of wealthy Welsh families began to attend English public schools and there were 18 grammar schools in Welsh towns by 1603. Little was done for the mass of the people until the 1650s when the Commonwealth set up a school in every urban centre in Wales. That work was continued by the Welsh Trust from 1674 to 1681 and by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge from 1700. Academies, some of a very high standard, were founded to educate dissenting ministers.

Almost half the inhabitants of Wales achieved a level of literacy as a result of Griffith Jones' circulating schools.

The great breakthrough came with the campaign of Griffith Jones of Llanddowror (Carmarthenshire) from 1734 to 1771. He established circulating schools - temporary centres providing crash courses in literacy. The statistics he provided can be interpreted to show that 200,000 people, almost half the inhabitants of Wales, achieved a level of literacy through his efforts.

Religious changes

The Anglican 'middle way' did not satisfy everyone in Wales. Roman Catholicism had its strongholds, particularly in Monmouthshire and Flintshire. Following the anti-papal hysteria of 1678-9, Catholicism in Wales languished until it was reinvigorated in the 19th century as a result of Irish migration.

Advanced Protestantism fared better. With the influences of the Civil War and the Commonwealth and Protectorate, congregations in Wales adhering to a thorough evangelical Protestantism increased from two to several dozen. Following the Restoration they suffered persecution, but received some grudging toleration in 1689.

Progress was slow; in 1676, perhaps one in 20 of the inhabitants of Wales attended dissenting services and by 1716 the country had about 70 chapels compared with almost a thousand parish churches.

The Methodist Revival

Evangelical fervour was heightened by the Methodist Revival, launched by Howel Harris and others in the 1730s. Welsh Methodists developed their own administrative structures, and, unlike the concurrent Methodist movement in England, embraced Calvinist theology.

By 1750 there were 428 seiadau or Methodist fellowship meetings in Wales. Methodist leaders saw their movement as a renewal force within the Established Church and denied that they had any intention of establishing a separate denomination.

As the 18th century advanced, they attracted increasing numbers of adherents and encouraged the Nonconformist denominations the Baptists and the Congregationalists to widen their evangelical appeal. Thus the Welsh were set upon the course which, by the 19th century, would make them a predominantly Nonconformist people.

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