Chapel railings

Religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (part 2)

The strength of Nonconformity

Revival among the Anglicans ensured that by the opening of the 20th century their Church was stronger in relation to Nonconformity than it had been in 1851. Yet the dominance of the Nonconformists was obvious. Although they did not constitute the majority of the Welsh population, their values were paramount and Nonconformist culture came to be considered synonymous with Welsh culture. In the first half of the 19th century a new chapel was opened in Wales every eight days; however, it was in the second half of the century that the larger chapels of the industrial areas were built.

Capel Als in Llanelli
Capel Als in Llanelli was started in 1780 and enlarged twice in the next fifty years.

Most Welsh newspapers and periodicals were linked with a denomination and leading ministers were folk heroes. The Nonconformists' opposition to intoxicating liquor gave rise to an influential teetotal and temperance movement bearing fruit in the Welsh Sunday Closing Act of 1881.

Revivalism was a feature of Nonconformity. A powerful revival occurred in 1859, and an even more remarkable one in 1904-05.

With chapel-goers greatly outnumbering church-goers, the whole concept of the Establishment came under attack. This happened in England also, but as Nonconformity was much stronger in Wales, disestablishment became a distinctly Welsh national cause.

In the first half of the 19th century a new chapel was opened in Wales every eight days

The Conservatives, the traditional defenders of the Church of England, refused to accept that Wales could go it alone on such a sensitive issue, and came to be viewed as an anti-Welsh party - a development which would handicap them in Wales for a century and more. The Liberal Party, which had inherited the Whig suspicion of the alliance between throne and altar, became the natural choice of the Welsh Nonconformist voter.

From the mid 19th century onwards, Anglican power was progressively dismantled. Church rates ended in 1870 and the tithe was reorganised in the 1880s. The Establishment's paramount position in education was whittled away, and control of local government by the Anglican squirearchy ended with the establishment of elected county councils in 1889.

In 1920, after many vicissitudes, the Anglican Church in Wales was disestablished. A Welsh province of the Anglican Communion with its own archbishop was created and the old endowments were secularised. Although the Church in Wales retained possession of its ancient cathedrals and parish churches, its position in law was henceforth similar to that of the other denominations.

The decline in religious allegiance

Many of the scholarly developments from the mid-19th century onwards represented a challenge to Christian orthodoxy. Biblical analysis threatened belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Geological advances and the theory of evolution also challenged traditional certainties.

With chapels the centre of most communal activities, religion seemed to be an aspect of cultural recreation. The disestablishment campaign stressed the importance of the size of denominational membership and thus token allegiance grew at the expense of total commitment. Membership peaked in 1907 when the churches of Wales had 750,000 communicants and a host of occasional 'hearers'.

Thereafter decline accelerated, assisted by the cynicism caused by the First World War clerical army recruiters, the break-up of traditional communities, the rise of new leisure activities and the growth of hedonism and consumerism.

By the end of the 20th century, less than one in 10 of the inhabitants of Wales regularly attended a place of worship, an astonishing contrast with the much vaunted devoutness of the Welsh people a century earlier.


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