Brynrodyn Chapel

16: Religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The Religious Census of 1851

Britain's one and only religious census was held in 1851. It revealed that, of the 898,442 sittings available in Welsh places of worship, the percentages of the various denominations were as follows: Established Church, 32; Calvinistic Methodists, 21; Congregationalists, 20; Baptists, 13, Wesleyans, 12; others 2.

1851 Religious census

Of the 898,442 sittings available in Welsh places of worship, the percentages of the various denominations were as follows:

  • Established Church 32%
  • Calvinistic Methodists 21%
  • Congregationalists 20%
  • Baptists 13%
  • Wesleyans 12%
  • Others 2%

Attendance proved more difficult to measure. It is often stated that four out of five of those in Wales attending a place of worship on 30 March 1851 opted for Nonconformist chapels but, as Nonconformists tended to go to more than one service and Anglicans only to one, this probably overemphasised the strength of Nonconformity.

With a fifth of the population attending Anglican churches and perhaps two fifths not attending any services at all, it is difficult to accept the widespread notion that the majority of the inhabitants of mid 19th-century Wales were devout Nonconformists.


The growth of the Nonconformist denominations was a result of the crystallisation of the energies released by the 18th-century evangelical revival. The position of the Calvinistic Methodists as a movement within the Church of England became increasingly untenable.

In 1811 they became a separate denomination and adopted a Presbyterian system of church government. This was of a centralising nature, in marked contrast with the Baptists and Congregationalists who stressed the sovereignty of each individual church.

The Wesleyan Methodists, who had numerous adherents in the north east and in areas of high English immigration, also rejected local autonomy. Other denominations included the Unitarians, the Quakers - both significant sources of radical ideas - and the Mormons, which were a recent import from America.

In 1851 the Baptists were the largest denomination in Monmouthshire

In 1851 the Baptists were the largest denomination in Monmouthshire, the Congregationalists in Glamorgan, Carmarthenshire and Breconshire, the Established Church in Pembrokeshire, Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Flintshire, and the Calvinistic Methodists in the five other counties.

The renewal of the Established Church

The success of Nonconformity was partly the result of the weaknesses of the Established Church. It had a cumbersome parish structure, English over-politicised bishops and clergymen lacking in zeal.

In the 19th century there were earnest efforts to correct these weaknesses. Thomas Burgess, Bishop of St David's from 1803 to 1825, established a college at Lampeter to train Welsh clergymen. He learnt the Welsh language and associated the Church with Welsh cultural activities.

In the 1830s the administration of the property and income of the Church was reorganised. Supporters of the Established Church laboured to create a network of elementary schools which taught Anglican doctrines; by 1870, Wales had 1,000 such schools compared with 300 non-denominational ones.

Hundreds of dilapidated parish churches were rebuilt and strenuous efforts were made to ensure that Anglican worship was available in the growing industrial areas. The Oxford Movement, which stressed the Catholic aspects of Anglicanism, brought 'the beauty of holiness' of the High Church to many deprived communities.

At the same time, the movement strengthened anti-Catholic sentiments amongst Nonconformists and the adherents of the Low Church, sentiments already inflamed by the growth of the Roman Catholic Church caused by Irish immigration.

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