The birth of nonconformity

Madam Bevan - Image: National Library of Wales

Religious freedom for dissent was accompanied by a steady rise in literacy, which prepared the way for massive changes.

The Toleration Act of 1689 finally allowed religious freedom to the hard core of Dissenters who had come into existence during the time of Oliver Cromwell. They defiantly adhered to their beliefs during the years of persecution following the restoration.

The first chapels in Wales were built during this period, with one of the most famous examples being Maes-yr-Onnen near Glasbury, Powys.

Much of the development of Dissent was possible because of the steady rise in literacy. This was given a boost by the 1650 Act for the Better Propagation and Preaching of the Gospel. Before the Toleration Act there were increasing numbers of religious books available. In Welsh, notable books published during the 1680s were Canwyll y Cymry ('The Welshman's Candle') by the Vicar Prichard, and the first Welsh translation of 'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan. The last work in particular was to be very influential on prominent figures in the Methodist revival later in the 18th century.

Educational opportunities were growing in this period thanks to the work of bodies like the Welsh Trust . Set up by Thomas Gouge following an illegal preaching tour of Wales in 1671, the Trust endeavoured to tackle the disturbing levels of illiteracy and general destitution then existing.

Initially working in English, following the influence of Puritan Stephen Hughes, the Trust made available Welsh translations of the Catechism, the book of Psalms and the Book of Common Prayer. This was made possible due to the financial patronage of, amongst others, the Lord Mayor of London.

However the Trust was active for only a short time. Soon a new body was established to carry on the work, to be known as the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. The SPCK faced a serious problem with the shortage of teachers for its schools, a problem compounded by the fact that the teaching was in the medium of English whilst the majority of pupils were first language Welsh speakers.

Griffith Jones was a Welsh clergyman working for the SPCK who became very dissatisfied with the sole use of English in the important cause of saving Welsh souls, and he decided to do something about it. With the help of Carmarthenshire heiress and philanthropist Madam Bevan he set up circulating schools to teach elementary reading and writing skills. These schools were very successful in making a large section of the Welsh people literate. Established in the early 1730s, it has been estimated that the schools succeeded in teaching some 200,000 people basic reading and writing skills, out of an approximate population of some 450,000.

After Griffith Jones' death in 1761 Madam Bevan ensured the continuation of the schools. The Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, was sufficiently impressed by the results of these schools to commission a report in 1764.

This increase in literacy undoubtedly helped pave the way for the momentous events of the latter part of the 18th century, when Wales experienced the Methodist Revival.

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