A nonconformist people

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Christmas Evans - Image: National Library of Wales

Following the Methodist Revival, a second wave of preachers emerged as Wales underwent the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

As the original prominent figures of the Methodist Revival died off towards the end of the eighteenth century, leadership of the movement was taken up by Thomas Charles (1755-1814).

Originally from Carmarthen, Charles settled in Bala, north Wales, and with his energy and organising genius set about making the town the centre for Methodism in north Wales. He also set about reviving the circulating reading schools of Griffith Jones, which for many Welsh people had made possible their active involvement with religion.

Sixteen-year-old Mari Jones walked from Llanfihangel y Pennant to Bala and back - a journey of 40 miles - to obtain a copy of the Bible, and this inspired Thomas Charles to help found the British and Foreign Bible society at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it was to be Charles who finally took the Welsh Methodists out of the Church of England in 1811, a move which finally aligned them with the rest of Nonconformity in Wales.

The Methodist Revival inspired renewed activity both within the established Church and amongst the various Nonconformist denominations such as the Baptists and the Congregationalists.

A second wave of great preachers emerged during this period, with one of the most famous and charismatic being Christmas Evans (1766-1838).

Originally from Llandysul in west Wales, Evans came from a background of poverty and hardship. He lost an eye in a fight, which gave him his distinctive appearance. After conversion he became a minister with the Baptists, and following the example of another west Walian, Thomas Charles, Evans went to perform missionary work in north Wales. He remained there for a number of years before finally settling back down in the south. He has been called the 'Bunyan of Wales'.

This religious activity saw a huge increase in membership amongst the Nonconformist denominations, which in turn led to a great wave of chapel building across the country. This was to last throughout the nineteenth century.

During this period it has been estimated that on average a chapel was being built every eight days. Such was the zeal of the builders it is thought that the combined seating capacities of all these chapels may have exceeded the number of people actually living in Wales!

Whether that is true or not is up for debate, but what can not be denied is that these endeavours resulted in one of the most obvious architectural icons of the country, the Welsh Chapel . Every village had at least one, and the new communities that came out of the Industrial Revolution provided even more opportunities for new buildings. Unfortunately the present day collapse in chapel attendance has resulted in many chapels being left empty and dilapidated, a legacy of past fervour.

The same period also saw outbreaks of violence in Wales, notably the uprising at Merthyr in 1831 and the later Chartist attack on Newport in 1839 as well as the Rebecca Riots of rural Wales between 1839 and 1842.

The authorities reacted by commissioning various inquiries on Wales. Their findings were to have an impact on not only how religion in Wales developed during the second half of the century, but also had consequences for the culture and politics of the period.


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