The Early Dissenters
The early Dissenting movements had their roots in Puritan dissatisfaction with the religious settlement imposed by Elizabeth I as her response to the Protestant Reformation which swept through Europe in the sixteenth century. They were motivated by a desire to recover a purer, more primitive form of Christian belief and organisation based firmly on the teaching of the Bible. The two movements which were to have most significance in Wales were the Independents, also known as Congregationalists, and the Baptists.
The first Baptist congregation in Wales was established at Ilston near Swansea in 1649. The moving spirit was John Miles, a native of Herefordshire who settled in Gower after the Civil War. Under his active evangelism the congregation reached 261 members, while other congregations quickly followed at Hay on Wye, Llantrisant, Carmarthen and Abergavenny. Miles later emigrated to North America and established a Baptist Church in Swansea, Massachusetts. These early congregations were all Calvinist in doctrine. As the denomination evolved there grew a long-standing division between the more numerous Particular Baptists, who believed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, that Christ died only for the chosen elect, and General Baptists, who believed the Arminian doctrine that the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice are offered to all.
Baptists are distinguished from other mainstream Protestant groups by their commitment to the practice of adult believer baptism by total immersion and their rejection of the baptism of infants. The practice of total immersion has required water, initially in the form of local rivers or the sea, and later in the provision of baptismal pools either externally or incorporated within chapel buildings. Both the Independents and the Baptists embraced the idea that each gathered congregation of believers constituted an autonomous church which could appoint its own ministers and officers and was self-governing in all its affairs of spiritual oversight and administrative and financial organisation. To a large extent congregations worked out their own system for themselves while drawing what assistance they could from practice elsewhere. However, despite the emphasis on the autonomy of the local congregation, from the beginning Baptist churches met together in a voluntary Association for mutual advice and support. This was always a source of possible tension since any hint of interference by the Association in the affairs of the local congregation could be seen as smacking of a more centralised, presbyterian style of church government.
The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 heralded a turbulent period for both Independent and Baptist congregations. The Act of Uniformity on 1662 and the Conventicle Acts of 1664 and 1670 were intended to enforce obedience to the established Church of England. The Corporation Act of 1661 and Test Act of 1673 reduced the civil rights of dissenters. The level of persecution under these Acts varied at different times and in different parts of Wales, but there is no doubt that many committed members of dissenting congregations suffered significantly. The Toleration Act of 1689, while it did not remove the civil restraints on dissenters, restored some measure of liberty of worship, albeit within strictly controlled parameters. A very important provision of the Act was that for the first time it allowed dissenters to build their own places of worship. Hitherto they had mostly met in private houses but from 1690 onwards both Independents and Baptists began to erect chapels. In 1695, the Abergavenny congregation built the first Baptist chapel in Wales at Llanwenarth, near Govilon. The total number of Baptists at the end of the 17th century was only in the region of 500. Another consequence of the Toleration Act was the re-establishment of a Baptist Association for churches in England and Wales. In 1700 a separate Association was created for the Welsh churches. The 9 churches in the Association were located in Monmouthshire, Glamorgan and Carmarthenshire, though their membership extended into Radnorshire, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire, with only a very small presence in north Wales.
The growth of Independent and Baptist congregations paved the way for their emergence as major forces in later mainstream Nonconformity. The spiritual fervour and excitement of the Methodist revival in the mid 18th century inevitably influenced the two major Dissenting groups. A particularly notable figure was Christmas Evans, a powerful and inspiring preacher whose imagination earned him the nickname “The Bunyan of Wales”. Born near Llandysul, Ceredigion, he became a Baptist minister and in 1789 he settled on the Llŷn peninsula. Moving to Llangefni, Anglesey two years later, he established a strong Baptist community at Ty Cildrwn Chapel , and raised money for new chapels through preaching tours of south Wales.
The 19th Century
By 1800 the Baptists had a total membership of around 9,000 and over 60 chapels. A decade earlier the single Welsh Association was divided into three separate Associations covering the south-west, the south-east and the north.
The north remained the far weaker part of the movement however, with only 8 chapels recorded before 1800. Damage was also caused in 1795 when a group under the leadership of J. R. Jones of Merioneth seceded, forming the basis for the later Scotch Baptist congregations which were formed in many parts of North Wales. They were Calvinist in doctrine but had a congregationalist type of organisation. In the mid 19th century about half of them joined with the “Campbellites”, more properly known as the Churches of Christ, which had been established by Alexander Campbell. David Lloyd George was raised and baptised in a Scotch Baptist/Campbellite church.
Throughout the 19th century Nonconformity in Wales was dominated by the older Dissenting movements of the Independents and Baptists and the newer Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists. Definitions of membership vary widely between the denominations, making comparisons between the denominations suspect. Even within a single denomination returns are not likely to be equally reliable from every congregation in every period. Nevertheless, it is clear that each of the four main denominations saw enormous increases in their membership throughout the 19th century.
The 1851 Religious Census recorded that the various Baptist groups – General, Particular, New Connexion and Scotch – had a total of 533 places of worship. Although there are many questions about the reliability of the statistics in the 1851 Census, the numbers recorded as present at the best attended service – in most cases the Sunday evening service – confirm total attendance of 83,324 at Baptist congregations. The Census also showed that, along with the Independents, the Baptists were strongest in south Wales.
Before the 1830s the main denominations, particularly the Methodists, had been conservative in their political attitudes. However, increasingly the Nonconformists acquired a single voice on such issues as denouncing the 1847 report of into Welsh education, the rise of the Oxford Movement within the Church of England, the civil disabilities imposed upon them, and the call for electoral reform. This unity enabled the Welsh Nonconformists to move to a position of considerable political influence which they exercised
through a strong allegiance to the Liberal Party to which they looked for liberation from their grievances and with whom they shared a central belief in the importance of individual choice.
In 1866 the Baptist Union of Wales (Undeb Bedyddwyr Cymru) was formed to serve the needs of Baptists in Wales, whilst in 1891 the General Baptists and Particular Baptists came together to form the Baptist Union of Great Britain. The majority of congregations in Wales are members of the Welsh Baptist Union.
Despite the successes of the 19th century and the hopes raised by the 1904 revival the 20th century was to witness a catastrophic decline in Welsh Nonconformity. Membership of each of the main denominations peaked early in the century. Taking both Welsh- and English-speaking congregations into account the Baptists appear to have reached their highest figure as early as 1906 with 143,584 members.
The Bible Society’s 1982 census of the churches in Wales showed that the Baptists then had 50,200 members. Challenge to Change, the report of a Welsh Churches Survey conducted by the Bible Society in 1995, showed that there were 699 Baptist chapels (compared with 833 in 1982). Faith in Wales: Counting for Communities, the report published by Gweini in 2008, estimated that there were 557 Baptist congregations.
Lionel Madden and Neil Sumner