What is a Chapel?
Early meeting houses or chapels were generally small structures which provided simple accommodation for the local congregation to worship. Some were built after meetings had initially been held in members’ homes or in the upper rooms of public houses; barns or cowsheds were also occasionally converted into suitable religious premises. A common feature was the central position of the pulpit, representing the predominant emphasis on preaching the word of God.
The growing strength of Nonconformity in Wales, and a dramatic increase in the population, especially in the industrial areas was reflected in the religious census of 1851 which recorded that nearly 80% of worshippers in Wales attended a Nonconformist chapel. One result was the extension of existing buildings or construction of larger chapels, with the pulpit often placed on the rear gable wall, facing the entrance on the front gable. Other integral elements were the unadorned communion table and the sêt fawr [great pew], placed immediately in front of the pulpit, and occupied by the elders or deacons elected by the members. An intense theatrical atmosphere in a confined auditorium often presented opportunities for an eloquent preacher.
Nonconformity had a significant influence on the cultural, educational, political and social, as well as the religious life of Wales, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. However, in recent years there had been a marked decrease in the membership of Nonconformist churches and as a result many chapels have closed and today the future of many historic chapel buildings is threatened.