Wales

Welsh Christianity traces its ancestry to the period of the Roman occupation although nothing is known about its first introduction to Britain. Three British bishops were present at the Council of Arles* (a.d. 314), and despite the crumbling of Roman power and the incursions of invaders, Christianity was able to survive. It was given a new unity and sense of purpose by Illtud and Dubricius between a.d. 500 and 547. Their work culminated in an upsurge of spiritual vigor in the period commonly labeled “the Age of Saints” when men of the caliber of Deiniol, Padarn, Cybi, Seiriol, Teilo, and David left an indeliable imprint not only on the minds of the Welsh people but on their place-names. Welsh Christianity had by now developed traditions that it would not abandon, even at the behest of Augustine of Canterbury (603), and in consequence Welsh and English Christianity parted. The period of isolation in the history of the Welsh Church lasted until 750 when, belatedly, it accepted the Roman method of calculating Easter. Despite the tempestuous nature of European life in the following centuries, the Welsh Church was able to maintain its vigor and to withstand the challenge of barbarism.

By the time of the Norman Conquest, the church in Wales was virtually a national church. But changes were in the offing. By the middle of the twelfth century, the Welsh bishops had submitted to Canterbury. During the same period too the dioceses were defined and territorial parishes came into existence. In its internal life and administration the church began to follow the patterns of Western Christendom generally. The clas, the characteristic ecclesiastical unit of the Celtic Church, disappeared, and continental monasticism penetrated into Wales, with the Cistercian Order taking pride of place. At the same time, the English crown tightened its hold on the church and its revenues. After 1323, when the pope began to intervene in elections, there was a marked increase in the tendency to appoint foreigners to Welsh livings and offices. Inevitably there was growing frustrations among Welsh clergy as was demonstrated by the support they gave to the national insurrection under the leadership of Owain Glyn Dwr in 1400. Despite the ravages of that war of liberation and its failure, the church enjoyed a period of revival in the latter half of that century, in piety, discipline, and monastic vocations. But as in Western Europe generally, the beginning of the sixteenth century was also the time when decline set in. Although Wales was hardly touched by those spiritual and cultural forces which elsewhere made for reformation, its rather romantic attachment to the House of Tudor, its anticlericalism together with a gradual decay in spiritual seriousness, led it to acquiesce in the changes introduced by Henry VIII.*

The Protestant Reformation came to Wales by the same legal processes as it did in England. It was the Welsh language that constituted the main difference. The Book of Common Prayer* and the NT appeared in Welsh in 1567, translated mainly by Bishop Richard Davies* and William Salesbury.* In 1588 came William Morgan's* translation of the whole Welsh Bible-one of the most momentous events in Welsh history. Although a powerful group of Welsh Roman Catholic exiles kept alive the hope of reconverting Wales, the Reformation came to be accepted by the Welsh people. The hold of Protestantism on the Welsh people was greatly strengthened by Puritanism* and Methodism.* Under the leadership of men like Walter Cradock, Vavasor Powell,* Morgan Llwyd,* and John Miles,* Puritanism found support on a modest scale; Baptist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Quaker congregations came into existence. They maintained their ground in the persecutions between 1660 and 1689, but suffered a period of stagnancy at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

In 1735 the Evangelical Revival started under the leadership of Howel Harris,* and he was soon joined by such men as Daniel Rowland* and William Williams,* Pantycelyn. By about 1780 this revival was developing into a massive folk-movement with far- reaching social and cultural effects. The Methodists themselves, hitherto a group within the Church of England, withdrew in 1811 to form the Calvinistic Methodist* Church of Wales. The older denominations shared in the new spiritual vigor and by midcentury Nonconformity* had become the dominant form of Welsh Christianity. It left no aspect of the life of the nation untouched, and by the Victorian Age it was the major force in education, culture, and politics. It was inevitable that the Church of England would have to be disestablished, and this occurred eventually in 1920. Welsh religious life throughout the nineteenth century continued to be revivified by religious revivals, the greatest of which occurred in 1859-60 and 1904-5.

But in the twentieth century Welsh Christianity ran into very great difficulties. After reaching a new zenith about 1908 it began to decline in its hold upon the public. The reasons for this are extremely complex. The decline of spirituality, the loss of a dynamic theology, the temptations of power, the intrusion of anti-Christian philosophies, World War I, the social distress that followed it-all these severely affected the churches. Yet by today there are real signs that this ancient Christian tradition is being revived in its faith.

G.F. Nuttall, The Welsh Saints, 1640-1660 (1960) and Howel Harris, 1714-1773 (1965); G. Williams, The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation (1962); J.W. James, A Church History of Wales (n.d.).