Welsh Nonconformity and Popular Culture 1: Introduction.
Mid-nineteenth century Wales was popularly characterized as ‘a nation of Nonconformists.’ Men such as Lloyd George and Tom Ellis went out of their way to stress the unique religious heritage of the Welsh, while a simple walk through any Welsh town will reveal a plethora of Chapels, the incidence of places of worship in Cardiff having more in common with Cairo than any English town. R. Tudur Jones, in his history of Congregationalism in Wales speaks of ‘A Nonconformist Civilization.’ Mighty Tabernacl, Morriston (pictured) reminds us of those days.
However, the image of the ‘Little Bethels’ as the homes of Welsh culture is challenged by the counter-image of Welsh Puritanism holding back Welsh popular culture. Just as the Methodists had opposed the performance of ‘interludes’ in the eighteenth century, so they opposed rugby and football in the nineteenth, not to mention golfing on the Sabbath. The Welsh Sunday Closing Act, a milder form of prohibition, kept Welshmen from their pints on a Sunday night, while the effects of the 1904-5 Revival included disbanded theatre companies and sporting clubs, not to mention cancelled eisteddfodau. The reaction between nonconformity and Welsh popular culture was – and is – complex and multifaceted, at once favorable and antagonistic.
The first – and the most obvious – point is that the primary task of the Chapels was not the perpetuation of Welsh culture, popular or otherwise, but the saving of souls. The reason why Griffith Jones, Llanddowror had set up the circulating schools in Welsh was not because he wished to save the Welsh language, but because he wished to save the Welsh people, and the quickest way to achieve this was in their own language. However, the church exists in the world, and its moral imperative to save souls has always necessitated engagement with the world and its culture. By the 1840s, the engagement of Nonconformity with Welsh culture was producing a dynamic synthesis which went beyond the use of Welsh on purely pragmatic grounds.
And it is this synthesis which we shall, God willing, examine in more detail over the next few posts.