Chapter 14

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Methodism and the Reinvention of the Welsh Nation

Visitors to modern Wales, if they are lucky enough to get in on a "singing night" at a local pub, are usually thrilled by the quality of the singing and the extraordinary harmony of the singers. The songs are usually the standards for large choirs, classical and semi-classical or hymns. As Wales still regards itself as a Celtic nation, one would expect to find the kind of music played and enjoyed in Ireland, Scotland or Britanny; certainly it may come as a shock to one not accustomed to the repertoire of Welsh Male Voice choirs to hear a whole room full of people burst into the chorus of the hymn "Cwm Rhondda" (Guide Me, Oh, thou Great Jehovah) without missing a beat.

But the Welsh have a long, long tradition of singing in harmony. Wasn't it Geraldus Cambrensis himself who wrote of his fellow countrymen as early as 1193?
In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other countries, but in many different parts...You will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers who all at length unite with organic melody.
Yet there can be a feeling of regret, too, that despite the magnificent music, it seems too controlled, too redolent of the chapel rather than of the more spontaneous "Noson Lawen" (Merry Night). Where are the harpists and fiddlers and the happy sea shanties and frisky dance music?

The answer is that these are still present, if hard to find at times. During the last twenty-five years, they have been undergoing something of a revival as the youth of Wales discovers its heritage. However, they have not yet fully emerged from what some people have seen as a great shadow cast over Wales for the past three centuries, and for what others have seen as a great awakening -- the Methodist Movement. Whatever it did bring to Wales, and there were certainly incalculable benefits, it also managed to stifle in many ways its native musical and artistic talents by transferring so much of its energy to other, more pious causes.

The 18th century in Wales can be called the century of Methodism, for the lives of its people were altered immeasurably, for better or for worse, by the coming of the Spirit. Historians generally agree that it was as if a different Wales came to be invented out of the turmoil brought on by the benign neglect of the English Parliament, the Royal family, and the Welsh landed gentry. Wales needed new and effective leadership if it were to remain in any sense a nation, and this was provided, not by those in government at Westminster, nor by its great families, mostly gone over to the English cause, but by the soldiers of the Methodist Church.

When the great Methodist preachers burst upon the Welsh scene, they found the ground had been well prepared. We have already seen the work of the results of the Propagation Act and of the pioneer Puritan laborers. Their work had been made relatively easy by the dismal state of the regular clergy in Wales. One problem for the Church had been that the Parish priests no longer could receive the lucrative tithes, which had been awarded to the local gentry. The result was a dismal compensation for the clergy, few of who had been to the university and very few of who knew the language of their parishioners.

From 1713, not a single Welsh speaker was appointed to a Welsh bishopric for over 150 years. Appointments in Wales were seen as mere stepping stones for more lucrative positions east of Offa's Dyke: they were mostly filled by non-residents. The Established Church in Wales had neither the financial resources nor the willingness to reform itself, thus the way was open for the ministers of the new faith.

Chapter 14 Continued
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