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ABERDARE HISTORY

23 — RELATIONS BETWEEN ESTABLISHED CHURCH AND DISSENT
1850–1920


 

 

 

The one unifying influence between the denominations was their attitude towards the Established Church. At the same time, it should be stressed that the Basic Teaching and Preaching of the Nonconformist denominations were broadly similar to the general precepts of the Anglican Church with two major exceptions

 

1. Unitarians – who rejected the Trinity

2. Baptists who insisted on adult Baptism by total immersion

 

The main stream of dissent, however, accepted the principles of orthodox religion. There was never much agitation in Aberdare over such matters as the question of the Apostolic Succession and use of the Prayer Book. The main cause of disagreement was the relationship between Church and State with regard to which all nonconformists were united. This objection was channelled into two main streams:

 

1. The opposition to the Church Rate

2. Opposition to state Education

 

The first reached a successful conclusion with the Disestablishment and Disendowment of the Church in Wales with the passing of the Welsh Church Acts of 1914 and 1920.

Personal relationships between Churchmen and leading Nonconformists were on the whole amicable. A possible exception was the Rev Dr. Thomas Price who was a constant thorn in the flesh to successive Vicars of Aberdare. There were a few extremists on both sides but in general there was far less acrimony than might have been expected, e.g. often in the 60s when a wedding took place in a Nonconformist chapel a peal of bells would be rung at St. Elvan’s. Possibly the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Nonconformists prevented the Church making exorbitant demands.

One of the first statements of nonconformist principles by a local dissenter was a book published in 1840 by the Rev John Davies of Ebenezer called “The Nature of the Church from the Evangelical Standpoint”. Many meetings continued to be held on the issue of Church v. State, e.g. Baptist Association Meeting at Ramoth Hirwaun June 21/22, 1848, passed a resolution “in favour of agitation against the connection between church and state”. Meanwhile at Aberdare itself, the relationship between the Anglicans and the Nonconformists deteriorated as a result of the publication of the “Report of the Royal Commission on the State of Education in Wales” in 1847. (The Statistical findings of the Report will be dealt with in the section on Education.)

The commission was unfortunate in its composition. The three senior commissioners were Lingen, Symons and Vaughan Johnson. All three were Anglicans and lawyers. None had any experience of education or knowledge of Wales. They did not understand Welsh nor had they any personal contact with the working class. There were in addition ten sub-commissioners and seven of these were Anglican, five of whom were students at Lampeter College and were not themselves of a very high educational standard. Of the remaining three who were nonconformists, two thought it good to resign immediately.

Some 300 witnesses were examined throughout Wales. The work was thoroughly done but 4 out of 5 were Anglicans and as such could hardly be expected to present a fair picture of a nation thoroughly Welsh and predominantly nonconformist. According to the report, the state of Education in Wales was deplorable. Women were “almost universally unchaste,” and it suggested that this latter was due to the weeknight meetings held by the Nonconformists. The Welsh language was a “manifest barrier to the moral progress as well as the commercial prosperity of the country”.

The reaction to the report took the form of a wave of indignation that has never been equalled let alone surpassed in the history of Wales. Aberdare was in the van of the protest because of the great exception taken to the new vicar, 26-year-old John Griffiths who had been in the Parish only six weeks. He had charged the people of Aberdare with immorality, improvidence and drunkenness.

1848

On the evening of February 23rd, a mass protest meeting was held at Siloa Chapel. See report in ‘Principality’, March 7th 1848.

Over 2,000 people tried to get admission. The chief speakers were David Williams Ynyscynon, David Davis Blaengwawr, Rev Evan Jones Tredegar, and Dr. Thomas Price Calfaria. The Vicar declined an invitation to attend. All the speakers vehemently refuted the Vicar’s charges. Resolutions of protest were sent to the press and the local M.P., Sir John Guest, and to the committee of the Council for Education. In the meantime, articles had been published in the ‘Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian’ under the name of Cambro Sacerdos and in a periodical called John Hull under the name of Ordovices. They consisted of violent attacks on the Welsh nation in general and on its womenfolk in particular. Then it was discovered that the authors were one and the same person, viz. the Rev John Griffiths. Public reaction was intense in 1848–51; relations between Nonconformists and Anglicans were unhappier than they had ever been before or have been since.

It is difficult to say which side gave the truer picture of conditions. From the Vicar’s standpoint there was certainly too much drinking. Even in 1837 when the population was only 5,000, there were 49 public houses besides numerous establishments that sold beer, (a total of about 1 to every 100 people), and judging from vestry reports and baptismal records there was much unchastity and illegitimacy. The bare statistical facts of the report also show that educational facilities at Aberdare were inadequate. On the other hand, as Dr. Thomas Price pointed out, the charge that miners and colliers were improvident was quite unfounded. There were between 40 and 45 Friendly Societies in the locality providing sickness and bereavement benefits to which the monthly contributions averaged £200. Further, the workmen of Aberdare had themselves built between 1,500 and 1,800 houses between 1840 and 1847. In reply to the Vicar’s charge that people were in the habit of adjourning to public houses immediately after chapel meetings, it was pointed out that there was a strict rule that no Nonconformist could frequent a public house after communion on pain of excommunication.

Against the Vicar’s charge that there was no religion in Aberdare, the facts were that whereas in 1800 there was one Nonconformist chapel in Aberdare, in 1848 there were sixteen. Finally, whereas there was only one Sunday School in the entire Parish in 1800 there were between twenty and twenty-five in 1847–48. Neither side could claim a monopoly of the truth, but the report certainly did great harm to the relations between Church and Dissent. On the other hand, it certainly had some good results. It showed nonconformists how backward they were in providing educational facilities—Ysgol Comin was a direct result of the revelations of the Commissioners of 1847.

The counter charges of the Nonconformists showed the Anglican deficiency in the same field. There was no Anglican Sunday School in Aberdare until 1847 and only one Anglican place of worship. In 1851, the National Schools were enlarged and there was a spate of church building in the 50s. Eventually relations improved with the Vicar; and by the time he left for Merthyr, he was regarded with respect by all sides. There is a very generous tribute to him in the biography of the Rev Evan Jones. Meanwhile the fundamental debate in the relations between church and state continued.

1853

Rev Josiah Thomas Jones – a local Nonconformist author – published a book on “Popular Objections to an Established Church”. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s the long-drawn-out clash continued between Anglican tolerance on the one hand and extreme Nonconformist Puritanism on the other, e.g. the occasion of the marriage festivities of the Princess Victoria Adelaide Maria Louise when the people of Aberdare engaged in ‘rustic sports’ held in Cardiff Street. These festivities were supported by the vicar, curates and local gentry. Patrons – the trade of Aberdare. The arrangements provoked the wrath of Dr. Thomas Price, (‘Gwron’, January 30th 1858). He objected to the donkey races, climbing the greasy pole, but reserved his special anger for the foot races for women over 15. He saw the whole episode as a further means of insulting the women of Wales. The Church rate was a constant source of friction.

1860

The Rev John Cunnick, Minister of Tabernacle, attended a Vestry meeting and asked the Vicar to sign a local petition in favour of the abolition of the Church Rate. The Vicar naturally refused.

1862

The Bicentenary of the Act of Uniformity appears to have passed very quietly in Aberdare. Another cause of dispute was the question of burial rights in the parish Churchyard. Sometimes Anglican clergy refused to bury Nonconformists especially in the case of unbaptized children. This aroused the ire of Thomas Price – from his diary of Tuesday, January 17th 1860: “A strange day. The Rev Evan Lewis has become vicar of Aberdare and he was at a funeral for the first time today, we were burying the son of John Lewis. The Vicar refused, but the child was buried, and I preached outside the churchyard. There is a very strong feeling in the town. I preached in the evening at the house of Nancy Parry, Long Row.”

1864

By order in Council dated June 10th, burials in the local parish churchyard were prohibited, “Except for vaults and walled graves constructed before May 5th 1864, which are free from water in which each coffin shall be embedded in charcoal and separately enclosed in masonry or brickwork properly cemented”. Other smaller graveyards had been closed previously, e.g. Hen Dŷ Cwrdd, April 17th. 1858. There was a need for a public cemetery. At a Public Meeting held in the old Town Hall under the chairmanship of H.A. Bruce, Crawshay Bailey proposed and Thomas Wayne seconded:

a  that there should be a public cemetery

b  that the Vicar should be in charge.

An amendment by Thomas Joseph to the effect that the Nonconformists should have an equal voice in the management of the Cemetery was seconded by Dr. Thomas Price. It was supported by Richard Fothergill on the grounds that the Nonconformists were more numerous. The amendment was carried, it is possible that the decision was somewhat influenced by the fact that Fothergill had offered £1,000 towards the cost of the New Cemetery. The question of church and state remained unresolved throughout the 60s.

1865 Mar 16

Nonconformist meeting at the Temperance Hall to urge the separation of church and state. Report in the ‘Cardiff Times’ April 7 1865. Later, powerful support came from Henry Richard who wrote a pamphlet on disestablishment in 1875. The agitation dragged on to the end of the century when it became inextricably bound with the land question.

‘Report Royal Commission on Land in Wales’, Lleufer Thomas 1896.

The appendices are invaluable to the student of 19th century Welsh history; the Education Act of 1902 was another landmark in the relations between church and dissent.

Non-provided schools were to receive assistance from the rates in the same way as provided schools - Board Schools, which now became known as Council Schools. These provisions were bitterly resented by Nonconformists throughout the Principality and subsequent liberal governments attempted to amend them. At Aberdare, resentment was rather toned down because of the contribution of the Rev John Morgan Jones of Tabernacle. His ‘Agreed Syllabus’ was accepted as the basis for instruction in the provided schools. This was a clear indication that the Nonconformists had accepted the principle that the state should provide Education. At the same time, Aberdare continued to return Members of Parliament committed to the principle of disestablishment.

1910

‘Royal Commission on the Church of England and other Religious Bodies in Wales’ see returns for Aberdare, (summary page 141). The final episode was the passing of the Welsh Church Act of 1914 – finally implemented in 1920. This was the end of the main cause of disagreement between the Established Church and Dissent in Aberdare.