Unitarian Mission Van in Wales

In 1908 the Unitarian Missionary Van, drawn by horses was rolling along the highways and byeways of Wales.
The idea was initiated by the Rev. T. P. Spedding of Rochdale, with the official blessing of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and the Missionary Fund; the mission began with one van in 1906 and ended with six travelling through the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales, displaying the captions, "Unitarian Van" and "Truth, Liberty and Religion".
The 'Van ', with its resident minister from England, would hold its open-air meetings at a vantage point in a village or town and, with the assistance of a local minister and a nucleus of Unitarian followers, a statement of faith would be proclairned, controversial questions would be discussed and answered, hymns would be sung, and hecklers often silenced with wit. There would be services for the children in addition to the evening meeting for the adults, with ample opportunity to display placards, distribute propaganda leaflets and sell books on the faith.
Once the van was parked, a canvas notice would be rolled over the front with the words "To-night, Unitarian Christianity Explained"; this was the prime object of the mission which, according to Bodell-Smith, was not an "ordinary" one. This notable missioner explains: "There is not the slightest attempt to dictate to them (the audience) what they must believe, with the alternative - that otherwise they will perish everlastingly. They are told frankly, 'We are here to give you such light as we have. We ask you to listen to what we have to say, and then leave it to you for what it is worth.'"
In Wales the tour began at Newport, travelling along the coast to Llanelli, and then returned to Aberdare, Merthyr, the Rhondda Valley, Brynmawr and through Monmouthshire back to England. This was a long twenty week treck, and it was estimated that as many as 60,000 heard the "Message of the mission".
"Follow-up" work was done by the local Welsh ministers, and we hear of people like J. Parke Davies (later the Principal of Carmarthen College) and D. J. Rees (Gellionnen) conducting classes on Unitarianism in the Swansea and Amman valleys.

No permanent church was established as a result of the Van's missionary efforts. Nevertheless, temporary Unitarian causes, like the one in Tredegar, were started by the 'Van', and faithful individuals, like Mr. Lewis Morgan of Clydach (who became a member and a deacon at the Trebanos church) were among its valuable products.
Another minister who worked with great missionary zeal in conjunction with the Van was Simon Jones, B.A., minister at Swansea, who started a Sunday School in the Uplands, Swansea, and founded a small church at Pennard.
A number of other small Unitarian causes were established as a result of missionary activities, at different times, in Glamorganshire, and these were faithfully served by laymen, ministers of neighbouring churches, and district ministers of the S. E. Wales Society. In 1915 the B.& F. U. A. made a grant of £35 towards the expenses of a minister to supervise, on a part-time basis, a group of these smaller churches in Glamorgan; among those so employed were W. J. Phillips (a district minister) H. Ceirion Jones (minister at Cardiff), Rosalind Lee (a district minister), and Alan Taylor (minister at Pontypridd). However, the fate of some of these churches was almost sealed from the beginning, despite the admirable efforts of the Society and its district ministers to serve and sustain them, e.g. Neath (building sold as early as 1893), Newport, Bridgend, Dowlais, Cwmbach, Mt. Ash, Glanrhondda, Tylerstown, Clydach Vale, and lately Pennard, Merthyr and Pontypridd.
Some missionary work was attempted during the sixties of this [20th] century by D. Jacob Davies and J. Eric Jones in the Mid-Wales areas, and L. Baker Short and D. Elwyn Davies Llanelli and Llandilo districts; although prospects were hopeful at the time no lasting fellowships or causes were founded.
However, during the same period, new Unitarian fellowships and churches were established, at least for a short time, at Colwyn Bay, Newport and Aberaeron, and D. Elwyn Davies held a series of Welsh services at the Friend's Meeting House, Swansea.
Possibly, the most effective missionary work accomplished during the last two decades has been through the Unitarian Tent on the National Eisteddfod field, which is held in the North and in the South on alternate years, and supervised by J. Eric Jones

Two Unitarian Societies

The two Unitarian Societies were established in Wales, as already noted, for the purpose of propagating and sustaining the spiritual and material interests of the movement.
The Welsh Society was officially founded in 1802, with Iolo Morganwg, Josiah Rees, Gellionnen, and David Davis of Neath, as founder members; the first meeting was held at Gellionnen.
The S. E. Society was established in 1890 at the instigation of the Rev. W. A. Clarke, Swansea, and at a meeting in Highland Place church, Aberdare. It was apparent from the beginning that a complete co-operation between the two societies was practically impossible, and at a meeting in 1895 they "agreed to disagree", issuing the following statement:
"Owing to two main difficulties, those of distance and language, it was realized that each society must work separately along its own lines, and it was this that led to an alteration of the rules of the Society (the S. E. Society), changing its title and deleting the words ' English-speaking churches' from the rules, thus enabling any Welsh-speaking churches in the South-East Wales area, which desired so to do, to become affiliated with the Society, and ultimately the churches of Hen Dy Cwrdd Aberdare, Cefncoed, Gellionnen and Graig Trebanos became constituent members of the Society, thus strengthening its hands considerably".
Consequently, these three named churches belonged for some time to both societies, and the Trebanos and Aberdare churches have still a footing in both camps. However, the two Societies continued on their independent paths but the same direction, and always mindful of their prime object as propagators of the same faith.


Davies, D. Elwyn (1982), "They Thought for Themselves": A Brief Look at the History of Unitarianism in Wales and the Tradition of Liberal Religion, Llandysul: Gomer Press, 144-146, and 146-147. [Occasional changes in punctuation]


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful