It can be said that Unitarianism in Wales is of a special brand because, although it reflects in mood and movement what transpired over the border in England and on the Continent, its character was moulded in the hands of a minority people whose every-day life was mingled with poems and poetry, songs and sufferings, and who could proclaim the newer ideas of Priestley and Martineau, Channing and Parker, in one of the oldest languages of Europe
The Unitarianism of the old agricultural counties of Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire has always been tinged with a certain quality of unhurried stability that is only known to people who live near the soil; on the other hand, the Unitarianism produced by the fearless and fervent folk of Glamorgan is tempered with vitality and enthusiasm only known to those who live by the furnace and the mine.
The Welsh speaking Unitarians of the "Black Spot" in West Dyfed (Old Cardiganshire) could find refuge and resolution only within their own close-knit circle, beyond which they would be regarded as the "people without hope" and utterly "damned". However, with their pride in a high standard of morals and education, they kept their heads high but with profound humility because, for them, the "whole of life is sacred".
The faith of these radical people has been described as "a social religion of a family clan, where almost all would suffer and rejoice together".
In Glamorganshire the churches were far more scattered, which required each congregation to develop an inbuilt power for self-preservation and government; one cannot but wonder how "Unitarian outposts", like the churches of Gellionnen, Swansea, Aberdare, Cefn Coed, ever survived for over two hundred years.
The two groups of churches were sustained in strength, as they still are, by the unity they found in their respective societies - the Welsh Society of South West Wales, founded in 1802, and the English Society of South East Wales, founded in 1890. Magazines and denominational newspapers have also helped to forge the links between individuals, churches and societies - Yr Ymofynnydd for the Welsh-speaking group, and the S. E. Wales News-Letter for the churches of Glamorgan.
According to one theory the liberal tradition in Wales can be traced back to the 6th century when the Teifi Valley was "a frontier" between the orthodox followers of Saint David and the heretical Pelagians. However, one must take a long step forward to the 17th century to find factors and incidents that can be regarded with any certainty as early milestones on the journey that eventually led to the founding of the Unitarian movement.
Among the first were some Puritan clergy within the Anglican church whose conscience did not allow them to subscribe to certain doctrinal teaching of the Common Prayer; those who dared to rebel were disciplined, punished and excommunicated. Among the more persistent offenders evicted from their livings by the Archbishop Laud in 1633 were William Wroth, William Erbury and Walter Craddock, who founded the first Independent, nonconformist cause, at Llanfaches (Monmouthshire) in 1639; another evicted clergy, John Miles, established the first Baptist Church in Ilston Gower in 1649.


A Resumé :- Oliver Cromwell, who defeated Charles and handed the controlling reins to the Independents, declared with some spirit of toleration, "In the things of the mind we look for no compulsion but of light and reason." However, Cromwell could not tolerate radical Puritans like Vavassor Powell, a leader of the movement for the propagation of the Gospel in Wales, and had him imprisoned; Powell was again imprisoned by the king at the Restoration and died in his cell. The Restoration of the crown came soon after the death of Cromwell (1658) and with it the Restoration of the Church and the passing of The Act of Uniformity, in 1662 when nearly 2000 clergy, who would not betray their conscience, were evicted from their livings, with further laws like the Five Mile Act, to prohibit them from teaching or building their chapels too near the established Church.
A number of the earlier chapels were built under the protection of the Act of Toleration and, indeed, some historians argue that the Unitarians found their beginnings among these ejected clergy of 1662, and that it is they who really represent the Puritan spirit of the earlier Elizabethan period. The clergy ejected from the established church and their followers were called Presbyterians and it is the left-wing party of this movement that later became known, especially in England (for in Wales the majority became Independents), as the Rational Dissenters and eventually Unitarians.
L. Baker Short argues that "The Unitarians today are the legal and historical descendants of the rejected Presbyterians."

Left and Right

We must also note that even those Presbyterians who developed along the lines of Unitarianism, had their right and left wings, their conservative and radical leanings. In the 19th Century there was quite a tension, if not a rift, between the Unitarian Presbyterians who favoured the moderation of Richard Baxter (1615-91) and his vision of a creedless catholic church, and the extreme 'Unitarians' of the Priestley and Parker school. The moderate Unitarians built their Church-like chapels (at High Street, Swansea) and read their own magazine, The Inquirer, and had their 'Manchester College' at Oxford to train their ministers; on the other hand the more sectarian middle class Unitarians built auditorium like chapels for their lecture-sermons (e.g. Ciiau Chapel), read their own Christian Life magazine, and sent their students to the Unitarian College at Manchester to be Unitarianized.
These English magazines with their conservative and radical ideas would be widely read in Wales and a number of Welsh ministers were trained, for different reasons, in the English Colleges. These two tendencies, described above, were adjusted in 1928 by the amalgamation of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (founded in 1825, and itself being an amalgamation of three other societies-the Unitarian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Distribution of Books 1791 the Unitarian Fund 1806 and the Association for Protecting Civic Rights of Unitarians 1819 and with the National Conference of Unitarian and Liberal Christians, free Christians, Presbyterians and Other Non-subscribing Congregations 1881, thereby constituting what is since known as The General Assembly of the Unitarians and Free Christian Churches or "G.A.".
And yet this huge liberal umbrella savoured too much of sectarianism for some of the moderate Unitarians like J. M. Lloyd Thomas (Llanarth) who was a follower of Baxter and refused, together with his congregation at Birmingham, to become members of the so-called "G.A." when formed in 1928; his church became known as the Free Catholic Church and he established a magazine bearing the same name. Unfortunately this infant movement came to an end when the Chapel was bombed during the war and J. M. Lloyd Thomas retired to Wales.
However, the apparent "gap" between the "tendencies" in the movement was gradually narrowed and even bridged during this century, with the Inquirer incorporating The Christian Life and The Unitarian Herald, the two colleges in England burying their theological hatchets, and the congregations on both sides deciding to praise God from the same hymn-book.


In the attempt to trace the origins of Unitarianism, Raymond V. Holt has rightly warned of the dangers of over-simplifying the complex issues involved, and states: "The way which Unitarian churches sprang from the congregations founded as a result of the Ejection has often been misunderstood. It was not that they were then Unitarians. Nor did all of them develop in that way... the Ejected are the ancestors of the Unitarians, not because men have learned nothing since, but because they put them on the right road which they have travelled."
An institution that certainly paved the way for Unitarianism in Wales and put people "on the right road" was the liberal academy of Brynllywarch, founded by Samuel Jones (1628-1697), a clergyman evicted from his living at Llangynwyd church in mid-Glamorgan. This academy eventually was settled at Carmarthen and was supported from its earlier days (1669) by the Presbyterian Fund and the majority of Unitarian students received their education at the feet of its eminent tutors and, often, its Unitarian Principals. However a non-Unitarian tutor and Principal would sometimes make an invaluable contribution towards the fostering of the faith. Around 1720 a liberal tutor, Thomas Perrot, whose qualifications "were of the highest order" had settled at the Carmarthen Academy and, because he dared to allow his students to think for themselves and express their sentiments openly, Unitarian pioneers were born and bred for the future. Regarding this Thomas Perrot, who was educated by James Owen of Oswestry, (himself a student of Samuel Jones Brynllywarch), Thomas Rees the historian said that "many, if not the majority of his students became in course of time the open advocates of Arminianism." The late Principal W. J. Evans adds that if Perrot "is to be judged by the fruits of his teaching he was the father of Arminianism in Wales."


"Every man is free to his opinion and every opinion to its expression". "Test everything; hold fast what is good."
These two precepts are well known to every thinking Unitarian, because they imply a measure of freedom that is funda-mental for the very being and development of the movement; no wonder they appeared as mottos on the Yr Ymofynydd.
In the process of "searching for the truth" all things had to be considered or "tested" without fear or prejudice, with the result that many ideas were retained and others had to be rejected-at least, for the time being. Consequently, the movement was constantly on the "move" theologically, and different stages were labelled as Pelagianism, Sabbelianism, Arianism, Arminianism, Socinianism and Unitarianism; the latter varied from the teaching of Tomos Glyn Cothi to the ideas preached by Gwilym Marles.
It would be an impossible task to try and draw a hard and fast line between these stages in the history of the movement, or to label any of the ministers or the churches with any of the above names. And to complicate matters a minister and his congregation, because of the belief in the freedom of thought, could often "agree to disagree" and still worship together in "spirit and in truth."
"Unitarianism" (meaning one God and oneness of life), although it savoured to some of sectarianism, was wide enough in its application to embrace the Biblical Unitarianism of Lindsey, Priestley and Belsham, and the more universal faith advocated by Channing, Parker and Martineau.
Occasionally, a congregation would split, as in the history of Llwynrhydowen where the conservative contingent re-mained faithful to their Arian minister, David Davis, whilst the more adventurous faction seceded with Charles Lloyd to establish "pure Unitarian causes" as Pantydefaid and Capel-y-groes; as already noted, Lloyd no doubt had the support of such radical pioneers as Tomos Glyn Cothi, D. J. Rees Lloyd-Jack and especially Iolo Morganwg. And it is important to remember that the dissenters parted company from Llwynrhydowen with the blessing of David Davis himself. Charles Lloyd, however, left his year-old infant churches in the hands of the young John James, who was himself a victim of another theological controversy. It is alleged that he had to take his training at Exeter because he was refused admission at Carmarthen College on theological grounds, the Principal Tutor being then David Peter, "a rank Calvinist". And it is further contended that because of the anti-Unitarian attitude prevailing at Carmarthen College at the time an Arian tutor, D. L. Jones, was appointed there (1814). "This caused great commotion among the Unitarian ministers... and when they found their protest ineffectual, they tried to establish a "new academy" at Neath, the chief promoters being Iolo Morganwg, John James and David Davis of Neath. However, nothing came of the dream although Iolo had all the details ready, architecturally, academically and economically; by the way, it was he who had worded the above protest on behalf of the disgruntled ministers.
The Presbyterian Board again became the object of bitter attack, in 1888, when the Welsh Unitarian ministers made an unanimous protest" against the appointment of "Mr." W. J. Evans as the principal of Carmarthen College, complaining "that it is inexpedient that a layman should act as a principal of a theological college." The Board was accused of arrogance, ignorance, un-cooperativeness and nepotism (the appointee was a nephew of the Board's treasurer), and the Welsh ministers were accused of childishness, jealousy and narrow-mindedness, by some eminent orthodox ministers in Wales, including the principal of Bala College and the Dr. Pan Jones. There was undoubtedly another underlying motive behind the protest and the counter-protests. The Unitarian ministers imply in several of the letters written that the Board's decision was warmly supported by the orthodox ministers because they felt that their teaching would be safer under the supervision of a lay-principal than under a Unitarian minister and theologian.
The appointment "stood" despite two official protests made by the Unitarian ministers, and the ensuing controversy between the Unitarian and orthodox ministers continued for some time on the pages of Yr Ymofynnydd and other religious and national magazines.
In the diary of John Thomas of Llandysul (a Unitarian minister and schoolmaster) there is a hint of a fundamental division between most Welsh theologians on philosophical grounds. For the date, May 23, 1847 (year of the founding of Yr Ymofynnydd) John Thomas has the following observation to make:
"John of Penrhiwrhod told me in the evening that Mr. Thomas (Thomas Thomas, Unitarian minister of Pantydefaid and master of the Rhydowen Grammar School) said that we do not acquire the knowledge of God by our 5 senses. How mistaken was Locke." Thomas Thomas obviously did not agree that man acquires almost all his knowledge of God through his senses; the implication is that he maintained, unlike the majority of the Biblical Unitarians, that man has an innate ability - apart, and in addition to his senses - to perceive and appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful, and that man cannot be compared to an absolute blank sheet of paper at birth. This argument appeared in many forms between Unitarians. One example is the controversy that was contended (on the pages of In Imofynnydd) between D. L. Evans (b. 1834), a Unitarian minister and a tutor at Carmarthen, and Owen Evans, minister of Cefncoed, the former maintaining that the authority in religious matters is to be found in human nature and the latter in the Bible.
Owen Evans himself had crossed swords with the Independent minister, Rees Gwesyn Jones, on the divinity of Christ. The battle began on the pages of the Annibynwyr (The Independent) but had to finish on the pages of Yr Ymofynydd when the orthodox magazine closed its pages against the Unitarian.
And it was a disagreement regarding the above philosophical principle that caused yet another major controversy between Gwilym Marles and his old Principal Tutor at Carmarthen, Dr. David Lloyd, regarding the meaning of Saving Faith. The all important question had been posed at a discussion in a meeting of the Society held at Aberdare, and it appears that Gwilym Marles' radical views had caused another "great commotion" amongst his more conservative colleagues. Gwil-ym Marles argued that his faith was implanted by the Cre-ator "in every man like a mustard seed." Dr. Lloyd, who had already been in a theological tussle with the Unitarian James Martineau and the Anglican Bishop of St. Davids, Thirlwall, took the Biblical Unitarian standpoint that the "saving faith is the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. It belongs to Jesus and not to anything else." Gwilym Marles answers with a question: "Was there not a Saving Faith in the world before Jesus, and can it not be found now in countries that have not hitherto been blessed with the announcement of the Good News ?"
The controversy continued at another meeting of the Society at Capelygroes in the same year, when it was attempted to define, "What is a Christian ?". Again Gwilym Marles became the object of disgust among his fellow ministers (including such radicals as John Jones Aberdare, Owen Evans Cefncoed and J. E. Jones Bridgend) when he declared that being a Christian does not depend on "Uttering the Shibboleth", and that truth is broader and older than Christianity, and any church in the world, and that "the name Man is older in its roots and broader in its content than the word Christian."
The argument was contended fiercely on the pages of Yr Ymofynnydd (1863) but Gwilym Marles' opponent, Dr. Lloyd, died before the end of the year.
The editor only poured oil on the fire when he tried to conclude the controversy by quoting a part of Theodore Parker's sermon, which included Gwilym Marles' argument, expressing a doubt regarding the latter's right to profess himself a Christian. The quotation from Parker had ended with the paradoxical statement : "It would be un-Christian to love Christianity more than truth, or Christ more than man."
The editor's deduction was supported by the Rev. Owen Evans, Cefncoed, implying that Parker regarded himself as a "Theist" and rejected the term "Christian." However Gwilym Marles answered his critics with a series of scholarly articles on Parker. He also dared to write a critical appreciation of William Williams of Pantycelyn, the greatest of the revival hymn writers of the 18th century, complaining that the "Sweet Songster" appealed "too much to the feelings and the passions and that his hymns contain so much to satisfy the religious fancy" (Yr Ymofynydd). Iolo Morganwg had expressed the same theological sentiments as Gwilym Marles at the turn of the century, and he also brought upon his head the universal condemnation of his contemporary moderate Unitarians.
It is ironic that John Jones of Aberdare, who opposed the views of Gwilym Marles, criticised the hymns of lob as "being too near to the standpoint of John Calvin."


I believe that Iolo Morganwg's contribution to the development of Unitarianism in Wales during those vital, formative, years at the turn of the 19th century was considerable and unique. He was aptly described by Mr. Lyons and Mr. Wright, the missioners, as a man "of great zeal for the prom-otion of rational religion" and as "enthusiastically fond of liberty".
Reference has already been made his translations of important Unitarian works from English to Welsh, and to the over three thousand hymns he wrote (nearly seventy of these are still in the current hymn-book); some of these hymns of praise became very popular with worshipping congregations, and some individuals would find in them a source of inspiration and doctrinal apology.
Iolo has been described as a "genius" and a "man before his time", pioneering in the cultural life of Wales, and anticipating the establishing of such important institutions as the National Library and the National Folk Museum. He was a profoundly religious man and a constructive, liberal, thinker, constantly suggesting ideas that may still belong to our future.
He advocated more adventurous forms of services, using more music to create atmosphere, even folk music; despite his high regard for poetry he constantly emphasized the importance of using meaningful words and expressions when worshipping and conducting services.
He suggested the formation of "priestless" fellowships to support the churches, where people could meet in each other's houses to worship and to discuss the Scriptures and, indeed, all kinds of subjects. To serve these fellowships little libraries - or a circulating library - should be established with books provided on all topics, ranging from gardening to law. For him religion meant the whole of life, and "Truth" and "Liberty" meant the same in essence without and within the covers of the Bible. He encouraged people to "search for the truth" without any fear or constraint and for that very purpose he actually formed such societies as the "Berean", "Friends of Nature", "Philanthropin", "Cwm y Felln" "Priestless Society", "Unitarian Society" and "Bards of Britain". The "rules" he drew up for all these societies (of his own brand) emphasized that there should be a searching for the truth without religious or political prejudice and that every one, even the devil himself, should have the right to be heard. Iolo could see in all this a potential for a future, creedless, searching church where all would worship together in "spirit and in truth". This is what an ideal Unitarian church meant for him. He was for-ever pestering Theophilus Lindsey, and others in London, to send him more propaganda material for distribution for, as he said, "I can see a Glorious Unitarian Church growing up in Wales." Iolo made several business journeys on foot to London where he made acquaintances with Lindsey, Priestley and Belsham and visiting, en route, some more influential Unitarians at places like Bristol and even Birmingham.
The Bard was present at those first Unitarian meetings held at Essex St. in 1774, and could boast in 1822, when he was about 80 years of age, that he was "the oldest Unitarian in Wales, and I believe the only one now living of Mr. Lindsey's first congregation in Essex Street."
Indeed he could list other illustrious names as his friends, such as Doctors Price, Dyer and Estlins, and as he travelled back and fore over the border he was thus forging a living link between the most forward looking thinkers in England and the movement in Wales.
Iolo won the confidence of the movement's leaders on both sides of Offa's Dyke, and his testimonials, "words of advice" and letters of introduction were trusted at all times. Ministers in Wales would elect him to draw up their petitions and letters of protest, to write the "rules" of their Society, and choose appropriate verses (carved in stone by himself) to be placed above the doors of the new chapels. There is strong evidence that he had a hand in establishing the first Unitarian churches in Cardiganshire, and founding the first Unitarian Society in Wales - even translating the word "Unitarian" into Welsh. It is interesting to note that Unitarianism was established in Wales by three laymen who were brave enough to license their own houses for worship: Thomas Evans (Tomos Glyn Cothi) when he was a weaver at Brechfa; D. J. Rees, a farmer at Lloyd-Jack; Edward Williams (Iolo) a mason at Treffleming in Glamorgan.
Some of Iolo's Unitarian dreams were never realized, such as the Unitarian College in Wales; other ideas he suggested materialized after his days, such as the Unitarian church at Cardiff, a missionary fund in Wales, and a magazine for the movement in Welsh. The "Glorious Unitarian Church in Wales" is still a dream.

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, 12 (line map - re-presented), 28-29, 30-32, 33 and 167-171, 174 (title) and 175-177. [Occasional changes in punctuation]


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful