In The Shadow Of The Pulpit: Literature And Nonconformist Wales

In The Shadow Of The Pulpit: Literature And Nonconformist Wales

by M. Wynn Thomas


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Since the earliest days of language, writers and preachers have been locked in a struggle for power and authority. In the Shadow of the Pulpit shows how that struggle has been at the heart of Welsh writing for more than two centuries, intimately shaping the English-language literature produced in Wales in that time. It traces the growing literary response to the power of Welsh Nonconformity from the eighteenth century onwards, and it also uncovers a whole new body of nineteenth-century fiction from Wales.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708322253
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 02/15/2011
Series: University of Wales Press - Writing Wales in English Series
Pages: 372
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

M. Wynn Thomas is professor of English and the Emyr Humphreys Professor of English at Swansea University.

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In the Shadow of the Pulpit

Literature and Nonconformist Wales

By M. Wynn Thomas

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2010 M. Wynn Thomas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2225-3


A Bluffer's Guide to Welsh Nonconformity

'The dark chapels, squat as toads, raised their faces stonily.' They gave 'an appearance of grey gloom to Welsh life', were 'narrow', harboured congregations full of 'black certainties', became the grim fortresses of an oppressive theocracy. At the same time, they were socially pivotal. They staged an incomparable theatre of spiritual struggle and echoed to hymns dangerously capable of bringing even the hardiest atheist to his repentant knees. Or so they still seemed to some writers and readers during the twentieth century. Even today, outrageously cross-dressed as nightclub, or social centre, or bingo hall, they dominate the physical landscape of every town and village. They are the ruined dolmens of some mysterious, departed civilization. Like those great stone faces on Easter Island, they still command physical space, but no longer invite comprehension. Yet to understand the Wales of today we need to be able to read 'the obsolete map' of our chapels. How to establish the relevant co-ordinates, though, if we lack basic bearings? If we don't have the appropriate compass of historical information? In many respects, present-day Wales's casual, uncomprehending acquaintance with the chapel-littered landscape of its chapel-ridden past is the legacy of a multifaceted process of secularization, of religious disenchantment. To this the English-language writers of twentieth-century Wales made a small but significant contribution. But the complex ferocity of their passion becomes incomprehensible unless we first know something of the powerful phenomenon that so appalled and allured them. Before, therefore, we approach those writers and their predecessors, it is necessary to attempt some sort of simple 'map' of Wales's holy land, with its Penuels and Bethels, its Seions and its Tabernacles. This bluffer's guide, intended for readers of a terminally post-Nonconformist generation, attempts to explain how Protestantism gave rise to Nonconformity, and Nonconformity once took Wales by spiritual storm.

So: what can we say about 'Protestantism'? Where, when and how did it begin? What form did it take? How, when and where did it give rise to its chronically obstreperous and fissiparous offspring, Nonconformity? And how did Wales come in (very late) on this astonishing new act? The date is 1517; Wittenberg the place; and it starts as one disaffected Catholic monk's challenge to his Church. A limited local act of personal conscience, it became the cornerstone of modern secular individualism. But Luther owed more to the past than he could ever see of the future. In nailing his defiant challenge to public theological argument on the door of his church, he was giving expression to a long-standing impulse of reform within Catholicism itself. It had been differently expressed through the 'heretical' attempts by Wyclif and Hus to ground faith on every individual's direct access to the Bible in the vernacular, and in the great Catholic humanist scholar Erasmus' debunking, through learned application to original biblical sources, of several of the late medieval Church's lucratively mystified cults and sacraments. Of all that Church's grotesque excrescences, a particular, and immediate, source of contention with reformers was the cash value placed on salvation by the system of purchase of indulgences to allow the dead earlier release from Purgatory. For them, the turning of priests into brokers signified the way in which the Church as a whole had turned, under the oppressive dominion of the pope, into a greedy, exploitative, power-hungry institution.

The way forward, for Luther as for all reformers, was the way back. In an age when Renaissance humanism was reshaping the world in the image of truths recovered from ancient classical civilization, these Catholic malcontents likewise looked to re-establish their faith on its ur-text, the Bible, on the example of the early primitive Christians, and on the teachings of the great foundational fathers of their Church. In particular, a Luther preoccupied with the issue of salvation looked for authoritative guidance to the Epistles of St Paul, as the insights there offered into the process of salvation had been systematized in the writings of St Augustine of Hippo. The result was the unnerving, and indeed prostrating, discovery of the complete sinfulness and utter worthlessness of every person consequent upon the Fall. No human feature or faculty had been spared. All were damned. Of his own accord, man could do nothing to redeem himself: he was helplessly dependent on God's grace. But a wrathful God had sacrificed His only Son rather than punish this otherwise irredeemably sinful world, and Christ, alone, could be the channel of grace. Faith in Christ's atonement for the filth of human sin was central to the process of salvation.

Nevertheless, divine grace was still completely unpredictable in its movements. It could not be simply guaranteed by faith, enticed by priests, magicked up by sacraments, or guaranteed by any Church. So what meaningful function could be performed by any of these? What even was the role of faith? Was it a consequence of grace or somehow a condition of it? How did one know one was saved? If one had been saved, was a fall from grace possible, and if so how? What kind of sacrament was the Eucharist – what was the meaning of the bread and wine? Were images allowable? Or music? If God dealt unpredictably with individuals, couldn't He visit His grace on women as well as men? And didn't His unforeseeable actions make a mockery of social distinctions? If reading the Bible was the sole route to Christ, then what about those who could not read Latin Scripture? Or could not read at all? And what of those who could, but whose understanding differed from that of Luther? What was the role of baptism? Could one be meaningfully baptized as an infant, or only as a convinced, committed, adult? If one was predestined to damnation, what did it matter whether one lived a good life or not? And if one was of the 'elect', how could morality matter, there being no correspondence between it and salvation? How were the elect to live in a sinful, condemned world? Should they live alone or in groups? If in groups, what form should they take? What forms of worship should they follow? How should they relate to each other? Or to the secular state? Should they respect its authority? Could God bestow His grace on a whole people? If so, could there be a chosen people? Was the Bible all-sufficient? If not, could other textual sources of authority be accessed only through new educational institutions? These are simply a few of the questions to which Luther's stand gave rise. The history of Protestantism is the turbulent, sometimes violent, and still unfinished history of the explosive working out of a bewildering array of different answers. That sprawling, untidy, frequently unedifying but utterly absorbing history is also very much the history of the emergence of the modern order. It is luridly evident and influentially active, for instance, in the USA: and every bit as much in its secular as in its disturbingly sectarian forms.

Protestantism, as it came to be known, may have begun with Luther, but it quickly exceeded his grasp as it began to display its inexhaustible innate capacity for quarrelling violently not just with the Catholic Church but with itself. Already within a quarter-century of Luther's first challenge, the civil war of Protestantism had displayed its full dizzying repertoire of variations. The menu of sectarian possibilities ranged from the grimly awesome authoritarianism of the severe Swiss experiments in the building of godly communities by Zwingli and Calvin to the wilder extremes of the Anabaptists (insistent on adult baptism by total immersion), with their penchant, by turns violent and captivatingly peaceful, for many forms of communal sharing. A 'Reformed' Protestanism split from Lutheranism. The main disagreement turned around holy communion. Lutherans retained the Catholic belief in the miraculous transformation (transubstantiation was the technical term) of bread and wine into Christ's flesh and blood. The Reformed Protestants (from whom British Protestants are descended) regarded the communion as commemorative of Christ's sacrifice. It reinforced faith, and instantiated the work of grace: it was 'a means of sanctification for the elect who are already incorporated into Christ'. John Calvin, a great divider of the elect from the goats and grimly unbending believer in predestination, became the effective instigator of a Reformed, as distinct from the original Lutheran, Protestantism and the patron saint of British Protestants. His systematized formulation of Luther's insights, coupled with his extraordinary experiment in constructing a godly social order, exerted an immense fascination. Even the Anglican Church succumbed to it, and most evangelical sects vied with each other in their devotion to the formidable city boss of theocratic Geneva.

Also significant for the long-term development of Protestantism was the distinction between movements favouring strong central organization (the synodic structure subsequently to be dubbed Presbyterianism) and those who stressed the complete autonomy of each local gathering, or church. The former were naturally more inclined than the latter to think, like the Catholic Church, in terms of serving large communities and territories. They thus tended to become more readily involved in negotiations, and accommodations, with existing state powers. During the sixteenth century, northern Europe was slowly, and often violently, transformed as different versions of Protestantism steadily penetrated and undermined existing societies. Various rulers, motivated no doubt by a mixture of spiritual and pragmatic concerns, converted to one or other of the more stable and tractable – and politically advantageous – forms of this new faith. Not the least enticing aspect of it was the opportunity it offered rulers to break free from papal authority and to finance new initiatives, designed to consolidate their new-found power, by the expropriation of Church lands and funds.

Henry VIII of England was not slow to take advantage of this intriguing new game, despite having been awarded the honorific 'Defender of the Faith' by Rome in his younger days. But, attracted though he undoubtedly was, when taking the irrevocable step in 1534, by the political potential of this new kind of ecclesiastical arrangement, he was also fully aware that in espousing Protestantism he would be riding a particularly dangerous, monarch-eating tiger. As contemporary post-Lutheran European history showed, this new faith could not be trusted: it quickly mutated into disturbingly radical forms. A year after Henry's declaration of ecclesiastical independence, polygamous Anabaptists (Baptists), drunk on the Spirit, gathered in expectation of the Last Days at the 'New Jerusalem' of the German town of Münster and were massacred in bloody confrontation with papal forces. The town's name became synonymous with anarchy: it was to ring ominously in the minds of the faithful of every Church and sect for two centuries. Lutheranism itself was already evolving into a relatively conservative form of Protestant settlement. Through the agency of such key figures as Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, the new state Church of England took a similarly cautious form. Careful to steer clear of evangelical radicalism, adopting and carefully adapting much of the framework of the Church it was deposing, including its priesthood and the sanctity of ritual and image, it nevertheless held firm to the essentials of Protestantism. Salvation could come to thoroughly corrupt man only through God's grace, made available through Christ's sacrificial atonement for human sin; the Gospel (consequently translated early into Welsh as well as English) was the sole, divine source of authority; the holy trinity of faith were the Bible, preaching and prayer. Even in this most eventually latitudinarian of settlements, the pulpit threatened to upstage the altar, while in other powerful Protestant sects it completely replaced it.

While Elizabeth I reinforced the new English Church as a bulwark against the kind of Counter-Reformation extremism introduced briefly by Mary Tudor, and James I further consolidated Anglican moderateness in the wake of his early experience of fiercely Calvinistic Protestantism in his native Scotland, unrest grew among those individuals who felt the English settlement fell well short of a real cleansing of the medieval Church. Extremists in the eyes of Anglicans, these Puritans could legitimately claim to belong to the mainstream of European Protestantism. Not as yet fully separated from the Anglican Church, they were not infrequently aggressive in the voicing of their discontent, and worked towards complete purification, citing the early Christian church as their model and inspiration. Of their number was one Welshman destined to be regarded, centuries later, as the unconscious founder of Welsh Nonconformity. John Penry was inclined towards what became known as the Congregationalist, or Independent, model of Church organization (the Welsh Annibynwyr). Its members, gathered together by a common impulse of faith, worshipping without benefit of priest, image or ritual, prayerfully concentrating on the reading and interpretation of Scripture, held their 'congregation' to be an 'independent', self-sufficient unit. They would owe no authority to any larger, centralized structure or body. The potential social radicalism of such an anti-authoritarian and individualistically egalitarian spiritual movement alarmed the authorities. Baited beyond endurance by the inflammatory 'Marprelate' tracts wrongly attributed to John Penry, the Anglican authorities ordered his execution in 1593.

Over fifty years later, Penry's fellow Independent, Oliver Cromwell, was to deflect the course of history briefly by establishing a Puritan state regime. During that half-century, the initially inchoate evangelical impulses and movements had come to take much firmer, more distinct shape, partly in reaction against Anglicanism's sharp turn back in the direction of Catholicism under Charles I and his Archbishop Laud. On the more radical wing of the Puritan alliance were the Independents and alongside them the socially even more subversive Baptists. Also believers in single, gathered churches, they laid stress on adult baptism by total immersion and emphasized that anyone, however uneducated, who had been moved by the Spirit, could preach the Word. The right wing was most powerfully represented by the Presbyterians who, as their names suggested, favoured a strongly centralized, firmly structured Church organization and an educated ministry capable of offering authoritative leadership. The worship of all sects was based on the defiant Protestant assertion 'Every man his own priest', but only the more radical, such as the Baptists, allowed women as well as men to proclaim this gospel.

Almost as violently intolerant of each other as they were of Anglicanism and Catholicism, such sects in their turn readily splintered, under the pressure of opportunity, into a bewildering variety of turbulent movements, each of which exposed new, increasingly radical facets of basic Reformation theology. One such opportunity was provided by the gathering together of Puritans in Cromwell's all-conquering New Model Army, a great talking shop and cauldron of libertarian ideas as well as a formidable fighting force. Democracy, primitive communism, free love, messianism, millenarianism, freedom of the press: all these ideas and more surfaced in this heady atmosphere that encouraged intellectual experiment. Particularly threatening were the new 'liberated' women who thronged some of the more radical sects, threatening the overthrow of the patriarchal ecclesiastical, social and political order. These were a particularly vocal and turbulent presence in Quakerism, one of the many new, mostly ephemeral groupings that were formed and one of the few to survive. Following earlier experimental 'enthusiasts' like the Familists, they trusted in nothing save the Inner Light of God's illuminating presence. This made them scornful of all social niceties or rank, and anarchically inclined them towards disruption of any and every form of worship. Like many of the Puritans (and indeed the Anglicans) of the period, they believed themselves to be living in the Last Days before the Second Coming of Christ, and so felt called to prepare society for the millenarian revolution that was imminent. Exasperated by his failure to bring any of these sects to the discipline of order, Cromwell, the 'strong man' styling himself 'Protector', established himself as Puritan dictator and retained supreme power until his death in 1658.


Excerpted from In the Shadow of the Pulpit by M. Wynn Thomas. Copyright © 2010 M. Wynn Thomas. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

General Editor’s Preface


List of Illustrations

Preacher’s Wor(l)d

1. A Bluffer’s Guide to Welsh Nonconformity

2. The Long Nonconformist Century

3. Bringing Nonconformity to Book

Writer’s Wor(l)d

4. War of Words: The Preacher and the Writer

5. Spoiled Preachers

6. Wales BC

Individual Worlds

7. ‘Marlais’: Dylan Thomas and the ‘Tin Bethels’

8. ‘Fucking and Forgiveness’: The Case of Glyn Jones

9. ‘Solid in Goodly Counsel’: The Chapels Write Back



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