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Evangelizing the Welsh Valleys, 1870-90

1 September 2012 | by John Aaron

Evangelizing the Welsh Valleys, 1870-90

From about 1850 onwards all the religious denominations in Wales faced a huge problem. By 1914 the population had increased from 1.2 million to 2.5 million, most of whom now worked in the coalfields instead of on the land, especially in the Rhondda Valley. The proportion of Welsh speakers had gone down from 67% to only 40%, while the number of English speakers had increased by 1.1 million. The vast majority of these were not native Welsh people, but had been drawn to Wales from England, Scotland and Ireland by the prospect of work in the iron, tin and steel works and, predominantly, the coalfields.

How then did the churches respond to the presence of this million-strong influx of, by and large, unevangelized people, the vast majority of whom were crowded into Monmouthshire and the eastern half of Glamorganshire? In broad terms, the answer is that they hardly responded at all, at least not until the formation of the Forward Movement of the Calvinistic Methodists. But that was not until 1890. In fact, in the period 1850 to 1890, the privilege of evangelizing this new mission field belonged to agencies outside the denominational walls of traditional Welsh Nonconformity. Three organisations, in particular, were involved and on learning their names we might perhaps be surprised.

Independent missions

The first, and perhaps the least surprising, was the work of small, independent, undenominational missions. These sprang up in many places and often their activity was particularly local. A typical example would be The Undenominational Christian Mission and Ragged Schools of the Eastern Valleys of Monmouthshire. This was begun by Thomas Wintle of Llanfihangel Pont-y-moel, near Pontypool. Having been converted while working in the steelworks at Landore, Swansea, through the agency of another such mission, The Evangelization Society, he returned to Pontypool and established a ragged school for the local children. He then began open-air preaching and built a small mission hall. Other branches were opened and, as happened with many similar missions, he then drew the attention of sympathetic wealthy industrialists.

Foremost amongst these were Richard and John Cory of Cardiff. By 1880, they owned four collieries in the Rhondda, and others in Ogmore Vale, Neath and Aberdare. They were the largest wagon-owners in the UK. Their ships carried Welsh coal all over the world. But they were Christians. Richard was a Baptist and John a Wesleyan Methodist. Throughout their lives they gave a huge amount of money to all kinds of evangelical causes – temperance missions, Band of Hope Unions, Dr Barnado’s, the YMCA, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Rest, and others.

Another sponsor of Wintle’s mission was Richard C. Morgan of Abergavenny who, in partnership with his friend Robert Scott, became a Christian publisher. Their best-seller was Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos. When the company merged with Marshall Publishers it became the well-known firm, Marshall, Morgan and Scott.

There were many such missions in the coal valleys. Another man involved in supporting some of these was R. Glynn Vivian, one of the Vivians of Singleton, Swansea, and the founder of the art gallery in the city.

The Salvation Army

The second agency was even more influential in the south Wales valleys. It also began as an independent non-denominational mission (called The Church Mission), but its leaders, William and Catherine Booth, soon changed its name to The Salvation Army. The following is the story of two typical Army evangelists.

Pamela Morgan was born in 1836 in Tal-y-waun, Newport. Her father was a drunkard who took his family with him to London, looking for work. She married a Bill Shepherd and the two of them lived lives ruled by drink. He left her and then, aged thirty-two, she was converted through the preaching of a Church Mission preacher. She went to work as cook and housekeeper at the Mission HQ in Whitechapel. In 1878, the same year that William Booth changed the name to The Salvation Army, he sent her to conduct missions in Aberdare. Booth chose her because she was the only member of his staff who could speak Welsh. She took with her her sixteen-year-old daughter, Kate, and a few S.A. women. It proved the beginning of a whole series of ongoing missions – in Aberdare, the Rhondda, Porth, Treorchy, Cymmer, Treherbert and Brynmawr. It is believed that some thousands were converted in this two-year period. One of the Calvinistic Methodist leaders of the 1904 Revival, Joseph Jenkins, New Quay, was greatly influenced by these missions. Kate became even more well-known than her mother. She was the first person to sell The War Cry (the S.A. magazine) in Wales, during the Rhondda mission. When she was leading a mission in Cardiff, it is interesting to note that the man who introduced her to the gathered crowd was Richard Cory.

Pamela Morgan, or Mother Shepherd as she was known, went on to serve as an evangelist in various places in England. She was then appointed by Richard Cory to run a rescue home for women in Cardiff. She returned to Aberdare in 1896, and died there, aged ninety-four, in 1930.

The second Salvation Army leader of interest is Rosina Davies, born at Treherbert in 1866. She was thirteen-years-old during these first S.A. missions. She was converted and, because she was Welsh-speaking and knew Welsh gospel songs, began to help in the missions. She was known as ‘The Little Welsh Girl’ or ‘The Girl Evangelist’ and she sang and gave her testimony at Treherbert, Maesteg, Porthcawl, Cwmavon, Taibach, Pyle, Neath, Ferndale, Merthyr, Dowlais. This became the pattern for the rest of her life. In 1893 she undertook the first of her three preaching tours in America. After returning to Wales she continued to conduct meetings: 180 in 1885, 214 in 1903, and 256 in 1904. We might not agree with the use of young, female preachers, but we would acknowledge the wisdom of her comments on the 1904 Revival:

Less publicity would possibility have been better, for the Revival, as the Dove is so gentle and pure; so sensitive; a breath of self is enough, and it takes to its wings and goes. Had there been more Bible reading, and Scriptural knowledge, the Holy Spirit would have had something to lay hold of, and the joy of the Revival would have turned into actions, and those filled with the Spirit would have gone, Bible in hand, to teach others. Without Scriptural knowledge every professing Christian is weak and uncultured.

The Church of England

The third evangelizing agency in the Welsh valleys is perhaps the most surprising, the Church of England – and that at a time when so many of the Welsh population were up in arms against it. Agitation for the disestablishment of the Church increased greatly in Wales from 1869 onwards, and very soon, by 1886, all the bitterness and quarrelling of the Tithe Wars would come upon it.

But the Vicar of Aberdare from 1845 to 1859, and Rector of Merthyr from 1859 until his death in 1885, a man called John Griffiths, was one of the most powerful, convicting and evangelical preachers in the whole of Wales at that time. Equal in power and success was the ministry of another John Griffiths, Archdeacon of Neath. Similar men were John Tinson in Wrenford, Newport, Evan Jenkins in Dowlais, Richard Llewellyn in Llangynwyd, and William Rees Thomas in Abersychan.

The main reason why this group of men flourished, and evangelized the valleys so effectively at this time was due to an Englishman called Alfred Ollivant. He was born in Manchester in 1798 and was greatly influenced and probably converted under the ministry of Charles Simeon, Holy Trinity, Cambridge. In 1827 Ollivant was made Vice-Principal of Trinity College, Lampeter (an Anglican theological college then, of course). He learnt Welsh so that he could preach in the vicinity. Then in 1849 he was made Bishop of Llandaff – the diocese that includes the south Wales valleys. In 1850, he formed The Church Extension Society. Its main purpose was to increase the numbers of church buildings, and therefore the parishes, that served his diocese. Its success was remarkable:

It is not an exaggeration to say that, after 1852, not a month passed by during the whole of Ollivant’s episcopate without at least one building being licensed for divine worship, and, as time went on, the rate of building increased.


During his time as bishop (1850-82), 170 new churches were built. In the first twenty years the number of curates rose from fifty to 170. As a group they were described as ‘soldiers of the evangelical crusade.’ It could be argued that Ollivant was the greatest Welsh bishop of modern times. The two men that succeeded him at Llandaff were similar men, Richard Lewis and Joshua Pritchard Hughes. Between 1882 and 1905 a further 155 churches were built. The churches in the Rhondda, for example, increased from five in 1869 to fifty-one by 1907.

A description of the third of these men, Bishop Hughes, could have been written for all three:

His faithful ministry made him a familiar and deeply-loved figure among the expanding population. His innate Puritanism scorned the use of transport, involving labour for others, on the Lord’s Day; his journeys on foot were often long and arduous. He was a convinced Evangelical and a man of deep personal piety. As bishop he commanded the respect and confidence of clergy and laity. He had little sympathy for Anglo-Catholics.

Dict. Welsh Biog.


These, then, were the agencies that stirred themselves up to take the news of the gospel to the hundreds of thousands that were pouring into south Wales from 1870 onwards. They did so long before the Welsh chapels realised their responsibility and responded with the formation of the Forward Movement. But why do we know so little of this work, and why was there so little to show for it in the Welsh valleys of the twentieth-century?

The first reason relates to the Anglican Church: the expansion of Anglo-Catholic belief in Wales, in the wake of the Oxford Movement, especially in the valleys region and in the Llandaff diocese. Even by 1890, the parishes of Aberdare, Dowlais, Port Talbot, Roath and St Mary’s, Cardiff, were strongly sacramentalist and Tractarian. The second reason is more general. For all their exemplary missionary zeal, the three agencies mentioned were weak in their theology of the local church – their ecclesiology. The various missions existed predominantly for evangelism; the Salvation Army had little or no sense of church pastoral life, and although many of the parish churches of the valleys remained in place, a sudden substitution of an evangelical vicar or curate by a Tractarian curate would transform the situation overnight. Not until the Forward Movement from 1890 onwards was there an emphasis on the building up of strong local church communities by the preaching of the word. It is to this emphasis that we are indebted, over a hundred years later, for the continuing witness of churches such as the Neath Mission, Sandfields in Port Talbot, the Heath Church in Cardiff, and Malpas Road in Newport.

John Aaron is a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Swansea.

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