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A Melody
From the Past
Welsh Methodists have enriched the life
of the Presbyterian Church for 160 years
By Neal E. Lloyd
With appropriate solemnity, the moderator rose and stood before the General Assembly. “In the name of the great Head of our church,” he intoned, “and by virtue of the powers vested in me by this Assembly, I hereby declare that union, according to the Basis of Union. the Articles of Agreement and the Concurrent Declarations, as set forth in the documents of Union, is now complete and effectual."
The union of two denominations had been concluded. A 13-year proc­ess of negotiation, consultation and anxiety was over. It was 1920-and the union was between the Presby­terian Church in the United States of America and the Welsh Calvinis­tic Methodist Church.
Although the 15,000-member Welsh denomination had struggled for years to maintain its language based identity in America, it had become clear that association with the larger Presbyterian family was the best way to the future.
How did a denomination called the Calvinistic Methodist Church come to be Presbyterian? It began with a revival that swept across the hills of Wales in the 1730s. At the time when Jonathan Edwards was inspiring New England and three years before John Wesley's heart was "strangely warmed" at Aldersgate, Howell Harris, a schoolmaster, began a spiritual awakening in Wales. once remarked, "When I first knew God I was not satisfied to go to bed without having drawn somebody with me to God. I could not leave any alone … not [even] the king if I had met him."
Through the fiery preaching of Harris and others, most notably Daniel Rowland and William Williams, renewal took place within the Church of England in Wales. (Williams is known to most American Presbyterians as the author of "Guide Me, 0 Thou Great Jehovah." sung to the hymn tune "Cwm Rhondda.") Great crowds were drawn to the preaching of the Word.
While a few of those who became leaders in the revival were ordained priests, most were schoolteachers and farmers. No separate denomination resulted directly from the revival, but a network of "societies" arose across Wales. The societies, similar to those begun in England by the Wesleyans or "methodists" who dur­ing those early years also stayed within the Church of England, gath­ered for prayer, fellowship. preach­ing and instruction,
By 1811 the number of ordained pastors sympathetic to the movement had dwindled so much that the leaders feared they could be denied valid sacraments. So the association of enthusiasts organized themselves into a denomination and ordained their own leaders.
So dramatic was the impact of the 1735 revival and subsequent periods of enthusiasm that the chapels so called to distinguish them from the churches of the established religionflourished. By the middle years of the 19th century, two-thirds of the population· of the country no longer attended the services of the Church of England but worshiped in the chapels.
Welsh immigration to the United States began well before this
revival of religion in the old coun­try. Place names around Philadelphia such as Bala Cynwyd. Bryn Mawr and Radnor testify to the presence of the Welsh who came and settled with William Penn. The largest num­ber of immigrants to Pennsylvania between 1680 and 1700 came from Wales.
But it was the immigration of the middle decades of the 19th century that brought the Calvinistic Methodists. Poverty and the search for religious freedom sowed the seeds of discontent in their homeland, and letters from those who had come be­fore them to America promised a good life and rich opportunity. They came from the agricultural north of Wales and the mining valleys of the south to upstate New York and the coal country of western Pennsyl­vania. As the beckoning call of the West reached their ears, they moved to Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and beyond to Wyoming and California.
And they brought their faith with them. Welsh Calvinistic Methodist congregations sprang up in virtually every Welsh settlement in the land.
The pressure on the Welsh immi­grants to adopt English as their first language was great. Because of the subjugation of Wales to the English crown since 1285, English was al­ready a common second language, and the maintenance of ethnic sep­arateness became a problem. Some communities were more isolated and change came more slowly, but to each immigrant enclave· first came an English-language Sunday school, and then an occasional worship service. By the end of the century the need for a uniquely Welsh denomination had declined dramatically.
The Old School Presbyterians had approached the Welsh with an over­ture of union as early as the 1840s. From time to time there were other attempts at union. but they came to nothing. In 1907. however, the de­cline of Welsh-speaking congrega­tions was so marked that formal conversations with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. yielded a plan of union.
However, the conditions of union were too drastic. The Welsh felt that their church might be in decline. but the old ways were the best ways. All except one of the gymanfas (com­parable to synods) voted against the plan.
Ten years later, however, attitudes in the Welsh-speaking church had changed. When the subject came up again, union was approved.
It was not only the decline of the use of Welsh that had frustrated the Calvinistic Methodists. Confusion over the word methodist in their church name led many new immi­grants to unite with the Wesleyan or the Methodist Episcopal Church. To lessen this confusion many of the congregations began to call them­selves Welsh Presbyterians, which made union with the major Presby­terian body an easier step to take.
So it was that on that May day in 1920, in Philadelphia's Academy of Music, the union was effected and the "Welsh Presbyterians" dis­appeared from the scene. Non-geo­graphical Welsh presbyteries, how­ever, continued into the mid-1930s. A few congregations maintained Welsh-language services into the '60s and '70s.
While the two uniting denomi­nations shared a common lineage in the theology of John Calvin and a common love of representative governance, they were far from alike. It is curious how dissimilar they were at the time of union.
The primary difference was in the role of the session. The Welsh churches were much more congrega­tional. The "seiat" (a Welsh form of the English word society) or fellow­ship meeting, conducted midweek, was different from a prayer meeting and unique to the Calvinistic Methodists. Daniel Jenkins Williams describes it this way in 100 Years of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism in
America: "The seiat, comprising all communicant members of the church together with their children, was a sort of miniature democracy. Its power resided in the elders and other communicant members-not in the minister. The minister, while usually present, was not essential to the working of the system .... Here it was that the laity learned to manage their organizations with remarkable skill and success ...
Presided over by an elder, the seiat received and dismissed mem­bers, heard the recitations of the children, and administered any dis­cipline needed within the commu­nity. The function of the elders was to oversee the spiritual well-being of the congregation, but much of the work of congregational governance as we know it rested with the seiat.
While this appears quite similar to congregationalism, the connectionalism that drew the Welsh into the Presbyterian fold was evident in their understanding of ordination. Since elders had a limited role in government, the number of elders in a congregation was less critical than their quality. It was even possible for a congregation to decide not to have elders, if they found no one fit for the office.
Once the elders were elected by the congregation, however, their or­dination was carried out by the pres­bytery-they were set apart by the larger church for the oversight of the congregation. In the relatively com-pact geography of Wales, this was taken a step farther in the ordination of ministers; they are ordained by one of the three regional bodies on behalf of the whole church. The Welsh church's tie to Presbyterianism lay in this central role of representative assemblies as ordaining bodies, and in the emphasis on the office of ordained ministry as a call to teach and preach.
As might be expected, little sur­vived from a 15 ,000-rnember church uniting with a 1,637 ,000-membcr one. But although the musical, mys­tical enthusiasm that was the domi­nant quality of the Welsh church's faithfulness is not distinguishable. it is still present in the life of the Pres­byterian Church (U.S.A.).
Describing the contribution of the Welsh to Presbyterianism in Ohio, James Hanna wrote in Buckeye Pres­byterianism: "Your Welshman is a born mystic, with an unusual gift for music. He develops and devotes that gift to the glory of God. In the Welsh hymn tune we find a search­ing, a longing that in its finale bursts out like wild flowers bursting into bloom against the wild, barren, but gorgeous and mystical mountains in Wales."
The most distinct part of the Cal­vinistic Methodist heritage is the tra­dition of four-part congregation­al singing. For generations among the Welsh Presbyterians and other "chapel Welsh" the singing festival was both an evangelistic and a so­cial event. These "Gymanfa Ganu" brought together the congregations of several chapels. Hymns were se­lected and practiced in advance, and on the chosen Sunday afternoon and evening a massed choir would sing their songs of praise to God.
The Welsh across North America still gather to sing the hymns of faith. Today the singing festivals are as much a cultural festival as an act of faith. This Welsh manner of celebration is reflected in the many Welsh hymn tunes in Presbyterian hymnals. The haunting musical quality and endur­ing beauty of such tunes as "Aber­ystwyth," "Blaenhafren," "Ebenezer" and "Llanfair" have made them an integral part of the Anglo-American hymn repertory.
One hundred and sixty years after the founding of the first Welsh Cal­vinistic Methodist congregation in Oneida County, New York, their memory is a part of our Presbyterian heritage.
MARCH 1988

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