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Book Review: The Welsh Methodist Society

The Welsh Methodist Society

The Early Societies in South-West Wales 1737-1750

Eryn M. White

University of Wales Press, 2021 (ISBN: 9781786835796, 350pp, £24.99)

In many respects, the church in Britain continues to live off the puttering afterglow of the eighteenth century revival. Many denominations and individual congregations owe their genesis to the evangelical movement (broadly defined) founded in that era, whilst other pre-existing churches (including the Church of England itself) find centres of their ongoing vitality in pockets which experienced the touch of this movement and its lineal descendants. The question of how the great revival began has therefore always been of great interest. Though this volume from White does not set out to answer that question in particular, its consideration of early methodism in one region represents an important exploration of many related aspects of early revivalism. 

White is well-established scholar of Welsh religious history and this volume is a revision of one published (in Welsh) on the same topic over twenty-five years ago. She approaches the infant Calvinistic Methodist societies of south-west Wales thematically, considering their leadership, membership, locations, discipline, and appeal. The challenges to such a detailed deep analysis of a religious group operating very much on the edge of the establishment are substantial. Admirably, White does not hold back on discussing the challenges of the source material, giving readers valuable insight on such hurdles as Howell Harris’ appalling handwriting, the loss of Daniel Rowlands’ papers by Lady Huntingdon’s executors, the nightmare of identifying individuals in a society with a low level of name differentiation, and much more. Likewise the navigation and assessment of the historiographic legacy is absorbing in itself, not least the bifurcation of secular histories from the older, but still active, providentialist denominational tradition. 

The book sets out to provide a ‘social history of the members’ of the Welsh Methodist societies. The supreme difficulty of achieving this when virtually all of the sources are from the leaders or critics of the movement is repeatedly acknowledged. The exercise is thus in some respects a heroic one in reading between the lines and of rediscovering individuals, as the author poetically puts it, heavily shrouded in the mists of time. This is of course a challenge for all social histories. There is an unreconstructed wing of the historical profession who demean this effort as futile, but a Christian perspective, with a high view of the absolute intrinsic worth of each individual, ought to be gently supportive. 

Several of White’s conclusions offer points for further reflection by those interested in the genesis of revival, including the indigenous nature of the Welsh Methodist movement, the contrast of this with the Anglo-centric Church of England, rising literacy rates, and access to education. It is however White’s account of the role of the gospel message itself, the good news of release from sin and judgement by the merits of Christ, which is the ultimate key to the success of the early societies (or ‘seiat’ in the Welsh). Seeing the impact of this unchanging message in the west Wales of three centuries past, in such forensic detail, is encouraging and informative.

Edward Keene, Little Shelford