Back to article index


I've made some comments on Scottish Presbyterianism and on the development that occurred in the North of Ireland, stressing that insofar as it was 'orthodox' it remained quite close to Calvin's original, church-based conception. Its deviations from Calvinist orthodoxy were towards a rational, ethical, ultimately Unitarian religion. When I was studying Ulster Presbyterianism I was particularly anxious to situate it in the context of general British developments, chiefly Scottish but also English. I had however noticed that there seemed to be little or no awareness of what was happening in Wales. There is an obvious explanation for this in the difference of language. Welsh developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were mostly expressed in Welsh. Wales was a world of it own and although it certainly received influences from outside, chiefly from England, it developed its own powerful and distinctive religious life almost unknown to the English speaking world.

One of the major authorities on the history of Welsh religion, D.Densil Morgan, has recently published the first volume of a major study, the Theologia Cambrensis.(17) Unfortunately for me, this only covers the period from the Reformation to 1760. I was very much hoping that the second volume, bringing us into the nineteenth century would appear before I prepared this talk. Discussing the seventeenth century, Morgan argues that insofar as the established - Anglican - church took its theology seriously it was, for most of the century, Calvinist but without wanting to challenge the existing episcopal structure of church government and without insisting on a personal experience of salvation. Most of the literature Morgan refers to in this period was translated from the English. A more militant Protestantism with a literature of personal salvation was coming in from England and the foundations were laid, but still on a relatively small scale, of old Welsh nonconformity - Presbyterian (though unable to establish a functioning Presbyterian system), Congregationalist, Baptist and, somewhat outside the Calvinist line, Quaker.

(17) University of Wales Press, 2018.

My impression, open to correction is that traditional Welsh culture was in some disarray because it had been centred, like Irish culture, on the activities of professional poets, highly accomplished in the manipulation of complicated verse forms and working in the service of a local aristocracy. (18) In Ireland in the seventeenth century the aristocracy was engaged in a mighty struggle over the Reformation and this provided the occasion for a magnificent flourishing of politically motivated poetry, not all of it on the Catholic, anti-English side. Even when, at the end of the century, the Irish aristocracy was destroyed, the system they represented, though defeated, had not been discredited and the poets continued in honour, albeit deprived of powerful patrons, through the eighteenth century.(19)

(18) I'm basing this account on Tony Conran's introduction to his Welsh Verse, Bridgend, Seren Books, 2003 (First published 1967, revised 1986)

(19) See e.g. John Minahane: The Contention of the Poets - an essay in Irish intellectual history, Bratislava, Sanas Press, 2000 and ibid: The Poems of Geoffrey O'Donoghue, with an essay by JM on Ireland's war poets, 1641-1653, Aubane, Co Cork, Aubane Historical Society, 2008.

The situation in Wales was, with regard to the traditional culture, more demoralising. The victory of the Tudors had opened up new career opportunities for the Welsh aristocracy who took them up with a will, abandoning the existing culture and leaving the poets stranded, both financially and morally. Nonetheless the great William Morgan, translator of the Bible into Welsh (published in 1588) was thoroughly soaked in bardic culture, as was Edmwnd Prys, who translated the psalms into Welsh verse (1621). Prys engaged in a long bardic contest, running from 1580 to 1587, with a traditional bard, William Cynwal. It's a source of great frustration to me that no-one to my knowledge has translated any of this into English. Glanmor Williams gives a summary:

'Prys's aim was to convince Cynwal and his fellows that the modes and criteria of the bardic establishment had been shown up as hopelessly antiquated and threadbare by the advent of the New Learning and the printed book. Steeped as Prys was in the classics, the Bible, and the early Fathers, as well as Welsh literary culture, he laid about him with a will on two fronts. He pressed that literature should be primarily religious and moral in purpose; and he advocated that it should be learned and printed. He censured poets for their habitual dishonesty in pandering to the vanity of unworthy patrons, for the sake mainly of gain, and for clinging to exploded papist untruths and superstitions. He urged them to adopt the godly Christian muse, become men of learning at the universities, abandon the cynghanedd [traditional Welsh verse form - PB] if need be, and publish their new-style poetry in printed books. Such a call for a transformed poet was a well-worn plea in Europe, virtually a cliché in Italy, France and England. William Cynwal's response was rather disappointingly limp and defensive. He could do little more than insist that his opponent was not a bard but a cleric, who had no right to meddle with another man's office. He had not been trained by a bardic teacher nor graduated as a poet and only someone who had done so had the right to practise as a poet.'(20)

(20) Glanmor Williams: Renewal and Reformation in Wales, c1415-1642, Oxford University Press, 1993.pp.446-7. Mention of Edmwnd Prys gave me an excuse to play a psalm sung by the Dowanvale Free Church to the tune, St Mary, which, according to Alan Luff: Welsh Hymns and Their Tunes, London, Stainer and Bell,1990, p.131, is one of the few tunes in Prys's Psalm Book that had not already appeared elsewhere (though as Luff points out 'that is no guarantee that it was not in circulation before Prys used it.' It is very beautiful.

It is also worth mentioning in this context Rhys Prichard, c1579-1644/5, Vicar of Llandovery. Densil Morgan (p.52) says of him that:

'Prichard's homespun verses would become hugely popular and infinitely more effective than the prose works that we have already discussed in spreading basic religious knowledge among the illiterate and semi-literate, and did more than anything, sermons included, to popularise the Reformed convictions which had become a norm within the early Seventeenth century Welsh Church.'

He quotes a poem of Prichard's to this effect: 'Sound preaching is soon forgotten, vain songs are well remembered, it's this that has caused me to turn these lessons into verse for my fellow Welshmen.'

I mention this interest in poetry because it makes a stark contrast with Ulster where so far as I can see there was very little poetic culture at least until the post-Robert Burns 'Weaver poets' of the late eighteenth century - but even then the poetry was largely secular in nature. I think it can reasonably be said that Scottish Calvinism was suspicious of poetry, even, or perhaps especially, poetry written with a religious purpose.(21) In particular there was no particular interest in hymn writing. It was basically a suspicion of words other than the word of God addressed to the heart. There was an intense intellectual controversial literature but very little in the way of a devotional literature.

(21) After I had written this I then read in the introduction to Donald Meek (ed),: The Wiles of the World, Anthology of 19th century Scottish Gaelic Verse, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2003: 'The tendency for long poems to be produced mainly by religious composers demonstrates that there had been a re-ordering of priorities within the poetic spectrum and that the church (predominately in its Presbyterian form) had taken control of some key domains of poetry; admiration for and interaction with the world of nature had produced the largest poems of the eighteenth century, whereas in the nineteenth century long, meditative poems are to be found most consistently in the spiritual realm.' (p.xxix) I'm assuming that this is part of the marriage of Highland culture and Calvinism which followed the defeat of the traditional clan based system in the eighteenth century. My argument on the reticence with regard to poetry refers to the Scots speaking lowlands.