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Chapel and its conscience

11 January 2013

Michael Wheeler reads a range of viewpoints

In the land of Lloyd George: Tim Rushton'sCapeli/Chapels, in which the text is in Welsh and English, including a foreword by Huw Edwards and background by Susan Fielding, presents 120 photos by Rushton of Welsh chapels, many sim­­ilar, often plain, some strikingly differ­­ent;above: Cwyrtycadno Chapel (above) and Hermon Chapel, Cwm-du, built for Welsh Cal­vin­­­istic Methodists (Ylolfa, www.ylolfa.com, in associ­­ation with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, £14.95 (£13.45); 978-1-84771-465-7).See also caption below

In the land of Lloyd George: Tim Rushton'sCapeli/Chapels, in which the text is in Welsh and English, including a foreword by Huw Edwards and backgro...

Free Churches and Society: The Nonconformist contribution to social welfare 1800-2010
Lesley Husselbee and Paul Ballard, editors
Continuum £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99 (Use code CT742 )

ROW upon row of working-class men, some wearing bowlers, sit glumly waiting for their mug of something hot to be poured from a galvanised vessel resembling an oversized watering can. Nobody smiles in the unattributed photograph on the cover of Free Churches and Society, a collection of essays that can never be accused of levity. Always earnest, it is well worth reading. As Lesley Husselbee points out in her chapter on the welfare state and beyond, social activists are often too busy to bother much about recording their experiences. Nevertheless, she and her fellow contributors have assembled an impressive amount of data with which those currently engaged in practical community work might usefully engage - the theme of Paul Ballard's concluding essay, "Living out of History".

Predictably, perhaps, the book celebrates the achievements of the Free Churches over two centuries. As Stephen Orchard points out in his overview of Free Church history, chapels could quickly spring up in the rapidly expanding towns and cities of the early 19th century and, if necessary, be closed or sold on to another group. This flexibility proved to be useful when it came to social action.

Clyde Binfield celebrates the pioneers in paternalism in an essay on industry, philanthropy, and Christian citizenship. Peter Catterall offers a brilliant account of "Slums and Salvation", which is densely documented and elegantly argued. Robert Pope launches his essay on the church as koinonia by citing J. T. Stannard's claim, later in the century, that Christianity is the "true social science". And the "era of the Nonconformist conscience", at the beginning of the 20th century, marked the peak of political involvement, when, as David Bebbington indicates, temperance, social purity, and anti-gambling were the "key issues".


The most engaging contribution, however, by David M. Thompson, reviews the whole question with a more sceptical eye. Where, he asks, does the campaigning image of Nonconformity come from? Answer: the Society of Friends. Yet the Quakers were unusual among Dissenters in several important respects, and Howard's overall achievement as a prison reformer was "mixed". Slavery, Thompson argues, might have been abolished anyway; there was no uniform Dissenting line on poverty; and so on. In the 20th century, the state "annexed social policy as its own concern". So the contribution of the Free Churches should not be over-estimated. But the great strengths of Nonconformity which Thompson identifies - in the committed individual and in congregations - are fully displayed in Free Churches and Society.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.

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