Seeds of Inspiration

Gellionnen Unitarian Chapel
Gellionnen Unitarian Chapel (1692)  on the mountain above Pontardawe and Trebanos

It seems that during my time in Wales, I had become of bit of a topic of conversation in the village of Llangadog and Llandovery.  I was told someone had thought it quite strange that I would travel to a rural part of Wales to stay in a village of less than 800 people for five weeks.

I’m not completely sure if they thought I was strange, or my behavior strange. Either way, they found my extended presence in rural Wales a bit odd.

As an American Unitarian Universalist, I am used to being misunderstood.  Very often people have never heard of us, let alone know about us.  All too often, if they have heard or know about us, they think us a bit of an anomaly, some would go so far as to say we are a cult. So it seems, I have traveled several hundred miles only to find myself in familiar company.

I arrived in Wales with an open agenda and a clear intention: to engage in a spiritual and ancestral pilgrimage

~ to be still in the land of my ancestors, discover a bit their story, walk in their footsteps, and look at how their living shaped mine.

~ to partake in village life, meet the people of the Wales and return home with a connection to my Welsh heritage.

~ to enter into a time of contemplation, reflection and writing; to cultivate spiritual practices to guide and sustain me and my ministry.

~ to discern what God is asking of me – who is God calling me to be; how shall I serve Love (capital L Love) in an aching world.

My first task: to discern what matters most, where and how shall I sustain my call to ministry.

You see, after several years of ministerial service, my grounding and rootedness in Source or God, as I understand it, had gotten lost in a sea of service to a vital and dynamic congregation.  In an effort to serve everyone, be all things to all people, my spiritual life and the source of my being, had gotten a wee bit waylaid in my ministry to others.

This task of navigating a spiritual journey amid the demanding overscheduled days of ministry is a bit like driving in Wales where the narrow farm roads with tidy hedgerows block your view and give little warning of what is coming around the bend or what is down the road to the right. This limiting aperture is simply unrealistic in a diverse, complex, and complicated global world community. Moving forward as the road or schedule and life dictates without some inner, wiser or divine compass guiding us is a bit like driving in the rain without windshield wipers and a radio blasting.

When driving through the rich pastureland and mountain roads of Wales, one learns very quickly it matters what road you take.  Equally, it matters what one believes and to understand this freedom to believe, as our wisdom, reason and experience dictates, came at grave peril. No one new this better than the early dissenters in the United Kingdom, the people who risked everything when they challenged the teachings of the Established Church.

The story of the Welsh dissenters dates back to 1662 when England passed the Uniformity Act requiring all clergy to sign an agreement supporting the teachings of the Church of England.  Two thousand clergy dissented and the concept of non-conformity was established.  The clergy and their followers risked their jobs, their homes, their families, and, in some cases, their lives, when they chose to promote the religious freedom and beliefs we take for granted today.

During my five week stay in Wales, I had become completely captivated by conversations with the Welsh people, farmers, scholars, clergy and Unitarians.  Listening to and reading their stories of discrimination, harassment and persecution brought alive in my mind a time of religious passion and chaos, and a time of religious conviction.  In this act of bearing witness, centuries later, to the remarkable stories of persistence and conviction, I was inspired.

In his book Welsh Chapels, Anthony Jones describes the Dissenters of the 17th, 18th and 19th century as “the beating heart of Wales[1]hardy saplings that had put down deep roots, refused to be dislodged and grew into ‘the mighty oak of Welsh Dissent.”  It is their story that I was intrigued by from day one to day thirty-five.

In my quest to know my ancestral story, I was surprised to discover a brave and courageous religious history of tenant farmers – honest, hard working people seeking greater opportunities for their children.  Their perseverance and determination, sheer tenacity and faith led them through the uncharted lands of the Dakota Territory; yet it was their participation in the emergence of protestant traditions that surprised me the most.

As early dissenters from the established religion, they served various independent Capels as deacons and lay ministers.  My pilgrimage through Wales became a time of walking in their footsteps and walking in the story of our shared faith.  This journey of visiting ancient chapels and graveyards as well as the old farms and barns where the earliest nonconformist met served to integrate the stories of my ancestors and the stories of my chosen faith tradition.

My intrigue deepened when I happened upon this excerpt from Anthony Jones’ book Welsh Chapels.

“Cwmglo was inconspicuous, a dingle of sylvan beauty, screened by a profusion of dense corpses and tall overhanging trees… But even in the delicious seclusion of Cwmglo the Dissenters were not free from molestation. Though their minds were fixed on the things of the spirit, their ears were always alert for the footsteps of the informer. A shaking bough, or a quivering bush, or the snap of a twig in the undergrowth, made their hearts beat faster, their blood run cold. The soothing influence of hymn and sacred song was denied them… gleams of the modern street-lamp. The only light to guide their faltering footsteps was afforded by the moon or stars. When the sky was overcast they stumbled over the trackless mountains in an inky darkness that only country people know… hidden in the trees around Cwmglo was a gabled farmhouse of considerable dimensions… Its occupier was himself a Dissenter, and when his fellow worshippers requested of him the use of one of his barns for a chapel, we may be sure that he readily acquiesced. An empty barn all year round on a farm well-known for its productive meadows might, it was thought, arouse the suspicions of an erstwhile passer-by. To delude the curious, therefore, the barn was stored with hay during the weekdays, and emptied for the services on Sundays. The congregation was not seated when the service was in progress – a standing position was more conducive to instant dispersal should escape become necessary. The rostrum was crudely built of timber felled in the contiguous woods. A rush of light that flickered wanly in the draught from the ventilation holes in the walls, provided the only illumination and to keep themselves warm they wrapped their feet in straw… “

This story of Cwmglo is the story of the Unitarian Chapel Hen Dy Cwrdd at Cefn Coed.  The original rostrum from that barn is where the service leader preaches today.  In the recent past the congregation went back to that barn, carried with them the original rostrum, and held services.

I came upon a similar family story in my final days in Llandgadog.  A farmer in Gwynfe shared the story of nonconformists meeting in the barn on the farm Pantmawr where my great great great grandmother Margeret Morgan was born and raised.

While my Congregational and Methodist ancestors walked alongside the Unitarians in the fight for religious freedom, I have come to learn their path to choosing what mattered most opened long before the way of the Unitarian. While my ancestors were given the freedom to worship in 1689, the same would not be offered to the Unitarians until 1813.  The consequences the non-Trinitarians faced were often more severe.

When the minister and members of the Unitarian Church, Llwynrhydowen, in LLandysul voted against the squire in 1876, they were evicted from their church building, lost their jobs and suffered hardship of poverty and persecution for years. The Welsh Religious Buildings Trust tells the story,

“In the mid 19th century, the congregation could number anywhere up to 600. It was a part of a radical Unitarian culture within a Welsh rural setting, resistant to successive waves of evangelical revival emanating from the epicentre of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism not far to the north. As such these communities became collectively known as the ‘Black Spot’.

In 1876 it was the scene of a national scandal when the congregation and its minister William Thomas (also known as Gwilym Marles) were evicted by the local landlord, John Lloyd of Alltyrodyn. Lloyd cited their ‘radical’ non Tory, Unitarian ideologies as a breach of their lease.

After the closure, the popular minister addressed an outdoor congregation of about 3000, with his back to the locked and chained chapel. Due to the national interest prompted by the eviction, a fundraising campaign saw a new chapel created, but after the death of Lloyd his sister had the building returned to the congregation. Unfortunately by this time, Gwilym was in ill health and died before he was able to attend the opening ceremony of the new chapel. His remains were laid at the new chapel and it was subsequently dedicated to his memory.”

While we (Unitarians in the UK and Unitarian Universalists in America) have similar trajectories in our theological evolution, our emergence as religious liberals in the United States was not as perilous.  With the separation of church and state in the United States came the freedom to self determine religious beliefs. Still these foundational beliefs of Welsh & English Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism in the United States have guided our common faith traditions for generations.

Centuries of teachings and experiences, science and reason affirm the truth of what was at one time considered illegal, subject to persecution; while at the same time, thought by countless others to be absolutely visionary.

Grateful for our dissenting forefathers and foremothers who cleared that dense forest of religious persecution, we arrive here at this point in history – comfortable and safely settled in our lives where the freedom to determine for ones self what matters most is our touchstone.

We, the twenty-first century Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, are privileged by the martyrs and religious heroes, Acts of Toleration and Constitutions and Bill of Rights that separate church and state. We, the descendants of centuries of radical dissenters and nonconformists, remain the minority across the globe. Yet our vision, our people, our values continue to shape the world in profound and transformative ways.  Countless generations later, our conviction that freedom to choose one’s own belief is foundational. Yet at the end of the day, it is not so much what we believe but how our beliefs impact the world we live in.

These words from Philosopher and UU Dr. Ronald J. Glossop poignantly articulate our shared conviction to this basic truth.

The kinds of beliefs we have influence how we behave. Knowing what is true is important. But having true beliefs is not the most important thing in our lives, and having true beliefs about God is not the most important thing in religion.

The most important thing in religion is being committed to furthering goodness. Promoting goodness includes finding out what is true and helping others to acquire [for themselves] such knowledge, but it also includes furthering love and compassion and justice.

And it involves doing this whether or not there is a God helping us to accomplish it.”

We might do well to ask ourselves, “At the end of our days, will we be able to say we lived grounded in beliefs that compelled us toward goodness and love, healing and wholeness, joy and abundance for all of humanity.”

If we can answer “Yes!” then our ancestors – those who walked before us and cleared the woods of falling debris – have not fought and suffered in vain.  For in our living, we are a testament to their living, and we honor them well.

[1] Anthony Jones, Welsh Chapels, National Museum of Wales (1984) xi.