The Wesleyan Chapel, or Capel Bethel, is located in Chapel Square, which was then called Copperhill Square. It was only a few doors away from the Calvinist Methodist Chapel or Tabernacle that had opened the year before (described on a previous post). Wesleyan preachers arrived in Aberdovey in November 1804, fourteen years after the Calvinist Methodists first arrived, to hold an open-air meeting in the square, a common device used by early preachers to convey their message and acquire followers. They were sufficiently successful for a small Wesleyan movement to become established in the village, a real achievement as Calvinistic Methodism had spread much more rapidly throughout Wales.
I have described the origins of the Wesleyan Methodists on an earlier post about Aberdovey’s first Calvinistic Methodist chapel, and if you read that post you may want to scroll down to the next paragraph as I am repeating some of it here. Methodism, or Wesleyan Methodism began at Oxford University, where Charles Wesley (1707-88) and George Whitefield (1714-1770) formed a group to discuss religious ideas and methods, particularly the power of evangelism. It was joined by Charles’s brother John Wesley (1703-91) and became known as the Holy Group, and later, based on the importance of procedures and methods in their approach, Methodists. The three went to America in 1735 to become missionaries, but George Whitefield returned a year later to focus on doing religious work in England, preaching extensively in indoors and out, making himself very unpopular with the established church.
John Wesley returned three years after his departure to bring his ideas into the Church of England in an attempt at Anglican reform. Like Whitefield, he found himself unpopular with the Church of England authorities and was not permitted to preach in Anglican churches, so began preaching out of doors, and began to travel extensively to spread his message and organize those who followed him. Wesley and Whitefield parted ways in 1741 over Whitefield’s belief in Calvinist predestination, foreshadowing the later split between the Wesleyan Methodists and the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists. The key difference was that John Wesley retained the Arminian (as opposed to the Calvinistic) belief that salvation is available to all. In Wesleyan Methodism, the living of a good, altruistic, and selfless lives and absolute belief in and dedication to God is not a means of winning salvation but is actually a product of salvation. Salvation is therefore by God’s grace alone, rather than something that can be achieved by human endeavour. This is one of the core differences between Methodism and the Church of England. The personal experience of God, and of revelation were also key to his beliefs. He had, himself, underwent a conversion experience in 1738, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.” He also believed in the importance of Scripture, a strong emphasis on the delivering of God’s message far and wide, the pre-eminence of high moral standards, and the need to raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol and gambling. Wesley organized groups of lay preachers in a “connexion” across Britain, whose members helped to spread the Methodist message, and from 1744 annual conferences of lay preachers helped to formalize their activities. It was only after John Wesley’s death in 1791 that Methodism withdrew from the Church of England and became a movement in its own right.
The Wesleyans made slow progress in Wales during the 18th Century, where Welsh Calvinist Methodists had a foothold. In spite of 35 visits into Wales, John Wesley was unable to make much of an impact, partly because he and most of his followers spoke no Welsh and Wesleyan Methodism was slow to recruit Welsh speakers. By the end of the 18th Century they only had around 600 followers in Wales, none of whom were in Meirionnydd. In 1800 the British Wesleyan Conference decided to send Welsh-speaking preachers into Wales, resulting in a notable upturn of Welsh-speaking converts, and wherever English Wesleyans settled in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, wherever quarries and mines were to be found, congregations rose. In the 1851 religious census there were 499 places of worship in Wales and congregations numbering 53,730 individuals.
The Wesleyans had no dedicated premises when they first arrived in Aberdovey and gathered at houses in the village, first at numbers 6 and 7 Copper Hill street (formerly called Dan y Graig) opposite today’s Wesleyan chapel, and then a few years later they moved to a house named Tan y Castell (“Below the Castle”) in Prospect Place. Their final meeting house before the chapel was built was Cegin Arthur (“Arthur’s Inn”), the front room of which served as a drinking establishment and was on the site later replaced by Xanthus House, the building immediately to the left/west of the big 1864 Calvinist Tabernacle on Sea View Terrace. Hugh M. Lewis describes the disadvantages of this venue: “This was a most inconvenient and embarrassing for the worshippers, who had to pass through the front room on their way to the kitchen at the rear of the house.” In 1828 they rented a piece of land from the Athelstan Maurice Corbet of Ynysymaengwyn Estate on New Street at the top of Chapel Square (then called Copperhill Square) and built their first chapel, the Bethel, in 1829. The Bethel was located at the top of the upward sloping New Street and now dominated the square, rising above the level local buildings, including the Calvinist Methodist chapel, and was visible from most higher parts of Aberdovey, as shown in the 19th Century/early 20th Century photograph at the end of the post.
The Bethel, unlike the Congregational Chapel on Glandyfi Terrace or the English Presbyterian chapel on Sea View Terrace, is instantly recognizable as a 19th Century chapel, with the gabled façade, stuccoed features, lancet windows with plain glass and a plaque stating BETHEL ADDOLDY Y WESLEYAID (“Bethel, Wesleayan Place of Worship”) and the two dates of its construction and rebuild, 1829 and 1868. It is an imposing building, set slightly above the square, in a commanding position. The Wesleyans rented a piece of land in Chapel Square (at that time Copper Hill Square) in 1828 from Mr Athelstan Corbet of Ynysymaengwyn (the big land-holding estate based just outside Tywyn), and their first chapel was built in 1829, with a congregation of around 30. It was extended to twice its original size in 1841 to accommodate a growing congregation of around 60 worshippers. The expanding population again led to the chapel being over-crowded and it was rebuilt in 1868, “a mixed sub-Classical and simple Gothic style of the gable-entry type” (Coflein website), to accommodate 300 worshippers, at a cost of £704.00, the equivalent to 102 horses/150 cows or, in today’s money, £61,427.73 (National Archives Currency Converter). An inscription facing the pulpit used to read “COFIWCH-Y-MORWYR” which translates as “remember the seamen,” a reminder to the minister that a large number of families in Aberdovey were attached to the sea in some capacity and should be referred to in the sermon. Renovations and improvements in 1924 included the installation of a pipe organ, and in 1926 a huge vestry was added on the site of an old bakehouse.
The interior of the chapel is absolutely splendid. Today entry is via the large 1926 vestry, which is laid out with rows of comfortable chairs facing a podium, and this is used today for many of the chapel’s meetings. It is a very warm and inviting space. The 19th Century chapel, reached via a side door, is beautiful. There are no monuments on the wall, nothing to distract from the structure of the chapel. Straight wooden pews are organized in three rows facing the pulpit, divided by two aisles. The pulpit area is an imposing structure with a small stage behind it. At the front of the pulpit is a large, curved pew, which is very fine indeed, and this was retained for visiting dignitaries. Flanking this across the aisles are two sets of boxed pews that face across the chapel. It is a magnificent space, given a lot of light from the tall lancet windows, and the lack of any form of decoration, embellishment or other distraction gives a very real sense that this is about the message from the pulpit, the relationship between the congregation and the preacher. I was completely taken with it.
The chapel is still very active today, with weekly meetings, weddings and funerals all held on the premises. There is a Facebook page with details, in both English and Welsh, of services and other activities, which may be in Welsh, English or both. For security reasons, the chapel is not open outside these times. I visited by appointment, with my sincere thanks to Ceri Jones for making the arrangements and, together with Gerald Grudgings, for guiding me around the building. I have been invited to a service to see what the chapel is like when it is doing what it was designed for, and very much look forward to attending.
Wesleyan Methodism is usefully described on the Welsh Religious Buildings website, the BBC Religion web pages and the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. Hugh M. Lewis, local resident and collector of Aberdovey information and images, is an invaluable source of information about the pre-chapel history of the Wesleyan Methodists in his book Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village. Lewis Lloyd’s A Real Little Seaport was also useful, and Hugh M. Lewis’s Aberdyfi, Pages of Time added some additional information. My sincere thanks to Ceri Jones and Gerald Grudgings for providing me with many more details about the chapel.