Sunday, 31 July 2016

The non-conforming Nonconformists

The art of preaching has historically been very important in Christian communities, none more so than Nonconformist Wales.  "Fire and brimstone" preaching still exists, but in general the best-loved and most respected preachers are those who combine eloquence with a lightly-worn intellectualism and a subtle wit. Anyone who has ever heard Siegfried Sassoon's biographer, John Stuart Roberts, speak in public will understand what I am talking about. 

Last weekend I attended a fascinating talk in Cardiff, hosted by the United Reformed Church History Society.  The speaker, Rev Dr Robert Pope, is a Reader in Theology and Joint Head of School at the University of Wales Trinity St David, probably better known to you as St David's College, Lampeter. He is also the kind of preacher I referred to in the introductory paragraph. Dr Pope's subject was "Conscription, Conscience and Building God's Kingdom: Welsh Nonconformists and the Great War", which interested me for obvious reasons.  I hoped to learn more of how Siegfried Sassoon's anti-war protest of 1917 fitted in with the general climate of popular feeling at the time, particularly in the region from which the Royal Welsh Fusiliers drew many of its recruits.

I knew, for example, that Ellis Evans (Hedd Wyn), the Welsh-language poet who was posthumously awarded the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod of 1917, had not particularly wanted to go to war. Brought up in a Christian household, he was a pacifist by nature, and managed to avoid having to make the choice between enlisting and becoming a conscientious objector for three years by virtue of being in a reserved occupation - farming. However, he gave in to the inevitable when the authorities decided that either he or his married younger brother would be called up, and spared his brother the ordeal.  Evans was sent to Litherland - a place familiar to Sassoon - for training, and achieved some respite when he was allowed a few weeks' leave to help in the ploughing season. His luck soon ran out, though, and he was killed at Passchendaele less than two months after arriving in France.

Evans' experience would not have been untypical, as the Nonconformist clergy appear to have been split between pacifists like the radical and uncompromising T E Nicholas (who moonlighted as a dentist), college principal Thomas Rees, and the blind preacher John Puleston Jones - all of whom spoke out against the war - and the traditionalists who accepted Lloyd George's view that the war was a battle against evil and that it was their Christian duty to join in, or at least to encourage others to do so.

Nicholas, popularly known as "Niclas y Glais" from the name of the village where he ministered for ten years before the war, was a close friend of Keir Hardie, whose parliamentary seat he contested in 1918, after resigning the ministry. Having had his activities monitored by the police during the war, he lost miserably to Charles Butt Stanton, a former miners' leader who had supported Lloyd George's government. Continuing to peddle his controversial views during the Second World War, Nicholas was imprisoned in 1940 - along with his son - for having in his possession a map (cut out of the Daily Express) on which he had pinned German flags in order to follow the progress of the war. The result of his incarceration was a volume of Welsh-language sonnets, many written on slate or toilet paper, that would become a best-seller. Eat your heart out, Jeffrey Archer.

Thomas Rees, an illegitimate child of Pembrokeshire peasants who obtained what little formal education he had from his local chapel, had risen to become principal of Bala-Bangor College in 1909 and was an unrepentant and outspoken pacifist. His reward was to have his windows broken and to be expelled from Bangor Golf Club. Despite the sometimes violent opposition of many of his own denomination as well as outsiders, he continued to denounce the war and in 1916 launched Y Deyrnas (“The Kingdom”), a monthly publication that publicised pacifist views throughout Welsh-speaking communities.  A major contributor was a poet named T Gwynn Jones, who had abandoned all religious activity when his own minister in Aberystwyth prayed for victory.

John Puleston Jones, nephew of the Conservative MP Sir John Puleston, was blinded in an accident as a toddler, but became well-known for his independent spirit, riding unaccompanied around his home district and later, at Oxford, becoming co-founder of the "Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym". Having been a preacher from the age of seventeen, he maintained an anti-war stance and also contributed to Y Deyrnas

These men, however brave they may have been, were too old to be called up to fight. When we come to the conscientious objectors themselves, perhaps the saddest case of all is that of John Llewellyn Evans, who died of consumption as a result of the ill-treatment he received after being sentenced to hard labour - it was difficult to prove, but questions were asked in Parliament, where the Under-Secretary of State for War was told that Evans had previously "never suffered a day's illness".  Evans had been in training as a Christian missionary. His name now appears on a plaque in Tavistock Square, London, in memory of those who followed their consciences by refusing to participate in the First World War.

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