Figure 1 shows the membership of the Welsh Presbyterian Church with the known revivals of the period superimposed. From 1850 the membership data is recorded by Currie et al and Brierley. The data up to 1850 is estimated by assuming its growth follows a similar pattern to the parallel Methodist movement in England, which has data for that period, and the known data point of zero in 1735. The revivals are categorised according to their geographical influence: local, regional and national. The national ones are split into extended, for those where the beginning and end are hard to determine due to slow geographical mobility; and intense, where faster communications led to a quicker spread of revival fire. Sources for these revivals include: Evans E. (1967, 1969, 1985); Jones D.G. (2001); Bennett R. (1969).
Figure 1: Growth and Decline of Membership in the Presbyterian Church of Wales.
Growth & Decline of Welsh Presbyterians
The Presbyterian Church of Wales started in the 1730s as part of the Methodist revival, a renewal movement within the Church of England. The Methodist movement in Wales was driven by pioneer preachers such as Daniel Rowlands, William Williams and Howell Harris. In Wales the movement followed the Calvinist Evangelical theology of Methodists such as George Whitfield, and was organised separately from the movement founded by John Wesley. When the movement was eventually formed as a church in its own right, it was called the Calvinist Methodist Church, becoming known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales during the 20th century.
The church grew faster than the population through a series of revivals up to latter half of the 19th century. From that point onwards growth slowed until decline set in during the 20th century. Its growth and decline follows the classic institutionalism pattern.
The church grew as long as revivals were taking place. Once revivals ceased, the church membership started to decline. Revival is defined as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on believers. One of its consequences is that revived believers, called enthusiasts, bring unbelievers to Christ, thus there are many conversions. Some of the new converts also become enthusiasts, leading to further conversions. Thus figure 1 suggests that growth turned into decline because revivals ceased, causing conversions to fall.
The correlation between church growth and revival is further highlighted by examining the membership as a proportion of the total population. This factors out church growth due to population growth, that is growth due to a higher birth rate than death rate. Figure 2 compares membership, as a proportion of society, with the outbreaks of revival. The Presbyterian Church grew faster than society up to the 1870s. After that, the church made no further inroads into society, either growing less than society, or eventually declining.
Figure 2: Presbyterian Membership as a Proportion of Society.
With population growth factored out, it is clear that the church grew primarily through conversions up to the 1870s. The drop in conversions coincides with aftermath of the largest of all the revivals in Wales, that of 1859/60. Although there was one further revival in 1904/5 this was very much a revival "out of time" and although 100,000 converts were made in one year, conversion growth was not sustained, and the Presbyterian Church, along with all other Welsh denominations, entered a period of decline from that point onwards.
There are four sources of change for denominational membership: retention of members' children - biological growth; members' deaths; conversion from outside the church community; and reversion - people leaving the church without internal transfer. Welsh Presbyterian data is good enough to compare these rates in a revival period and non-revival period. Figure 3 compares the few years before the 1904/5 revival, with the revival itself. There is little difference in child retention and deaths, the conversion rate is 5 times larger, and the reversion rate just over 2 times larger. Thus the biggest effect of revival, or its absence, is on the conversion rate.
Figure 3: Four Sources of Membership Change Compared For Revival and Non-Revival Periods
The biological growth and conversion rates can be compared from the late 1800s onwards, showing that both have slow steady decline, except that conversion growth was huge during the 1904/5 revival, figure 4. This graph clearly shows the effect of revival on conversion, over 6% in 1905, and the long-term decline of conversion rates from 1.2% in 1896 to just 0.46% in the 1960s. Although biological growth has also declined, as will be shown, this is in line with falling birth rates. The primary source of church decline is the absence of conversion, due to the absence of revival.
Figure 4: Conversion and Child Retention Rates Compared
The inability to keep children is often put forward as the main cause of church decline. However figure 5 shows that the percentage of members' children retained from late 1800s to 1970 actual rose slightly in the Presbyterian Church, from around 40% to 60%. It is true, the actual number of children add fell during this period, but that was caused by falling birth rates. Smaller family sizes made for smaller Sunday Schools, but the church lost none of its effectiveness in converting member's children. Children did not leave in droves, they just were not born in the first place.
Figure 5: Percentage of Members' Children Retained by the Church
The four sources of membership change can be compared for the years prior to the last revival in 1904/5 and a period in the middle of the 1960s, figure 6. The drop in the children of members is due to falling birth rates, as noted above. The real change is the drop in conversions, and the smaller rise in leaving rates. If anyone left "in droves" in the 1960s it was adult members, but still it was not droves, just larger. The real culprit for church decline is the lower conversion rate. Not only had it fallen, but would have needed to have risen for growth to be maintained to counteract the falling birth rate. Thus falling conversion rate, with falling birth rates, is a good explanation for church decline.
Figure 6: Sources of Membership Change Compared
Figure 6 also shows a large rise in the death rate. This is due to aging. Figure 7 compares biological growth and death rates for the church. The death rate rise throughout and the biological additions fall. These are the signs of an aging church, who are less able to produce children, due to being older, and with shorter life expectancies. Why did congregations age? One effect is certainly falling birth rates; society as a whole had aged - but not as much as church. The main cause of church aging being larger than society is again the lack of conversions. Up to the end of the 19th century the church had been younger than society, almost certainly the effect of conversions generally occurring more among young people than older ones. Thus higher conversion rates led to a young church, who could produce more children and not die as fast as society. Once conversions had fallen, the situation reversed. Thus although aging is a cause of church decline, its underlying cause is the drop in conversions, ultimately the lack of revival.
Figure 7: Biological Growth and Death Rates 1895-1970
Figure 8 compares the conversion and reversion rates from 1895-1970 showing that the long-term decline in conversions, but no long-term rise in reversion. It is the failure to convert people, rather than poor retention, that is at the heart of the church's decline.
Figure 8: Conversion and Reversion Rates 1895-1970