The Welsh Presbyterian Church 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 the latter half of the 19th century. From that point onwards, growth slowed until decline set in during the 20th century. Its growth and decline pattern follows that of classic institutionalism.

Membership Growth and Revival

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).

Welsh Presbyterian Church Members and Adherents
Figure 1: Growth and Decline of Membership in the Presbyterian Church of Wales.

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. Therefore figure 1 suggests that growth turned into decline because revivals ceased, causing conversions to fall.

Membership Proportion of Society

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 where the birth rate is higher than the 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.

Welsh Presbyterian Church as a percentage of the population
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 the aftermath of the largest of all the revivals in Wales, that of 1859/60. Although there was one later 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.

Effect of Revival on Conversion

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 revival and non-revival periods. 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 is 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 a 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. It also shows 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 lack of revival.

Figure 4: Conversion and Child Retention Rates Compared

Sources of Membership Decline

The inability to keep children is often put forward as the leading cause of church decline. However, figure 5 shows that the percentage of members’ children retained from the late 1800s to 1970 actual rose slightly in the Welsh Presbyterian Church, from around 40% to 60%. It is true, the actual number of children added 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 members’ 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 before the last revival in 1904/5 and the 1960s. As noted above, the drop in the number of members’ children is due to falling birth rates. The significant change is the drop in conversions, with a smaller rise in leaving rates. If anyone left “in droves” in the 1960s, it was adult members, not children; but it was not droves, just larger. The real culprit for church decline is the lower conversion rate. Not only had it fallen, but it 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, which is due to ageing. By contrast, figure 7 compares biological growth and death rates for the church. The death rate rises throughout, and the biological additions fall. These are the signs of an ageing church, which is 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 the church.

The main cause of church ageing 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, which could produce more children and has fewer deaths than society. Once conversions had fallen, the situation reversed. Thus although ageing 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 a 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
UPDATE Decline of Presbyterian Church of Wales 2000-2020