This is the haunting story of the rise and fall of Llanelli's chapels. The author brings together the characters, the battles they fought, the values they promoted, and the magnificent architecture they left behind. Llanelli was once proud of its reputation as one of the powerhouses of Nonconformist Wales. 12 of its 33 chapters are in Welsh; the remainder are in English.
In what is a door-step of a book, 550 pages including text and a wealth of enthralling pictures, Huw Edwards has provided his readers with an altogether fascinating study of what is, on the face of it, an implausible subject, namely the Nonconformist chapels of his home town. 33 chapters, some in English others in Welsh and divided into three denominational blocks – Congregational, Baptist and Calvinistic Methodist (or ‘Presbyterian’ to be more genteel) – provide the narrative base for what is a pageant, a drama and sometimes a comedy which any community, indeed any nation with a modicum of self-respect, should be proud. There are few public figures in these Dawkinsian times who are willing to ‘come out’ as people of faith. Not only has Huw Edwards done that in unabashed terms, but he positively revels in the heritage of that most unfashionable strand of Christian religion: Welsh Nonconformity. Whether expatiating on the splendours of its architecture, its multifarious musical activities, its social commitment or its spiritual content, every page shows him to be a veritable nonconformist and a true radical in every sense. In the 21st century the book’s hero, David Rees, has found an advocate and a devotee.
To his detractors, Rees, minister of the Congregational church at Capel Als between 1829 and his death 40 years later, was ‘an egomaniac, a troublemaker, a loud-mouth, a bully, a spiv, a demagogue and many other things too rude to print’ (look at the portrait on p. 14 and the photograph on the back cover), but to Huw Edwards he was easily Llanelli’s greatest benefactor. Yet he is only one in the colourful procession whose contributions are lovingly described and gloriously contextualized in this wonderful volume: read about Thomas Johns, his reputation eclipsed by that of Rees, his predecessor, but an undoubted giant in his day; Elfed, ‘preacher, poet, hymn-writer . . . all purpose bigwig and mover and shaker extraordinaire’ at (of all places) the bourgeois English language Park Chapel with its scandalously neglected stained glass windows; the velvet-capped Trefor Davies at Soar; Lleurwg and Jubilee Young at Seion, up to the excellent David Jones, pictured splendidly at the consol of the chapel organ, pastor of the still thriving church at Greenfield.
Rollicking as it may be, this is a deeply thoughtful book, meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated, which jolts us into taking the nonconformist heritage seriously while explaining, with commitment and sincerity, what it was all about.
D Densil Morgan
A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council