Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Ranting about Calvinism . . .

The publication of a new book on Welsh nonconformity is usually the kind of thing that sets my pulse racing that little bit faster . . . honestly!

Yet I've been a little bit reluctant to start M. Wynn Thomas, In the Shadow of the Pulpit: Literature and Nonconformist Wales (2010) for some reason. But start it I did yesterday, and rather than wait until I've finished reading the whole of it before blogging, I might as well blog on it as regular intervals instead! Thomas is a literary critic, and so he approaches Welsh nonconformity through the lens of predominantly English language fictional writing on nineteenth and twentieth century Welsh religious life. I've read the first two chapters; its a terrific read. The introductory chapter, in particular, in which Thomas weaves the story of his grandmother's involvement in the 1904-5 Welsh revival, as one of the band of women that accompanied Evan Roberts, is particuarly poignant.

However, in both the introduction and in the pages of his first substantive chapter, 'A bluffers guide to Nonconfomist Wales', my hackles have been raised! Why? Well the caricatures of Calvinism mainly. So here we have Gwilym Hiraethog distancing himself from what Thomas call High Calvinism after a close friend had been chillingly turned out of his local congregation after visiting his seriously ill wife on a Sunday. A tragic example of the spirit of Welsh nonconformity by the end of the nineteenth century certainly, but a result of High Calvinism? Thomas writes that Hiraethog's friend had 'broken the chilly High Calvinist rule governing Sabbath behaviour' (p. 11). The problem is, of course, that Sabbatarianism of this kind, far from being a result of Calvinism, was more a consequence of Victorian respectability. You did't have to be a Calvinist to be such an unbending Sabbatarian!

I'm afraid that the pejorative language continues into the next chapter. There we have a Calvin - 'the great divider of the elect from the goats and grimly unbending believer in predestination' (p. 22), and 'the formidable city boss of theocratic Geneva' (p. 22). Such unhelpful generalisations, no longer reflected in the most recent historical literature, lead to crudely drawn caricatures of nonconformist Wales.

I'll keep blogging my reflections anyway. Rant over . . . . .

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