At a recent Sunday service, my church sang the hymn “Come thou fount of every blessing,” with its line “Here I raise my Ebenezer, Hither by thy help I come.” This is a classic example of a line that made wonderful sense to a Biblically-literate audience, who knew that Ebenezer was a “stone of help” erected by the prophet Samuel. (The hymn dates from 1758). Other news stories that I read shortly afterwards underlined for me the growing oblivion into which such names have fallen in more secular modern times. And one story in particular offers a gorgeous visual symbol of modern European secularization.
I grew up in Wales, in a remarkably Biblical-sounding landscape. Over the past three centuries, Protestant Nonconformists had erected many chapels, variously serving Baptist, Presbyterian and Independent congregations. (This was South Wales, so the Calvinistic Methodists were not much in evidence). Most of those chapels had some kind of Biblical name, and we were awash with Bethany, Bethesda, Hebron, Carmel, Salem, and Ebenezer, besides the obvious Calfaria (Calvary). Such chapels boomed astonishingly following the great revivals, of which 1904-1905 was the most sensational.
I say nothing about how or whether those abundant names in the landscape had much impact on people’s actual knowledge of the religious background – scarcely at all, I think.
So much is familiar enough for Americans (and Australians, Canadians…) but what is different in this instance is the radical secularization that has overtaken Wales in recent times, making it in fact one of the more secular regions of modern Europe. Insofar as Christianity survives in Wales, it is overwhelmingly in Anglican and Roman Catholic forms that those old Nonconformists would have abhorred.
So what happened to those old chapels? Over time, they faded and closed, and they remain as ghosts on the landscape, although the names remained. In my home town of Port Talbot, Bethany was a well known landmark, and a central bus stop. Elsewhere, the chapels gave their names to towns, like Bethesda in North Wales. The congregations aged and died, migrated away, or otherwise evaporated, while family size shrunk dramatically. By 2001, even the still surviving chapels were closing at the rate of one a week. My town’s local Bethany (Presbyterian) celebrated its centennial in 1979, but by 2012 it was vacant and for sale.
As to the buildings themselves, plenty were demolished, usually before concern with historic preservation paid much attention to buildings of that particular era. Many were reused in various forms – as houses, shops, and warehouses. I quote a 2012 story:
“A chapel in Aberystwyth has been turned into a doctor’s surgery. They have kept the pulpit and that is the rostrum in their seminar room. There are all sorts of things you can do if you have the imagination. In Rhyl for instance, there are various chapels which closed – one is now an Islamic Cultural Centre but if you look at it from the outside it is still basically a chapel. Beautiful work has been done on the old Carmel Welsh independent chapel which is a pawnbrokers and an IT cafe – but they’ve done a good job.” (This whole story is well worth reading).
Other recent stories are grimmer. An old chapel near Aberystwyth dating from 1842 is very ruinous, and is currently on sale for around $40,000. “And the chapel would make the perfect Halloween purchase for one lucky buyer – because it comes with its very own graveyard.”
At the other end of the spectrum, that brings me to the other news story I mentioned, entitled “Welsh church goes on sale complete with its own SAUNA: Buyers will also get a bell tower, traditional arched windows and oak doors.” Do please follow the link for some visuals, to see how the building has been not just secularized, but transformed into a quite luxurious residence. It is “a four-bedroom home complete with modern kitchen, patio areas and wet room with a sauna. …. Featuring an unusual curved kitchen area and a balcony overlooking the first floor, the church has wooden beams and large windows throughout – a nod to its history as a place of worship.”
Although the story gives no denominational background, the building involved is indeed a converted church (Anglican) rather than a Nonconformist chapel, but the transition is the same as in those other cases, all those Bethanies, Ebenezers, and Calfarias.
To put the story in context, you can find an ecclesiastical history of the region, which traces the story back to the ancient pilgrimage shrine of St. Mabon, and then through a series of medieval and later parish churches. In modern times, facing sharply declining numbers, several older parishes were merged into one larger administrative entity.
And then one became a nice sauna, with its “nods to its history.”
See these images, and you have a symbol of a striking historical trajectory. It meshes so well with the material I was recently discussing about Philip Larkin’s Church Going.