Thursday 5 October 2017

123 Unitarians

123 Unitarians
What links American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and radical scientist Joseph Priestley, with novelist and biographer Mrs Gaskell?  It is that all these people were Unitarians.  Britain has 170 Unitarian meeting-houses, of which 27 are in Wales - the same number as at the Religious Census of 1851.  Swansea’s meeting-house is next to the Argos store in High Street, with Gellionen near Pontardawe being another well-known Unitarian chapel - built originally in 1692 by Protestant dissenters on Mynydd Gellionnen.  The Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan’s has Pen-rhiw Chapel, which is also Unitarian.  This was probably first built as a barn during the mid-eighteenth century, before being acquired in 1777 by Unitarians for use as a meeting house.  The original loft was removed or altered in the 19th century to create the gallery, greatly increasing the seating capacity.  The floor of the building is of beaten earth, except the communion area which is boarded.  Originally at Drefach Felindre in north Carmarthenshire, the chapel was dismantled in 1953 and moved to the Folk Museum.
In 1774 a former Vicar, who had left the Church of England, opened Britain’s first Unitarian meeting-house, in Essex Street, near the Strand in London: today the headquarters of British Unitarians stand on that site.  The first meeting-house in Wales was established 20 years later by Thomas Evans (Tomos Glyn Cothi) - known as “Priestley bach” from his adherence to the teachings of Joseph Priestley.  Evans preached the first Unitarian sermon published in Welsh.  In 1802 the Unitarian Association of South Wales was founded, one member being the controversial poet and Unitarian hymn writer Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), who introduced Druidism and the Gorsedd ceremony into Eisteddfodau.
Swansea’s Unitarian Chapel is set back from High Street, being reached across an open paved forecourt, and having a gabled porch.  After the 1689 Act of Toleration permitted Dissenters (though not Unitarians) to meet, it was used for worship by initially Baptists and later by Presbyterians, before being rebuilt in 1840. 
In Pennard after the war a small meeting-house was built in Hael Lane.  This was supplied with ministers from Swansea - Rev. Basil Viney would walk to Pennard - but after numbers dwindled the building was sold at auction in 1966, then demolished and a bungalow erected on the site.
Unitarians differ from various Christian denominations in that they do not recognise Christ Jesus as being God the Son, co-equal with God the Father and with God the Holy Spirit.  The term “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, being a human attempt to describe God, but Unitarians do not recognise the Trinity, and would deny Christ’s deity and pre-existence prior to his birth in Bethlehem.  During the nineteenth century Christian ministers who opposed Unitarianism included the Welsh Methodist and hymn writer William Williams (Pantycelyn), Peter Williams, who translated “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” into English, Welsh Baptist Joseph “Gomer” Harris (of Capel Gomer), and Christmas Evans, who is buried in Swansea’s Bethesda Chapel. 
Unitarians do not impose creeds or specific beliefs, but welcome people with open minds who share their tolerant and inclusive views.  They conduct naming ceremonies and weddings for people of any faith or none, and welcome those planning a second marriage.  At times Unitarians have been persecuted – as have Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Quakers and others.  The term “Christian” can be loosely used to mean a gentleman or a respectable person, whereas it should mean a follower of Christ Jesus.  For example, to state that Nick Clegg MP is not a Christian is not to denigrate him or to cast aspersions on his integrity, but merely to state a fact - he is an atheist.  Similarly Unitarians are not Christians, which does not preclude their campaigning for such issues as the abolition of slavery and for gender equality.  They support equality of respect and opportunity foreveryone.                       

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