Perhaps we think of a ‘confession of faith’ in terms of people giving their testimony before being baptised as in Romans 10:9, but the phrase is also used for a church’s beliefs and there are possible examples of such confessions of faith in the Bible (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 1 Tim. 3:16).
The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, ‘I believe’, and is another term for a confessional statement. The early church later produced such confessions as the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. Many church confessions were drafted following the Protestant Reformation: the Lutherans formed The Augsburg Confession in 1530 and the Calvinists of Switzerland adopted The Helvetic Confession of 1566. In Britain, the Church of England had The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571), the Presbyterians had The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), the Congregationalists had The Savoy Declaration (1658) and the Baptists had The 1689 Confession.
2023 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists’ Confession of Faith. The Methodist revival that swept across Britain in the eighteenth century started in Wales in 1735 when God transformed the life of a young school teacher by the name of Howell Harris and then an Anglican minister called Daniel Rowland. Through Harris, William Williams the great Welsh hymn-writer was converted as well as Howell Davies, who became known as the ‘Apostle of Pembrokeshire’. The revival began within the Anglican Church and the converts were formed into fellowship meetings and known as the ‘Society People’. They were a kind of church within the state church.
In 1811, the Welsh Methodists left the Anglican Church but continued to regard the doctrinal statements of the 39 Articles as their basis of faith although they understood them in the light of the fuller treatment found in the Westminster standards. From the beginning, the Welsh Methodists were evangelical Calvinists and this set them apart from the Methodism of John Wesley and his followers.
Forming the Confession
Eventually, for convenience and to clarify where they stood doctrinally, the Welsh Methodists decided to prepare their own credal statement. Church leaders in North and South Wales were each asked to draw up draft confessions. Representatives from these areas met from 10th to 12th March 1823, in an upper room in Great Darkgate Street, now in Aberystwyth’s main shopping area, to formulate the final draft. A plaque on the wall above the shops marks the site. It was accepted unanimously by the whole denomination.
In 1826, they formed themselves legally into a separate denomination and bound it for all time to their confession. A book containing the history, constitution, rules and confession was published in Welsh in 1824 with an English edition appearing in 1827.
The articles of the Confession
The confession contains 44 articles supported by 1,848 proof-texts taken from all parts of the Bible. In the first five articles the doctrine of God and Scripture are confessed with statements on the divine attributes, the Trinity and God’s decree. Articles 6 to 11 cover creation, providence and humanity in its original and fallen state. There follows in articles 12 to 21 a strong emphasis on covenant theology with separate articles on the work of each member of the Trinity in salvation. The application and fruits of redemption are treated in articles 22 to 34 with articles 35 to 39 dealing with the church and the sacraments. It is in article 40 that obedience to the civil authorities appears. The final four articles concern matters relating to the last things.
It follows the Westminster Confession quite closely at times but tends to use more scriptural language and is much shorter in its statements. The influence of Thomas Charles, Bala, is strong, particularly in the confession’s unique articles on union with Christ and explicit references to each person of the Trinity in God’s eternal plan of redemption. The articles on the work of the Holy Spirit bear witness to the experiential element within Methodism and to the many spiritual revivals of the period.
The authors of the Confession
Those who produced it, like John Elias, Michael Roberts and Humphrey Gwalchmai from the north and Ebenezer Richard and David Charles (Thomas Charles’ brother) from the south, were powerful preachers who had been used by God to bring thousands into God’s kingdom. At the same time they were theologically astute and it is clear from the way some articles are framed that they were anxious to save the new denomination from heretical views that were circulating in Wales at the time. It also put clear theological distance between these original Methodists of Wales and Welsh-speaking Wesleyan Methodism that had begun to make inroads into Wales. The confession expressed the beliefs of the initial Methodists of Wales.
A forgotten gem
A hundred years later, a number of the denomination’s leaders considered the confession to be out-of-date and believed the church should have the right to alter its creed whenever it felt it necessary to do so. This freedom was secured with the passing of the Calvinistic Methodist or Presbyterian Church of Wales Act in 1933. They did not revise the old confession or devise a new one, but formulated and accepted The Short Declaration of Faith and Practice as a summary of its beliefs. The 1823 Confession was never formally abandoned but, in practice, it is now no more than a historical document that few have heard about or read.
Learning from the past
All professing Christians and churches have their beliefs whether or not they like the term ‘doctrine’ or express their beliefs in written form. It is biblical for a church to have a clear declaration of what it believes. The trustworthy sayings in Timothy and Titus suggest this.
Some church confessions stress the essential gospel truths that unite evangelical churches. Others, like the 1823 and Westminster confessions, are more detailed doctrinal statements setting out the church’s distinctives and reasons for its existence.
It is important that church leaders and officers accept and proclaim the church’s confessional position. Church confessions were never meant to be a condition of membership or a test of godliness, but church members should not deny or undermine their church’s beliefs.
Securing the beliefs of the next generation merely by written words is a fruitless business. Each generation must confess the faith for itself. As with the Methodists of the 1823 Confession, doctrine needs to be accompanied with spiritual life.
A taster of the Confession
Article 22 Of the call of the gospel
The call of the gospel contains a general proclamation of glad tidings to lost sinners through Jesus Christ, and sets before them strong encouragements to return unto him for their eternal salvation. Where this call is effectual, the power of God works to quicken those who were dead in sin, to cast down imaginations in the minds of men, to deliver them from the power of darkness and translate them into the kingdom of his dear Son, to make them willing in the day of his power, and guide them into all truth. Moreover all those, to whom the gospel is the power of God to bring them to him in the day of grace, will be brought at last to eternal glory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.