Bala Calvinistic Methodist College (1837-1922)

 

(Historical account to 1860)

Soon after the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists left the Anglican Church in 1811, the idea of an institution to offer training to potential ministers began to gain support. By 1836, the most likely head of such an institution had been identified as Lewis Edwards, of Cardiganshire, a graduate of Edinburgh University who was generally regarded as one of the most promising scholars in the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Connexion. His marriage to Jane Charles of Bala in 1836 cemented his alliance with her brother, David Charles, grandson of Thomas Charles, the Methodist leader who pioneered the use of Sunday schools within the denomination. The Calvinistic Methodist Associations in North and South Wales approved the establishment of a college with Edwards and Charles as tutors, but could not decide between Trevecka, Aberystwyth, Llanidloes, and Bala as the location. On the advice of Revd John Elias, and needing to take some steps in order to obtain a livelihood, the two opened a 'private adventure school' at Bala on 1 August 1837 (Edwards, Bywyd a Llythyron, 163), thereby presenting the Connexion with a fait accompli. This tactic proved successful and the college was confirmed as a denominational institution serving north and south Wales in 1839.

The register records the entrance of 284 students by the end of 1860. By April 1838, 27 pupils had been admitted, with only 14 'preachers' among them (Edwards, Bywyd a Llythyron, 198). Numbers fluctuated considerably thereafter with between 6 and 19 additional students being recruited each year, resulting in a student body of around 40 at most. During the first five years, although most students were from the north, there were a small number from the south, including Lewis Edwards's younger brother, Thomas, and David Charles's cousin, David Charles Davies, both from the Aberystwyth area. After the founding of Trevecka College to serve south Wales in 1842, the vast majority of Bala students were recruited from the north, although some southerners continued to attend, particularly from Cardiganshire, possibly because of Edwards's connections with the county of his birth as well as his scholarly reputation. In addition, by 1860 the college had recruited 6 students from Liverpool, 3 from Manchester, 2 from Birmingham, 2 from Shrewsbury, 1 from Widnes and 1 from Newmarket.
 
In 1837, fees were set at eight guineas a year for tuition and twenty guineas for board, not including washing, although the charge for lodging rose the following year to thirty guineas. A few pupils boarded with the tutors' families but the majority found lodgings in town. The college initially made use of an empty warehouse behind Thomas Charles's former home, but soon moved to two houses extended for the purpose with money donated by the Merionethshire monthly meeting and situated next to the Calvinistic Methodist chapel in Bala. Evening meetings at the chapel seemed to take priority over any other activities in the college for the students, so that a religious meeting was held in the college every Thursday evening and the dialectical society met every Tuesday evening only if there was no function scheduled in the chapel.
 
After David Charles departed to take charge of Trevecka College in 1842, John Parry, a former student, served as tutor between 1843 and 1873. Amongst the most eminent pupils were David Charles Davies, who graduated from London University and was subsequently principal of Trevecka College, and Owen Thomas, who attended Edinburgh University and was later awarded a doctorate in divinity by Princeton, becoming moderator of the Calvinistic Methodist General Assembly in Wales as well as a highly respected preacher, theologian and author.
 
The funding of the college and its students was a complex issue. The Association in the north established a committee to oversee the college, particularly its financial arrangements. The tuition of those students intent on a ministerial career was subsidised, but the college could also recruit other students to boost its finances. Edwards and Charles were each paid £100 a year by the Connexion for their work with the denomination's students, funded by annual contributions from the monthly meetings in each county, initially throughout Wales, but after 1842 only in the north. Edwards feared that the county monthly meetings would tire of the regular financial demands and advocated establishing a fund to which the meetings and individuals would be asked to donate substantial sums in the first instance and might contribute as they wished thereafter. This would set the college's finances on a firmer footing, enabling it to make use of the interest from the fund, rather than awaiting annual contributions to cover costs. It was only after Edwards and Parry effectively resigned over this issue in 1856 that the college committee agreed to set up an established fund. By 1857, £26,000 had been collected to be administered on behalf of the college by an appointed treasurer. It was proposed to pay Edwards a salary of £280 and Parry £220 out of this money. Work also began on a new building outside the town to accommodate the education of around sixty students, the foundation stone for which was laid in 1865.
 
Edwards repeatedly raised the issue of what was expected of the college: should it aim to emulate the standards of a university education? That would entail two tutors seeking to fulfil the work done by five or six in a university and would also demand rather higher entry requirements. The basic qualification for entry was the ability to write correct English, but a number of students, most of whose first language was Welsh, struggled to attain even that level, and Edwards complained that the monthly meetings sponsored students whom it would be better to send first to preparatory schools. Some students were set to work on arrival on translating Thomas Charles's diary from Welsh to improve their English before embarking on Latin and Greek. An entry examination was introduced in 1863 to try to raise standards. Edwards taught the classics and English literature, with an emphasis on Shakespeare and Milton. Charles taught mathematics, algebra, geometry and theology, making particular use of Joseph Butler's Analogy of Religion and Jonathan Edwards's Freedom of the Will. The aim was to provide a 'solid, thorough education' (Edwards, Bywyd a Llythyron, 156). The usual syllabus seems to have included Latin, English, Welsh, Welsh history, English history, arithmetic, and geography (in the first year), Latin, Greek, algebra, geometry, Roman history, and logic (in the second), and Latin, Greek, mathematics, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy (in the third).
 
Edwards made several appeals over the years for gifts of books or money to buy books. In the early days of the college, contributions amounting to £170 enabled the purchase of the complete works of Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Melanchthon, works by the dissenters John Owen, John Howe, Richard Baxter, and William Bates and by the Anglicans Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, John Donne, Isaac Barrow, Joseph Butler, William Paley, and John Lightfoot, along with copies of the Edinburgh Review and Encyclopedia Britannica. There are some records of library loans which suggest that the most borrowed authors were Virgil, Horace, Homer, and Euclid. By 1856 there were around 1,500 books in the library, but Edwards still pleaded for further contributions. When the library was somewhat hastily sold by auction in 1964, it comprised some 30,000 volumes in total. 
 
Edwards remained as principal until his death in 1888. Under his guidance, the college gained a considerable reputation for scholarship. Edwards took great pride in the fact that former students not only served as ministers in a large number of the denomination's chapels, but that many others worked as schoolmasters throughout Wales, helping to improve standards of education more generally. Of the two Calvinistic Methodist colleges in Wales, Bala attracted more students, with Edwards claiming in 1856 that forty of the Connexion's ordained ministers had been educated there. This was partly because of the slightly greater relative strength of the denomination in the north and the fact that Trevecka was limited by only having one tutor before 1865, but also because of the widespread respect for Edwards.
 
In 1891, Edwards's son, Thomas Charles Edwards, relinquished his post as first principal of the University College at Aberystwyth to take over as principal at Bala, which then became an exclusively theological college. In 1922 Bala College was amalgamated with the Theological College in Aberystwyth to form the United Theological College, but pastoral training courses continued to be offered at Bala until 1963.
 
Eryn M. White


Archives

The college archives are held by the National Library of Wales (NLW): Calvinistic Methodist Archives, Bala College Group, 19-47; Calvinistic Methodist Archives, Bala College MSS, Group II, 1-2802.

Published sources

Edwards, G. A., Athrofa'r Bala 1837-1937 (Bala, 1937).
Edwards, Thomas Charles, Bywyd a Llythyrau y Diweddar Barch. Lewis Edwards (Liverpool, 1891).
Evans, Trebor Lloyd, Lewis Edwards, ei Feddwl a'i Waith (Swansea, 1967).
Jones, R. Tudur, 'Diwylliant colegau ymneilltuol y bedwaredd ganrif ar bymtheg', in Ysgrifau Beirniadol V, ed. J. E. Caerwyn Williams (Denbigh, 1970).
Morgan, D. Densil, Lewis Edwards (Cardiff, 2009).
Morris, William (ed.), Ysgolion a Cholegau y Methodistiaid Calfinaidd (Y rhai a gaewyd) (Caernarfon, 1973).
Roberts, H. P., 'Nonconformist Academies in Wales (1662-1862)', Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1928-29), 1-98, at 70-77.
Roberts, Robert, 'Athrofa y Methodistiaid Calfinaidd', Y Drysorfa, 11 (1842).
Y Drysorfa (1837-60) [Welsh Calvinistic Methodist periodical which included reports on the college].
 


Eryn M. White, 'Bala Calvinistic Methodist College (1837-1922)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, July 2012.