A few years before the outbreak of the First World War, Dafydd Morris, a Welsh Nonconformist minister, was in a terrible shipwreck. He found himself washed up, alone, on the shores of a small and uninhabited island.
It was ten years before he was rescued. A Royal Navy ship was passing and had seen his smoke-signal.
The captain himself came ashore to meet the castaway, and was very impressed at the way Morris had kept himself busy bringing civilisation to the island.
“Oh I say! You’ve done very well! You were stranded here alone with no tools and you’ve built a little terrace of houses, a shop, an electricity generator … Oh, and you’ve built a chapel on the hill over there!”
The captain then noticed another chapel on the other hill. “But tell me, why did you build two of them?”
Morris replied: “Well, that’s the one I go to, see? And the other’s the one I don’t go to.”
Now you either get this one, or you don’t. If you’ve got any Welsh in you, you’ll probably know a little about the deep and often very heartfelt religious differences that had emerged in Welsh society by the nineteenth century. The most basic of these was between “church and chapel” – i.e. between Anglicans and nonconformists.
Certainly by the middle of the 19th century, if not sooner, there were more Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists and other nonconformists than there were Anglicans. This led to demands for the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Wales, particularly after the spectacular evangelical Welsh Revival of the early 1900s. Many in Wales were incensed by having to pay tithes to the Anglican church, and by the way their bishops were almost always Englishmen; in 1914 there hadn’t been a Welsh Anglican bishop for 150 years!
Implementation of the 1914 Welsh Church Act, bitterly opposed by Conservatives and the Anglican Church itself, was delayed by the First World War. But since 1920 the Anglican Church in Wales has had exactly the same legal status as all the other churches.
Of course the great vibrancy and democratic nature of Welsh nonconformity could just as easily lead to heartfelt theological differences within individual denominations and even congregations. The minister in the joke might just as well be referring to a rival nonconformist church.
Whether or not this started out as a Welsh joke is a moot point. The original might well have been Jewish. In this one the shipwrecked Jewish man who has made two beautiful buildings tells his rescuer, “This is the synagogue I attend, and that is the one I would never set foot in!”