The History of Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church 1660 - 1960
By Reverend Clifford Thomas
Joshua Thomas, writing in his “History of the Baptists” in 1779, is witness to the fact that the first church Minute Book of Blaenau showed that they were an assembled Church in 1660 but that they were without a minister of their own. This church was in fact, a branch of the Church at Llanwenarth and the first minister of Llanwenarth, William Pritchard, frequently administered the ordinances to them. The question which needs to be answered concerning the origin of Blaenau is this: what connection, if any, did this Church have with the non-conformist mixed Church meeting at Gelligrug?
It is probable that the first to profess non-conformity in this district was a man by the name of John (Ioan ab Ioan). He lived at Gelligrug and gathered about him a band of like-minded people. This was about 1646. It is recorded by Edmund Jones in his “History of the Parish of Aberystruth 1779” that he was born in Koome Nant y Llan in the Parish of Llanithel and that he joined the Army of Parliament. On his return in 1646 he settled at the farmhouse of Gelligrug (which still stands today) where he “sometimes exhorted and invited others to preach.”
Dr. Thomas Rees stated that no Independent Church was formed in this district until the one in Nantyglo in 1764. The house at Gelligrug seems to have been a place where any of Non-conformists ideas were able to meet. But it never became a Church belonging to any special body. With regard to the connection between Blaenau and Gelligrug the only possible alternatives are these: that either they had no original connection and were completely distinct in origin or that Blaenua came out of Gelligrug. It is probable that a mixture of these would give the true picture.
It is certain that Blaenau had a close connection with Llanwenarth in its beginning. A certain Roger Jenkins was baptised as a member of Llanwenarth in 1653 and he was one of the founder members of Blaenau. It is probable that other founder members had their origins in the Gelligrug community but the connection between these two congregations must have been distinct owing to the question of the closed communion. The ordinances were administered in Llanwenarth according to the rule of those Churches formed by John Miles and his co-workers.
In the year 1653 the Llanwenarth Church passed the following resolution – “That they do withdraw from all such as consent not to wholesome doctrine or teach otherwise” the reference being to the ordinances. This decision has to be looked at the light of a letter from London to Ilston which refers to the refusal to obey the ordinances of baptism as being unconstitutional and advice was given to “separate from such who thus refuse.” A little later we find Blaenau refusing to allow Lewis Thomas of Hengoed to preach because it was supposed that the Church at Hengoed allowed a woman, who was in communion with a mixed congregation, to partake of communion regularly with them. So that doctrinally and connectionally, at least on Blaenau’s side, they were distinct and separate congregations. And we have documentary evidence that this distinct separation existed at the latest in 1660.
The teaching of the Baptists continued to leaven more and more out of the Gelligrug mixed congregation. It may be that Jenkin John from Merthyr, mentioned by Edmund Jones helped this, but is far more likely that William Pritchard and his co-workers did more. Be that as it may, the truth is that the Baptists grew more numerous and the Independents grew less until at last the Independents withdrew to Penmaen and the Baptists of Gelligrug became absorbed into the already existing Baptist Church of Blaenau.
The year 1660 will ever be remembered as the time of the eclipse of great hopes in Church and State. When Charles I was beheaded in 1694 men began to believe that the ideal for which men had toiled and died had been attained – a free Church in a free state. But the freedom was short lived. The breakdown between the followers of Cromwell led in 1660 to the restoration of the son of the beheaded King.
A series of enactments were issued – Revival of the Book of Sports, The Test Act, Corporation Act, Act of Uniformity, Conventicle Act, Five Mile Act. The object of these was to re-establish the National Church and to crush Non-conformity out of existence. Two thousand clergymen were turned out of their livings because of these Acts. Persecution became the expected thing for non-conformists. The suffering of William Pritchard and his people in this district is not recorded but suffer they must have done. The name of their greatest enemy at this time has come down to us as Justice Baker. He harassed and plundered the Church. Thomas Rees writes this of him; “At length he filled up the measure of his iniquity. Going beyond the law, cruel as it was, he was proceeded against, became bankrupt and was reduced to miserable poverty.”
The following description of the sufferings of non-conformists in Wales is given by a man who died in Lambeth Prison: “Harmless and peaceful people were dragged from their beds without respect for age or person. They were driven on foot twenty miles to prison and were compelled to run in the heat of summer, keeping pace with the soldiers’ horses till their feet were blistered, many falling from fatigue, to be driven forward again by blows. In Merioneth they were put into the cattle compounds for hours, while their enemies were regaling themselves in the inns with the money stolen from their captives. Others were kept in prison for months, and their cattle and sheep were seized and sold. Some were cast into prison and kept there without any offence being stated or any trial held.”
Excommunication carried with it the denial of burial in the Parish Churchyards so that Baptists were obliged to bury their dead in their own gardens or where they could and even then generally in secret and at night. The story has come down to us of a woman in Radnorshire who had been excommunicated for not attending her Parish Church. Yet when she died she had been secretly buried in its burial ground. The enraged parson, however, had her body taken from its grave and dragged to the cross roads to be buried there. Such accounts of suffering could be repeated over and over again concerning the plight of non-conformists in Wales as well as in England. The Welsh Baptists sent a petition to the King which was presented to him personally by a Member of Parliament for Carmarthen. They say, “We dare not walk the streets and are abused even in our own houses. If we pray to God with our families we are then threatened to be hung. Some of us are stoned almost to death and others imprisoned for worshipping God according to the dictates of our conscience and the rule of His Word.” The king sent them a polite answer full of fair promises but paid no more attention to the matter.
How did the Church at Blaenau fare during these times? Some Baptist Churches in Wales disappeared and others became much weakened. But the Church at Blaenau held on during this period. These narrow valleys between Hengoed and Abergavenny offered greater secrecy than could be had in more populated areas. When the Conventicle Act was revived in 1669 returns were made of the conventicles in every diocese in England and Wales. In the return of the Diocese of Llandaff we find these entries – “Llanwenarth – Anabaptists. Number 80-100. Teachers David Roberts and Morgan Evans. Abergavenny – Anabaptists Number 60. Their teachers and seducers are Christopher Price an apothecary, John Edwards, shoemaker.” And in the return of the Diocese of St. Asaph under “Monmouthshire” and “Llanwenarth” we read – “There are some members of this people about Blaenau Gwent in this county.” Thus we find meetings in the house of Nest Llewellyn, in Cwmtillery. Edmund Jones says that they met in the house of Nest John Prosser. It appears that they were one and the same person the latter being her married name. Her story is one of a brave and powerful dissenting woman. Although she was obliged to go before judges more than once yet she maintained her witness and work as host to the little Church here. They met, too, in the house of Watkin Harri, near Blaina – his house became the permanent meeting place of the Church after the death of Nest Llewellyn until the Chapel was built. They also met in the home of Morgan Williams which was called Glandwr in the Parish of Llaniddel. There is a strong tradition that Glandwr was the first place in these parts which was used for the purpose of Baptism. But doubtless there are scores of places in these hills which have witnessed these Baptists at Worship. There is a minute in the Old Church Book dated 1680 – “We are without a minister, elders, rulers, and without order to carry our discipline; but we are following on, though the times are so awfully hard, and we hope to continue in the faith.”
In the year 1689 James II fled to France and William of Orange ascended the throne. The Toleration Act was passed which contained, amongst other things, permission to Non-conformists to worship according to their conscience, to rule their own Churches as they felt fit, and to exempt Baptists from conforming to Infant Baptism. A Baptist Assembly was held in London in 1689 and in the printed report William Pritchard is named as the “Shepherd of Blaenau Gwent.” The same year Baptist Ministers in London sent a circular letter to the Churches in Wales asking them to send representatives to another General Assembly to be held again in London the following year – 1690. Only six Churches in Wales responded to that appeal. Blaenau was one of those six. Joshua Thomas had in his possession the very letter that was sent to the London Assembly at this time and was dated April 9th, 1690. In it they say “We do not have a minister at present and we have not had one for some time.” Possibly they are referring to some “local” because it is certain that they did not have a properly settled minister until 1697. The letter goes on to say that two ministers were helping them – William Pritchard, Llanwenarth, and Lewis Thomas of Swansea. Llanwenarth was only seven or eight miles away but Swansea was thirty-eight. These ministers used to come to them alternately every month so that between the two they had communion every month and baptism was administered when there were candidates. The letter says further than Morgan Williams of Glandwr preached every Sunday when they did not have anyone else. In these circumstances they expressed their thankfulness for the great deliverance which they received from the period of persecution. The letter was signed by Morgan Williams, Simon Lewis, Morgan Phillips, Watkin Harri and eight others. Also in the possession of Joshua Thomas were other Church papers written about this time and they all agree that the membership of the Church was in the region of forty.
It seems that this fellowship considered themselves a Church at this time and was considered so by others, and yet it had not been constitutionally formed and was still technically under the wing of Llanwenarth as a branch. The London Assembly had divided in 1692 and the Western portion met either at Bristol or Taunton until 1700. In the Assembly at Bristol in 1696 there was a query from Wales. It ran as follows: “Whether it be lawful for an orderly gospel Church to divide by general consent, into two, or more Churches, for the sake of edification, when the members lived far asunder and are perhaps numerous?” The answer of the Assembly was this: “That which is adopted to promote the glory of God and the good of souls should be done. Phil. IV.8. And it is evident that these things are so as church members, hereby, better answer the end of communion and keep the order and the discipline of Christ more to his praise, their mutual edification and the spreading of the Gospel. But care should be taken to have ministers in each part, and each part should be sufficient to keep up Church order. In this case the Assembly give their directions: -
1. To write down the names of the members of the whole Church and the part to which each choose to join.
2. To keep a day of public fasting in each part, where there shall be a minister or where ministers and people care called and gathered together. Then to make their consent public, with supplications to God for his presence and blessing. Then to give instructions and exhortations to the parties suitable to the occasion, that they may behave as the Church of Christ. This should be done in one part, by the elder of the other part or rather by one belonging to another Church.”
In the same year of 1696, the Blaenau Church was formally constituted, probably according to the above advice and direction. Though now Blaenau was technically a distinct and separate Church from Llanwenarth yet for many years to come the links of fellowship and co-operation were to be exceedingly strong. The following minute was inserted in the Church Book during the year 1696: - “We thought it wise to put on record the names of our members and to state the following: “That we hold to the faith that men should be baptised on their own personal confession of faith, that the baptised should have the laying on of hands by the elders before being received into full membership and we hold the teaching of personal election, and that there is no ultimate falling away from grace.” And then comes the roll of persons who were in membership at the time. They were twenty five men and forty women making a total of sixty five in all. This indicated a considerable growth since 1690. The first who is named is Watkin Harri and the next is Morgan Williams – these two had signed the letter to the London Assembly in 1690. Roger Jenkins of Llanwenarth, mentioned before, is also named there. The name of Nest Llewllyn is not there so it is probable that she was dead by this time.
The first settled minister here was Abel Morgan. He was born at Alltgoch in Cardiganshire in 1673. At an early age his family brought him into the neighbourhood of Abergavenny. He was exercising his gifts as a preacher at nineteen years of age and had assisted Blaenau in this way. He was a member of Llanwenarth. In 1697 the Blaenau Church gave him a regular call to the ministry. But although he served them in the ministry of the word, he did not accept full charge of them until 1700.
The year 1700 is to be noted as the first year that Wales had its own Assembly meetings. As we have said Wales had participated in the Western Assembly held at Bristol or Taunton from 1692 until 1700. But from this date it was decided to hold one in Wales and for Wales. The Assemblies of 1700 and 1701 were held at Llanwenarth. This may be accounted for by the fact that there was a Chapel built in Llanwenarth in 1695 – the first Baptist Church in Wales. (At least 50 chapels were built for nonconformist worship in Wales during the period of the Act of Toleration and Llanwenarth was the first Baptist Church). There was no preaching in the Assembly then. It was entirely a conference where questions could be asked, discussed and answered. The sort of questions that were asked at Llanwenarth shows the general concern which was felt throughout Wales concerning Church Order and Discipline – was it right to receive members without the laying on of hands? Was it right for preachers to receive payment from the government? Was it right to invite the hearers to sing? Was it right for churches to sing Psalms? Llanwenarth came very near to being censured on the last question. Lewis Thomas, who had served the church well from Swansea was minister of Hengoed by this time. The controversy between Blaenau and Hengoed over the question of closed communion has already been referred to. It happened under the ministry of Lewis Thomas at Hengoed. By 1700 Lewis Thomas was well stricken in age yet he was able to stir up the church at Blaenau to set themselves into a more methodical and orderly form.
By 1701 they agreed to set aside four members to be on trial as Ruling Elders. These were William Phillips, Watkin Harri and his son Harri Harri and Abram Gabriel. The same day three others were appointed to be on trial as deacons and also on the same day Moses Llewellyn was called to exercise his gifts as a candidate for the ministry. This latter had been baptised in 1699. He was never fully ordained but remained an assistant all his days. He is mentioned as an assistant in the Church Book as late as 1744. The following year, 1702, prayer meetings were organised in Aberystruth, Llaniddell, Argoed and Bedwellty parishes. They also agreed to arrange some sort of association between Blaenau and Llanigon. Llanigon was under the ministry of Richard Williams at the time. The arrangement was that the two Churches should visit each other periodically for their mutual benefit.
The first meeting of this nature was in Llanigon, April 7th, 1702, and Llanigon returned the visit on May 25th, following. It was on this day that the ruling elders on trial were fully ordained to their work. Four were called to be on Trial but only three became fully ordained elders. It seems that Watkin Harri abstained because of his old age. The ministers who officiated at the service were Abel Morgan, Richard Williams and a Robert Morgan. The actual ordination is described minutely – “When the meeting had begun, the question was put to the Church if it was still of the opinion to choose these men. Then the question was put to the elders, if they accepted the call. When the Church had given its answer, the elders answered with tears and great emotion that they were giving themselves up to the service of the Church. Then these elders, who were being ordained, sat facing the people, while the existing elders of the Church stood behind them laying their hands upon them and praying for them. Then the minister of the Church asked them to stand on their feet and to behold with their eyes, the flock over which they had been made overseers, and the audience was asked to consider them as their leaders, to follow them, attend to their exhortation, and submit to them according to the word of God.”
When Queen Anne comes to the throne in 1702, Nonconformity is again threatened. In her day repeated attempts were made to destroy the benefits of the Toleration Act and two Bills were introduced – The Occasional Conformity Bill and the Schism Bill – which had they become law, would have crippled nonconformity. The Baptists in Wales were so alarmed at this prospect that they sent an appeal to all asking them to join in special prayer that God would intervene on their behalf. What is the actual connection between this and the subsequent event cannot be determined (at least scientifically!) But the fact remains that before the Bills became law Queen Anne died in 1714. It is certain that our denominational forebears believed that God had come to the help of His Church. At the Association held at Llanwenarth in May, 1716, the following resolution was passed – “That we keep the first Sunday in August and the first Wednesday in each month as a memorial for the great deliverance God has granted us recently.” This day was kept for years in many parts of Wales. And the annual remembrance is still maintained in some Churches, one of which is Blaenau.
In the meantime the Church at Blaenau lost its minister in 1711 through his removal to America. In the first edition of his History, Joshua Thomas says that this was occasioned by troubles in the Church – but this is not certain. The Church called a meeting in August 23rd, 1711, to say farewell to a pastor who had served them well for nearly twenty years. Abel Morgan was leaving the Church in as comfortable position as he was able and it was arranged in the meeting that Williams Phillips should become minister. He had been a ruling Elder for nine years. On leaving, Abel Morgan left this advice to the Church: -
l. They were not to vex their minister and they were to labour in the Word and his instructions.
2. They were to love each others and not to neglect assembling themselves together but were to continue together in the faith and their common confession Phil 1.27. Heb 10.25.
3. They were carefully to encourage every gift and to be helpful towards the ministry.
He left Bristol for America with his family on September 28th, and due to bad weather, the journey took some twenty-two weeks. In the course of the journey Mr Morgan lost his wife and his children. The detailed account of the voyage was received by the Church from Abel Morgan in a letter written from Philadelphia and dated April 12th, 1712. He had arrived on February 14th. A William Thomas, a member of Blaenau, who lived at Rassau (Beaufort) went to America with Mr Morgan. Apparently people had met regularly in his house until his departure. We have no means of knowing how long they continued after this although in the letter from Abel Morgan he refers to his desire that they should keep up a meeting at Rassau. Abel Morgan did much good work in America but he died while still young – 49 years. He died December 16th, 1722, and was buried in Philadelphia.
Quickly after Abel Morgan’s departure, William Phillips settled as minister and John Harri was chosen as his assistant. In February, 1715, John Harri was ordained as co-minister. The ministers who officiated for this occasion were Morgan Griffiths, Hengoed, Timothy Lewis, Assistant at Llanwenarth and William Phillips.
Until this time they had been without a proper meeting house. They had met for worship in houses or any place that they were able. With the coming of George I to the throne they decided to build a proper meeting house of their own. They were fortunate to have William Phillips as their minister at this time. He was a builder by trade and is described as “very skilful as a builder of houses and bridges.” He it was who supervised the erection of Llanwenarth Chapel and he undertook to build a chapel at Blaenau. They asked for financial help in the project from places as far afield as Bristol. Joshua Thomas had seen a copy of a circular letter requesting help for this. It was dated May 20th, 1715. In it they show as much anxiety about their new religious freedom as about their wonderful deliverance through the death of Anne. They further note in the letter that they are obliged to meet for the worship of God in the open air which was uncomfortable and cold on unfavourable days. The Chapel was built in that same year. The spot became consecrated and from that day until this there has been a meeting house on the site. Also in the same year the burial ground was opened and the first to be buried there was the wife of Watkin Harri who had been a faithful member since the beginning. She was 74 and he died in 1723 at 83 years.
In the year 1715 Dr. John Evans collected the statistics of nonconforming congregations throughout England and Wales. Joseph Stennett, who then resided at Abergavenny sent out the return for Monmouthshire. The state of the Church according to this was as follows: - Aberystruth and Mynyddislwyn. Ministers, William Phillips and John Harri. Average attendance, 1,000. Social and political standing – 126 Yeomen, 54 tradesmen, 98 farmers, 113 labourers. 123 voters for Monmouthshire, 1 for Glamorganshire and 26 for the borough of Monmouth. These figures of course, include all “hearers”, because to set against this there is a register of members set out in the Church Book for August, 1716, and the communicant members numbered about 85. Even so this is an increase of twenty on the 1696 figures. With the coming of George I to the throne the Tories and Whigs emerged as two distinct Parties in Parliament, and there were Tories in the government who were trying to restrict the freedom of the Nonconformists by affirming that the movement was not strong in the country. In order that the Whigs might know its strength they collected estimates of the hearers who were among the various congregations of the Nonconformists. This coincides with a note in the Church Book dated January 18th, 1717, which says that they had been asked by the Government to estimate those who listened regularly. In answer to the demand Blaenau Gwent including Rassau, Aberystruth and the house of Issac Daniel returned as follows – County voters 123, Borough voters 26, farmers 98, aritisians 55, labourers 245; these including women and children, made about one thousand adherents. There were only three other Nonconformist congregations in Wales over one thousand – Cilgwyn, Neath, Merthyr and they were Independent, so that Blaenau is the strongest Baptist Congregation in Wales at this time.
On April 1st, 1721, Miles Harri was baptised and became a member of the Church. This began a story of revival in these parts. Only a few had been added to the Church for some years before this, although John Harri was a lively and able preacher. But for years after this they received an unusual number. Thomas Rees writes of this period as follows – “Between the years 1720 and 1730 several pious, talented, and active young men entered the ministry. Among them was Miles Harri. These young men were revivalists in the fullest sense of the term. A religious awakening had actually commenced by their instrumentality as early as the year 1730, which was extending year after year so that Mr Howell Harris and his co-adjutors had only to blow into a flame, the fire already kindled.” William Williams of Pantycelyn in his “Elegy on the death of Mr Howell Harris” printed in 1773 states dogmatically that the whole of Wales was enveloped in thick darkness and that all its ministers of every denomination were asleep when Mr Harris began to exhort. This is so obviously untrue that just a glance at the story of the Baptist Churches alone would gainsay it. The Monmouthshire Baptist Association letter of 1857 written by William Roberts of Salem, Blaina, makes the same point. From the lst April 1724 to November, 1727, 48 had been baptised. They received additions of almost 20 every year for some years after this. The Church Book says that they were 170 members in 1729, that the membership had doubled since 1716.
Miles Harri began to preach soon after 1724. The numerous baptisms that were taking place stirred up controversy concerning child baptism. The main protagonists were Miles Harri for the Baptists and Edmund Jones (referred to before as the writer of the Aberystruth Parish history) for the Independents. Much bitter feeling was engendered. Both parties met at Merthyr in 1728. Many ministers were present. Some kind of settlement was made, for the sake of the honour of Religion. There was mutual forgiveness for all that had been said and written. They noted six items of agreement and two items of disagreement; namely candidates and form of Baptism. Miles Harri was ordained as assistant minister at Blaenau in 1729. This was done after some hesitation as it was supposed that he was not very orthodox about the eternal filiation of the Son of God or the existence of the soul of Christ. It was feared that he was not sufficiently Calvinistic as he was very zealous in inviting sinners to come to the Saviour.
In 1730 William Phillips died. He had been a faithful minister for 19 years. He had lived in a place called Gwaelod y Waen near Hengoed. In November, 1731, the full pastorate was given to John Harri and Miles Harri continued as assistant.
Not a few of the members of Blaenau lived in the Pontypool area and the Baptists had generally been increasing in number there so that they discovered the possibility of building a Meeting House there. They had previously met in dwelling houses. In the account that we have of the Assembly in Pembrokeshire in 1726 we have these words: - “The brethren about Pontypool wish to build a meeting house and to be assisted.” They began to build Penygarn Chapel in 1727 but it was not completed until 1729. It was in 1729 that Penygarn was formally constituted as a Church, the majority of the members of this new Church being old members of Blaenau. The eyes of this young Church were on Miles Harri to be its minister. But Blaenau was not willing to release him. The two Churches took some time to resolve this in love. But eventually the mother church consented to it. He obtained his letter of release on May 1st, 1732 and he was ordained as the Minister there on May 24th. John Harri preached on the occasion. The members of Penygarn numbered about 50 at this time. The Association was held there in 1734 and two sermons were preached which was quite an innovation. The preachers were Enock Francis and Bernard Foskett of Bristol. This became the rule in future associations. In 1736 Miles Harri moved from Bedwellty where he had been living, to Pontypool. It seems that his former home was in the place where Tredegar now stands and it was he who gave the land for the first Baptist Chapel to be built there at Pontsirhowy in 1762. He died in 1776 at 76 years. He was buried at Penygarn and his grave is to be seen today.
It appears that most of the antipaedo Baptists of this period were Millenarians. At the Association held in Blaenau in May, 1732, the question was posed – “whether it was necessary and profitable to preach the reign of Christ upon the earth for 1,000 years?” The reply was “that the Association in general looked upon that to be the truth and under a blessing it might be profitable, when done with good light and understanding and with caution.” John Harri the pastor of Blaenau held fervently the millenarian view and in 1725 had translated an English work on this subject by William Allune called “New Heaven and New Earth.”
Also in 1732 there is another register of the members and a note of the parish where they lived. Most of them were in Aberystruth and Mynyddislwyn but another nine are named. And they were numerous at this time even though many had gone from them to establish the New Penygarn Church. When the report of the ministry in Wales was given in London in 1734 it was said concerning the minister at Blaenau – John Harri – that he was a good man and a defender of the reality of the gospel, generous, hospitable and a very able and industrious minister. Also in the report to London it speaks of Morgan Harri, John Harri’s youngest son as one who had assisted his father for many years and that he was then in Bristol College under Mr Foskett. In 1735 he was ordained as assistant to his father. About this time he spent quite a while in Wrexham because they were without a minister there. But when he was needed at home he returned to Blaenau.
On December 28th, 1737, John Harri died. He had been baptised in 1696 at about 22 years of age. It is not certain how soon after he began to preach. He had charge of the Minute Book for about 40 years and Joshua Thomas comments that it was the best Church book he had ever seen. Abel Morgan had encouraged him to preach and had encouraged the Church to receive him. He was accepted as a preacher in 1711 and ordained in 1715. He had the honour of baptising his father himself and he baptised his children, the youngest of whom was to follow him in the ministry. He died at the age of 63 years.
In March, 1738, after the death of his father, Morgan Harri was elected to follow as pastor. Thomas Edwards was ordained to assist him. The Church was again in a prosperous position and it appears that they were under divine blessing. The only dark cloud on the horizon was that these two men were consumptive. They had another assistant – a William Thomas. He is called the “Young Assistant” in the report to London in 1734. He assisted in the ministry throughout his life but he was never ordained. He died in 1759 at 53 years.
About 1740, or perhaps, shortly before, it appears that three young men yearned towards the ministry – Edward Watkins, Evan Harri and Evan Jones. The latter was not very successful. He was not accepted fully as a preacher and fades out of Church life some time after 1752 (Though it seems that he was a member in Merthyr in 1794). The first two, however, were to prove of good service to the Church. Edmund Watkins was baptised in 1740 and he went to the school of John Matthews, teacher of doctrine to young men at Trosnant. He received his legal licence to preach in 1742. It may be as well to note the contents of this licence which was necessary before anybody could legally preach. The following is a copy: -
“The form of oath required by an Act of Parliament to be taken and made by all persons who pretend to preach the Gospel of Dissenting Religion through the realm; that is to say, I.A.B., of the Parish of C.D., in the county of E, do sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear allegiance to His Majesty the King.
I swear that from my heart I do abhor and detest as impious and heretical, that damnable doctrine and position which teaches that princes excommunicated or deprived by the Pope, or any authority of the See of Rome, may be deposed or murdered by their subjects, or any other what so ever. And I do declare that no Foreign Princes, Person or Prelates, States or Potentate, hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within the realm.
I do solemnly declare, in the presence of Almighty God, that I am a Christian and a Protestant, and as such, that I believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as commonly received among Protestant Churches do contain the revealed will of God, and that I do receive the same as the rule of my doctrine and practice. So help me God.”
These licences reflect the nation’s fear of Rome and its determination to protect Protestantism.
In 1741 the Church Book gives a new list of the members and their parishes. This is clearer than the list that was made 9 years before. The membership had increased by 30 since 1729 to 210 and these were scattered over twelve parishes as follows – Aberystruth 70, Bedwellty 71, Mynyddislwyn 18, Trefddyn 12, Pontypool 13, Llanover 4, Goitre 2, Llangibbe 1, Glascoed 1, Llanddil 7, Llangattock, Llangynidr, Llandette and Llanwenarth 11. There was another Association here in 1741 and the possibility was discussed of establishing a denominational College maintained by the Churches. The small number of Churches in the Association and the subsequent lack of funds made the project impossible. Of course there was the Academy in Trosnant already in existence but it was a private academy and not generally maintained by the churches. In any case about all of the Trosnant students finished their training in Bristol. Trosnant shut down when the Bristol Academy was reorganised and extended into the Bristol Education Society in 1770.
In 1743 both minister and assistant in Llanwenarth died and Blaenau helped that Church in this situation by transferring Thomas Edwards to Llanwenarth. He was the father of Miles Edwards of Trosnant. In 1774 Edmund Watkins went to Bristol under Mr Foskett and after he returned he was chief assistant in the place of Thomas Edwards, though he had not been ordained. The health of Morgan Harri gradually worsened and he died in February, 1746, or 47, at about 42 years old. He was buried by the side of his father, John Harri. Thomas Edwards had also died at Llanwenarth in 1746, at 34 years of age.
The Church now looked to Edmund Watkins to be its minister. He had been active in the Church for some time. Eventually he was elected Pastor in October, 1747. He did not live long in Blaenau after he was elected pastor. In 1749 he married a Miss Gwyn of Pwll in the Parish of Llangwm. She was a descendant of Walter Craddock and her mother was the daughter of Joshua James, minister of Llanwenarth who died in 1728. His father and mother-in-law were old and he had married their only child so that in 1755 he and his family moved to Pwll which was about 20 miles from Blaenau. It was a sad blow and loss to the church for their minister to reside so far from them. For many years he travelled to Blaenau one or twice a month yet he was not able to be as useful as they desired. Yet he was very active in Llangwn. He bought the old preaching house at Usk and fitted the place for worship at his own expense and it continued as a meeting place until his death in 1798.
Because Edmund Watkins had moved far away Evan Harri was ordained in 1756 and the ordinances were able to be administered when Edmund Watkins was not able to be present. Evan Harri had been baptised in 1738/39 and as has been mentioned he was one of three men who wanted to enter the ministry – Edmund Watkins, Evan James and Evan Harri. Evan Harri was the one who was destined to be a greatest service to the Church at Blaenau. It was still a great disadvantage to the church only to have Evan Harri as a resident minister. He was not able to preach in some of the more distant branches. This unfavourable situation lasted until 1773 when they elected Maurice Jones of Glyn, Denbighshire to assist in the ministry. He had been born in Llangollen, October 29th, 1750, and began to preach when he was 18 years old. He spent a short time in Lady Huntingdon’s College in Trefecca but left over a dispute on Baptism. After this he received instruction from Dr. Jenkins of Wrexham. After a year of probation in Blaenau he was ordained December 1st, 1774. Thus Maurice Jones and Evan Harri shared the work. He greatly enlivened the Church and the hearers increased but in 1782 he accepted a call to Croes-y-Parc in Glamorganshire.
After this Blaenau only had Evan Harri for the whole Church. Edmund Watkins who was then 62 years of age failed to come to them often. This continued for five years while the members and hearers diminished. But in 1787 they gave an invitation to Thomas Moses to come to their assistance and be accepted. Thomas Moses and his family lived at Abercarn where he kept a shop. He was baptised at Penygarn and belonged to the Church until 1773 when he transferred his membership, with some others to Caerleon. They took this step, apparently because they were grieved at the lack of Church discipline. It was at Caerleon that he was called to preach. In 1776 he was one of eleven Caerleon members given permission to establish a new cause at the house of Miles Edwards at the Wern, Pontypool. The Church afterwards removed to and took the name of Upper Trosnant. And in 1780 Thomas Moses was separated to assist Miles Edwards in the work. He helped many Churches during this period, especially Bethesda, Rogerstone, whose minister Evan Davies had become blind some years before his death in 1788.
When Thomas Moses consented to assist Blaenau in 1787 it was only limited assistance that he was able to give because of his other commitments. It was arranged that he should preach at Blaenau two Sundays every month and Evan Harri was to preach on the other two. With the help of Thomas Moses the decay in the Church began to be checked. It is interesting to notice the way that the work gradually revived. None were baptised in 1788 and four died. Neither were any baptised in 1789 while four more died and one was excommunicated. In 1790 ten were added to the Church by baptism and two died. In 1791 three were baptised, one was restored to membership and two died. In 1792 three were baptised, three restored and one was excommunicated. In 1793 fifteen were baptised and five died. In the meantime Blaenau received a formal letter of dismissal for Thomas Moses from Trosnant. It was dated May 28th, 1790. It ran as follows: -
“The Church of Christ in Trosnant send Christian Greetings to the Church of Christ in Blaenau.
Our dear brother has been a strong pillar in our Church for many years, and of great use, and therefore it is difficult for us to part with him; but since there are signs that the Lord is blessing him, we transfer him from our church to that of yours, earnestly pleading that he will neither forget nor despise us; for although it is commanded that a man should leave his relatives and cleave to his wife, yet, it is not becoming on him to forget them altogether. We strongly desire you to consider him, for, he is not the strongest physically in Israel. So we desire that you will conduct yourselves towards him lovingly at all times, and to hold up his arm, and may God make him a blessing in your midst always. Amen.” The letter is signed by Miles Edwards, and five others.
In 1792 the Church invited him to share the pastorate with Evan Harri. But it was his contention that Edmund Watkins was still their pastor even though he had failed to serve them. But a letter of resignation from Edmund Watkins about this time rectified the matter and so he was ordained as co-pastor with Evan Harri. In 1793 the following was inserted in the Church Book under the date July 17th. “Be it remembered that the Church at Blaenau hath this day agreed to renew their Covenant engagements, both ministers and members to keep their place in the Church, endeavour through grace to support and strengthen the interests of Jesus Christ in an honourable manner, and to provoke one another to love and good work, as witnessed our hands in the presence of God. Amen!” This was signed by each one present including Evan Harri and Thomas Moses as ministers, four deacons and twenty others, fourteen of whom where women.
By this time Evan Harri was old and feeble and more assistance was needed, so Thomas Moses served the Churches on three Sundays in the month and William Thomas, a young member of Penygarn was called to assist, because they had several preaching stations such as Maesycnew and Llaniddel together with Sirhowy and Balina. They continued like this until Evan Harri died on Friday January 31st, 1794. He was buried on Monday February 3rd in Blaenau. Miles Edward preached at the service before a crowd of people. He had served the Church well for over 50 years as preacher and minister. During his latter days he had witnessed a revival of the work here. Between 1789 and 1794 forty-six had been added to the Church, but even with this increase the Church was only half as strong numerically as it had been in 1741 when he began his active Church work. Then the membership stood at 210 but now it was 125 with three before the Church.
The Church was thus left with Thomas Moses as minister and William Thomas as assistant, and this was a useful combination for a long time. But Thomas Moses had a long way to come to Blaenau from Abercarn – some nine miles – and he was beginning to feel the strain of the work owing to old age. So the church gave a call to Joseph Price, a member-preacher of Llawenarth to assist. According to the Llanwenarth Church Book he was a member there as early as 1787, but David Jones says he was baptised in 1789. He began to preach in 1790. But before he was ordained in March, 1798, a matter of great importance and delicacy was raised. In 1797 Sirhowy sent a letter to seek release and to establish itself as an independent cause. Sirhowy was a branch of Blaenau. As has already been noted, a Chapel had been built there as early as 1762 and officially, Blaenau ministers were due to preach there every fortnight and administer the Lord’s Supper every two months in Summer and every three months in Winter, although candidates for Baptism were expected to go to Blaenau for that ordinance. Blaenau sent an answering letter advising them to remain as they were, because Joseph Price was to be ordained, and that could greatly ease matters. But this did not satisfy them and they sent a second letter containing the same request; but permission was again withheld. After this, they sent a letter to the quarterly meeting held at Twyngwyn on February 7th, 1798, for support. In it they complained of the too-restraining hand of the Mother Church. They were advised by the Meeting to wait quietly until the meeting in Blaenau in six weeks’ time on the occasion of the ordination of Joseph Price but before that meeting they came to Blaenau in order to decide the issue. It was agreed at that time that Sirhowy should be treated differently. They were to have a meeting every Sunday, break bread every month, and were to Baptise and covenant amongst themselves. The ministers of Blaenau were to serve them in every thing like the Mother Church. So on March 21st, 1798, the meeting was held at Blaenau and Joseph Price was ordained to the full work of the ministry. Confirmation of the new arrangement was given in a letter on March 31st, 1798, and on that same day 8 were baptised by James Perrot of Hengoed making the total membership then 38. This state of affairs continued until Sirhowy was formally constituted as an independent Church on August 5th, 1802 and was received into the association as such in 1803. On August 2nd, 1804, Edward Davies was ordained as its first pastor.
In 1803 Thomas Moses, who was still senior minister of the Church, died, and he was buried in Trosnant. He was 72 years old and had served the Church well. It appears that he was successful in his business affairs as well as in the ministry. It has been noted that he kept a shop in Abercarn. In 1794 he and his wife gave £80 to Trosnant, and he left them another £80 in his will. He bequeathed £20 to the cause at Blaenau. The William Thomas who had assisted him just before and after the death of Evan Harri seems to have completely faded out of the life of the Blaenau church. So that Joseph Price is now alone in ministerial care of the Church. But the position was righted, for on May 18th, 1803, Harri Harri the son of Evan Harri was separated and ordained to the full work of the ministry to serve with Joseph Price. He had been baptised around 1790 – probably by his father, and began to preach in 1793. These two laboured faithfully together until Harri Harri died on April 4th, 1822, at 57 years of age. He was buried at Blaenau. There is a note in the Church Book concerning the salaries that these two received from the Church. Joseph Price - £12 and Harri £6. It is also noted that Harri Harri was able to read his New Testament in Latin and Greek. We see from this that the salary of these brothers was small - £12 and £6 – a year! In the Church Book dated October 31st, 1798 there are a number of financial promises to support the ministry. There are forty-two brothers and sisters but three do not mention the amount they are prepared to give. The gifts vary from 1s.0d to 10s.6d. a year. It was to be paid half yearly. The total promised for the year was only £8, but it must be remembered that money was scarce and precious in those days. The above amount was supplemented for Joseph Price by the salary he received from Llanwenarth. When he came to Blaenau as minister he did not thus break off his connection with his old church. He still served them as assistant preacher once a month, as he was able, from 1793 until at least 1821, and there is an account of the payment for this work for all those years in the Llanwenarth Church Book.
For six years before Harri Harri died, William Thomas – the son of David Thomas, the independent minister of Penmain – has assisted Blaenau as a preacher. It is not stated how he became a Baptist. When Harri Harri died he was ordained as co-pastor with Joseph Price in the October of 1822. (On the previous July 17th the four-year old son of William Thomas – David – died and was buried in Blaenau – the stone remains today). This partnership worked out well until in 1827 Joseph Price was struck with paralysis which made him incapable of serving the Church any longer. He eventually died in Blaenavon, August 4th, 1834 at 70 years of age. He, together with his famous son, Benjamin Price – Cymro Bach – had very close connections with Blaenavon, and he was buried on the following Thursday. There was a service in the house when John Jones minister of Horeb preached and then he was taken to Llanwenarth. The service was taken by Francis Hiley and James Lewis of Llanwenarth, and John Jenkins of Hengoed. Francis Hiley and John Jenkins had officiated at the ordination of William Thomas 12 years before.
When Joseph Price was struck with paralysis in 1827 the whole work of the church fell on the shoulders of William Thomas. He worked strenuously until January 6th, 1836, when he went to Newport, Mon., to take over the Welsh church at Charles Street there. It had become pastorless owing to the removal of H. W. Jones to Tabernacle, Cardiff. His departure caused much grief in the church and on August 5th, the church and its two branches – Blaina and Llaniddel – met and unanimously agreed to ask William Thomas to return to them. Thomas Knell and David Davies were chosen to take the message to him. Mr Thomas, in a letter dated August 11th, tells of his decision to stay at Newport and a letter of transfer is requested. This letter was eventually sent and it contained the statement that during his ministry of fourteen years at Blaenau, William Thomas had baptised 78 candidates. It is signed by three deacons – Thomas Morgan, Lewis Richards and Daniel Samuel. A notable event took place four years previous to his going. It is noted in the Church Book and dated June 4th, 1832, “Edmund Rogers, minister of the Gospel and later a member of Blaenau congregation but now in America met William Thomas minister and many of the members of Blaenau congregation and his brother William Rogers; they met after Chapel this day and agreed to give the Blaenau meeting house and all it appurtenances to the congregation and to convey it by deed to them for ever; and also gave seven yards to the south and seven yards to the south-east for enlarging the burial place, and the congregation to make a new wall around it and to take off the present wall. And also I, David Davies, to meet the afore-said Edward and William Rogers at Messrs. MacDonald and Mostyn Office in Usk to give orders to prepare the deeds on the Blaenau Chapel and Churchyard to be freehold for ever and a lease on the Baptistry at Graig Sarth for the remainder of the unexpired time of 1,000 years and a path to it.” And after this there was a precise account of the money which was paid to carry out the above noted intention. – Total cost £37.11s.8d. The freehold possession of all its premises was a notable step forward in at least one side of the church’s life.
With the going of William Thomas in 1836 the Church was again left pastorless – but not for long. The same year as William Thomas left, a John Lewis of Sardis, Llanfiangel- Nant Bran came through the Blaenau area. He preached first in Blaenau on August 20th, 1836. No one seemed to know anything about him – how or why he came, but all felt that God was with him. He was asked to pay another visit to Blaenau which he did on September 15th and he preached in the neighbourhood through the following week. On September 30th of the same year it was agreed in a Church meeting to send a letter to him and ask him to come here on trial. He came on these terms, and after preaching acceptably for three months he was ordained to the full ministry on January 11th, 1837. The following ministers took part in the service – John Jones, Blaenavon, Edward Oliver, Nebo, Ebbw Vale, T. Williams Cwmdwr, R. Richards, Nantyglo, William Thomas, Newport, J. Edwards, Tabor, Brynmawr, J. Roberts, Tredegar, Francis Hiley, Llanwenarth. The charge to the minister was delivered by Thomas Williams, Cwmdwr, and the charge to the Church by Edward Oliver, Ebbw Vale. At the close of that Wednesday, John Lewis found himself publicly recognised and fully ordained as the pastor of Blaenau, Llaniddel and Salem, Blaina. And here he ministered for 46 long years.
Up to this time the immediate area around Blaenau – that which came to be known as Abertillery – was largely rural but industries were gradually closing in. The following is a quotation from “The Official Guide to Abertillery” – “The discovery and use of coal in the area must be left to speculation. With the outcrop seams visible on the sides of the mountains it may safely be assumed that the earliest inhabitants made use of them. There is a record that coal was weaned on Llanhilleth mountain for a considerable period without even the attention of the Mines Inspector.” As to the actual date of the early weaning of coal in the area history is silent. “The History of the Pioneers of the Welsh Coalfield” does not refer to Abertillery, neither does “Mines Adventurers”. In 1779 the Kendalls weaned coal near Ebbw Vale, and in 1811 the famous Bailey Brothers purchased the Nantyglo works and became two of the most important men in the early history of the iron and coal trade. As far as can be ascertained coal was mined in the present West Monmouthshire Golf Links at Nantyglo as far back as 1740. This date is given on the authority of Mr Jenkin Jenkins of Nanyglo and Blaina Estates, who has access to the early records of the district. As far as Abertillery is concerned, the first mines were sunk about 1850 by the South Wales Colliery Co. at Cwmtillery. Stone from the Abertillery Quarries was used in the construction of Newport and other docks and the Black Stone Quarries above Gelli Crug, which were worked in the early part of the 19th Century, were famous for the production of best tombstones. There are also records of many tileries in the area. The Abertillery Tinworks and Forges were in existence in 1850.” The above quotation has been given to show that it was during the first years of the coming of John Lewis that the district began to be opened out industrially. With the coming of industry came people and the increase in population is reflected during John Lewis’s ministry by the reconstruction and enlargement of the Church premises twice during his pastorate.
Before the first occasion of rebuilding took place something of note happened to the Church. It concerned the preaching station at Llandiddel. A Chapel had been built there 1820/21 – it was a reconstructed old dwelling house of one of the members. In the year 1822 on October 30th, the Church at Blaenau agreed that the people at Llaniddel should have meetings on two Sunday mornings in every month. It was also agreed that the three candidates before the Church should be baptised the following Sunday at 4 p.m. by the new minister William Thomas – this was Mr Thomas’s first Baptism. After that a meeting was held every Sunday evening. Henceforth the candidates from Llaniddel were mostly baptised at Llaniddel and received in as members of Blaenau. This order was observed until September 1st, 1837 when the brethren at Llaniddel requested that they might be constituted as a separate Church, and this request was promptly granted. On September 5th, 1837, the Church was formally constituted containing 23 from Blaenau, 2 from Penygarn, 2 from Argoed, 1 from Ebbw Vale and 1 from Nantyglo, 29 in all. The new Church was received into the Association the following year at Argoed. Calvary, Brynmawr, was received at the same meeting. A new Chapel was built also in 1838, and was named Ebenezer, Glandwr. The first minister settled in the same year as well – a John Davies from Llandyssul. By 1847 the membership has risen to 72.
In 1839 the Church premises, which had not been altered at all since it was built, was under a process of drastic reconstruction. So much so that the minute book speaks of the “New Chapel”. A copy of the contract was in the Church Book and dated March 30th, 1839. Mr John Davies of Llaniddel was the builder and the contract price was £440. It was ready towards the end of September of the same year. Extras had increased the expense to £499.5s.7d. The new house was opened October 12th, 1839. It was noted in the Church Book that Morgan Morgan of Beulah, Newbridge, was the first to use the new pulpit – he prayed. The people who preached at the opening were – O. Michael, Bassaleg, D. Edwards, Risca, Dr. Thomas Thomas, Principal of Pontypool College, J. Jones, Merthyr, W. Thomas, Casnewydd, Daniel Jones – a student in English and John Jenkins, Hengoed – they certainly appreciated the value of sermons in those days.
£500 was a large sum in those days. That same year the Chartists Riots had taken place and it will be remembered that a great deal of the Chartists’ agitation was due to the poverty which the workless in the Iron and Coal industry experienced. Miners worked for 10 to 14 hours per day and the rates of pay between 1830-39 have been assessed as follows: - Colliers 18s.0d. – 21s.0d., Labourers 11s.6d – 14s.6d., Furnace men 25s.0d – 27s.0d., Roller men 30s.0d – 32s.0d., Carpenters 18s.0d – 21s.od., Masons 18s.0d – 21s.0d. Collier boys and girls – to 7 years 1s.6d – 2s.6d., 7-12 years 2s.0d – 3s.0d. 12-16 years 3s.0d – 8s.0d., 16-21 years 8s.0d - 14s.0d. Dragger girls 4s.0d – 7s.0d., Women 12 s.0d. – 14s.0d. These average wages were for a week’s work. It will be better seen from this how large a sum of £500 was in those days especially as the total membership in 1839 was only 89. It may well be, however, that most of the members were unattached to the Iron and Coal Industry directly. As has been stated above, the area was still as yet largely rural. There is only one mention of the Riots in the Church Book dated December 1st, 1839. “Thomas Griffiths, Lewis Powell, Davis Morris and John Richards were excommunicated from Salem, Blaina. Their sin was joining the Chartists and going to Newport when the Westgate was attacked. But on their repentance they were received back into the Church”. The smallness of the participation of the church in the Chartist movement is surprising when it is realised that one of the leaders – Zephaniah Williams had his home in Nantyglo and a large contingent had been recruited from this valley for that fateful Night’s march to Newport. It must not thus be assumed that the Church was unmindful of the conditions which the Chartists were endeavouring to ameliorate. It was simply that they disapproved of the unconstitutional methods which the Chartists adopted to gain their ends. This was the “sin” mentioned the the Church Book above. To support this the following are two quotations from “The South Wales Baptist College” by Prof. D. Mervyn Himbury – He refers to a letter written by Micah Thomas to Lord Normanby dated 22nd January, 1840, pleading for the life of the Chartist, John Frost. In it he says that he has ever been an unflinching and devoted advocate of Reform and of both Earl Grey’s and Lord Melbourne’s administrations. He denies any personal connection with Chartism or Frost of whom he says: “Probably in his best days, he was too ardent and enthusiastic in his political zeal, even when his aims were truly liberal and praiseworthy, and he evidently was a man of inflexible resolution and indomitable courage, which courage seems never to have forsaken him except, I would earnestly wish to hope, when, to him, the unlooked for attack of his deluded associates on the Westgate Hotel, transpired!” The second quotation comes from a tract published by the successor to Micah Thomas as the principal of the Baptist Academy – Dr. Thomas Thomas – one of the preachers referred to in the opening of the New Blaenau Chapel. The tract entitled “The Civil Duties of Christians” – 1839. In it “he denies that the recent outbreaks of violence have been due to the influence of the dissenters in the district, claiming that they had always joined to their love of liberty, a firm allegiance to the throne and an enlightened and ardent attachment to the civil constitution.” The Bible, he believes, commends to all Christians, “a general obedience to all civil laws, under any form of government,” but he denies that this implies an unqualified and unlimited submission to all authority for no ruler could expect obedience to a command that was illegal, according to the laws of the country, or immoral, according to the laws of God. So, all men should willingly pay all taxes for the support of the legitimate objects of civil government, but should refuse to pay either illegal taxes or those demanded “for the support of immorality or for objects that lie beyond the province of the civil ruler, such as the worship of God, the endowment of religious sects and the upholding of religious forms and ceremonies.” Yet even in these cases the Christian will never resort to violence, but will achieve his object “by increasing efforts to enlist the sympathies of the population in the cause of the oppressed and especially, by a passive resistance to bad laws, and moral resistance to the encroachment of unconstitutional power.” These two quotations from leading Baptists of the time make the point that it was only the method of the Chartists which were condemned and not their aims. And so, as was made specific in the Church Book, it was because of their alliance with violence that those four, referred to above, were excommunicated from the fellowship at Salem, Blaina.
When John Lewis became pastor in 1837 he had charge of Salem, Blaina, and Llaniddel as well as the Blaenau Church. In fact all three technically consisted together as one church. Then, as we have seen, in September 1837 Llaniddel left the wing of the mother church and the same procedure was followed by Salem in July, 1841. The church had met near Blaina in the early days in the house of Watkin Harri before the first chapel was built and it had regularly been a preaching station. It is not know definitely when the members first met as an official branch Church. What we do know is that by 1836 there were services being held in a private house known as Ty Watkin Vaughan. Then in 1837 the first Salem was built. On the fourth Sunday morning in every month the members attended the monthly communion service at the parent Church at Blaenau. Baptism was administered in the river Ystruth, near the railway station, but the candidates were received into membership at Blaenau. They also had their share of the services of Pastor John Lewis. Then in 1841 Salem requested permission to separate and be formerly constituted as a district Church. This was agreed to, and 54 members were dismissed from Blaenau to form it. The following is a copy of the letter of dismissal dated July 2nd, 1841:
“Dear Brethren and Sisters in the Lord,
At your earnest request we determined in the last Church Meeting to dismiss you, that you may become an independent church, believing that you were led to make the request by your love to God and His cause, and the welfare of your fellow men. It is our prayer that brotherly love reign amongst you, and that the Gospel prosper, so that a little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation. This is our desire through Jesus Christ. Amen”. Signed on behalf of the Church: John Lewis, Pastor. The first pastor was David Edwards of Risca. He settled in 1842 and went to Pontypool in 1845 to be succeeded that same year by the famous “Nefydd” – Dr. Roberts. As in the case of Llaniddel the membership soon rose – so much so in the case of Salem that in 1842 the building had to be enlarged. Then in 1849 under the ministry of Rev. William Roberts the foundation stone of the present Salem was laid.
So within four years of his coming to Blaenau John Lewis was relieved of much of the extensive responsibility he had initially undertaken, and he was able to devote his energies to the work at Blaenau itself. He did not wait long for visible tokens of God’s blessing upon the union. Amongst the first to be baptised were Benjamin Williams and Margaret Samuel – a sister of one of the three deacons of the church, a Daniel Samuel (the other two – David Lewis and Edward Edmunds had been separated for the work when John Lewis was ordained). Benjamin Williams became a deacon at Beulah and Margaret Samuel became the wife of John Lewis, and she shared in the ministry with him for over 30 years – she died on June 4th, 1872. There were two other notable baptisms, Rachael King, aged 85, and Thomas Williams of the same age. They were baptised on the same day, August 29th, 1841. Thomas Williams’s house in the parish of Bedwellty was a preaching station at least until he died in April, 1846. In the early years of his ministry John Lewis was assisted by two men in his preaching responsibilities. They were Edmund Thomas and Thomas Knell.
It was during the ministry of John Lewis that Blaenau played a large part in the founding of a strong educational tradition in the town. Around 1850 the layout of the town has been described as “simply anyhow”. There were a few cottages here and there, the occupants of which had in the most instances to make their own paths or road to them. People did their own scavenging by throwing their ashes and house refuse in the streets. The present King Street was in those days the main flood water course and down there came cartloads of ashes and other refuse. Water was obtained from spouts on the mountain sides or from wells at considerable distances from the houses. There were only two shops – a grocer’s shop and a company shop, situated where the Railway Inn now stands. The first Post Office, near the present Labour Exchange – just below Blaenau Chapel, was opened in 1845 and in 1850 the railway to Newport was opened, thus enabling what coal was raised to be conveyed to Newport and Cardiff. Such were the poor social amenities of the town and yet there were men and women within the community who were concerned about secular education as well as about things spiritual. It is to the praise of Blaenau that it was from the members of Blaenau that came the driving force behind the early educational ventures.
About 1830 William Thomas had kept a sort of school. He gave lessons in various subjects to any children sent to him for tuition. But that was purely a private venture and when he left Blaenau for Charles Street, Newport, in 1836, the school was discontinued. It is noted in the Church Book that towards the end of 1822 a Sunday School began in Blaenau in order to teach young people to read Welsh and English. It is probable that the school continued and it is possible that it became the base for a day school which began in the year 1846. A committee was formed and agreed that a properly organised school should be formed in the vestry of Blaenau. The school was to be conducted on strictly undenominational lines – by this time Primitive Methodism, was beginning its work in the community although the chapel was not built until 1849. Parents who could not afford a subscription could send their children without payment. The treasurer was Daniel Samuel – a Blaenau deacon already referred to. The secretary was Edward Rogers, while the amazing industry of another member of Blaenau Joshua Davies, enabled the school to be continued. He was a tailor by trade but spent a great deal of his time regularly collecting from house to house in order there should be enough money to pay the teacher in the school. His service is appreciated all the more because Joshua Davies had lost one of his legs when a young man. The school continued in Blaenau Vestry until the British School was build in 1855. Behind all this the Rev. Dr. William Roberts (Nefydd) of Salem, Blaina, acting as the Inspector and Agent for the British and Foreign Schools Society was the real formative influence and while Rev. John Lewis does not figure prominently in the history of the educational movement as it has been recorded, yet it is difficult not to assume that he, too, had his place in the movement, especially in view of the fact that it was Blaenau Vestry that was used as the first school premises and also the energetic labours of Mr Joshua Davies and the treasurer being Mr Daniel Samuel also point to the conclusion that the minister as well as the Church was much implicated in this work. By 1863 the school was in debt for £600 and this was cleared by loans from various Churches then in the area. Blaenau gave a loan of £100 and it was reported in the Church Book twenty years later, dated May 9th, 1884, “Received from the committees of the British School £100 less £2 expenses, being the £100 lent them some twenty years ago by the Church for the purpose of carrying on the British School”.
Also during the ministry of John Lewis in 1879 the fields adjoining the old burial ground were bought for the purpose of enlarging the cemetery at a cost of about £700 including wall. This was done through Titus Phillips JP. who was secretary of the Church for about 40 years. This was a great deal of money and it is an indication of at least a numerical prosperity in the Church at that time. Further evidence of this is the fact that in 1880 the Chapel was again enlarged at a cost of £500.
The Rev. John Lewis laboured untiringly for 46 years. During his long ministry much of consequence had happened both to Church and community. Through it all his work was honoured by the Lord and when he resigned in 1881 he left a strong and vigorous Church, fully prepared to meet the new demands which were to be made upon it. He remained in Abertillery until 1890. He passed away at the age of 87 years and was buried in the graveyard of the Church to which he had given his life. His wife Margaret had died some 18 years before.
The Rev. Thomas Towy Evans was born at Carmarthen on March 20th, 1852. At the age of eight he started work in the Carmarthen tinplate works. As a boy he attended Penuel Baptist Church, Carmarthen, and at the age of eighteen years, he was baptised by his pastor, Rev. Thomas Lewis. In 1877 he commenced to preach and entered that same year a preparatory school in Cardiff. The following year he entered the Baptist College at Pontypool and completed four years of training for the ministry there. On several occasions while at Pontypool, he preached at Blaenau Gwent and while the Church was seeking a new pastor, after the resignation of Rev. John Lewis, they were led to consider this student of the Pontypool College as a possible prospective minister. At a meeting of the church held on Sunday, July 30th, 1882, it was unanimously resolved: “That we invite Mr Thomas Evans, Carmarthen, a student at Pontypool College, to accept the pastorate of the Church”. The letter of invitation was sent by Mr Titus Philips on July 31st and the call was accepted on August 21st. At the same meeting of the Church it was also resolved: “That on account of several members of the Church not being versed in the Welsh language and the population surrounding the Chapel being principally English speaking people that we shall henceforth conduct the public service on Sunday evening in the English language.” During the year not only had the population of the district rapidly increased but its character had, to some extent changed. Many from the neighbouring English counties had migrated to the Welsh valley. This last mentioned resolution was indicative of the fact that the Church was preparing to accept the challenge of the changed situation under the leadership of their new pastor. By 1903 the weaning process from the mother tongue had been completed and Blaenau became a completely English speaking Church ready and waiting for the revival which was to come the following year.
The Church, however, did not have to wait until 1904 for signs of revival. Soon after the coming of the Rev. Towy Evans both Church and district were pulsating with new life and enterprise. In 1884 the present vestry was built at a cost of £300. In 1891 a special effort was commenced to pay off all the Chapel debts. This was completed in the spring of 1892. In 1895 the Chapel was again enlarged and an organ placed in it at a combined cost of £1,500. This is the same organ that we use at present. In 1896 the large porch to the existing Chapel was built at a cost of £300. All this expansion evidenced the growing strength and witness of the Church. For many years prior to the 1904-5 revival cottage prayer meetings had been held and when the revival came the Church was found ready for the reaping of a wonderful harvest. As a result of the revival the membership exceeded 850 and the Sunday School consisted of more than 1,200 scholars. So great was the increase that the old buildings became far too small so that in 1906 the new Chapel was built at a cost of £4,867. Just prior to the revival a Chapel had also been built at Cwmtillery. It had been resolved as far back as April, 1894, “to open a Mission at Cwmtillery in the Workmen’s Hall to commence on June 3rd, 1894, with a view to form a Branch of Blaenau Gwent.” The first minister of the new mission Church was Thomas Allen who was transferred from Blaenau for this work. He was the means of the building of a Chapel there. And through all these activities moved Towy Evans the giant of a man of God that he was. Throughout the “New Theology” controversy he took his stand by the side of the conservative “orthodoxy,” and this not only in an academic capacity. There was plenty of scope for active participation in the controversy for it gripped these valleys as well as the more populous towns and cities. In 1910 the Church celebrated its 250 years by inviting the Annual Meetings of the Baptist Union of Wales to its premises and fellowship. This was also the occasion for the publishing of a history of the Church by Towy Evans himself, to which publication the present writer acknowledges his indebtedness.
No one hated war more than Towy Evans and yet when it came in 1914 he considered it a necessary evil for the defence of the freedom and liberty for which he had given his life in the ministry. Two of his sons, Myrddm and Towy soon responded to the call of their country. The war had been in progress for two years when one Sunday evening on August 13th, 1916, after a short but serious illness Rev. Towy Evans died. The burial took place on the following Thursday. That service lives in the memory of many still with us. The church was filled to overflowing and the leaders of the Denomination in Wales were there to pay their tributes to the one who had served his master mightily. Perhaps the words of Rev. William Evans, of Crosskeys, at the funeral service could be taken to sum up what his contemporaries thought of Towy Evans – “It was remarked when Spurgeon died that if he had taken it more quietly he should have lived for 15 years more, but, a hearer remarked “he could not have been Spurgeon then.” The same thing was true of “Towy.” If he had taken it easier he would not have been “Towy” then – the question of “Towy” was, “How much can I live?” Oh yes, and he lived much every day and he insisted to the last upon living much, at the expense of dying comparatively early.” One thing is certain, no one has made a more indelible mark upon this Church in its long life than the Rev. Towy Evans.
Nothing has been said of his wife Mary and yet she shared with him in the work over those long 34 years he laboured here. They were married just six months after his settlement in Blaenau Gwent. Throughout their life together his sacrifices and self-abandonments had been hers as well. Only those who know the ministry well will realise just how much depends upon the wife of the manse. She was, in every way, with him in his sense of vocation and that together with being mother to his five children. Mrs Evans died on June 3rd, 1918. Over £300 was raised by public subscription to their “Memorial Fund.” Their memorial pillar is clearly seen from the forecourt of the chapel they had seen built during their ministry.
It was December, 1916, that the Rev. Ivor Evans first preached in the Church of his late father-in-law. He had married one of the daughters of the manse at Ty Bryn, Miss Eva Evans. His next preaching engagement at Blaenau Gwent was at the Harvest Service in the following year. It was about that time that the officers of the Church began to discuss the advisability of selecting a resident minister but it was not until the following February that a recommendation was brought before the Church. Only one name was submitted, the unanimous recommendation of the diaconate. At the Sunday evening service on February 24th, 1918, the members showed their acceptance of the officers’ recommendation and decided to invite the Rev. Ivor Evans of Melbourne to be their pastor. On Good Friday, 1918, Mr Evans wrote accepting the call to the pastorate and he began his ministry on June 9th. We have his own words on this. “I trembled, he said, when I accepted the pastorate of Blaenau Gwent. I believed I could not possibly stay here more than five years.” But stay here he did and for 34 long and difficult years he gave himself, body, mind and spirit, until he had no more to give.
Mr Evans was born at Cwmbwria, Swansea, on March 21st, 1880, and was baptised at Libanus Welsh Baptist Chapel. He commenced to preach under the ministry of the Rev. Charles Davies at the Tabernacle, Cardiff, and was trained at Spurgeon College, London. From college he accepted a call to the pastorate of Chapel Street, Melbourne, Derbyshire, where he successfully ministered from 1914 until he became the pastor of Blaenau Gwent in June, 1918.
There had been a considerable falling off on membership during the years after the 1904-1905 revival. In 1916 the membership roll stood at 560 compared with something over 850 in 1905. The difference being largely due to erasing many who did not persevere in their membership. Even during the interim period between pastorates because of the necessity of erasure the membership fell to 488. But during the pastorate of Mr Evans the roll did not fall again until during the second great war. This is indeed surprising because this district had more than its share of “migration troubles” during the terrible twenties and thirties. Thousands of our men folk were thrown out of work and poverty and need increased as the months and the years went by. There were the days of the soup kitchens in Blaenau Gwent Vestry. Over the period of the depression literally thousands of men and women left the area to seek work in some other parts of the land. Families were constantly being split up by the necessity of going very far afield in search of a means of livelihood. The extent of this migration can be estimated by reference to unemployment figures during the time. In 1921 some 7,000 were unemployed and this represented 70 per cent of the working population. Even as late as 1936, 2,471 were still unemployed but the figure represented only 35 per cent of the working population. Over 2,000 people of working age had left the area. How many complete families were involved, the present writer can only guess at, yet it must have been a considerable number. From 1918-1926 there was a gradual increase in membership to 569, although during the same period the Church lost 165 members by transfer alone. In 1921 the Sunday School had increased so much that the officers sent a request to the officers of the Church to consider the possibility of reconstructing the old Chapel (so called since the building of the new Chapel in 1906), so as to provide more accommodation. The officers, however, were cautious in view of the industrial conditions and the declining population, and nothing was done. The unemployment question was very acute in 1926, and Mr Evans with the assistance of the organisations of the Church arranged a series of meetings which were held night after night for weeks. A meal was given to the unemployed, musical items were rendered and a word of exhortation was spoken. One result of these meetings was that about 100 young men made their decision for Jesus Christ and many of them joined the Church. In May the following year – 1927 – a series of meetings were held to celebrate the “Coming of Age” of the new Chapel, which by that time had certainly not outlived its usefulness as many another “revival Chapel” had done. And so during the dark days of depression the chapel continued, in many ways, to placard the Saviour. It was remarkable that even though the times had been so difficult in matters financial as well as other matters yet in 1938 the Church could claim to be clear of debt itself and also to have become responsible for the debt of Zion, Cwmtillery.
In 1937 the “Ministerial Centenary Celebrations” were held. During the one hundred years previous to that date the Church had been served by only three ministers. Rev. John Lewis had taken up the work in 1837, Rev. Towy Evans in 1882, and the Rev. Ivor Evans in 1918. Each ministered to a totally different age and yet during the ministry of each, Christ had met the need of thousands as they were and where they were.
During the year 1937-38 Mr Evans was honoured with the presidency of the English Assembly of the Welsh Baptist Union. The Annual Meeting of the Assembly was held at Blaenau Gwent on September 13th-15th, 1938. The Assembly booklet contained a brief history of the Church by Mr Evans with a brief review of the ministry of Mr Evans by the secretary of the Church, Mr A. E. Davies. The present writer again acknowledges his debt especially to the contribution of Mr Davies in that pamphlet.
During 1939-45 the Church again faced the task of ministering the things of Christ to a community under the stress of war. Both Mr Evans and the Church endeavoured to play their part through all those difficult times. Many evacuees found homes open to them and the Chapel premises were used during those years by the evacuated Eltham Girls’ School. It was during these years that Mr Evans was again honoured with the presidency of the Monmouthshire Baptist Association and the Annual Meetings of the Association were held in Blaenau Gwent in June, 1943. The burden of the presidential address was the Christian application of Roosevelt’s four freedoms. When the war ended in 1945 the membership stood at 470 – near enough to the membership figure in 1918 when Mr Evans began his ministry to make it noteworthy that the Church had maintained its numerical strength despite the pressures of those difficult years. It was in 1945 that the church received a hard blow. In the night of November 8th, the old Chapel, much loved by so many, was gutted by fire. The story of that night can still be readily recalled by many eye witnesses. Many are proud to remember that Mr Evans was concerned to make it known that the Church was not touched, nor could it be touched, not even by such a fire. It was the Chapel that had burned – not the Church. A rebuilding fund was started immediately and £3,000 was received as a fire insurance claim. But while several rebuilding plans were considered it was not until 1957 that rebuilding took place.
Mr Evans played an outstanding part in the public as well as the religious life of Abertillery all through his ministry and was chairman of the Abertillery and District Juvenile Employment Committee for many years. In 1948 his public work was recognised by the award of the O.B.E. The Church was proud of the man who had led them through thirty years. He had served his Church, the community and the denomination. He was one of the first editors of the Crusader and gave himself to the work of the denomination as much as he was able. But all this giving had taken its toll on his health and in 1952 it was ill-health that forced him to tender his resignation of the pastorate. It was during his last illness that a great part of the secret of his success in the ministry here was revealed to the present writer. Mr Trevor Jones, the present Church secretary, had taken him to see Mr Evans during his first Sunday here on Easter Day, 1953. After speaking about many of the things that had happened over the years Mr Evans caught Mrs Evans’s hand and said, “And I owe it all to her.” Like her mother before her she had shared in the ministry of her husband and shared in the same sense of vocation that had been the driving force of his ministry all along.
He died on May 6th, 1953, and was buried at Blaenau Gwent after an impressive and well represented service in the Chapel. Mrs Evans remained on at Ty Bryn with her daughter, Margaret, until in January, 1954 she moved to Hornchurch, Essex, to live near her daughter, Mrs Eluned Williams and her family. Miss Mary Evans, the eldest daughter, had since followed her father to the extent that she, too, has been awarded the O.B.E. for her work in the Civil Service, while Mr Brynfab Evans has since entered the medical profession. The church was also proud to hear of the knighthood of Sir Myrddin Guildhaume Evans, the Rev. Towy Evans’s son, who has since retired from the position of Permanent Secretary to the Minisry of Labour and the chairmanship of the International Labour Organisation.
The present minister and his wife settled in Ty Bryn, which has been the Church Manse for over 100 years, in August of 1954, and he was ordained to the Christian Ministry and inducted to the pastorate in the September. This was the first ordination service in living memory in Blaenau Gwent, for the Rev. Towy Evans was the last to be ordained here in 1882. The present new Church Hall, which was erected on the site of the old chapel, was opened by Mrs Ivor Evans in May, 1957. The cost of the work was £7,000. Since then repair and renovation work both on the Chapel and the old manse has cost the Church a further £4,000. It is to the credit of the Church that only something over £2,000 remains of debt for this work.
The Church at Blaenau Gwent has reached its Tercentenary in 1960. Of the full story of the Church not half has been told nor can it ever be for so much of it has never been recorded. For 300 years men and women have witnessed to their faith through the fellowship here. Many have held, and some still hold, positions of responsibility within the Church, giving themselves to the best of their ability. In all the various “modern” departments of the Church, the Sunday School, the Christian Endeavour, the Band of Hope, the Young People’s Fellowship, the Women’s Own, the Choir, and the youngest of them all, the Men’s Movement, there have been those without whose giving of time and talent, they could not have been. And so the Church here faces its fourth century. Whatever the future may hold for us as a fellowship may the “God of our Fathers be the God of their succeeding race.”
History from 1960 On
“Lord you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Ps. 90:1-2
It is with a deep sense of awe and humility that I undertake updating the history of Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church from 1960 through the present day. What a blessed privilege I have been given! If it were not for the courage and perseverance of those as part of this fellowship across many generations and the incredible blessing from the hand of a faithful God, I might not be sitting here writing this account today.
I am deeply indebted to Rev. Clifford Thomas for his diligent and reflective compilation of the previous 300 years’ history of the Church. In reading his account, I am overwhelmed at the panorama it offers of a Church against the backdrop of world events and a constantly changing society. Thank you for your hard work! The following account has been taken from church minutes and many personal reflections.
The Rev. Clifford Thomas (1954-1964) spent very little time detailing the depth of his ministry in the 1960 historical account. It was under his ministry, along with his wife, Grace, that the Church marked its 300th Anniversary. Part of the celebration was a musical presentation “Elijah” to a church filled to capacity. Sunday services were held at 11 AM and 6 PM, with Sunday School at 2 PM where about 90 children attended. There were many opportunities for spiritual enrichment through weekly meetings such as Women’s Own, Christian Endeavour, Prayer Meeting and the Friday Night Youth. Additionally, the Church was active in the Baptist Union, BMS and Zanana. It was during this time that Janette Davies and Peggy Purnell represented the fellowship at the Christian Endeavour Conference in Ireland. Not only was the Church active in spiritually oriented activities, but also in providing practical help, even chopping stick for the pensioners. “Do not merely listen to the Word . . . do what it says.” Jas. 1:22 The Christian life is to be lived out in practical as well as spiritual ways helping others.
The Rev. Clifford Thomas is remembered by many in the congregation until this day with great joy and affection for his blessed labour for the Lord.
After an interregnum (1964-1966) the Church called Rev. Gordon Heath (1966-1970) to be Pastor from a background in business. He got busy immediately and was a real man of the people and a wonderful visitor. The youth work continued to flourish under his leadership. The Church embarked on door to door visitation and the Rev. Martyn Lloyd Jones preached at Blaenau Gwent to an overflowing congregation (“the veritable fireman’s nightmare!”). The local pensioners were greatly encouraged by the Pastor’s care and concern. The Whitsun walks continued and Mrs Greta Heath formed a ladies’ choir. However, due to Mrs Heath’s poor health, Rev. Heath was forced to relocate after what seemed like quite a short time. He is fondly remembered within the Church today by those who grew under his ministry
The Rev. James Brown (1974-1986) came as a young man fresh from Spurgeon’s College after a 4 year interregnum during which the Church elected its first women deacons. Rev. Brown was filled with fresh ideas as well as maintaining the meetings and events long established. Church Anniversaries with guest speakers and the Saturday Night socials were important events on the calendar and were great fun! Youth work thrived with lots of great times and outings which are still spoken of today with much joy. Memories of the fullness of church life were forged. The musical “Greater Than Gold”, the wonderful story of Mary Jones and her quest for a Welsh Bible, was performed using church talent.
A very special part of Rev. Brown’s time at Blaenau Gwent was meeting his wife, the former Anne Selwyn, and they were married in 1978. The Church gained a lovely pastor’s wife. A special tablecloth was made by some of the ladies as a wedding gift and is a cherished possession today.
It was during his ministry that a very difficult decision was made. Citing structural and safety issues, on the advice of experts and after much prayer and heart searching, a vote was taken to demolish the church building and to rebuild in God’s good time. This was truly a crossroads experience, sensing the effect the decision would have on future generations. It was huge step of faith as the Church made the decision to financially extend themselves fully before seeking outside funds. With the sale of the land on which Corbin Court housing now stands, various fund raising projects and deep and sacrificial personal giving, provision was made to rebuild.
When Rev. Brown and Anne were called to Gilgal Baptist Church in Porthcawl, the building project fell to the deacons and others in the Church to carry on, seeking God’s wisdom and direction every step of the way. Each one involved rose to the challenge.
As the demolition started it came as a very heavy blow. At times such as these hopes for the future may seem far removed as memories seem to be dismantled, brick by brick. However 1988 saw very special events – the call of church members, Robert and Catherine Atkins to the mission field of France with BMS and the acquisition of Yew Tree House bequeathed to the Church by the sisters Snell as the new manse. Lovingly God’s hand took the Gospel message to the world and provided so graciously for His work at home as well.
In July, 1989, Rev. Clive Rich (1989-1996) was inducted as Pastor. The Church was now meeting at the Comprehensive School on Sunday and the Monday and Wednesday meetings were held at the Blaenau Gwent Methodist Church. Along with the services and meetings being held elsewhere and the ongoing building, the next several years were very challenging for the new pastor and his wife, Sue. As in any building project, forward progress was often offset by backward steps and this proved true over and over again.
In 1992 a breath of fresh air came in the persons of Paul and Amie Shumski, a young couple with the U.S. Southern Baptists, who stayed active in the Church for the next two years. Paul and Amie’s work with the children and youth was a great blessing and Puppet Quest was started as a ministry sharing the gospel in a creative and fun way. Puppet Quest continues to this day to be a blessing to new generations.
On December 25th, 1993, the Church held its first service in the new building, a very special Christmas indeed. The interim period between churches had been 4 ½ long years. The fruition of the project was a joyous occasion.
The dedication of the new building took place on March 26th, 1994, and the BBC aired a broadcast from the premises on May 2nd (The Corbin Court housing project built on church land opened later on June 24th, 1995). The new Chapel saw its first baptism on July 10th, 1994. These were some very special “firsts” in the life of the Church. Paul and Amie finished their term of service at Blaenau Gwent and left behind a thriving puppet and youth ministry to the praise of God.
Rev. Clive Rich made the decision to leave in early 1996. However, the preceding summer, the American influence continued on. A team of four Americans were asked to come and do a Holiday Bible Club, Jesus’ Kids, Totally His. This proved to be a turning point, not necessarily for the Church at Blaenau Gwent, but for one of the American couples, Bob and Joanne Buchanan. About the time Paul and Amie were packing their bags to return to the U.S., God was quietly working in the Buchanan’s hearts for a wonderful new challenge and laying the groundwork for future ministry in Wales, particularly at Blaenau Gwent.
The Church was mightily blessed during the pastoral interregnum when God drew retired minister, Iorwerth Budge to come as moderator, to minister to a hurting flock. He was a godsend and continued to minister until June 13, 1997, when very unexpectedly the Lord called him home. It seemed that God closed the door but He opened wide a window of opportunity from another direction.
By the end of 1997 Bob Buchanan, sensing God’s leading and approached by the Church, accepted the call the come to pastor at Blaenau Gwent. Although the funding of a pastor seemed unlikely, God’s faithful provision was forthcoming and God made a way where there seemed no way.
On September 5th, 1998, Rev. Bob Buchanan was inducted as Pastor, just a little over 3 years after his first visit. In November that year the Church celebrated its first ever Thanksgiving dinner and it was enjoyed by many. Under the new leadership the emphasis became individual discipleship. Various weekly Bible studies were established and at least half of the congregation attended one or more each week. Spiritual growth became evident as believers matured and then stepped out in faith into new ministries such as Moms and Tots, Men’s Fellowship, Ladies’ Studies and Children’s Choir, all with the emphasis of sharing the Good News with others. Alpha Courses were run regularly over the next several years teaching the basics of the Christian faith. God was moving in a powerful and wonderful way. We all were blessed to see God’s calling and many people coming to faith.
In 2002 and over the next five summers God brought mission teams from the U.S. to help in children’s and youth work, highlighted by Paul and Amie’s return with the first group. While experiencing God’s blessing by teams coming to us, we were so privileged to send off four of our young people on short term mission to Sri Lanka, Lesotho and Cuba. One of our young ladies, Joanne Williams, made several other trips and is seeking God’s direction on long term mission service. The Church’s missionaries to France, Robert and Catherine Atkins, returned to Wales after 13 years of service and Robert was inducted as Pastor of Raglan Baptist Church, where they are a tremendous blessing.
In 2003 the Whitsun walks restarted and proved a wonderful outdoor witness of God’s love and grace. About that time one of the deacons, Martyn Price, presented a proposal to the church of designing and implementing a stained glass window with the cross as its central theme. It was a true labour of love and in 2009 the two adjacent windows were completed depicting the full message of the gospel for all of Abertillery to behold in future generations, as a testimony of God’s desire for all men to come to faith.
As often happens tremendous blessing comes mixed with many trials. Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church came to one of those turning points that required a true test of faith in which God was able to teach us much. At a time when church revenues had dropped off considerably, a proposal was made at the AGM to undertake fund raising for regular church expenses as is done in other churches. At the vote, a few of the ladies shared that they sensed God’s provision for the Church without such endeavours. Although the vote to proceed with fundraising carried, the Pastor felt led not to proceed in that direction. In 2007, just six days later a correspondence arrived at the Manse. Inside was a check for £30,000 given anonymously for the needs of the Church. No further action was taken to raise funds for the operating expenses. God is so faithful and so good! A service of thanksgiving was held amidst many tears. God’s provision and timing are always right. And there is not a need the church has experienced that has not been met with God’s bountiful provision. We have even been able to step out in faith, supporting other ministries, including helping to build an orphanage in Bangalore, India. And God has also blessed by allowing us to celebrate with more than 60 people, young and old, as they went through the waters of baptism!
As the 350th Anniversary has dawned it has provided a wonderful opportunity to reflect on God’s working in His Church at Blaenau Gwent over these many generations. In an age of increasing high technology and less human interaction, God is still raising up men, women and children who love Him and desire to serve Him with total abandon. We also realise that all of man’s feeble efforts are but naught apart from God’s blessing and enablement. May all the glory go to Him!!
In Acts 2:42-47 we read about that early church; that they devoted themselves to teaching, to fellowship and to prayer. The believers cared for and loved each other and provided when there was a need. They met together and broke bread, praising God. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This same book of Acts ends abruptly; it is a continuing story. Acts Chapter 29 is the continuation of what was begun. May we be an Acts 29 church, one that is used and blessed by God. Hallelujah!
“May the favour of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:17