From 1609 the idea that the established church could not be reformed and that a separate church institution was needed began to take root. The first act towards this was by John Smyth, a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge and dissenting Anglican, who moved to Amsterdam to set up a free Baptist church there. Reared in the Church of England, he became “Puritan, English Separatist, and then a Baptist Separatist,” and ended his days working with the Mennonites. The idea rapidly spread among the growing congregation of dissident protestants gathering in England to shelter from persecution abroad. The term ‘Puritan’ was born to reflect the need to establish a true ‘pure’ church based on faith alone.
In 1612, Thomas Helwys established a Baptist congregation in London, consisting of congregants from Smyth’s church. A number of other Baptist churches sprang up, and they became known as the General Baptists. The Particular Baptists were established when a group of Calvinist Separatists adopted believers’ Baptism. The dissenting community in Olchon Valley had been active as Lollards since long before this date, though there is little archeological or documentary evidence as to their precise beliefs, membership or organisation. The first evidence of formal records begins with Olchan Baptist Church in 1633 and thereafter the history is well documented having a clear understanding of the historic importance of this tiny group in the evolution of Dissenting Christianity in England and Wales.
In the Olchan Valley, just above Olchan Court, stand the ruins of a small building whose groundplan is about 25 feet by 15 feet in dimension. This is too small to be a farm building and is claimed by some to be the earliest remains of a Lollard chapel, though this cannot be proven.
Olchon Baptist Church
Unfortunately, records for the church at Olchon do not exist prior to 1600. Joshua Thomas states that at one point in his search for records he was sent to an ancient home in Hay, near the church. It had belonged to a John Rys Howell, who was occasional assistant to the minister at Olchon, Howell Fychan or Vaughn. In 1775 Thomas located the house and trunk, but was too late. The trunk was full of decaying scraps of paper and every document had disintegrated beyond recovery.
Based on what he was able to find out, Thomas claimed that there was a Baptist congregation meeting in the Upper Olchon valley as early as 1633. This would make the church even older than the one started by John Miles in Ilston on the Gower, the oldest Baptist church in Wales, though it is possible it was not as fully established as Miles’s church until later.
The date of 1633 is coincidental in that was the year that King Charles I ordered the use of the Book of Sports as a test for conformity among the clergy. This document, first issued under James I, listed activities that were permissible on Sundays – including maypole dancing and morris dancing (both of which were regarded as pagan sacrilege by puritans. Those clergy that refused to read it aloud when ordered by the High Commission were expelled from their benefices. This intolerant act created a small army of dispossessed and radicalised former clergy many of whom converged on South Wales where they could find sanctuary at Olchon. From there, with nothing to lose, they spread out as itinerant preachers founding new churches, usually meeting in private houses or outdoors in secret locations, outside the control of the established order.
The first pastor of record at Olchon is Elder Howell Vaughn, though certainly not the first of memory. His earliest appearance as pastor at Olchon is set around 1633. He was later joined by Erbury and Vavassor Powell when they dissented from the established church and converted to Baptists. Thomas offers a brief sketch of Elder Vaughn. “Howell Vaughn commenced preaching we know not, neither can we find when or where he was ordained. But however, we find him the pastor of the church at the time of the reformation. He was not a learned man, like Erbury, Wroth, and Powell, as he never had a college education; but he was a plain, conscientious, and godly man, remarkably well versed in scripture. He was a very good preacher, well calculated to feed the church of God with knowledge and understanding. The church under his pastoral care, though small at first, in short time increased most wonderfully.”
These early meetings took place in local homes in the Valley, notably at Beili Bach, then the home of one John Gilbert, and at neighbouring Olchon Court. Unfortunately the Beili Bach farmhouse was destroyed during the Second World War by a bomb jettisoned by a German plane after a raid on the Midlands.
Thomas also records that meetings of the same scattered congregation were also taking place in Maes-y-ffin in the Ewyas Valley, to the North at Wenalt and Penyrwrlodd in Llanigon, and in the East at Wern Wen (in Monnow Valley, north of Llanveynoe), which was the home of one David Watkins.
By 1649 the church had extended its influence as far as Hay-on-Wye and Clifford, a branch being established at Hay with a building of its own. In the meanwhile, the mother church continued to meet at Olchon, though Thomas says that no meeting place was actually built there. He comments: ‘Our old mother has brought forth and raised up many daughters, and has assisted them in building large and elegant houses, while she herself dwells in a cabin. And we are sorry to say she is too much neglected by her children.’
Davis lists two men as the Elders at Olchon from 1660 to 1688 after Howell Vaughn. They are Thomas Perry and John Rys Howell, with Elder Perry serving from 1641 to 1709, and Elder Howell co-pastoring from 1645 to 1699 when he died.
This was a terrible time of persecution for the dissenting churches in Wales. The congregation was frequently forced to flee for refuge to Black Mountain. “But for twenty-eight years, in the reign of Charles the second, the church had to meet in the most secret places by night, somewhere in the woods, or on the Black Mountain, or the rough rock. They were obliged to change the place every week, that their enemies might not find them out. Often the friends of the infernal foe diligently sought them, but found them not. While the wolves were searching in one mountain the lambs were sheltering in the rock of another. But notwithstanding all their care and prudence, they were sometimes caught and most unmercifully whipped and fined as violators of the laws of the land, and their cattle and household furniture seized, to pay the fine and expenses of the executioners of the law.
…The safest place they ever found, was in the woods, under a large rock, called Darren Ddu, or the Black Rock. It is a most dreadful steep, and the roughest place we have ever seen. Thus, the Primitive Baptists of Olchon found their, cleft of the rock, where often they fled for refuge.”
Expansion from Olchon
In 1643 Thomas Watkins, of Maes-y-ffin near Capel-y-ffin in the Ewyas Valley, began to preach at Olchon. He is recorded as representing the Olchon church at the Baptist meetings organised by John Miles. In August 1662 he and sixteen others of the church at Olchon were summoned before the courts in Brecon to answer for their Non-conformity and in 1675 his congregation must have made up most of the 275 indictments in that year alone in the parish of Clodock whose jurisdiction covers the valley. But the pressure of this level of persecution was great, and by 1690, the membership of the Baptist church at Olchon was recorded as just 30. He died around 1695.
Joshua Thomas says of him: ‘Thomas Watkins had a peculiar turn of mind , to manage unruly members; to teach the churches to do all things decently and in order; to have compassion on one another; to love one another; and to be pitiful and courteous, not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing; to avoid any root of bitterness.’
Another Baptist preacher in this group was Walter Prosser, originally from Llanelli, who began preaching in the general area in about 1642, and specifically went to Olchon in 1652. He was at the Abergavenny meeting in 1654 and was appointed to support the church in Carmarthen who were in need of a leader. He later moved from Olchon to Dredynog in Monmouthshire, and then to Llantrissant. Thomas writes: ‘Walter Prosser was not learned, but he was a gifted and acceptable preacher.’
William Pritchard began to preach around 1649 and by 1652 had gathered a small congregation church of 13 around him at Abergavenny. He was ordained its pastor the following year. He was supported in the ministry from Olchon as he was apparently very poor. Pritchard later established a congregation at Llanwenarth. By 1676 this had 27 members, while the church at Abergavenny had grown to 41.
In 1697, after the Act of Toleration, Pritchard built a chapel at Llanwenarth which remains the oldest surviving Baptist church in Wales to be still in use. It is situated in the middle of the village of Govilon, on the bank of the Brecon and Monmouth Canal, though when it was first built it stood in isolation as neither canal nor village existed yet.
Pritchard also formed churches at Rhydwilym (1668), Maesyberllan (1669) with 60 members and Blaengwent (1696). After an active ministry of over sixty years he died in 1713.
Another assistant preacher at Olchon at this time was Thomas John Williams, whose house was often used to host gatherings of the congregation. He “was remarkably diligent in the things belonging to this world and the world to come. When requested to rest, he would say ‘This is not a resting place, but I shall rest in the other world.’ On long winter nights when the family were seated around the fire, he would retire once or twice a night to pray in secret. Many wondered at his piety, humility and becoming conduct.
With the defeat of Charles I, the establishment of the English Commonwealth in 1649 gave free rein for the dissenters to expand. Leaders from the first three Baptist churches in Wales; Olchon, Ilston and Llanharan, met in 1650 to form the First Baptist Association in Wales. They agreed to hold a ‘means of grace’ gathering in Carmarthen, to support financially the church at Llanharan, and to support the work of missionary preachers who were rapidly spreading through South Wales starting new Baptist churches.
The commitment to mission is reflected in the establishing of a Baptist church at Rhydwilym, Carmarthenshire in 1668. Its leader, William Jones (d1700), travelled all the way to Olchon to be baptised by two of the leaders there: William Pritchard and Thomas Watkins. Those two leaders then travelled to Rhydwilym to appoint him as the lead elder of the new church. Effectively Rhywdwilym was an offshoot of Olchon, and the fact that Jones should make the hundred mile journey across difficult terrain to be baptised there illustrates how Olchon was regarded as the mother Baptist church in Wales. The church at Rhydwilym grew rapidly in spite of the severe persecution of the times. Jones baptised no less than 69 people in a period of six weeks. By 1689 the church had 113 members.
The small Baptist chapel in Capel-y-ffin was built in 1762 by David and William Prosser as a meeting place for the local Baptist congregation. A wall plaque commemorates their work in bringing ‘The Ministry of the Gospel to their house in the year 1737. And Secured this Place for That Sacred Use for the Time Being. Both died near the End of the Year 1780.’
Previously the Baptists of the upper Ewyas valley were considered part of the Olchon congregation, on the other side of the mountains, and met in local homes, notably that of Thomas Watkins at Maes-y-ffin, as well as crossing the ridge to meet in Olchon itself. The tiny chapel building at Capel-y-ffin effectively became the focus for the small Baptist congregation that still remained in the Olchon and Ewyas valley at that time. Capel-y-ffin was the last Welsh-speaking community in this part of Wales.
Olchon later became a member of the Abergavenny Association, constituted in 1653 at which Howell Vaughn was present, but paid a price for its isolationist posture in having lost influence. Howell Vaughn would not accept the irregularity of open communion, which was evidently an acceptable practice among at least some of the London Particular Baptists. Olchon sent no representatives to subsequent meetings of the London Confession Conferences, held regularly for several years after the 1644 Confession was signed, and none to the 1689 Conference.
Ultimately the inaccessibility that had provided protection for the dissenters of Olchon for so long turned from a strength into a weakness. Inaccessibility also meant isolation and as the Baptist movement spread like wildfire through Southern Wales, the isolation of Olchon became a handicap and the focus shifted to the more accessible base of Llanigon on the other side of Gospel Pass.
The Llanigon Dissenters
From the outset the Llanigon Dissenters had meetings in their home parish. There were gatherings at the home of a Parliamentary soldier named William Watkins, at Penyrwyrlodd in the 1640s. A later generation of this family created a purpose-built meeting place above a new stable at the family home. Thomas Watkins may have been related to William Watkins, who was a later Pastor at Olchon, and to David Watkins, who hosted the meetings of the congregation at Wern Wen to the East. A ‘Mrs Watkins’ is recorded by Joshua Thomas as attending the gatherings at Darren Ddu where she used to distribute silver to the poor when she was there.
The home of Thomas Parry of Y Wenallt, Llanigon, who was baptised in 1641, was probably another venue in those early days, though other places across the area would have been used as well. Both properties are on the tracks leading up to Gospel Pass over into Eywas Valley. He continued as Assistant Preacher there for 68 years. It is likely he primarily served that part of the congregation who lived in the Llanigon and Hay area.
‘His dwelling house was the Jerusalem of Wales. To which pilgrims resorted and found themselves refreshed in both their souls and their bodies. He was really a hospitable man in the welsh sense of the word.’
Parry’s house continued to be the meeting place during his son David’s life, and his grandson Nathaniel’s, for a period of a hundred years. During the period of persecution when key leaders fled Wales to Bristol, Parry remained and continued to encourage Vaughan, Prosser, Watkins and others as together they secretly served the scattered congregation of Baptists meeting in the Ewyas and Olchon valleys and at Llanigon.
Joshua Thomas writes of him: ‘Thomas Parry was a godly and peaceable man, and very useful in the cause of Christ in many respects, and died in a good old age, triumphing in redeeming grace and dying love, in 1709.’
A local man apparently wrote a verse in Welsh comparing the Anglican minister at Hay with the Baptist preachers of Olchon. Here is an English paraphrase of what he wrote: ‘Thomas Parry is a far better preacher than the clergyman of the Hay, notwithstanding he wears a surplice. It is a wonder that shoemakers, tailors and weavers beat the Oxford scholars.’
The influence of this group of believers was widespread, so that there was effectively a network of fellowshipping believers meeting in homes across the whole of Breconshire, and across the county boundaries into Radnorshire to the north of the River Wye, down into Glamorganshire to the south on the other side of the Brecon Beacons, into Monmouthshire in the east, and Carmarthenshire to the west, some forty miles away; an area of almost a thousand square miles. Furthermore, the terrain was very mountainous and travel across it often very difficult in days before there were proper roads. The focal point for this scattered church was Llanigon; and by 1650 it was being referred to as the ‘Llanigon Church’. One of the secret meeting places for this church was in the neighbouring parish, in a byre just a mile or so north of the village of Glasbury. This must have been at Maesyronen.
Between the chapel and the church house at the old chapel building at Maesyronen is an ancient old oak cruck truss. This suggests the building is of a very great age, at least Elizabethan, and was probably built as a traditional longhouse, with a dwelling at one end and a stable for the animals at the other. The house would originally have had no chimney but an open hole in its roof with a heath in the floor below. The current chimney must have been added in about 1600. The stone walls may also date from this time, replacing earlier wattle and daub walls. It was here, in the byre next to the house, that some of the meetings of the Llanigon Dissenters took place. Much later it was converted into a proper chapel, which is still in use today, the oldest in all of Wales.
The Welsh Saints
Three of the leaders among the dissenters in Wales during the Civil War were Vasavor Powell, Jenkin Jones and Walter Cradoc. These three were known as the ‘Welsh Saints’ and commanded troops in the Puritan Army under the command of Thomas Harrison. These men were all ‘Fifth Monarchists’, of which Harrison was the leader, who believed that the war would usher in the Kingdom of Christ with rule on biblical lines. Although Harrison was one of the principal regicides in signing the death warrant of King Charles I, he and the others were horrified when Cromwell established the protectorate and they plotted to overthrow it in 1657 and 1659. They also opposed the Restoration of King Charles II and were hunted down and persecuted in the years that followed. The ‘Fifth Monarchists’ under Harrison were the hard-core backbone of the puritans and, after Cromwell dissolved the ‘Rump Parliament’ provided the majority within the residual ‘Barebones Parliament’ until their opposition to the religious status-quo led Cromwell to dissolve that also.
One of those, who also preached in Llanigon, was Vavasor Powell, once described as the George Whitefield of Wales. He was the one more than any other who fanned the flames of revival in the area.
Vavasor Powell (1617-1670) was born in Cnwclas, Radnorshire, the son of an innkeeper. He was educated at Jesus College, Oxford, but failed to complete his studies, leaving to become a schoolteacher at Clun. Here he read the works of Richard Sibbes and became a Puritan. He was an itinerant Puritan preacher around the Welsh borders in about 1638, before the English Civil War.
One writer said of him that “he frequently preached in two or three places in a day, and he was seldom two days in a week throughout the year out of the pulpit; nay, he would sometimes ride an hundred miles in a week and preach in every place where he might have admittance, either night or day; so that there was hardly a church, chapel, or town hall in all Wales where he had not preached.”
When the war broke out, he went to London in 1642, returning to Wales in 1646, when his preaching earned him the nickname “Metropolitan of the Itinerants”. In 1650 he was appointed an Approver under the Act for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, and was engaged in removing from post incomptent clergymen and replacing them with Puritan pastors.
A Baptist historian said of him: ‘He proclaimed Jesus at fairs, markets, and wherever there was a gathering of people. He preached the glorious gospel upon mountains, in jails, and even in the houses of persecuting magistrates. He was once arrested in Brecknockshire, about 10pm, with fifty or sixty of his hearers, and confined during the night in a church. At midnight he preached a sermon to his companions and captors from the words, “Fear not them who kill the body.” During the service the most malevolent of his persecutors wept bitterly. Next morning when brought to the house of the justice that functionary was temporarily absent, and while waiting for his return Mr. Powell preached again. The justice was indignant to find his house turned into a conventicle, but two of his daughters were deeply moved by the truth which fell from the lips of the fearless man of God.’
With the Restoration he was imprisoned for refusing to take the oath of supremacy, and spent most of his last decade in gaol. He was finally arrested while preaching in Merthyr Tydfil in 1668, and died in the Fleet prison two years later.
Walter Cradock, in a sermon before the House of Commons on 21st July 1646, referred to the Llanigon church when he said: “the gospel has run over the mountains between breconshire and Monmouthshire as the fire in the thatch.”
Walter Cradock (1606–1659) was born at Trefela, Langwm and is thought to have studied at Oxford before initially becoming a curate at Peterston-super-Ely, Glamorgan. He was a significant Puritan theologian who later served as a curate to the radical William Erbury, Vicar of St Mary’s in Cardiff. Cradock was described by his bishop as “a bold, ignorant young fellow”. In 1638 Erbury, Cradock and William Wroth (1576-1642) were reported to Archbishop Laud and expelled by the Court of High Commission for “unorthodox preaching” and most specifically for refusing to recite the ‘Book of Sports’ which was a test to identify puritans.
Cradock then spent time in Wrexham, North Wales, where he converted Morgan Llwyd and his followers there became known as ‘Cradockians’ – a term describing radical Christian faith which continued to be used for generations afterwards. Then Cradock moved south to the Herefordshire borders and, quitting the church, in 1639 he, with William Wroth, became a founder member of the first independent congregation in Wales at Llanfaches in Monmouthshire. People travelled from as far as Somerset to hear the preaching at Llanfanches and services were held in the churchyard because the building was not large enough. Later Craddock, with Erbury, Llwyd, Powell and John Miles, worked together as a group to become leaders in the spread of Non-conformist churches (of all hues) through South Wales.
After the Civil War, Cradock campaigned for a number of years in Parliament for more Puritan preachers to be licensed in Wales. As a supporter of Cromwell he later fell out with the Fifth Monarchists, in particular Vasavor Powell, and withdrew to Monmouthshire, becoming vicar of his original home parish at Llangwm where he died a few years later in 1659.
Where Powell and Cradock were exclusionist, passionate, inflammatory and fervent in their beliefs; Jenkin Jones was more of a conciliator and a believer in shared communion as much as in Baptist principles. He was one of the Approvers named under the Propagation Act 1650, and worked as an itinerant preacher in Brecknockshire and elsewhere, including the Merthyr Tydfil area.
He thus successfully guarded the Dissenters of the area from schism and division; and maintained ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, thus helping to ensure the continuation of the revival. It was not until the end of the century that the various groups began to split apart after the Act of Toleration in 1689 to form a plethora of small churches each with its own distinct ideas in the area between Brecon and Hay.
Jenkin Jones was one of the most influential of Welsh Puritans. He was born at Ty Mawr (the big house) in the tiny parish of Llandetti in the Usk Valley in 1623. As with most Welshmen of his rank and ability, especially those intending to serve in the church, he was educated at Jesus College, Oxford. After graduating, he began preaching in 1639. He served as a Roundhead soldier in the Civil War. He was a Baptist sympathiser, but unlike John Miles, was keen to maintain fellowship with Dissenters of other persuasions.
Miles, who was born and bred in the area, in the Welsh-speaking part of Herefordshire, had in fact visited Llanigon in 1650 from his gathered Baptist church at Ilston on the Gower. On that occasion, he had preached strongly the necessity for baptism by full immersion as the essential basis for any gathered church, clearly implying that he felt the leaders at Llanigon were not being precise enough in their handling of scriptural injunctions to believers. He won support, but not sufficiently strongly at that time to create a separate gathered Baptist group. The fact that he did not must in part have been due to Jones’s insistence that maintaining unity was more important than divison over doctrine.
In 1657, like his colleague Cradock, he settled down to ministry at the relatively remote and unimportant church in his home village of Llandetti. However, in spite of his low profile, with the Restoration there was little hope for Jones and he was soon arrested as an anti-Royalist. He was twice imprisoned in Carmarthen and there is no further record of him after this time.
The other key figure in the area at this time was Richard Powell, whose name appears as the very first named of the ministers of the church at Llanigon that are painted on the face of the pulpit at Maesyronen in their honour.
Richard Powell was the minister at Llanigon who became the minister at Glasbury in 1650, and was convinced of the necessity of believers baptism some five years later. When and where he was born is not known, but he was the vicar of Llanigon during the Civil War, and was appointed the Vicar of Glasbury after the dismissal of the incumbent Alexander Griffiths for ‘drunkenness and lasciviousness.’ Richard Powell, along with his colleague Vavasor Powell, then became the target for Griffiths’ public ire through his ridiculing of the nonconformists of the time. Thomas Watkins, a Justice of the Peace in Breconshire at the time, says that Richard Powell was ‘an able, honest and faithful minister.’ He died at his home in Penywerneithin, Radnorshire in 1658.
Richard Powell was followed by two men, Thomas Powell, who may have been a relative, and Owen Griffith. These served the Llanigon church for two years, until 1660. They probably worked as a preaching team, covering the widely scattered church community between them, and preaching in several private locations as they did so. No more is known about these two. But after their time there followed a very difficult period for the church, when it appears to have been leaderless in any formal sense for a number of years. This may have been deliberate, owing to the persecution of the time. the list of ministers on the pulpit at Maesyronen shows a gap of twelve years from 1660 until 1672, the year the period of persecution came to an end.
After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 there were times of persecution for Dissenters, when once more their gatherings were illegal. Worship meetings had to take place at dead of night or in very remote places away from prying eyes and the dangers of betrayal.
One of the places known to be used for clandestine gatherings of believer was Coed y Funglas near Maesyberllan. Some Baptists in the area were beginning to have their own additional meetings at Trawsgoed farmhouse, home of the notable Williams family. This meeting place became unsafe, and so woodland nearby was used instead, no matter what the weather was like. The historian and poet Ruth Bidgood records that they met there even in the depths of winter when there was deep snow on the ground.
The early Dissenting church of Llanigon, just south of Hay-on-Wye, which was made up of people with both Independent and Baptist points of view, came into being sometime in the first half of the seventeenth century, just before the English Civil War. In part, its inception was stimulated by the Dissenting church in the Olchon Valley in the Weslh-speaking borderland to the east of the Black Mountains. It survived that tumultuous period of huge uncertainty, and under a series of very gifted leaders, came to maturity and prominence as one of the most influential congregations in the country. It can be said to have shaped non-conformity in Wales in its early days to a very considerable degree.
One of the most important ministers associated with the Llanigon church in the later years of the 17th century was Henry Maurice. He was possibly one of the greatest of non-conformist leaders Wales has ever had, though is little known now.
Henry Maurice was born in Aberdaron near the very tip of the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales in 1634. Like many able Welshmen of his time, he was educated at Jesus College, Oxford. Maurice served in the north as a curate for a while, and conformed at the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy. He continued to serve in a number of different Welsh and border churches for some years; but by 1671 he had undergone a radical conversion, becoming a Dissenter with strong Calvinist leanings. In 1672, he began preaching in Breconshire, and was invited at the age of 38 to take on the responsibility for pastoring the diverse and widely scattered flock centred on Llanigon, which he served energetically for the remaining ten years of his life.
During this decade, he spread the influence of the congregation to the furthest corners of the county, even into Carmarthenshire in the west where he had strong ties with the congregation at Cefnarthen. His influence also reached down to the Heads of the Valleys area in Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire, where he forged links with the emerging Dissenting congregation at Merthyr Tydfil. His ministry was one which was truly apostolic, and in a relatively short period of time, he encouraged and brought on a number of significant leaders who would carry on the work after his own relatively untimely death.
Maurice has been described as ‘one of the most virile Puritan propagators of the second generation.’ In 1673, Bishop Lucy referred to him as having ‘brought the Puritan invasion up to the gates of Brecon.’ One survey of the time lists the number of Dissenters associated with him in sparsely populated Breconshire alone at 682! He died in 1682 in the full flow of his ministry at the young age of 48, having become arguably the greatest church leader in Wales in his generation.
The Act of Toleration
Generally, Baptists and Independents worshipped together as part of the Llanigon church until about 1690. It was soon after that date, and the passing of the Act of Toleration which legitimised Dissenting meetings that the Llanigon church divided amicably into three. The Independents remained at Maesyronen, and began another work further south at Tredustan, the other side of Talgarth; while the Baptists formally established a work at Maesyberllan, on land belonging to the Williams family at Trawscoed, just north of Brecon.
With the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689, the old byre at Maesyronen, dating from Elizabethan times, could at last be licensed as an official place of worship; and so Maesyronen Chapel was one of the earliest buildings in Wales to be established for this purpose. The land was given to the church by Charles Lloyd, the local squire of Maesllwch, who was also a strong supporter having been an elder of the church for many years. Henry Maurice referred to him as such at least as early as 1675. The necessary reconstruction took place sometime in the 1690’s, and it was officially registered as a place of worship in 1697.
Sadly, Charles Lloyd died the following year. The building has remained substantially the same ever since, though it was re-roofed in the 18th century, and also had the original beaten earth floor flagged with stone at about the same time. It is a timeless place, which now has the reputation of being the oldest surviving Nonconformist place of worship in the entire country.
In the twentieth century Maesyronen continued in use with a dwindling congregation until the millenium. The last minister was Rev D C Lloyd Jones who served from 1977 to 2004, after which the chapel closed.
In the last few years, Maesyronen has been fully and sympathetically restored, and is lovingly cared for by local people who know and understand the heritage and the importance of the place. After the restoration, the chapel reopened in 2008 so that services could be held there once more. Inside, there’s not a speck of dust to be seen, and the ancient oak benches shine and reflect the sunlight that comes in through the clear old glass of the windows. The building continues to be used by a local choir and by groups that gather occasionally to keep alive the tradition of worship there.
The former caretaker’s lodging which adjoins the chapel has been converted into a small holiday cottage and can be let through the Landmark Trust. It has been described as “an extraordinarily peaceful place, full of echoes from the past”.
The Lives of the British Saints (Vol 2) – Baring-Gould & Fisher (1907)
The Welsh Baptists – T M Bassett (1977)
The Book of Welsh Saints – T D Breverton (2000)
‘Episodes in the History of Brecknockshire Dissent’ – Pennar Davies in Brycheiniog vol 3 (1957)
Welsh Chapels – Anthony Jones (1984)
Congregationalism in Wales – R Tudur Jones (2004)
History of Protestant Nonconformity in Wales – Thomas Rees (1883)
Hanes Eglwysi Annibynnol Cymru – Rees & Thomas (1871)