Rev. Joshua Thomas, a native of this country, in 1778 published a history of the Welsh Baptists from the year 63 to that time: although I have access to the book,1 yet as it is in the Welsh language I can make no use of it. About ten years since, a translation of a portion of this old history was published by the Rev. J. Davis, of Pennsylvania, which exhibits many interesting details of the Baptists in this ancient country.
The position assumed in Mr. Thomas' history sufficiently indicates his strong confidence in the high antiquity of the denomination in the principality, and the same sentiment runs through the statements of many contemporary and succeeding writers on the subject.
The Rev. Josiah Taylor, of England, in his Memoirs of the English Baptists, published many years since in the English Baptist Magazine, gives the following account of the early history of these primitive British Baptists.
"About sixty years after the ascension of our Lord, Christianity was planted in Britain, and a number of royal blood, and many of inferior birth, were called to be saints. Here the gospel flourished much in early times, and here, also, its followers endured many afflictions and calamities from pagan persecutors. The British Christians experienced various changes of prosperity and adversity, until about the year 600. A little previous to this period, Austin, the monk, with about forty others, were sent here by Pope Gregory the great, to convert the pagans to popery, and to subject all the British Christians to the dominion of Rome. The enterprize succeeded, and conversion (or rather perversion) work was performed on a large scale. King Ethelbert, and his court, and a considerable part of his kingdom were won over by the successful monk who consecrated the river Swale, near York. in which he caused to he baptized ten thousand of his converts in a day.
"Having met with so much success in England, he resolved to try what he could do in Wales. There were many British Christians who had fled hither in former times to avoid the brutal ravages of the outrageous Saxons. The monk held a synod in that neighborhood, and sent to their pastors to request them to receive the pope's commandment; but they utterly refused to listen to either the monk or the pope, or to adopt any of their maxims. Austin, meeting with this prompt refusal, endeavored to compromise matters with these strenuous Welshmen, and requested that they would consent to hear him in three things, one of which was that they would give Christendom, that is, baptism to their children; but with none of his propositions would they comply. 'Sins, therefore,' said he, 'ye wol not receive peace of your brethren, ye of others shall have warre and wretche,' and accordingly he brought the Saxons upon them to shed their innocent blood, and many of them lost their lives for the name of Jesus."
The Baptist historians in England contend that the first British Christians were Baptists, and that they maintained Baptist principles until the coming of Austin. "We have no mention," says the author of the memoirs, of the christening or baptizing children in England before the coming of Austin in 597; and to us, it is evident be brought it not from heaven, but from Rome. But though the subjects of baptism began now to be altered, the mode of it continued in the national church a thousand years longer, and baptism was administered by dipping, &c. From the coming of Austin, the church in this island was divided into two parts, the old and the new. The old, or Baptist church maintained their original principles. But the new church adopted infant baptism, and the rest of the multiplying superstitions of Rome."
Austin's requesting the British Christians, who opposed his popish mission, to baptize their children, is a circumstance which the English and Welsh Baptists consider of much importance. They infer from it that before Austin's time, infant baptism was not practised in England, and that though he converted multitudes to his pedobaptist plan, yet many, especially in Wales and Cornwall, opposed it; and the Welsh Baptists contend that Baptist principles were maintained in the recesses of their mountainous principality all along through the dark reign of popery.
At the time referred to in the above article, there existed in Wales two large societies of a somewhat peculiar nature, one at Bangor, in the north, and the other at Cearleon, in the south. According to D'Anvers, the society or college at Bangor contained two thousand one hundred Christians, who dedicated themselves to the Lord, to serve him in the ministry, as they became capable, to whom was attributed the name of the monks of Bangor. But this writer assures us they were no ways like the popish monks, for they married, followed their different callings, those who were qualified for the ministry engaged in the holy employment, while the others labored with their hands to support them, and to provide for the great spiritual family.
The writers on Welsh history in early times are confident that Lucius, a Welsh king, and many others of noble rank were converted to Christianity in the first century, and as all Christians were Baptists then, they, of course, come under this head. They also give the names of Faganus, Damicanus, Alban, Aaron, Julius, Gildas, Dyfrig, Dynilwt, Tailo, Padarn, Pawlin, Daniel, Dewi, or David, as noted Baptist ministers in the time of Austin's visit, and that Dynawt was president of the college or monastery of Bangor at that time, and was the chief speaker in a conference or association of Welsh ministers or messengers, who met the famous Roman reformer, and had a debate with him on baptism.2
This part of Welsh history is more fully illustrated by Rev. Mr. Tustin, pastor of the Baptist church in Warren, R. I. This church is a branch of the old church of Swansea, founded by John Miles, and of course claims its descent from the Cambro-British Baptists.
The story will be more fully related when we come to this part of our history.3
The Welsh Baptists have the fullest confidence that their sentiments have always lived in their mountainous retreats, from the apostolic age to the present time, although the people were not always congregated in churches. Their country, in their estimation, was another Piedmont, where the witnesses for the truth found shelter and concealment in times of universal darkness and superstition.
As I cannot read their books, an abundance of which are within my reach,4 I cannot judge so well of the strength and clearness of their historical vouchers, but my impression is very strong in favor of a high antiquity of the Baptist order in Wales.
With the first dawn of returning light, long before the ecclesiastical changes on the continent, or in England, we see the Welsh Baptists among the first reformers; and they did not appear to be novices in the business, but entered into the defense of their sentiments, and the carrying out of the usual operations of the denomination, as to churches and associations, like those who had been familiar with their principles.
Brute, Tyndal, Penry, Wroth, Powel, Jones, and Thomas, were eminent reformers in Wales, in very early times, all of whom either came out fully in favor of the Baptists, or else propagated sentiment which promoted their cause.
Vavasor Powel was so distinguished for his evangelical labors that he has been denominated the Whitfield of the age.
Walter Brute was a cotemporary of Wickliff, and became acquainted with him at the university of Oxford, where he received his education. The Welsh historians give long accounts of his services and sufferings previous to the year 1400.
John ap Henry, called by the English, Penry, was at first a minister of the church of England; the same may be said of Erbury, and Wroth; such secessions from the establishment was no uncommon thing at that time, both in England and the principality.
John Miles, who afterwards emigrated to this country, gathered a church in Swansea, in 1649, and became the instrument of promoting an active correspondence between the Baptists of Wales and England; but he, with a multitude of others, suffered greatly for their sentiments on the restoration of Charles II. His settlement at Swansea, Mass., and his history in America will be given under the head of that state.
The oldest churches of Wales, of whose origin any distinct information has come down to us, are those of Olchon, Llantrisaint, Llanwenarth, Carmarthen, Dolan, and Swansea.5 These united in an association at Swansea in 1655,6 their first meeting was held at Abergavenny; and Vaughan, Prosser, Parry, Watkins, Garson, and Brace were among the principal ministers who attended it.
The annual session of this association, the place where they met, and the names of the ministers appointed to preach, with but partial interruptions, are given by Mr. Davis for 140 years. 7 _________
A Short Historical Account of the Baptist Churches in Wales. A Tract with this title, by Benjamin Price, is before me; it gives a list of the churches and ministers in each county of the principality, up to the year 1833, and shows that they have greatly increased for a number of years past.
This little work is mostly occupied in those kind of statistical details from which I find it difficult to make any selections suitable for my historical narratives. There is an abundance of names of chapels and ministers, but scarcely any of those historical facts which would afford interest to distant readers.
Associations. Up to 1790, there was but one body of this kind in Wales, but in the summer of this year, this old community, which had increased to forty-eight churches, divided into three, which took the names of East, West, and North. The northern body has again divided into two.8 As I shall at the close of this volume give a list of all associations of British Baptists, those of the Welsh brethren will of course be included. ________________
Closing remarks on the Baptists in Wales. In the very limited researches which I have made into the history of the Welsh Baptists, I have felt an ardent desire to acquire and communicate more information than I now possess. There is something peculiarly interesting in the character of the Cambro-British brethren. They are Baptists through and through, of the trans-Jordan cast. Their hard-mouthed Celtic dialect brings out immersion to the full, and among their preachers we have some very fine specimens of native genius and pulpit eloquence. The sample of preaching by Christmas Evans has gone an extensive round of the periodicals in this country.
I have wanted very much to give a list of their most distinguished preachers, from the earliest periods of their history, but lack the information which is needful for this purpose. I will, however, venture to name Vavasor Powel, William Richards of Lynn, Benjamin Francis of Horselydown, and Christian Evans of Anglesea, with Thomas, the author of the Church History, already quoted, as those among the Welsh Baptist preachers whose names have become most familiar beyond the bounds of the Principality. In other denominations of Christians, Howell Harris, the coadjutor of Whitfield, Rowlands and Edward Jones, two others of his cotemporaries and friends; and more recently Charles, of Bala, John Elias, a man of great power, and Williams, of Wern, have been men of eminence, and what is better, men of extended and enduring usefulness.
The Welsh Baptists began to emigrate to this country in very early times, and by them some of our oldest and well organized churches were planted; order, intelligence, and stability marked their operations; and the number of Baptist communities which have branched out from these Welsh foundations -- the number of ministers and members who have sprung from Cambro-British ancestors, and the sound, salutary and efficient principles, which by them have been diffused among the Baptist population in this country, is beyond the conception of most of our people.
We shall see, when we come to the history of the American Baptists, that settlements were formed in very early times, by this people, which became the centre of Baptist operations, in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. ______________
1 It is in the library of Brown University, Providence, RI.
2 Davis's History of the Welsh Baptists, pp. 8, 21.
3 "The old Welsh brethren," says Mr. Tustin, "at length consented to hold an interview with Austin, in a council which met on the borders of Herefordshire, which, on the part of the Welsh, was composed of twelve hundred pastors and delegates. The chief conditions of uniformity proposed by the Roman prelate of the English church, were the three following: --
"First, That the Welsh should observe the festival of Easter, which, from the peculiar religious associations of the Romish church, at that time, was the great test-question of papal allegiance, and the non-observance of which was incompatable [sic] with their communion with the papal church. Although the controversy was nominally concerning the time of the great festival of Easter, the real principle involved was the question of spiritual bondage to Rome, or of the unfettered liberty of conscience in religion.
"The second condition proposed by the English prelate was, their ecclesiastical subjugation to his own supremacy; and this involved the great principle as to whether Christ should be king In his own kingdom, and the practical question of the union of church and state, and the original independence of each church.
The third term of uniformity submitted by Austin was, that they should give Christendom -- which, in the language of the times, meant baptism -- to their children. And this involved the great religious doctrine of personal responsibility, and experimental faith. These three propositions comprehended, in fact, the three great comprehensive principles associated in the events which led to the establishment of this Church and Town, the illustration of which will be more distinctly conspicuous in the details of our ancestral history.
"But with all these conditions of uniformity proposed by the English prelates, the Welsh pastors and churches steadily refused compliance." -- Dedication Discourse, pp. 53, 54. 1845.
Warren is but three miles from Swansea. As the churches are in the two States of Mass. and R. I., both, of course, are near the line.
4 In the library of Brown University, four miles from me.
5 "From the history of the above churches, we find that each of them had several branches; and that every minister was both a pastor and a missionary within the bounds of his own church. The distance from Llanwenarth to Carmathen is about one hundred miles, and nearly as much from Olchon to Swansea." -- Davis's History of Baptists, p. 187.
The custom of having branches runs through all the first operations of Baptists in all countries. These branches were formed into distinct churches by the advice of the London brethren, under the superintendence of John Miles.
6 "We have every reason to believe that the Welsh Baptists had their associations, and that Dyfrig, Illtyd, and Dynawt, were the leading men among them long before Austin's attempt to convert them to popery, in that association which was held on the borders of England about the year 600." -- Davis's History Welsh Baptists, p. 187.
7 History of the Welsh Baptists, pp. 188, 189.
8 Letter of Rev. John Sutcliff, of Olney, to Rev. Thos. Ustick, of Philadelphia, dated Sept. 22, 1790. This valuable document is before me. ==========
[David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination, 1848; rpt. 1977, pp. 343-346. -- jrd]
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