“They defied the law to pray”

Posted by kind permission from South Wales Evening Post, first published Friday, Sept 6th, 1991

Driving to the north of Swansea, up from Treboeth to Llangyfelach and along the A48 to Penllergaer, the scene is a broad sweep of tree-fringed fields and wooden hills. 

Only the M4 jars a picture of serenity that looks as if it’s been there for ever. But if trees could talk, what stories they would tell! 

For this peaceful area was the meeting place of steadfast men and women who were ready to face persecution and risk all for the sake of their consciences. 

Honest toilers of mostly poor education and primitive accomplishment, they were the freedom fighters of their day, the underground army determined to build a new Jerusalem. 

And in the end they succeeded. These early dissenters forged the great Welsh movement that founded Mynyddbach Church, the mother of many. 

The word dissenter was originally a term of abuse, but by the time Oliver Cromwell came to prominence, the whole of the Swansea area was largely sympathetic. 

As a seaport, Swansea was in contact with other centres of dissent both near and far – Bristol across the channel and the New World across the ocean. 

The original Mynyddbach congregation was gathered by Amrose Mostyn, a lecturer appointed to the area in 1641 by the Puritan Parliament. Ten years later, just two years after Charles I was beheaded, meetings were being held regularly in the already ancient farm of Cilfwnwr, Llangyfelach, home of Mary Thomas, a widow. 

The Mynyddbach movement is unique in that meticulous church records were kept and these books, now in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth, tell of a turbulent age for non-conformism religion. 

In the drawn-out struggle between sovereigns and state, clergymen were thrown out, then reinstated, pledges of toleration were made by kings and stopped by suspicious Parliaments, and persecution of all but official religion was vigorous. 

The secret meetings at Cilfwnwr soon became known to the authorities. In the mid -1600s the Bishop of St David’s was drawing attention to them and to “a strange concourse of people which, under pretence of their religion, meet many times in their parish of Llangyvelach in Gowres Land…”

The “strange concourse” was nothing if not courageous. Many were forced to appear before the archdeacon’s court for refusing to attend the Church of England. 

Defiantly, in 1666, the church members recorded a covenant to choose Oxford-educated Robert Thomas of Baglan Hall, a descendant of Lord Baglan, as their pastor. 

The scattered congregation, which now stretched from Baglan, Blaengwrach and Neath to Llangyfelach and Loughor, became the largest Welsh congregation in the old country of Glamorgan, with most people walking all the way to and from services. 

In 1745 there were 15 dissenting congregations in the diocese of Swansea and Brecon. The Swansea causes, mainly English-speaking, had an average total attendance of 250. Mynyddbach’s average attendance was 1,006. 

By then Mary Thomas had died and the church had moved to Tirdoncyn, another farm nearby. Here the huge congregation was to soar again when the Rev Lewis Rees arrived in 1759. Already a veteran victim of persecution, this Blaengwrach-born dynamo was apparently stoned by people when he first visited Llangyfelach. 

But his preaching attracted such crowds that Tirdoncyn was overwhelmed and, in 1762, the first church was built beside the ancient public pathway at neighbouring Mynyddbach. 

Lewis Rees was evidently a legendary character. The story is told how three young men mockingly asked after his health, addressing him in turn as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

He replied: “My dear young friends, I am neither Abraham, Isaac, nor Jacob. I am Sail, son of Cis, and have come forth to seek my father’s asses – and here before me are three of them!”

His grip on the church was obviously keen. From 1682, Morriston members had also been holding services at Tycoch Cottages at the entrance of Bath Villa, where a commemorative plaque was later placed. 

In time, people complained about the inconvenience of the venue and started talking about a new meeting place. Lewis Rees, it seems, was apprehensive about the possibility of them setting up their own church. And in any case, anyone unwilling to walk to Mynyddbach was lazy and lacking in zeal! 

But gradually, daughter churches started to spring up all over the area – Bethel, Sketty, in 1770, Libanus, Morriston, in 1782, Ebenezer, Swansea, in 1805, Hebron, Clydach, in 1810, Siloh, Landore, in 1829, Nebo in Felindre, Canaan at Foxhole and so on. 

In 1836, Isaac Harries was in charge in Mynyddbach. He was there just two years and subsequent references speak discreetly of his time as one of unhappiness. 

This was the same Isaac Harries who led 219 members from the church to form Caersalem Newydd, a breakaway later described by the desire for baptism. 

In fact, Harries, it now appears, was a rogue whose fines for misdeeds had to be paid by the Mynyddbach trustees. The final straw came when Harries sold his one donkey to three different people. 

For two successive Sundays he and his supporters were locked out and held alternative meetings on the nearby common. Legend has it that the group became baptist after their overtures to the congregationalists were rejected. Now both churches seemed to have dropped a veil over the role of the black sheep. 

Today, ancient Cilfwynyr Farm still exists, on the left hand side of the A48 as you drive from Llangyfelach to Penllergaer, but the present owners say nothing remains of the Mynyddbach story. 

Caersalem continues to flourish but sadly, Mynyddbach is in decline. The need for repairs to the rebuilt and extended 1762 church is awesome, while the Sunday congregation averages just 15. Since 1985 the faithful few have soldiered on without a minister. 

If the end comes for the building, one thing is for sure, Mynyddbach will always be remembered for its legendary beginning, for its role in promoting the Welsh language and education, and for the monumental influence it became in Welsh non-conformity.