A Brief History of
Llanwenarth Baptist Church, Govilon.

Like many of the Baptist fellowships formed during Cromwell's Commonwealth, the cause at Llanwenarth owes its origins to a former member of the New Model Army.
After leaving the Army, one John Miles came to Wales and settled at Ilston in the Gower.
In 1652, supported under the provisions of the Act for the Better Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, John Miles travelled up the Usk Valley, preaching and encouraging the formation of new congregations. As a result of his ministry, the fellowship that later became Llanwenarth Baptist Church was formed in Abergavenny, under the leadership of William Pritchard.

When the Monarchy was restored in 1660, the young fellowship was forced to go underground, as Charles II declared all acts of worship that did not conform to the practices of the established Church of England to be illegal. It was not until 1688, when Charles' brother James II was ousted by his brother-in-law, William of Orange, that Baptists began to feel free to worship openly. So it was in 1695 that the fellowship, still led by William Pritchard, leased land from Christopher Price, a sympathetic apothecary from nearby Llanfoist.
On this land the fellowship built their first Meeting House, which was licensed for worship in 1696. This small Meeting House occupied the northern end of the current building in Govilon - it is almost certain that part of the current north wall dates back to that original building. William Pritchard died in 1713, but by that time the fellowship at Llanwenarth had already called their next minister.

Joshua James had come to Govilon in 1695 as co-pastor. Now he would lead the church in a period of considerable growth. During his pastorate Llanwenarth played a major role in the formation of the Welsh Baptist Association (1700) and founded a day school where children were to 'be freely instructed in reading, writing, arithmatick, and likewise in the Principles of Religion'.

Joshua James died in 1728 and the life of the fellowship entered a quiet period. This lasted until the ministry of Caleb Harris (1746-1792). It was during his pastorate that Llanwenarth, like many non-Conformist causes of that time, suffered in the arguments over Unitarianism. Caleb Harris' pastoral leadership ensured that the fellowship remained strong, despite the defection of one Benjamin Meredith and his followers. As the pastorate of Caleb Harris was nearing its end, the church again called a co-pastor. James Lewis was called to Llanwenarth in 1791 and soon found himself in sole charge. His ministry proved highly successful, and soon the membership was nearly 350.

Rev. Francis HileyThe church now decided to call one of her own children to become co-pastor. Francis Hiley had only just graduated from the Abergavenny Academy when he was appointed by Llanwenarth in 1811. The period of James and Francis' individual and joint pastorates was to be the high point of the fellowship. Between them they baptised over 1,400 people. Francis Hiley was a renowned preacher in both Welsh and English. Known as the "Silver Trumpet of Gwent", he was reported to have preached outdoors to great crowds of over 1,000 people, standing on top of a wall so that he could be seen by all.

By 1830, the membership of Llanwenarth had grown to 629. Many members were "released" by the mother chapel to found independent fellowships. The largest of these was Hermon, Nantyglo. This fellowship became an independent church in 1830, with 238 former members of Llanwenarth being transferred to it. Altogether, Llanwenarth founded twelve daughter churches throughout greater Gwent and played a major role in the building of Baptist witness throughout Wales.

James died in 1837 and Francis in 1860. The times that followed the pastorate of Francis Hiley were times of great change. The language of worship became English rather than Welsh, the industrialisation of the once-pastoral community was continuing apace, and new technology was altering the whole way of life. Sunday School Outing, 1910The Merthyr, Tredegar and Abergavenny Railroad arrived; Govilon Station opened in 1862 and horse-drawn trams and iron-laden barges filling the canal behind the chapel were soon just memories. New technology caused small disturbances too. The records contain a report of panic arising in the congregation from the showing of 'dissolving images' - Magic Lantern shows in the Chapel were henceforth banned!

Llanwenarth nevertheless maintained its status as one of the first Baptist churches in Wales (it is now the oldest still in existence) and in 1866, the Welsh Baptist Union was formed at Llanwenarth. Throughout the 20th Century, the Chapel community remained strong, with three Sunday School branches (these were originally attended by adults as well as children) - wonderful early photographs show Sunday School outings on horsedrawn barges around the turn of the century.

Although the heights achieved during the times of Lewis and Hiley have not been repeated, the fellowship continues in good heart - as the rest of this web-site shows - and celebrated its 350th Anniversary in 2002. Lighting the Cross - 350th Anniversary

The celebrations began with the illumination of a new wooden cross on the ancient North Wall of the building, on January 5th 2002.

If you want to know more about the history of this fellowship please contact the Minister. There are records dating back to the foundation of the cause in 1652, and a book detailing the history of the chapel was published for the 350th Anniversary.
(However, please note that like most early Baptist churches, no records were kept of Births, Marriages and Deaths. Early Baptist church records mainly consist of details of church meetings, appointments of deacons and financial matters.)

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