The Story of Molleston Baptist Church

By Yona Pusey

At the beginning of 2019 the Historical Society was treated to an informative and beautifully presented lecture on the story of Slebech.  It is a story which records in detail the lives of its upper class inhabitants and the connections they made to far-flung places and well-documented historical events over a period of nearly a thousand years.

About half way through this period events in Germany and Switzerland were to have a profound effect on the lives of most of the inhabitants of northern Europe, as Martin Luther and John Calvin began the process known to us as the Protestant Reformation.  Their reading of scripture had convinced them that the established church was laying too much stress on structures, institutions and traditions, and was overlooking the importance of individual men and women responding in faith to God’s offer of eternal life.

From the centre of Europe, the threads of this reformed teaching spread north and west, eventually reaching Britain via Holland, and coming to Pembrokeshire in the second half of the seventeenth century.  In the story of Slebech we saw threads which family members carried to all parts of the world; in the story of Molleston we see the end of a thread which started in central Europe and was carried right into “our backyard”.

 Molleston Baptist Chapel, Pembrokeshire

So you may well ask, “Why Molleston? There are more than 50 other Baptist chapels in the county; why choose this one?”  The answer is simply that in August 2017 the present congregation at Molleston celebrated 350 years of history.  When the editor of the Journal asked for contributions from members for this edition it seemed to this listener that the story of Molleston deserved to be told.  The scholarship of this article may be less than readers are accustomed to; the hope is that this will not detract from the interest of the story.

The thread coming out of central Europe, referred to above, was highlighted in recent TV documentaries by both Huw Edwards (The Story of Wales) and Professor Diarmuid McCullough (The History of Christianity).  The post-reformation years were a turbulent period in the developing story of the modern western church.  Religious groups appeared and disappeared; martyrdom and persecution were common; people struggled to express and live out the importance of an individual’s relationship with God, in contrast to prevailing ecclesiastical practices.

The original expectation and hope was the reform of the existing church structures, but the resistance to that reform was such that “separation” became necessary.  The persecution which followed spread across Europe and led to the adventure of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 and the exodus to the New World.  Those who chose, or were compelled, to stay endured years of suffering even in far-flung corners like Pembrokeshire.

The denominational grouping to which Molleston belongs, the Baptists, came from various continental sources.  In 1612 Thomas Helwys and others arrived back in London after a period of exile in Holland, where they had found refuge and inspiration among the Anabaptists (so called because their members were re-baptised into the new faith).  Helwys founded the first Baptist church in England, just outside the walls of London, according to the law which forbade the building of dissenting (separated) churches within populated areas.  Baptists themselves were divided into General and Particular of which the latter were the stricter, and from which most Welsh Baptists were derived.

In the mid seventeenth century Britain was plunged into the political crisis of Charles I and his opponent Oliver Cromwell.  The army of Cromwell – so-called Parliamentarians or Roundheads – comprised largely non-conformists and independents, including it seems one John Miles who came to Wales and founded the first Baptist church at Ilston on the Gower, just outside Swansea.  Other churches followed, and during the 1650s there seem to have been regular assemblies for mutual encouragement.  But following the restoration of the monarchy a further period of persecution led to the scattering of congregations.  A certain William Jones, priest at Cilmaenllwyd and dissenter, was ejected from his living in 1662 and made his way towards Abergavenny where it seems likely he was baptised by Pastor Thomas Watkins of the separatist group in Olchen. (Identified with Capel y Ffin.)

William Jones returned to an itinerant preaching ministry among small groups of dissenting believers in Pembrokeshire, including one meeting in the home of Griffith Howell at Rushacre, Narberth. ( the name appears today in a suburb on Redstone Road, north of the main part of Narberth town.) In 1667 and 1668 twenty one baptisms are recorded among this group (including an Alice Bishop of Slebech).  At the same time the group was recognised as a distinct church, although constitutional documents are virtually non-existent.  The turmoil continued, and throughout the county it seems that groups regularly met and were disbanded, and meeting places were changed.  The home in Rushacre remained among the most constant; but far from being a cowed and inward-looking group, its membership showed continuing growth.

William Jones continued his itinerant ministry among Welsh and English speakers in Pembrokeshire. At one time he was offered a very generous living in the established church (£140 p.a.), which says something about his preaching ability, but he instead chose several terms of imprisonment in both Carmarthen and Haverfordwest jails.  On one memorable occasion he was given reluctant permission to travel to the Rhydwilym district to keep a promise to celebrate communion with a group meeting in the home of Griffith Howell’s daughter.  The service was held on the mountainside, and snow (God’s tablecloth) covered the flat rock selected as a communion table.  Jones returned to Haverfordwest jail before anyone expected him – and was consequently allowed out on many similar occasions to minister to the scattered groups.

An interesting reference to a meeting place called Neare (probably Narberth) appears in the record of the London Association in 1689, with its ministers being named as William Jones and Griffith Howell.  The date of Jones’ death is not known, but strong and effective leadership continued to be given by Griffith Howell at Rushacre.  He also provided land for 3 nonconformist burial grounds, one at Trefangor, Llandewi Velfrey, where he himself was buried in 1705.

The old burial ground at Trefangor, Llanddewi Velfrey

The grave of Griffith Howell, Trefangor

The internal divisions of the Christian church in this tumultuous period led to many non-conformists being refused burial in the consecrated grounds of parish cemeteries.  Hence the compelling need for “other spaces”.  Griffith Howell’s generosity in this respect lifted a great anxiety from his fellow church members. The story of Trefangor has been documented by a Baptist historian, R.C. Roberts, at the turn of the twentieth century, but his book is currently unavailable.  One episode from the nineteenth century is often told. The squire of Henllan, the estate in which Trefangor was located, mistakenly claimed the burial ground for his own land, and refused to allow the body of a Baptist minister to be buried there. Years later the squire discovered the mistake and offered money for the refurbishment of the cemetery.

After the death of Griffith Howell the story of meetings in Rushacre is undocumented.  However, in 1729, 25 years later, a group of twenty four people began to hold services in a house, Rhos-side or Roadside, on land belonging to Thomas and John George at Molleston.  In 1731 the church was formally constituted and appointed its own minister, Griffith Williams, and his assistant, David James. Griffith Williams died in 1733, but the group kept together and in 1736 a remarkable man became their minister.  Evan Thomas, whose livelihood came through a shop in Narberth, served the church for 47 years and his gifts set the pattern for the development of the church during the eighteenth century. The official written record of the church goes back to this time.

Among his first acts was the writing of a letter to the group outlining his sense of calling, and the high expectations for those who followed the Baptist faith.  The conclusion of the letter contained thirty six Articles of Faith, which express his own convictions and the obligations of church members, both in practical and moral matters.   Among his priorities was meeting together with other Baptist groups from across Wales; one such gathering took place in (presumably) Rhos-side in 1750, and among the topics discussed was the proposal that ministers should receive payment for their services!

Shortly after this meeting, the records show the generosity of the George brothers and their families towards the new church. Land was donated for the building of a new chapel at Molleston, followed by the erection of stable facilities for the horses – the “cars” of their generation!  The building was opened in 1763 and soon became a central point for Baptist groups all over Pembrokeshire who as yet had no buildings of their own.  Through the encouragement of the church in Molleston, churches were established, among other places, in Martletwy, Cresswell Quay, Haverfordwest and Llangloffan.  In this sense, Molleston can rightly claim to be the mother church of the Baptists in Pembrokeshire.

In 1788 Revd Benjamin Davies became minister of Molleston, which included members from all over south Pembrokeshire.  Among them was a Miss Owen, of Denant outside Haverfordwest, who soon became Mrs Benjamin Davies.  Benjamin gave particular oversight to a group of Baptists in Haverfordwest who met for a while in a room in Prendergast.  In 1798 he became their minister, and during the next eighteen years secured the present site of Bethesda and built the first chapel.

Meanwhile the church in Molleston went through a period of decline until in 1863 a new minister, Revd John Harries, urged the members to “deeper consecration and more faithful attendance”.  The success of his plea is seen in the enlarging and refurbishing of the building which re-opened in 1869, with special trains from Pembroke Dock and Tenby bringing many visitors. In 1873 the candles were replaced with oil lamps.

The early years of the twentieth century were difficult ones, with many of the younger members of the church giving their lives during the 1914-1918 war.  In 1923 Revd T. L. Parry became the minister and for seven years brought an immense compassion to his work, causing the fellowship to grow by 60 members.  In the 1930s the church joined with the church at Loveston to call a minister, an arrangement which still results in co-operation between the two.

During the dark days of the second world war an aerodrome was built on land close to Molleston.  Good relations were established between the church and the army personnel, with religious and social interaction. With the departure of the military the sense of loss deepened.  The pastorate of Revd Harold Jones was again memorable for its compassion and when he died suddenly in 1954 the shock was profound.

After a long gap the church was well served by Revd Charles Campbell, and later Revd Hywel Brown.  During this time a special relationship was forged with residents of a care home in St Davids, who are still brought to morning worship each Sunday, and speak movingly of their appreciation.

For the celebrations in August 2017 of the 350th anniversary the church is indebted to the work of Tim Longworth, Mission Enabler of the Pembrokeshire Baptist Association, who put together a video record of the history of the church, and personal recollections and reflections from two of its longstanding members.  The work of Mrs Haulwen Nicholas as a church officer since 1980 has been outstanding in its faithfulness and care and I am indebted to her for making available the previous printed histories of the church.

The future remains an unknown.  But it is a certainty that the lives of many generations of “ordinary” residents of Pembrokeshire, particularly in the area around Slebech Park, have been transformed through what has taken place in that corner of the county we know as Molleston Baptist Church.

Molleston Baptist Chapel with its adjacent cemetery

 

Bibliography

  1. H. Williams, A Memorial of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of Molleston, (printed and published by John Thomas, “Pembrokeshire Telegraph”, Bridge Street, Haverfordwest)
  2. Ivor Jones, Molleston Baptist Church, Pembrokeshire: Reflections on the Founders’ Tercentenary,  (printed by V.G. Lodwick & Sons Ltd, Carmarthen, 1968)
  3. R.C. Roberts, Baptist Historical Sketches in Pembrokeshire. (First published as a series in the Pembroke Dock Journal by M. Dobson, Meyrick Street around 1906)
  4. C. Underwood, A History of English Baptists.

 

Acknowledgements:  I am indebted to Mrs Haulwen Nicholas for practical help and encouragement, and to Mr William Henton Pusey for the original photographs.