In 2018, as part of the 150th anniversary of Bethel Baptist Church Tredegar, one of our deacons revised and updated our history. As I read it, it was clear that some principles concerning church planting and growth are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.
A church built in a place of need
In 1864, Tredegar had a population of approximately 9,000 (currently 15,000). The incoming iron and coal mining industries led to the lament, ‘How green was my valley.’ Yet those same industries created employment for English and Irish migrants. They settled in a new suburb that sprang up to house them. It was known in Welsh as Llyswedog and later, during the years of Victoria’s Empire, as Georgetown. While the main Baptist church, Siloh, was Welsh speaking, eighteen believers saw the opportunity of taking the gospel in English to this area. Meeting initially in homes including 17 Victoria Terrace, Georgetown, they formed themselves into a church. Eventually, they set about building a place of worship. Soon a recognisable and identifiable group of Christians had put themselves on the map in the local community.
A church built in times of great tragedy, and poverty
The social conditions were very poor before and around the founding of the church. The first doctor did not arrive in Tredegar until 1813. The local Cholera cemetery is silent testimony to the heartache of bereavement of whole families, first in 1832 and then in 1849/50. A year after the church’s founding, the nearby Bedwelty pit suffered the death of twenty-six miners. Twelve years later another twelve lives were lost. In such needy conditions, people were reminded of both the brevity of life and the day of judgement, alongside the tender appeal of Jesus Christ who declared, ‘come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’
A church built through great sacrifice and dedication
Once the decision to build a church was made, the members would arrive straight from physical work and start digging the footings. The building was completed on 2nd August 1868, at the cost of £320, one shilling and 6 pence (equivalent to £34,388 today). The records reveal that the employed among them were made up of cobblers, carpenters, mine workers and a cooper. Bearing in mind there was ‘not one among them who did not belong to the working class’ this was an amazing accomplishment. Could you or your churches give practical financial support to enable more evangelists and preachers to work in the Valleys today? Adopting a Valleys church would be a good beginning.
A church built through a tent-making ministry
David Evans Jr. ran the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company School with some distinction. With his salary secured he accepted the call to be the first unpaid pastor of Bethel and gave his gifts, energy and remaining time to the ministry. He was a ‘tenacious man and a visionary’. By the time he resigned four years later (1868–1872), the church had grown to thirty-eight members with one hundred and sixteen in the Sunday School and nineteen teachers. How encouraged he must have been. The Valleys still need men and women ‘tentmakers’ of this calibre. Many of us could testify that this area can also be a place of fruitfulness.
A church built amidst controversy
This is recorded in two ways. First, the original 18 founder members left their previous church over a dispute concerning the issue of ‘Temperance’. The precise details are now lost to us. The second difficulty was opposition to the new venture. As soon as the building work became visible, other churches put pressure on the authorities, and the workmen were forced to down tools and abandon the first site. Undeterred they then sought permission for the present site. This belonged to the Ebbw Vale Iron and Coal Company over which the complainants had no influence and so could not prevent its completion. Whilst reconciliation of the parties eventually took place, this is a reminder that sometimes the work of God becomes messy because we are messy. Acts 15:36 onwards records that godly Paul and Barnabas parted ways, yet ultimately God worked it for the furtherance of the gospel.
A church built with mission to the area and overseas
Bethel became a preaching centre to churches from Deri to Ebbw Vale and from Trefil to Cefn Forest. A striking illustration further afield is the establishing of a work in Legnica, Poland. The story is too involved to go into detail here but suffice to say what began as a humanitarian trip with aid to an orphanage has in the providence of God developed into establishing a reformed gospel work in the community. So, as Bethel completes 150 years of its history, the church in Legnica completes its first, with hopefully many more to follow.
A church maintained through biblical preaching
What kind of preaching was heard in many non conformist chapels at this time? A visit to Tredegar in the early 1900s by a noted preacher from Swansea gives some indication. His ministry was reviewed with high praise for its erudition — the high point being when the preacher sang the ‘song of the shirt’. Is this why today there are four or five non conformist Gospel churches where once the town boasted over thirty? Whatever the case, if Bethel has prospered, it is due to faithful, biblical, contemporary and expository preaching received by a responsive congregation. The church has been served by eleven such pastors, the present incumbent being Trystan Hallam. One ministry worth highlighting is that of Rev. Alan Watkins ably assisted by his esteemed wife, Doris. They served the church faithfully for 26 years.
A church with a future?
To do justice to the fuller story of Bethel Baptist Tredegar, you would need to obtain the book Against all odds (details below). But by the sheer grace of God, the witness continues today with average congregations of between 60 and 70. But what of the future? Without fresh blood, humanly the outlook is bleak. The local MP Nye Bevan (1897-1960) founded the National Health Service after a prototype developed in Tredegar. He sarcastically described the church in Wales and the Valleys as ‘extinct volcanoes’. That would appear to be the case. Dear reader, will you work and pray for God to bring the volcanoes to life and erupt with such power and force that many are swept into the kingdom? To that end will you consider coming to live and work in the Valleys and see the overflow of gospel mercy transforming needy sinners?
With thanks to Ron Harding for his excellent research which forms the background to this article.