The town is dominated by its massive moated castle, with one bastion leaning precariously outwards. A large red dragon forged in metal is set into a gap in the castle walls, which adds further to the medieval ambience.
The one-eyed preacher Christmas Evans (1766-1838) came here in 1826 as minister of Ton-y-Felin chapel and in the space of two years saw much spiritual growth with new converts added and backsliders restored. The present chapel, dated 1866, stands on the corner of Bedwas Road and Ton-y-Felin Road, not far from the castle (CF83 1XP). However, on the semi-detached cottages just to the left is a plaque, telling us that this building was the chapel used by Evans, and there was also an earlier chapel on the site.
Evans seemed to have a gift for beginning a new work, but often then fell out with other leaders or the congregation, causing him to look for pastures new. In 1828, he moved on to Cardiff, living at 44 Caroline Street (CF10 1FF). The building has recently been in use as a Fish and Chip shop.
Born in this mining region in 1876, Stephen Jeffreys followed his father into the pits at the age of 12 and spent 24 years as a miner. In 1904, in the early weeks of the Welsh Revival, he was living with his wife and family opposite Siloh Independent Chapel and in November of that year he and his younger brother George were both converted under the preaching of the minister Glasnant Jones. Though very different in character and gifting, both brothers were closely involved in the worldwide growth of the Pentecostal movement in first half of the twentieth century.
Now converted into flats, Siloh Chapel in the High Street (CF34 0BS) retains the external appearance of a typical nonconformist chapel, solidly built with arched windows, stone urns on top giving a classical touch.
It was in this town was that Stephen Jeffreys began his preaching ministry while still working as a miner, and together with his brother George, experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit here in 1908. His later ministry took him to many parts of Wales, and thence to Scandinavia, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. When his health failed, he was cared for by doctors at the Bible College of Wales in Swansea, run by Rees Howells, and died in 1943. His funeral was held at the Baptist Church in Castle Street, Maesteg (CF34 9YN), and he was laid to rest at in the cemetery at Llangynwyd.
The modern village spans the A4063 just south of Maesteg, but tourist signs direct us up narrow lanes to the older Langynwyd Historic Village, just to the west. The graveyard of St Cynwyd’s church is vast, with a large extension across a narrow lane, clearly serving a widespread population. There are no directions to significant graves or memorials and we were unable to locate the last resting place of Stephen Jeffreys. Visitors may find the search for this or other graves exhausting, but can at least refresh themselves at the thatched Old House pub opposite the church, dating from 1147, and claiming to be the oldest pub in Wales.
The name of Evan Roberts will forever be associated with the Welsh Revival of 1904-05, but of equal importance, if less well known, is that of the Rev. Seth Joshua (1858-1925). Born in Pontypool and ordained in the Welsh Presbyterian church, Joshua together with his bother Frank, also a minister, founded the Mission Hall Church in Neath.
Now calling itself Church on the Move, the church is on the High Street (SA11 3NB), part of a traffic loop which serves the pedestrianised shopping centre adjacent to Prince of Wales Drive. The older pebble-dashed building, now known as the Lesser Hall, dates from 1884, while the newer red brick church was erected in 1903. Among the commemorative stones is one laid by Rev F. Joshua. The text of John 14.6 displayed outside suggests that the church continues an active witness.
It was sermons preached by Seth Joshua in Newcastle Emlyn and later in Blaenannerch in the weeks preceding the Revival, which led Evan Roberts to a crisis of faith. Joshua wrote in his dairy One young man was deeply moved, while Roberts recorded that, following the meeting, I felt ablaze with a desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the Saviour.
Overshadowed by the vast Port Talbot steelworks, bypassed by the M4 and almost cut off in a complex network of dual carriageways and roundabouts, Bethlehem Evangelical Church maintains its witness to a community of pebble-dashed terraced houses and run down shops. On the corner of Ysguthan Road and Pendarvis Terrace, the church, commonly known as Sandfields, is remembered for the early ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones (1899-1927).
Born in Cardiff, Lloyd Jones was the middle of three sons of a none-too-successful grocer, and was brought up at Llangeitho in Cardiganshire, where has father had taken over a general store. Still seeking a successful business, Lloyd Jones senior moved his family to London in 1914 and Martyn would help his father delivering milk to homes in the Westminster area in the early years of the First World War. A quick and eager student, Martyn began medical studies at the age of sixteen, becoming assistant to the King’s physician, Sir Thomas Horder, in his early twenties.
A distinguished medical career beckoned, but Lloyd Jones was interested in many things beside medicine. As a teenager he listened to wartime debates in parliament and warmed to the oratory of his fellow Welshman David Lloyd George. He also began to rediscover the theology of the Puritans, which stood him in good stead when he eventually exchanged the surgery for the pulpit. He recognised an invitation to Sandfields church as God’s call to the ministry as well as an opportunity to re-engage with the Welsh culture and landscape which he so enjoyed. He served as pastor from 1927 to 1938, before starting a thirty-year ministry at Westminster Chapel, London. While serving at Sandfields, he lived first at 57, then at 28 Victoria Road
The former Bethesda Baptist Church in Prince of Wales Road, just off the High Street, is the last resting place of the famous Welsh preacher Christmas Evans (1766-1838), sometimes described as the “one-eyed Bunyan of Wales”.
Evans was born near Llandysul in Cardiganshire, and the death of his father, a poor shoemaker, left him destitute at the age of nine. Six years spent with an uncle, a harsh and cruel man, left him without even a basic education. He came under the influence of David Davies, minister of a Presbyterian chapel at Llwynrhydowan, and here he learned to read Welsh and also gained some knowledge of English. A revival in the area drew many into a deeper level of spiritual experience and Evans felt called to be a preacher, but the Presbyterians required a higher standard of education than he could offer, so he was led to join the Baptists.
He lost an eye in an affray, and in 1789 was ordained to serve scattered Baptist communities in Lleyn peninsular, and from 1792 he was based in Llangefni, ministering to Baptist churches on the island of Anglesey, where many new chapels were built. Other periods of ministry were spent in Caerphilly and Caernarvon. While undoubtedly a tireless and effective evangelist, Evans was never far from controversy. His autocratic style often caused him to fall out with his congregations and fellow ministers, and in doctrine he flirted for a time with the Sandemanian heresy, but eventually returned to a more orthodox position. He died while on a fund-raising journey in South Wales, preaching his last sermon in Swansea on 16th July 1838.
The style of Bethesda Baptist Church is typical of many nonconformist chapels, but it is built of soft sandstone which has become eroded with time, and has an ornate portico at the front facing the busy road. It now serves as the local headquarters of the NSPCC, with its entrance at the rear. A granite monument to Evans, black at the base with a pink obelisk can be seen from outside. Closer inspection would require access via the NSPCC offices.
As Christmas Evans was laid to rest at Bethesda Chapel in 1838, a seven-year-old boy was growing up at Ebenezer Baptist Chapel (SA1 5BJ) a few streets away, who was destined to have one of the most remarkable missionary careers of the 19th century. Griffith John (1831-1912) was received as a full member of the chapel at the age of 8, preached his first sermon at 14 and was a regular preacher at 16, being known as "the boy preacher of Wales". The chapel, still an active church today, carries a blue plaque to his memory.
John trained as a missionary at Brecon Memorial College, married the daughter of David Griffiths, a former missionary to Madagascar and left for China in 1855, under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. He settled in Hankow (now part of Wuhan city) and in the course of a career of nearly 60 years returned to Britain only three times. He became an expert linguist and translated the Bible into local dialects, as well as writing tracts and booklets himself. When his first wife died, he founded a hospital in her name, which became an important medical centre He also founded several schools, a Teacher Training College and a Theological College . It was on a rare visit home that he died in London at the age of 80. He was also an active campaigner against the opium trade.
John's funeral was attended by many thousands. His grave is at Sketty Cenetery, which we reach from Carnglas Road (SA2 9 BJ) To find it, walk along the path in line with the front of the church for about 50 yards beyond the church wall. There is a large square granite plinth saying simply that John for more than 50 years laboured as a missionary among the Chinese people. His memory is still honoured today, by the Chinese authorities as well as by the church.
Heading out of Swansea towards the Mumbles peninsula, the former Bible College of Wales, founded by Rees Howells in 1924, was located in Derwen Fawr Road (SA2 8EB). The College closed in 2004, although its work continues under another name at a new location in England.
Derwen Fawr Road is alternately quite broad and very narrow and the former college buildings, situated on both sides of the road, are unfortunately at the narrowest point, so even to view them requires care and agility to negotiate passing traffic. On one side there is little to see, as the buildings are screened by a high stone wall. Even the former entrance is walled up, presumably due to traffic problems. On the opposite side, a mansion-like building can be viewed through the gateway, but it is a sad sight with peeling paintwork, crumbling fabric and much in need of repair. The good news is that the main building behind the stone wall has been reopened as the Bible College of Wales, under the auspices of Cornerstone Community Church of Singapore. It has an international intake of students and a Heritage Centre within the college recounts its former history under Rees Howells.
Rees Howells (1879-1950) was known internationally as a man of fervent faith, who believed that prayer could, and did, change history. He is now usually remembered with the honorary title of “Intercessor”. Born in the village of Brynamman, about fifteen miles north of Swansea, he was the sixth of eleven children. Like so many, his early life was spent in the tin works and coal mines of South Wales. At the age of 22, he set off for America to improve his financial prospects. Despite the godly influence of family and friends, he only came to a personal faith at a mission led by Maurice Reuben, a converted Jew from Pittsburgh. Returning to Wales, Howells experienced more of the work of the Holy Spirit in the wake of the Welsh Revival. He became a preacher and missionary, spending five years in South Africa, where he witnessed revival amongst both black and white communities.
As founder and principal of the Bible College, Howells took a close interest in world events during the nineteen thirties and forties and led his students and staff in long hours of prayer and intercession at critical moments. He firmly believed that this had turned the course of events at Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, D-Day and other decisive moments. Nor was he just a remote onlooker; Swansea suffered some of the heaviest bombing of any city in the War, and prayer meetings at the College would take continue even as the raids were taking place a few miles away.
Not all prayers were answered in the way expected, but Howells still saw God working all things together for good. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was the subject of much prayer, as it had the effect of closing the country to Protestant missionary work. However, when the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie heard of Howells interest, he visited the College and a warm friendship and correspondence developed, which continued after the Emperor returned to his country in 1941. Remembering that he owed his own conversion to the ministry of a converted Jew, Howells opened a home for Jewish refugee children and took a close interest in the founding of the state of Israel, which he saw as the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.
[Photos of the Derwen Fawr Residence and Blue Room courtesy of and used with permission of the Bible College of Wales]
In the Newton area of Swansea, overlooking Caswell Bay is a house used by the poet and hymnwriter Frances Ridley Havergal (1838-79), best known as the author of Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to Thee. It was owned by her sister Maria and known as Park Villa, but today just has the name Havergal on the old iron gate, with the inscription She, being dead, yet speaketh. The house, privately owned, is 58 Caswell Avenue, on the corner of Caswell Road (SA3 4RU). Never strong in health, Frances spent the last months of her life here. When she died, she was buried at Astley in Worcestershire, where she had grown up. The sisters used to worship at Paraclete Church in Summerland Lane, at the end of Caswell Avenue, which has a plaque to her memory.
The story of the Welsh Revival of 1904-05 has been told many times and the details of those events can be found in books, articles and websites from many sources. Visitors come from across the world to the village to see the birthplace of Evan Roberts (1878- 1951) and also Moriah Chapel, which he attended as a boy and where he was finally laid to rest.
Roberts’ birthplace is a long, two-storey pebble-dashed building called Island House, now providing bed and breakfast accommodation to visitors. It is at a quiet and pleasant spot in Gwynfe Road (SA4 6TE), overlooking Glanymoor Park. From the A4240 Borough Road, take the turning signposted to Loughor Foreshore, which leads into Bwlch Road and continues as Gwynfe Road.
Moriah Chapel faces the traffic in Glebe Road (SA4 6QD), the main street through the village. Standing prominently in front is a granite memorial to Roberts with a cameo portrait and an inscription in Welsh. The present chapel dates from 1898, while an earlier chapel building was converted into a schoolroom in 1903.
Like so many on South Wales, Evan Roberts began his working life in the coal mines. It is said that he had a narrow escape when an underground explosion scorched his Bible. Feeling called to the ministry, he attended a preparatory college at Newcastle Emlyn. While there, he heard of a series of meetings at Blaenannerch, at which Rev. Seth Joshua was describing a revival currently taking place at New Quay church in Cardiganshire under the pastor Joseph Jenkins. On 29th September 1904, Roberts set out with several fellow students to attend the Blaenannerch conference. Joshua concluded the first meeting with the prayer (in Welsh) Lord, bend us. He immediately felt a deep outpouring of the Holy Spirit and cried out Bend me, bend me! in a flood of tears and perspiration. I was filled with compassion for those who will have to bend on the day of judgement, he reported I felt ablaze with the desire to go though the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the Saviour.
Returning to Loughor, Roberts began a series of meetings at Moriah chapel with the permission of the minister, to which ever increasing numbers were drawn. Here and in subsequent meetings across Wales, he emphasised four requirements for salvation: Confession of all known sin; Repentance and restitution; Obedience and surrender to the Holy Spirit; and Public confession of Christ.
The revival spread rapidly all over Wales. Roberts moved around Wales with a team of supporters, many of them young women. The meetings would begin with intense intercession and testimony. There was no organised musical worship and often no preaching. Roberts might spend much of the meeting on his knees, pleading with God and in tears. Visitors came from other parts of Britain and abroad and took the message back to their own lands and congregations.
The intensity of the revival, however, took its toll on Roberts' physical and emotional health and in 1906 he had a kind of nervous breakdown. He went to convalesce at the home of Mrs Jessie Penn Lewis and they co-authored a book called War on the Saints, which was published in 1913. This led to confusion among his followers as to whether the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, seen during the revival, were genuine or the result of deception. Roberts lived on in relative obscurity, spending some time in Brighton before returning to Wales in 1928. He died in 1951 and was buried behind Moriah Chapel.