Nantyffin Chapel, Penycae
Baptists had been present in Wales from the mid seventeenth century and became, with the Independents (also known as Congregationalists), one of the two dominant nonconformist denominations in south Wales. The others were the Methodists (Calvinist or Wesleyan), the Unitarians and various smaller sects. Some were divided further into English and Welsh denominations. All groups, though, shared a common rejection of the established church and a stated desire to return to simpler, more scripturally based worship. They differed substantially, however, in terms of practice and doctrine. Key defining features of the Baptists were their rejection of infant baptism and their belief that congregations were autonomous, and consequentially self-supporting, groups, in all aspects of their ministry and organisation. This certainly suited many of the independently minded colliers and other artisans of this area.
“Pond Beddwyr” - the Baptists’ Pond on the river Llech - received many adult baptisms.
For a much fuller explanation, see “The Story of Nonconformity in Wales”.
Many of the Coelbren House Morgan family are buried or commemorated at the Baptist Nantyffin Chapel near Penycae, starting with Richard and Gwenllian Morgan and their five children that survived into adulthood. The Baptist Cause was first established around here about 1796 and the first chapel was built around the same time. It was remodeled at various points in the nineteenth century, and is said to be the “Mother of all Baptist chapels in the Swansea valley.” (Williams, 2011), having capacity for over 300 adherents. Just over two hundred years later, the chapel is closed for worship, but is still open for burial. Before Moriah Chapel was opened in Colbren in 1910, this was where the Morgan family worshipped and Richard Morgan was sometime secretary to the chapel. His family, of course, came from strong Baptist tradition based around Horeb Chapel, Cwmdwr, In the families considered here, only the Morgan side were Baptists - the Joneses preferred the Independent chapel denomination, and worshipped at the (now demolished) Onllywn chapel, in whose remaining graveyard many reside, or at Tyn-y-Coed, Abercrave. We don’t know whether Daniel Jones, who married Anne Morgan of the Coelbren House family, became a Baptist from choice or necessity, b ut it seems clear that his Jones family were of the Independent denomination.
What is clear though is that for a while the Baptist Nantyffin and Moriah chapels at Coelbren and the Independent Chapel at Onllwyn played major roles for a large part of the community, extending their reach into much more aspects of life then the purely religious. Francis and Smith (1998) characterise 1930s coalfield communities thus:
“Colliers lived in communities that literally dug away their own foundations; it was a work that had no end-product, only an endless round of destruction of the earth and an exporting of its riches while they themselves grew more impoverished. The contrast was sharper in that the crazy underground world in which they laboured produced a comradeship that had institutional echoes above ground in a world, apparently rational, but in fact falling about their ears. This was a society almost tailor-made for rejection of any imposed outside hegemony, whether economic, physical or social"
Certainly the chapels here avoided such “imposed outside hegemony” by electing their own ministers and being quite autonomous in their own local affairs, but the power of worship in the coalfield has often been mentioned as an inevitable antidote for many to the “crazy” world of the collier: there was a natural and human desire to restore order in the psyche, to venerate a lost pastoral world and to find a salve for the sordidness that was often the collier’s daily lot. Perhaps the fervency of some adherents was in direct proportion to the nature of their working conditions: the promise of a better eternal world weighed more importantly amongst those threatened daily by death or serious injury. Even the famous south Walian Sunday ritual of putting on a best suit provided a humanising counterpoint to the week’s drudgery.
Below: the two main Morgan/Jones graves at Nantyffin, with a young descendant (Daniel Jones). Photos by G. Jones, 2013.
Seren Cymru of 10 April 1891 gives a flavour of chapel activities:
"On Sunday March 29th , the Sunday School held its quarterly meeting at the above chapel, when many recitations were delivered by the pupils. Two classes were questioned on the catechism. The Banwen class was questioned by the young brother, D.L. Jones, Colbren, and the chapel class by Miss J. Davies, Morfa House. This sister is an example to everyone for their work and diligence with the children. During the service many hymns were sung very musically by the choir, under the direction of brother J Morgan [John Walter Morgan], Henrhyd, and the elderly Richard Morgan, Colbren House, gave a lecture imploring “every class in the chapel to take part in the Sunday School, and to uphold the school’s meetings so that the best talents of both chapel and school could combine. The elderly Dafyyd Jones agreed unreservedly. These are two elderly oxen are used to the yoke; they walk as the need arises in the furrow or the ridge. Their purpose is to set the plough to the headland, turning the field and completing the task. This is the ultimate ambition of these two good brothers. A tune was sung very favourably on English words by a group from the chapel school, leaving a satisfying smile on the faces of the listeners."
With thanks to Elaine Parry for the translation
This account is undated and anonymous and written originally in Welsh. It details the history of the Baptists in this area from the late seventeenth century to sometime in the 1960s. It was translated by Hywel Williams in 2011.
The Ystradgynlais History Website gives more information about Nantyffin Chapel at : http://www.ystradgynlais-history.co.uk/ministers-of-nantyffin.html