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At the dawn of a new millennium Wales has 5,000 chapels for its 2.9 million inhabitants to worship in more than England and Scotland together, even with their combined populations of 55 million. The bad news though, at least for believers, is that these 5,000 chapels are currently closing at the rate of more than one a week. Of these at least 1,000 according to one authority are currently under threat of demolition, and the process is only just hitting its stride.
Aging and dwindling congregations no longer have the financial means to maintain their once mighty palaces of worship and some chapels in Ammanford cannot even find a preacher to minister to the flock. Others are even resorting to sharing their Sunday services with members from other chapels, even those of different denominations. Wales has gone from being the most religious to the least religious region of Britain in just one generation and non-conformism is facing a precarious future as a result, if indeed it has a future at all. "The streets and byways of Wales are nowadays littered with the decomposing hulks of chapels", writes a recent historian, Anthony Jones, in 'The Chapels of Wales' (1996). Everywhere, abandoned Bethanys and Bethesdas; Calfarias and Caersalems; Elims and Ebenezers; Gerazims and Goshens; Moriahs, Sions and Tabernacles are quietly slipping out of sight and into oblivion, their resounding Old Testament names soon to become a forgotten litany of lost devotion.
And if a smirk of schadenfreude is flitting over Anglican faces at this news, they'd do well to consider their own shrinking congregations and their own backlog of churches in desperate need of attention. It might be wise, then, to document the histories of Ammanford's major chapels while they are still here to be documented.
For all the profusion of non-conformist houses in Wales, chapels are rank newcomers on the religious scene during the two thousand years of history that Christianity can boast. They date only from the seventeenth century, created as a result of differing theological interpretations of scripture and consequently of worship and church government.
Christian Temple (formally Cross Inn Chapel) in High Street is the oldest of our town's chapels. It belongs to the branch of non-conformism called in Wales Annibynwyr (Independents), with its English counterparts being known as Congregationalists. The three largest non-conformist denominations in Wales are the Independents, Baptists and Methodists, which make up the biggest group of those who choose not to worship in Welsh Anglican Churches. Christian Temple is also the oldest chapel in the Parish of Llandybie, to which Ammanford once belonged until 1913. That year a church reorganisation transferred Ammanford to the jurisdiction of Betws, creating the new Parish of Betws cum Ammanford (Betws with Ammanford). The origins of Christian Temple, however, can be found in the parish of Betws and go back to Argoed Fawr House on Argoed Road in Betws, which was the site of the first nonconformist church in the area. Argoed Fawr has also been a pub, an inn, a farm and a dwelling in its time, which is at least 300 years, but its importance to Ammanford's religious history is that it was the first meeting place used as a chapel, as opposed to a church, in the area.
Until then the last church to have been built in Ammanford was St David's Church, Betws, as far back as the thirteenth century, and no new church would be built until St Michael's in 1885. All Saints Church is the dominant building in Ammanford, being sited on a hill overlooking the town, its prominent clock tower visible for miles around. Many people are surprised to find how recent this church is (completed in 1923), assuming that all churches have some antiquity about them. Perhaps this is because the two other major churches in the area, Betws and Llandybie, are genuinely ancient, the current buildings both dating from medieval times, and whose origins go back even further to the Celtic era of Christianity.
The rapid growth of chapels in Wales in the late eighteenth century was the result of disunity within the established church and of increasing industrialisation, creating two new social classes the working and the middle classes who sought a new religious expression of this status. Itinerant preachers travelled by horseback the length and breadth of the country to preach the new religions. In England the most notable of these were John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism and famous hymn writers. In Wales the best known preachers in the Methodist movement were Howel Harries, Daniel Rowland and William Williams, Pantycelyn, whose preaching took them all over Wales in search of converts. Howel Harries died in 1777 and was known to have preached at Argoed Fawr house in 1740. Some Methodist groupings also provided leadership in the early trades unions out of all proportion to their small numbers.
The first chapel in Betws: Argoed House on Argoed Road.
Dissenters from the established church in Betws began to meet elsewhere and several people formed their own group. Jonathan Griffies, the curate of Betws Church in 1742, referred to worshippers in the parish calling themselves Methodists and Independents and meeting at the "Methodist Meeting Hall" ie, Argoed Fawr House. In 1748 an order was placed so that "The house of John Hopkin called Argoed Fawr in the parish of Betws be registered as a place of religious worship for dissenting Protestants and that a certificate be given thereof."
It is probable that the first worshippers at Argoed Fawr, the 'dissenting Protestants' of the license, were in fact Independents rather than Methodists. Howel Harries, who was a staunch Methodist, was unwilling to attach the name 'dissenters' to their meetings or to their licenses. Howel Harries is known however to have preached at least once at Argoed Fawr and for a while it was a meeting place for both Independents and Methodists.
It is also evident that the little cottage soon became too small for the followers of these new denominations and already some were meeting in other dwellings in the neighbouring parishes.
One group of worshippers moved from the Argoed to a barn on Carregamman-Uchaf farm owned by Hugh and Catherine David at what is now 63 High Street in Ammanford, and laid the foundations for what would eventually become Christian Temple. (The ruins of the old barn still stand near the gate that leads to this house.) Then, in 1782, a building was erected on the site of today's chapel in High Street on a field called Cae Gellimanwwydd, owned by John Jones of the adjoining Carregamman Ganol farm. This was rebuilt in 1836 and further enlarged to its present form in 1865 with a final renovation in 1910.
The 1782 chapel had an earth and lime floor and a few simple wooden benches. Across the road was a stable for the horses of worshippers, although most walked, often long distances, to the services. From 1844 a room above the stables was known to have also been used as a private school. The first teacher received an income of £30 a year from the fees of the 46 children on the books.
Although the official name of the second chapel of 1836 was 'Gellimanwydd' after the field it was built on, it was known as Cross Inn Chapel, Cross Inn then being the name of the hamlet and coaching inn on the cross road which is now Ammanford square. (Gellimanwydd was the name of the adjoining field and means the "grove of brushwood" in English). In 1949 a memorial stone was found which has since been placed on the wall near the present-day entrance. The stone reads:
.. ..Cross Inn Chapel
Built 1782......................Rebuilt 1836
Vox Populi......................Vox Dei
The Latin motto Vox Populi, Vox Dei means: "The Voice of the People is the Voice of God". This motto is usually used to justify democracy ("the Voice of the People") as being divinely sanctioned ("the Voice of God"), and the plaque, presumably, is proclaiming the democratic nature of Cross Inn Chapel. Each chapel within the Independent movement (Annibynwyr) is completely independent in its affairs, there being no central controlling authority, so the claim can be substantiated. Nonconformism was the religion of the newly emerging working classes and it reflected their awakening demands for democracy in political affairs, effectively denied to all but a tiny number of property owning males at this time.
It's a little perplexing how the chapel elders allowed their place of worship to carry the same name as a somewhat disreputable drinking establishment from 1782 to 1865. But then perhaps the reputation that chapels have acquired for intolerance is not quite deserved. The village of Cross Inn itself changed its name to Ammanford in 1880.
When the chapel was extended again in 1865, the name was changed to Christian Temple, although the chapel is still registered in the name of Gellimanwydd to this day. It is believed that the third minister, the Rev. John Daniels, was responsible for the name change because he believed that the Amman Valley would eventually become anglicized. The change to the English name of Christian Temple was therefore to prepare the way for this eventuality.
Christian Temple's congregation grew steadily from its small beginnings, sometimes because of revivals in religious belief, such as 1827-28, 1849, 1860, 1866-67. There were fifteen major revivals in Wales from the 18th century, the last, and largest, being the 1905 revival. The two rebuildings of the chapel, in 1832 and 1865 were in fact as a direct result of the large increase in worshippers. And just a year before the last great religious revival of 1904-05 in South Wales, so great was the expansion of the congregation that a brand new chapel building Gwynfryn in College Street was built to accommodate the faithful of the Independents, and Christian Temple itself received a major renovation in 1910. It's impossible to believe it now in our increasingly secular society but both Gwynfryn and All Saints Church, each large buildings in their own right, were originally built to house the overspill from their parent churches, Christian Temple and St Michael's Church respectively.
There is one period of growth in Christian Temple's membership, however, that casts rather sombre shadow. In 1849, the year of the great cholera outbreak, 113 new members were received in one Sunday alone and another 51 in the following communion.
Ammanford and Wales are now mostly nonconformist in their worship, and the great Revival of 1904-05, led by a Loughor collier Evan Roberts, saw a feverish activity of Chapel building in South Wales to accommodate thousands of new worshippers. Many chapels here and elsewhere bear dates from 1905 or just after as evidence of this. Many of these chapels were also very large affairs in anticipation of a continued growth in membership which never materialised when the revival fizzled out after a few months. Their size has been a handicap ever since and is proving an even greater liability a hundred years later.
Gwynfryn Chapel, Ammanford
In 1903 Independents from the Tirydail area of Ammanford built themselves a new chapel on College Street and the famous hymn writer Watcyn Wyn was invited to preach the first sermon. The chapel was named Gwynfryn, appropriately enough, as it stands opposite Gwynfryn School which Watcyn Wyn had founded in 1888. (There is a separate essay on Watcyn Wyn in the "People" section of this web site.)
Gwynfryn was designed by a local architect and industrialist who had a significant impact on Ammanford. Henry Herbert, Mining Engineer, from Brynmarlais House, Bonllwyn, took a leading part in development of both Ammanford and Pantyffynnon Collieries. He also contributed to many major civil engineering schemes in the area such as the introduction of the town's water and sewerage systems. He was unusual in being not only a mining engineer, but a civil engineer and architect as well. He designed Capel Newydd Independent chapel in Llandeilo in 1901 and copied the design almost exactly for Ammanford's Gwynfryn chapel in 1903. Bryn Seion Independent chapel in Glanamman was built to his design, as was Ammanford's English Congregationalist chapel in Iscennen, and he may have had a hand in the design of Christian Temple's interior in the 1910 renovation. As well as being a Justice of the Peace and a local councillor, he was a deacon at Gwynfryn Independent chapel and obtained most of his architectural commissions for Independent chapels, thus proving that religion can be profitable as well as prophetable.
Gwynfryn Chapel, offshoot of Christian Temple, was built in 1903 with the inauguration sermon preached by Watcyn Wyn, who died not long after in 1905.
TEGFAN Dr D TEGFAN DAVIES (1887 1968)
Chapel Minister of Christian Temple (1916 1965)
The history of Christian Temple cannot be spoken of without the name of Tegfan, its most famous minister, being mentioned. He was the chapel's minister from 1916 until his retirement in 1965 and there are many who still have fond memories of one of Ammanford's greatest characters
The Reverend David Tegfan Davies, known to all as just 'Tegfan', became a legend in the area and was perhaps the last of a now vanished breed a minister who was a genuine part of his flock.
Tegfan Davies was born in 1887 in a farm called Capel Bach in Penniel, Carmarthenshire. He was one of seven children and was brought up by his grandparents.
By the time he was twelve he had read the entire Bible. Those who knew him spoke of his beautiful Welsh, full of sayings now long disappeared from Welsh speech and no doubt drawn from the Welsh of Bishop Morgan's 16th century Bible which had been his childhood reading.
His first job after school was shepherding sheep at a local farm. He was spotted by the deacons of the local chapel and he started preaching in 1903 at the age of 16. After Divinity College in Carmarthen and Bangor he was ordained as a minister in Pontypridd in 1908. In was in this mining community that he saw and sympathised with the hardship of the local miners. Glyneath was his next congregation in 1911 and then Christian Temple in Ammanford in 1916 until 1965. He unveiled the memorial stone to the First World War dead of Ammanford in 1921.
Throughout the General Strike of 1926 and the depression years of the thirties he and the local vicar R H Roberts set up food kitchens in the local church hall, often going straight from evening service to work throughout the night. He went on a delegation to Wallasey in Liverpool with the result that that city adopted Ammanford in the thirties. When a new housing estate was built in 1957 on Field Street in Ammanford, Tegfan was instrumental in getting the street renamed Heol Wallasey, or Wallasey Street, in recognition of their support twenty years earlier. The official history of Christian Temple describes him thus: 'He was always on the side of the poor, the unemployed, the needy, the destitute, the drunk and the vagrant.' One millionaire, he once said, means one million poor. He doffed his hat to the tramp and the gypsy. What he would have made of the hatred whipped up by a Labour Government against gypsy immigrants in 2001 is best left unsaid. He was quite prepared to head processions of miners to protest against pit closures.
His interests were many and varied, even surprising in a man of the cloth. They included astronomy, the Romanies, and the legends associated with Carmarthenshire, and he wrote many books on the subject.
In 1958 he was honoured with the Chair of the Union of Welsh Independents. He was released from his duties in 1922 and again in 1958 to go to North America to preach and lecture. He was honoured with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by an American university. In 1922 he was made a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and received an OBE in 1963. He was also made a member of the Gored of Bards. He is credited with saving the lives of several people in desperate circumstances, once when he dived fully clothed into the River Amman on New Year's Eve to drag an alcoholic from the flooded waters, administering artificial respiration. On another occasion he acted as midwife to a gypsy woman who gave birth on a lonely road near Laundryman, saving both lives in the process.
He died in 1968 aged 85 and with him, surely, died both an era and a world view that will never return. One more memorial lives on after him, however, in the form of a nursing home in Arthur Street, Tirydail, which was built in 1972 and named "Tegfan" in his memory.
Much of the above has been summarized from the official History of Christian Temple, written in Welsh, and which has been translated for this web site.
'Hanes Plwf Llandybie', Gomer Roberts (1939) and 'Betws Mas o'r Byd', Betws History group (2001) have also been consulted.
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010