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The Irfon Christian Heritage

Category Articles
Date June 21, 2003

The gospel which these men believed and preached and whose praises they sang so theologically, so experimentally, and so warmly, is the same gospel which our land cries out for again, and will remain restless and in darkness until its truth dawns with power upon the mind and sets the soul right for eternity.

by Rev. Malcolm D. Evans

Almost due west of Builth Wells and the Wye Valley lies the Irfon Valley with its beginnings high up in the Drygarn Fawr mountains of Abergwesyn and flowing finally into the Wye at Builth Wells.

Not only is it rich in heritage – (it sadly witnessed the betrayal, in the Wye Valley, the arrest on the banks of the Irfon river, with the subsequent execution of Wales’s last Prince, Llewelyn, at Cilmery), it is also particularly rich in its overlooked and largely forgotten Christian heritage. Within a relatively small triangle, one can find the birthplace of John Penry (Cefnbrith, Llangammarch Wells), the scenes of the gracious and powerful ministry of the famous William Williams Pantycelyn at Old Llanwrtyd Church on the Abergwesyn Road, and the Church at Llanlleonfel, near Garth (once known as Garth Wells), where Charles Wesley was married to Sarah Gwynne (of Garth House) by his brother John Wesley.

I was born in the Irfon Valley at Cefnporth Farm with this richer heritage than I had ever realised. Mention was made from time to time of these famous names, but it was only after I was converted and became a Christian that I came to "know" and admire them as men to whom we owe so much under God. Later, my home became Garth and I drew even closer to the scenes and memories of these men.

In the village of Garth is the stately home of the late Commander Wilson, known as ‘Garth House’ where his son still lives. It was once the home of Marmaduke Gwynne (a prominent landowner and friend of Howell Harris) whose daughter, Sarah was married to Charles Wesley. A tradition says that on one occasion when Charles was at Garth House, a storm raged in the valley of the Dullas river and while standing by an open window, a small bird flew in, wet and cold. He sheltered it with the lapels of his coat until it was dry and warm and the storm had abated, and this, it is said, gave him the inspiration for the hymn:

"Jesu, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high,
Hide me oh my Saviour hide, ’till the storm of life is past,
Safe into the haven guide, oh receive my soul at last"

The imagery is perfect, the language and aspirations of the hymn magnificent and thoroughly Wesleyan, warm and experimental, and true to Christian experience. In 1749, the following entry appears in John Wesley’s Journals: "We reached Garth (from Aberdare) , and on Saturday 8, I married my brother and Sarah Gwynne. It was a solemn day and such as became the dignity of a Christian marriage." It appears to have been a happy marriage, blessed and honoured by God, having taken place at Llanlleonfel Church, overlooking Garth House and the Dullas river and a small plaque in the Church commemorates the occasion. The Church has been rebuilt, but I found it a precious experience to stand where both Groom and Officiating Minister might have stood, and to pause and remember the work of these godly men.

Some 5-6 miles further along the A483, through Beulah, one arrives at Llanwrtyd Wells (once loved and famous for ‘taking the waters’,( not overtly or immediately inviting, but exceedingly beneficial) About one mile up the Abergwesyn road is ‘Old’ Llanwrtyd and just over the bridge, the picturesque and well-kept Church of St.David’s. An attractive painting of the saintly William Williams hangs at the back of the Church. Only a small typed sheet of paper indicates that here both he and Dewi Sant laboured in the gospel. It is naturally a tranquil scene with the sound of the river Irfon in its upper reaches meandering through the steep valley, but to the believing heart it carries another and a far-deeper peace of a place sanctified and hallowed by the grace and presence of God in bygone days, days when by His Spirit, souls were brought to a saving knowledge of His dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and set right for eternity. A ‘sense’ of the sheer beauty and magnitude of those days still lingers, as in Galilee or ‘Rutherford’s Walk’ in Anworth, or in any place where God has displayed His presence.

William Williams was here for some 3 years in the 1740’s before engaging in a far wider itinerant ministry. He was converted through the preaching of Howell Harris in the churchyard at Talgarth and ever spoke warmly and eloquently of the wonder of that moment. He became the author of almost 1000 hymns, some 130 of them in English. Many times I have cycled through this area as a young boy but without an awareness of the wonder of ‘those days’ Now, it is a place to tarry and long again for such a display of His power.

"Jesus is all my Hope, His Death is all my boast,
But for His sov’reign Grace I should be ever lost;
Redeeming Blood, and dying Love,
Shall be my Theme here and above"
(Gloria in Excelsis, by: W.Williams, together with a ‘A brief sketch of his life’ by Rev.W.Morgan)

From Llanwrtyd to Cefngorwydd and about half way between Cefngorwydd and Llangammarch Wells, and still in the Irfon valley, now very much wider even in the short distance from Llanwrtyd, is a turn to the right (sign-posted), for ‘Cefnbrith’, the home of John Penry. He was born in 1563, the son of a farmer prosperous enough to send him to Peterhouse College, Cambridge (where he acquitted himself ‘laudably’), later transferring to Oxford to complete his MA. He became known as "The Welsh literary wizard"- "the most artistically gifted and the most original writer among the Puritan controversialists" His Tracts or Pamphlets were in support of a Reformed Puritan theology and a Separatist/Congregational Church government. He longed that the people of Wales might hear the good news of the gospel in ‘their own tongue’, and for this and his ‘assaults’ on the degeneracy of his day, he was ‘dragged on a hurdle through the streets of London to the gallows and there hanged’ His last letter to his wife was in the full confidence of the gospel: "Your husband for a season…your brother for eternity"

The gospel which these men believed and preached and whose praises they sang so theologically, so experimentally, and so warmly, is the same gospel which our land cries out for again, and will remain restless and in darkness until its truth dawns with power upon the mind and sets the soul right for eternity.

"Fly abroad thou mighty gospel
Win and conquer, never cease;
May thy lasting, wide dominion
Multiply and still increase!
Sway Thy sceptre, Saviour,
All the world around"
(William Williams,1717-1791)

Rev. Malcolm D. Evans Congregational Minister Woking, Surrey

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