Christianity in Machynlleth
It is back to the age of the saints that we must travel for the establishing of a church in Machynlleth. St Cybi, a native of Cornwall, and grandson of Geraint, Prince of Devon, is believed to be its founder. Cybi’s mother was Gynyr of Caergawch, a sister of Non, the mother of St David.
Cybi came to Wales about 524 and was in the Dyfi Valley some time between 530 and 550. The original meeting place could well have been on the Wylfa, a hill south-west of Machynlleth.
It was during the eighteenth-century that nonconformity was established in the town, though not without opposition. Howell Harris visited the town to preach. He was shot at and barely escaped with his life. This hostile attitude towards dissenters continued. Despite this, John Wesley passed through the town three times. It was not until the 1770s that the town’s Methodists could worship openly, though they were still subject to some threats.
The many revivals of the nineteenth-century affected Machynlleth and there seems to have been real spiritual life in the local chapels. The Calvinistic Methodists were the most numerous and influential. There were also Independents, Baptists and Wesleyan Methodists, all meeting to worship in Welsh. The coming of the railways brought a number of non-Welsh speakers into the town. The Methodists (both Calvinistic and Wesleyan) built English language chapels. The Wesleyan chapel has long since closed but the English chapel is still in existence. It has changed its name twice, firstly to the English Presbyterian Church and last year to Machynlleth Community Church.
One of the founder members of the English Presbyterian Church was Maurice Lewis. He was a godly man, a Sunday school teacher, who wrote a weekly letter to his daughter when she lived in England (1896-1913). In almost every letter he outlines the preaching he heard.
Lewis describes the 1904 revival in the area. Writing on 18 December he says: ‘the Revival is full, our town has prayer meetings everywhere.’ The revival continued until the end of the summer 1905. It had been characterised by prayer meetings going on until the early hours of the morning, much singing, marches and testimonies. It had a real effect on the town. Writing on 22 January, Lewis states: ‘The sin of bad language and drunkenness is driven out of the town to a large degree. This is accounted for by the Revival. They are praying everywhere. It’s a blessed time to live in.’
Sadly, such times were not to continue. Liberal theology increasingly influenced the denomination, culminating in the Presbyterian Church of Wales Act. The Confession of Faith was given a minor role with some ‘Declaratory Articles’ taking its place. This was the heyday of liberalism. Biblical authority was replaced by the majority voice in the church’s courts. This same viewpoint was seen in all the denominations found in Machynlleth. This had a disastrous effect. Attention was turned from spiritual to material things. The chapels became important for plays and ‘eisteddfodau’ (cultural festivals). Numerical decline was drastic. Both Wesleyan chapels have closed, along with a Welsh Presbyterian Church and an Anglican meeting place. The Baptists were unable to maintain their building and moved out. Both surviving Welsh chapels (Presbyterian and Independent) are experiencing very difficult days.
When we moved to Machynlleth in December 1995, there was a small Pentecostal group meeting in the town. It did not prosper. Both its elders lived outside Machynlleth and had little day-to-day contact with the town. There was one exception to this – two members manned a Christian bookstall at the town’s weekly market. Their faithfulness was an example and an encouragement. When the Pentecostal work closed down, it was possible to keep the weekly Bible study going, with my leading it each week.
With my health declining, having to give up teaching and no longer being allowed to drive, we began attending the English Presbyterian Church. I had preached there occasionally and when a preacher failed to arrive I was asked if I could ‘do’ something. One Sunday, I was asked by the elders to pastor the church until they got a minister. They thought this would take about eighteen months. After my doing this for some four years, the Presbyterian Church of Wales decided to recognise me as the church’s minister. It is now described as a Presbyterian Church under the oversight of a minister from another denomination. I have officially been the minister for three years and this has recently been extended for another three years.
In seeking to build up the work, I have followed the same practice as I adopted elsewhere. I asked myself ‘What are the strengths of the church?’ When I was clear about these, I then sought to build upon them. Our strengths at that time were a dilapidated building and a small congregation. We decorated the church, replaced the many broken windows and began addressing the other needs of the building. Along with making the building more welcoming went the ministry of the word. Some Christians moved into the area and joined us. Others preferred to travel eighteen-plus miles each way on Sundays, while some stayed at home. On sharing our vision for the future, it was disappointing to be told ‘We like where you’re going. When you get there, we’ll attend.’ On hearing the reply that ‘We won’t need you then; it’s now we need you’, they still went away.
Gradually, we have grown both numerically and spiritually. A Bible study and prayer meeting has started on Thursday evenings, attended by half the Sunday morning congregation.
As our numbers have grown, so have our strengths and we are able to do more. We are trying to build bridges with our community. Brownies and Rainbows meet weekly in our church hall and attend special occasions along with the Girl Guides. The local Army Cadet group help us with practical things like leaflet distribution as part of their Cadets in the Community scheme. We hosted the 2011 Remembrance Sunday service and are increasingly seen as the church for the community.
To further this end, in July 2011 we changed the church’s name to Machynlleth Community Church. A team of students from the USA came to help us publicise this. Since then, we have seen some new faces and look to build on this.
There have been disappointments. Some have stopped worshipping with us. Whatever we tried to do on Sunday evenings failed. We have closed our monthly Welsh service but are looking to start something new in the spring.
We face the future with optimism. Machynlleth is a centre of new age activity, but in response to prayer two of the main new age publicists have closed. Our trust in God is undaunted. The gospel continues to be openly proclaimed. Unity marks the fellowship. We look forward to April 2012 when the EMW is providing a team to help us with a mission – we hope this will be repeated in future years.
Prayer is a precious commodity and we would value your prayers. Pray for the matters raised in it. Also pray for conversions; for a couple of young families to come to us; more workers; more prayer; our financial needs (we have only one full-time wage earner and three part-time wage earners). God is good. Praise Him for all that He is doing in Machynlleth.
Richard Davies is the pastor of Machynlleth Community Church.