PART ONE: Origin of the English Baptists
Old Baptist Church at Olchon
Elder Joshua Thomas' book The American Baptist Heritage in Wales details the existence of an ancient Christian enclave at Olchon, in Wales, near the Midlands of England. He notes the presence of a gathered congregation is documented back to the sixth century. Welsh historian John Howells cites historical accounts of Baptist activity in the Valley of Olchon back to the first century.
Olchon church was located in the vale of Black Mountain on the border of Hereford, Monmouth and Brecknock counties on the Welsh/English border. It's location is significant in that civil jurisdiction did not extend beyond county or parish lines. Therefore, when one county persecuted the church the congregation simply moved their worship services to the adjacent county. The Black Mountains area is described by Thomas as rugged and remote, similar to the area surrounding the Piedmont Valley. He ascribes God's providence for the geographic location of the church in contributing to her longevity and purity doctrine.
The following description of the location of Olchon Church is taken from A Brief History of the Old Baptist Church at Olchon, written by John Howells. "Olchon is on the Welsh border. It is situated in the County of Hereford. The ruins of the oldest Chapel belonging to the Primitive Baptists stand on the banks of the swift flowing stream from which the narrow and romantic Valley of the Olchon takes it's name. There is another old Baptist chapel in a state of rapid decay at Ilston, in the peninsula of Gower, in the County of Glamorgan. But the Mother Church doubtless was this one at the Gellis, the old historians called it, from the woods that fringe the steep hill-sides between here and the picturesque little town familiarly known as the Welsh Hay. Near to the old ruin in the which now more than three hundred years ago our Baptist forefathers worshipped, on the hill above it, to the westward is Capel-y-fin or the boundary Chapel, so named because of the junction at this singular place of the three Counties of Brecknock, Monmouth, and Hereford."
Howells contiues his eyewitness narrative with a description of the ruins of the ancient Olchon Baptist meeting house. "Olchon is nearly midway between Abergavenny and Hay. It is situated in a narrow glen at the foot of Black Hill on one side, and the Black Mountains on the other side. It is near to the Western Bank of the Olchon rivulet. The new chapel has been built on the eastern side of this impetuous stream, on an elevated spot not far from where stands the ancient sacred and venerable remains of the medieval hollowed edifice. Here pure and undefiled religion was preserved in its primitive priority, and here the apostolic and pentecostal faith was enshrined in uncorrupted and unalloyed simplicity, and handed down to us in virgin simplicity and unpolluted integrity, when nearly the whole of Christendom besides was enshrouded in Popish perversity and anti-christian thraldom. Here was Olchon preserved intact and untampered with the divine ark of the new Covenant of Grace."
Olchon is believed to be the location of the oldest church in Wales. Her congregation of shepherds, farmers, merchants and occasional nobility moved their meeting place frequently, often worshipping at night to avoid discovery. As she was an ancient church, and do to constant fear of persecution, records of her organization do not exist until about 1600.
Elder Thomas states that Dr. Thomas Bradwardine was born in the county of Hereford, near Olchon. He believed that the famous theologian, mathmetician and Philosopher sometimes attended services there, though his visits were infrequent because because of the press of his busy life.
Thomas also states that Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into the English language, lived near Olchon in 1371. He also lists Walter Brute as an early preacher in this ancient church. He gives the following account of how Brute came to Olchon. "Now to me it appears very probable Wycliffe received much of his light in the Gospel from Bradwardine and his writings, and Brute from Wycliffe and others; and he began to sow the seed of reformation in and about Olchon, and of Believers Baptism, among other doctrines; and that long before the beginning of the Reformation began by Luther, King Richard II directed a letter to the nobility and gentlemen of the county of Hereford, and to the Mayor of the city, charging all to persecute Brute, accused of preaching heresy, in the diocese and places adjacent; and also of keeping conventicles." (Conventicles were unauthorized religious meetings).
Along with these notable men Elder Thomas includes Tyndale. He notes that Tyndale lived in the area, and as a non-conformist, possessed strong Baptist sentiments, though he probably did not attend services frequently. It was Elder Thomas' opinion, shared by other Welsh historians, that the ancient Baptists of Olchon influenced Tyndale's religious beliefs. He notes the Tyndale family name was associated with the Baptists around Olchon.
Elder Thomas presents Olchon not only as the location of the mother church in Wales, but as the virtuous bride of Christ who welcomed all struggling pilgrims who happened her way. He believed Walter Reynard (Walter Lollard) was given refuge there. While it cannot be proven Lollard actually went to Olchon, it is known that the European Anabaptist went to Wales. Elder Thomas notes that Lollard was aware of the existence of Olchon before arriving in Wales. Upon returning to Europe, Lollard was captured and burned alive, in Cologne, in 1322.
Crosby records Lollard residing in Britain for some period of time. "In the time of Edward II, about the year 1315 Walter Lollard, a German Baptist preacher, a man of great renown among the Waldenses, came into England; he spread their doctrines very much in these parts, so that afterwards they went by the name Lollards."
Lollard's appearance in Wales cannot be interpreted as the point of introduction of Baptist sentiment to English soil. There were too many previous sightings. An accurate characterization of his sojourn in the Vale of Olchon is fellowship. Lollard accepted refuge from, and worshipped with, his Welsh Baptist brethren. His presence, and acceptance in Wales solidifies the view that the Anabaptists of the European Continent and the Isle of Britain share a common origin. It was not Polycarp, or even Paul or John. It was the upper room in Jerusalem. Their common link and basis for church fellowship was the Savior, Jesus Christ.
There is agreement among Davis, Thomas, Howells and Fox that martyred Sir John Oldcastle, Lord of Cobhan, had a country home named Olchon Court, to which he fled in 1391 when he first learned of a plot against him. He was accused of "Lollardism" in 1393 and ordered to be arrested and transported to London. It is probable that Lord Oldcastle was an Old Baptist Minister. Davis notes the Baptists sometimes met in the chapel at Olchon Court where Oldcastle preached.
John Howells provides this account of Sir John's Baptist activity. "Not far from the gradually crumbling and rapidly decaying sanctuary stands another renowned and remarkable ruin, namely, the Herfordshire County Seat of Sir John Oldcastle, styled also as Lord Cobhan. Sir John Oldcastle in all probability was baptised in the rivulet that rushes contiguously by the aforesaid rustic, secluded, and verable old Chapel, in which afterwards he would be admitted by the Holy Elders and pious brethren into the Christian fellowship of the only true and scripturally constituted Apostalical Church." In his book, John Wycliff and his English Precursors, Professor Lechler writes; "Sir John Oldcastle, 'the good Lord Cobham,' as he was affectionately termed by the poor and simple, was a firm adherent of the Lollards, whose preachers he welcomed to his seat at Cowling Castle, in Kent, and refused to surrender to the command of the authorities."
Because of their friendship since childhood, while Henry IV was alive Lord Cobhan was not actively pursued despite his Baptist sentiments. However, with the ascension of Henry V to the throne, Sir John's standing with the crown changed for the worst. He was vigorously pursecuted because of his religious views. Howells notes; "His espousal to the tenets and practices of the Lollards, somewhat estranged him from the favour and affection of the Kingly court of St. James, and Windsor Castle. Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, aided and abetted by the other Popist Prelates, hunted his life to destroy it. They poisoned the mind and envenomed the heart of the young episcopally subservient Monarch against him."
In 1411 John Oldcastle was arrested and held in the Tower of London. During this period, a group of Baptists, called Lollards, gathered in the town of St Giles's Fields to offer their support for Sir John. King Henry, convinced by Archbishop Chichely that an uprising was about to occur, sent soldiers to apprehend the gathered Baptists. Thirty-nine were captured. He ordered all thirty-nine to be burned or hanged.
About the same time, Sir John escaped from London Tower and returned to Wales. A reward of one-thousand marks was set for his arrest. He evaded capture for several years while Richard was distracted with war in France. Finally, in 1417 he was apprehended at Olchon Court, carried to London, and ordered to be hanged as a traitor and burned as a heretic.
His sentence was carried out literally. Professor Lechler provides a detailed narrative of his execution. "He was placed upon a sledge and dragged through the town of St. Giles Fields. On arriving there he was taken down from the sledge, and immediately falling on his knees, he began to pray to God for the forgiveness of his enemies. His prayer ended, he rose, and, addressing the assembled multitude, warned them to obey God's commands written down in the Bible, and always to shun such teaching as they saw to be contrary to the life and example of Christ. He was then suspended between two gallows by chains, and the funeral pile was kindled beneath him, so that he was slowly burned. So long as life remained in him he continued to praise God and commend his soul to His divine keeping."
Lechler describes those to whom Sir John Oldcastle preached as, "earnest, obscure men, mostly poor, often illiterate, who yet prized the teaching of Holy Scripture, silently testifying against the corruptions of the professed Church of Christ, and so preparing the mind and heart of the people to welcome the Reformation of the sixteenth century."
An explanation should be noted as to why there are no church records for Olchon Church prior to about 1600. Elder Joshua Thomas states that at one point in his search for records he was sent to an ancient home in Hay, near the church. It had belonged to a Mr. John Rys Howell, who was occasional assistant to the minister. Mr. Howell had sailed to America but returned to Wales in his last days, where he died in 1692. Elder Thomas was instructed that Mr. Howell possessed an ancient trunk filled with manuscripts and records. He received this information about 1770. In 1775 he located the house and trunk just as described, but was too late. The trunk was full of decaying scraps of paper. Every document Mr. Howell had so carefully placed for safe keeping was destroyed by age.
Though it cannot be proven conclusively, Elder Thomas presents a good case, suggesting that John Perry was from around Olchon and probably preached there. Although there is some discussion among historians regarding Mr. Perry's identity as a Baptist, Elder Thomas cites A. Wood, a contemporary of Perry, who in Ath. Oxom plainly stated Mr. Perry "was a notorious Anabaptist, of which party he was the Coryphous (or leader)." This is supported by the writings of another of Perry's antagonists, a Mr. Strype, who charged him with practicing anabaptism. So it would seem evident by the accusations of two contemporaries of Perry that he was an Anabaptist and probably a preacher for the Baptists. It is asserted by Thomas that he lived near the vale of Olchon. He was executed for his dissenting activities in 1593 at age 34.
We have previously noted Elder Howell Vaughn as pastor of Olchon. He is the first pastor of record, though certainly not the first of memory. His earliest appearance as pastor at Olchon is set around 1633. It is known he was already Pastor of this body when Erbury and Vavassor Powell dissented from the established church and came to the Baptists. The following excerpt provides a brief sketch of Elder Vaughn. "Howell Vaughn commenced preaching we know not, neither can we find when or where he was ordained. But however, we find him the pastor of the church at the time of the reformation. He was not a learned man, like Erbury, Wroth, and Powell, as he never had a college education; but he was a plain, conscientious, and godly man, remarkably well versed in scripture. He was a very good preacher, well calculated to feed the church of God with knowledge and understanding. The church under his pastoral care, though small at first, in short time increased most wonderfully."
Davis lists two men as the Elders at Olchon from 1660 to 1688. They are Thomas Perry and John Rees Howell. The men served together, with Elder Perry serving from 1641 until his death in 1709, and Elder Howell co-pastoring from 1645 to 1699 when he died. This was a terrible time of persecution for the old mother church of Wales. Her congregation was frequently forced to flee for refuge to Black Mountain. Davis describes their sundry meeting places during this dark age of Baptist persecution. "But for twenty-eight years, in the reign of Charles the second, the church had to meet in the most secret places by night, somewhere in the woods, or on the Black Mountain, or the rough rock. They were obliged to change the place every week, that their enemies might not find them out. Often the friends of the infernal foe diligently sought them, but found them not. While the wolves were searching in one mountain the lambs were sheltering in the rock of another." Davis continues the narrative with a description of Black Rock. "The safest place they ever found, was in the woods, under a large rock, called Darren Ddu, or the Black Rock. It is a most dreadful steep, and the roughest place we have ever seen. Thus, the Primitive Baptists of Olchon found their, cleft of the rock, where often they fled for refuge." (That we latter day primitives might diligently seek God, as our cleft of the rock, and flee to him for refuge from Satan's subtle though equally destructive assaults).
Olchon was a member of the Abergavenny Association, constituted in 1653. A sad note in the history of this old association was introduction of a practice of "laying on of hands" on newly baptized members. According to Davis, this practice first came to the Welsh Baptists in 1654. It was brought from Glazier's Hall Church in London by Messrs. Ryder and Hopkins. Davis notes that in 1654 this practice occurred in Wales "for the first time since the introduction of Christianity into the Isle of Britain." In the mid seventeenth century "Laying on of hands" on newly baptized members became a practice in several churches due to incorrect interpretation and application of Acts 19:6. It was practiced in either of two ways. In some cases, after a person was baptized, the administrator would lay his hand upon the individual and pray they receive the Holy Ghost. Another practice was for the entire congregation to pass by the newly baptized person and lay their hands on him. Both modes of this unorthodox custom were practiced in America, beginning in Newport, Rhode Island. However, though the practice resulted in some intrachurch divisions, apparently, it was not a test of interchurch fellowships. Beginning in the mid 18th century it was gradually eliminated from American primitive Baptist practice.
We have described the faith and order of the Primitive Baptists of Olchon. We have detailed their reluctance, as late as 1654, to open their communion; that Howell Vaughn would not accept the irregularity of open communion, which was evidently an acceptable practice among at least some of the London Particular Baptists. (We here also note how Olchon sent no representatives to subsequent meetings of the London Confession Conferences, held regularly for several years after the 1644 Confession was signed, and none to the 1689 Conference). The writer will now attempt to satisfy those who must have a clear expression of the beliefs of the Olchon Baptists.
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