Saturday, 8 August 2015

10 Gower's 'Pilgrim Father' - John Miles

10. John Miles (photos: memorial, Lloyd George, John Bunyan) - 8 August 2015

The old Pennard School at Parkmill was closed on Wednesday June 13th 1928, for the visit to the Ilston valley of the most famous living Welshman, former Prime Minister David Lloyd George. 

From the Gower Inn at Parkmill a path leads up the valley towards the hamlet of Ilston.  But a short distance from the Inn, across one bridge, stands the seventeenth century stone remains of the first Baptist chapel in Wales.  It was in order to unveil a commemorative plaque that the 65 year-old leader of the Liberal Party went there, having tenuous Baptist connections from his childhood.  A one shilling programme for the day provided admission and entitled the holder to a cheap return ticket to Parkmill via South Wales Transport, and many came dressed in Puritan attire.

The plaque commemorates Rev. John Miles (also spelt Myles), who established in 1649 a church that practised “believer’s baptism” - baptism by immersion.  Yet the plaque omits to mention the American connection, perhaps the most interesting element. 

With the end of the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I, a Herefordshire man named John Miles, of Puritan leanings, became minister of Ilston church.  He organised it on Baptist lines into a “gathered” rather than a “parochial” church, to become only the second nonconformist church in Wales (after Llanfaches in Monmouthshire in 1639).  On weekdays they met in groups at Lunnon, Llandewi and even across the estuary in Loughor, with the main Sunday meetings at Ilston – during which preaching was in Welsh during the second hour!  Throughout the rule of the Commonwealth and Protectorate the membership grew to 261, drawn from a wide area.  Its influence extended beyond Gower, with Baptist churches being established at Llantrisant, Hay, Carmarthen and Abergavenny - a considerable achievement with the difficulties of travel and communication in those days.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell, however, the monarchy was restored in 1660, when Charles II returned from exile.  In a reaction against Puritan reforms scores of ministers like John Bunyan in Bedford were ejected from their pulpits - Miles was ejected from Ilston on 26 July 1660 - to be replaced by clergy who adhered to the rites and practices of the Established Church, the Church of England.

Some of his congregation met to worship near the ruins of an old pre-reformation chapel, at what was called Trinity Well, in the Ilston valley.  This was on private land owned by Rowland Dawkins of Kilvrough, a Puritan sympathiser.  But repressive legislation like the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act made life difficult for dissenters, some of whom sought religious freedom in the New World, like the Pilgrim Fathers forty years earlier.  With 18 of his congregation Miles sailed from Bristol on the perilous voyage to North America, landing at Boston, and later established in 1667 the settlement of Swanzey in present-day Massachusetts in New England.  This first overseas ‘Swansea’ was on the edge of the frontier, around the time depicted in Nathanael Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” and Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”. 

The Wampanoag, local native Americans, had assisted early settlers to survive the winters, but attitudes hardened with successive shiploads of newcomers who enclosed land where Indians once freely roamed.  An alliance of tribes attacked the settlements in what was known as King Philip’s War in 1675-6.  Colonial troops were garrisoned at Miles’s house, and their superior firepower eventually prevailed - a presentiment of what would happen further west in later centuries with the Plains Indians.  John Miles died aged 62 in 1683 and was buried in Providence, Rhode Island. 
In spite of no mention of the settlement of Swanzey on the plaque, the Ilston memorial is frequently visited by North American Baptists, appreciative of John Miles - ‘Gower’s Pilgrim Father’. 

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