The first article is adapted from an article formerly written for the Evangelical Magazine in 2011, following this are personal reminiscences from former or present members of the Church.
The stone at the head of Mary Jones’ grave in Bryn-crug, near Tywyn, has engraved upon it, in Welsh, ‘The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God shall stand for ever’ (Isaiah 40:8 & 1 Peter 1:24+25). In the year 1800, when 16 years of age, Mary famously walked the 50-mile round trip from near Bryn-crug to Bala to obtain a Bible from the renowned leader of the Calvinistic Methodists, Thomas Charles. Preaching in London in 1802, Thomas Charles attended the evangelical, largely Anglican, Committee of the Religious Tract Society and laid before them the pressing need of there being no Bibles for the many poor recently come to faith through revivals in North Wales. The outcome was not that a Bible Society for Wales be formed but, rather, a Bible Society for the world! And so was born in 1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society (now, the Bible Society). God’s Word for the world!
Thomas Charles had been ordained by the established church. But in 1811 – two hundred and ten years ago this summer – he took a momentous step of complying with the request of the North Wales Association of the Calvinistic Methodists to ordain 8 men to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the nation-wide Connexion. This took place in Bala. One who was ordained, the celebrated John Elias, from Llanfechell, Anglesey, preached to enormous crowds, particularly in North Wales, and especially at the Connexion’s Bala Association Meetings on ‘The Green’ during the first half of the nineteenth century – a platform occupied solely by faithful Calvinistic Methodist preachers.
The non-conformists enjoyed rich and abundant spiritual harvests during the nineteenth century, so much so that in Bala alone two Bible training institutions came into being, one for Independents (Congregationalist) and one for Calvinistic Methodists (Presbyterian).
The Independent College was formed in 1842. Its first Principal was Michael Jones. His son, and successor, Michael D. (of Patagonia fame), moved the College in 1869 to Bod Iwan, but later came into difficulty about how the college should be governed, which led in 1879 to a split. In 1886 the ‘opposition’ college joined with the Independent College in Bangor and in 1892 Michael D. resigned his post to facilitate the one [Bala-Bangor] College being located entirely in Bangor.
The Calvinistic Methodist Bala Theological College began in 1837 (around the back of what until recently had been Barclays Bank; formerly Thomas Charles’ home, to which Mary Jones walked), before moving to the north side of today’s ‘Thomas Charles Square.’
By mid-century, such was the hunger for education, and particularly theological education, that a far grander college was envisaged, and so Coleg y Bala was constructed in 1867 (on the right side of the main road leading north out of Bala – opposite Bod Iwan, Michael D.’s Independent College).
This became solely a Theological College for North Wales from 1891 until 1922, when it was established as a pastoral studies centre for the whole Connexion – until 1953 (the denomination had in 1939 considered giving Martyn Lloyd-Jones oversight of the pastoral studies training). In 1967 the Connexion decided to concentrate its Youth Work at the Coleg, which opened in its present form in 1969.
Whilst the Evangelical Movement of Wales (EMW) began officially in 1955, its seeds took root in 1948, with both Bala and Dolgellau featuring prominently in its early development. God did a new work. In 1958 a large house in Bala, Eryl Aran, became the Movement’s North Wales centre of operations, until the larger house next door, Bryn-y-groes, was bought in 1960. Its Ministers’ Conference, influenced strongly by the then London-based Lloyd-Jones, found its new home.
Those involved with the EMW at this time functioned largely within denominational churches, and had to come to terms, on the one hand, with a ministry often trained in the principles of ‘higher criticism’ and, on the other hand, a new-found faith, which felt the spiritually-deadening effects of the higher criticism (otherwise known as ‘Modernism’, or ‘Liberalism’, due to its liberalising tendencies). Some evangelicals believed it their biblical responsibility to withdraw from these influences; others their duty to stay within and to seek to bring the freshly-recovered Gospel to their denominations. Tensions surfaced frequently over the next few decades with regards to these matters, whilst yet the Spirit of God continued to bring many to faith. An independent evangelical Welsh-speaking church began in Bala in 1967 but after some five or six years most of the men were called to serve elsewhere, which necessitated the need for the pastor, John West, to look for support in another direction. Another work began in 1981. This was to become Bala Evangelical Church, which over the years also benefited from its close links with the EMW and with Bryn-y-groes, in particular.
It was 30 years ago that Deeside Evangelical Church (now Christchurch), after an initial Saturday evening meeting (26 September 1981), began to hold monthly Friday evening services in Bala, under the title, ‘Hear the Word of God’ and then ‘Bala Bible Ministry.’ By September 1982, a Sunday evening service and a mid-week Bible Study & Prayer Meeting had become a regular feature and the name of Bala Evangelical Fellowship adopted. Initial attendance at church services was by a handful of committed and regular believers, some being indigenous Welsh speakers, some Welsh speakers from outside the area and some, including those often involved in the regular ministry, unable to speak Welsh. The services and meetings were, therefore, held in English. Whilst not desirable to all, this meant that everyone could at least understand the Word preached – the preachers coming from the evangelical constituency of mainly North Wales. In June 1984 Bala Evangelical Christian Church was constituted with 7 members. Sunday morning services, with Sunday school, commenced in November, 1989, the year the church joined the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales (AECW, formed 1988). In 1990 the Church became independent of Deeside and in 1995, with 14 members, called its first pastor, Ioan Davies. Within a year or so, the name Christian was dropped from the title, and the Church has since been known as Bala Evangelical Church / Eglwys Efengylaidd y Bala (BEC/EEyB)). During the following ten years the work developed; and the membership continued to grow.
For the last 20 years or so, BEC/EEyB has had a membership numbering in the twenties. Few of the Church’s young people stay after school-leaving age. Most head off either to college or to university and, for reasons of employment, and opportunities of the ‘big city,’ do not return (we have our theories about why city churches are larger than small-town ones!). Few job opportunities in the town, especially for young professionals, partly explain few young families being in the church. But we have seen an increase in the number of local people attending services and also in the number of first-language Welsh speakers becoming members. We rejoice in this, believing that Welsh people are better equipped to evangelise Welsh people. We seek to reach people by personal contact, and have found Harvest Suppers to be an excellent evangelistic opportunity, with Christianity Explained/Explored a helpful means of leading people to understand the Gospel. With two services on the Lord’s Day, we now alternate our mid-week Prayer Meetings with Home Groups, of which there are three, one of which one is Welsh-speaking. From 1987 the church arranged for occasional services to be conducted solely in Welsh, but this has not taken place in recent years. The annual Spring/Summer influx of UK-wide visitors, and the visits from churches and camps staying at Bryn-y-Groes, serves to broaden our horizons and enrich our fellowship.
Being the only evangelical church within about a 20-mile radius, the church values greatly its fellowship with the next nearest evangelical, Gospel-proclaiming fellowships – at Llangollen, Penrhyndeudraeth and Bangor, and enjoys its links with other evangelical churches scattered throughout North and Mid-Wales, Cheshire and Shropshire. We are keen to build prayer and fellowship links with these churches. There is a slow but steady increase in the network of pastors and preachers from these churches able to ‘supply’ others’ fellowships. Realising ‘the Word for the world’, the church actively supports the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators, Barnabas Fund, Tear Fund and Caring for Life, as well as values its personal contacts with missionaries serving with UFM and AWM. The current pastor has also taught Sudanese pastors from time to time with MERF in Kenya.
Amongst the denominations, and even in the vicinity of Bala, there appears to be a growth in evangelical concern. We might say that only where the Gospel is proclaimed is there likely to be any church growth, whether in Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian or Anglican denominations. But as Thomas Charles was led to ordain outside the established church 200 years ago, and some churches in connection with the EMW over the last 40 years have seceded and ordained their own elders, those today who faithfully preach the Gospel within the denominations continue to have to work out whether or not they will remain within them. Those evangelicals who sit loosely with received church structure, whether independent, presbyterian or episcopalian, perhaps with ‘emerging church’ ideas in mind, have the challenge of working through a consistent ecclesiology, and to go with it, as it often seems, a biblical understanding of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. How does God lead? Is it by His Word only, or mainly? Is it by impression? How are impressions weighed, etc? The theological spectrum of those who have come to the church services has been very wide, owing, in part, to there being so few evangelical churches in the area. These are some of the issues that surround us as a Church here in Bala.
During recent years, the church has also had to work its way through the variant styles of worship on offer these days. We aim to remain Word-centred. Being a small church, and renting premises, we are somewhat constrained in things we would like to do. We wish very much to see men and women of the church become increasingly able to teach God’s Word, to evangelise and to lead various Bible Studies. With members having responsibility for running Bryn-y-groes and two EMW bookshops, one in Bala, the other in Wrexham, and considerable ill-health within the membership and/or their wider families, members often feel ‘stretched,’ some finding the time and space needed for prayer hard to come by. We stand in need of a larger spirit of prayer. We love to have visitors, we love to meet up with other churches, but we feel greatly the need for prayer: prayer that we will truly love one another, prayer that we will evangelise local people effectively and be sensitive to our bi-lingual (multi-lingual, in fact), socially diverse context, prayer that we will be increasingly outward-looking, in fellowship with other churches and in global awareness, prayer that the Lord Jesus Christ will have, and will be understood to have, the pre-eminence in all we do, that we, as the saints around Bala have done in ages past, will seek to do everything for the sake of the Word ‘which stands for ever’.