The Baptist Union of Wales was established at Llanwenarth on 21 August 1866 and the first meetings were held at Tabernacl Church, Carmarthen in 1867. Initially many Associations, such as Breconshire, Glamorganshire, Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire were opposed to establishing the Union. They feared that the churches would lose their independence and that the denomination would become presbyterian in its nature.
The membership increased dramatically in the second half of the nineteenth century and by the close of the century it had exceeded 100,000. T. M Bassett the author of ‘The Welsh Baptists’ stressed that the increase was not due to home mission or intermittent revivals but that the people of Wales were on the move: large numbers of people were drawn to the new industries: the steel and tin works and the mines. There was an increase in the population in the valleys of Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire, and parts of Carmarthenshire and new coal mining communities were established. (Gareth O. Watts, ‘Braslun o Hanes yr Adran Gymraeg’ yn ‘Undeb Ysbryd a Rhwymyn Tangnefedd Crynodeb o hanes Undeb Bedyddwyr Cymru 1866-2016’ D. Densil Morgan Golygydd).
The English Language Wing was established in 1913 when it was agreed to create a Wing for the English Language Associations and the first meeting was held in Builth Wells in 1915. A few years later the Constitution was amended to ensure that the English Language Wing had its own President, Vice President and Council. In 1930 it was agreed that all churches should be in membership with one of the Associations. This meant that the Baptist Union of Wales was an Union of Associations unlike the Baptist Union of Great Britain where it was possible for a Church to be in membership with the Union without being a member of an Association.
Welsh Baptists have a separate identity to English Baptists although they come from the same root. In the early years, most were Calvinist (Particular) in their theology and practised closed communion, hence many chapel trust deeds today refer to the congregation as ‘Particular Closed Communion Baptists’. Traditionally, Welsh Baptists have always been anticlerical in their outlook (rejecting the need for their ministers to wear clerical collars and garb) and strongly associational in their organisation. (D. Hugh Matthews and John Rice Rowlands, ‘Y dechreuadau hyd sefydlu’r Undeb 1649-1866’ in Y Fywiol Frwd Bywyd a Thystiolaeth Bedyddwyr Cymru 1649-1999. Golgydd D. Densil Morgan).
The number of churches in membership with the Union reached its peak at the end of the 19th century and like every other denomination it had to face the reality of a post-Christian context along with the increased secularisation in the 20th century. As the number of churches consequently declined the Union sought new and positive ways of working with an emphasis on mission and ministry initiatives. In 2005 the Reverend Marc Owen was appointed as Church Life Secretary and he worked to support churches and ministers with many benefitting from the Mustard Seed initiative. When Marc decided to return to full time pastoral ministry the Reverend Simeon Baker was appointed as Director of Ministry in 2012. As well as the emphasis on mission in Wales, a partnership was established between BUW and the BMS when Dr Menna Machreth was appointed as a Mission Co-ordinator. There followed a number of initiatives which included the Gap Year Team for Wales, Internship Scheme, Overseas Mission Workers and more recently the mission training, Forge Cymru, in partnership with Cam Roxburgh from Canada. In 2021 Mr Carwyn Graves was appointed as successor to Menna Machreth with an emphasis in his role on developing digital methods of mission. In these appointments the Union’s commitment to help churches in undertaking mission in new ways whilst at the same time fostering strong relationships between Churches, Associations and the Union was evident.
In relation to the Welsh Baptist Union Corporation, it was agreed in 2015 to appoint a Co-ordinator to provide support and guidance to the churches for the buildings. Mrs Helen Wyn and Dr Christian Williams now undertake this work and are ready to provide assistance to churches.
Celebrating the Union’s 150 anniversary was a happy and memorable occasion in 2017 and this was an opportunity for both Wings to come together to mark this significant milestone at a special event at the Halliwell Centre, University of Wales Trinity St David, Carmarthen.
Whilst the Christian landscape has changed enormously in Wales since the Union was established our future as Baptist Churches will undoubtedly be different, but we believe that our responsibility is to work faithfully, ensuring that we continually adapt to our context under the guidance of our Lord Jesus Christ: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever’. (Hebrews 13:8)
A summary of the history of the Baptist Union of Wales was published in 2017 under the title ‘Unity of Spirit and Bond of Peace’, editor D Densil Morgan (Ilston Press: 2017).