Born in the Welsh-speaking part of Herefordshire, England. Arrived in Massachusetts about 1663 and
Born in England. Arrived in Massachusetts in 1634.
John Myles, also known as John Miles, was the founder of Swansea, Massachusetts and founder and leader of the earliest recorded Baptist churches in Wales (UK) and Massachusetts (USA).
John Myles was born in about 1621 at Newton-Clifford in the western and Welsh-speaking part of Herefordshire, not far from Hay-on-Wye. He was one of the founders of Swansea, Massachusetts and founder of the earliest recorded Baptist churches in Wales and Massachusetts. Almost nothing is known of his parents or of his early life in Wales, except that his father’s name was Walter Myles. The Myles family was long resident near Llanigon in Brecon. His father, Walter, lived at Newton (probably the hamlet between Clifford and Bodorddyn, as the mother was living at Clifford in 1649, but conceivably the Newton near Olchon) where John was born in 1620 or 1621. On 18 Mar 1636, when John enrolled at Brasenose College, Oxford University, he was declared to be fifteen years old, and his father to be plebs. This may imply a working farmer and certainly rules out armorial descent. The family must have been reasonably prosperous to send a son to Oxford.
What we know about John Myles begins with the fact that he was educated as a minister at Brasenose College at Oxford University. He then went to London where he joined a congregation on Broad Street London, identified as the Glasshouse church, a congregation guided by the leadership of John Spilsbury, William Consett, Edward Draper, and William Kiffin. This congregation was a segment of the first Particular Baptist church in England, and it was there that John Myles became convinced of Baptist principles. He later returned to Wales and founded a nonconforming, antipedobaptist (Baptist, for short) congregation near Ilston.
From 1649 until approximately 1662 John Myles worked to found and minister to an additional four congregations of the antipedobaptist persuasion. At Ilston, he served from 1649 as rector of the parish church in place of an ejected royalist, Rev. William Houghton. We know a great deal about the Baptist congregation through the chance survival of the Ilston Churchbook, now preserved at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. John Myles was rather disappointed that his first two converts at Ilston were women, and this was duly recorded in the Churchbook as follows:
It pleased the Lord to give us some signs of his purpose to gather to himself a people to walk in fellowship with them, his servants; but in order that he might be seen more visible in his work, he began with two women, who were baptized about the beginning of the 8th month, 1649; and thus teaching us not to despise the day of small things, nor to judge the work of God according to appearance or human probability. For when these feeble creatures were baptized, there was not a strong probability that one more would be added to us; yet the Lord went on and called four more women before one man offered himself.
By Oct 1650, the Ilston Baptists numbered 43, and by the end of that year Miles had baptized his fiftieth member. The last baptism recorded in the Churchbook occurred in Aug 1660, a few months after the return of Charles II. By then, the Ilston Baptist church had a little over 250 members.
The Ilston congregation adapted to take account of the scattered nature of its members – they were drawn from villages and hamlets all over the Gower, with some living further afield, to the east of Swansea or north of the Loughor estuary. In an area where roads and transport were poor, this inevitably created difficulties. As a result, John Myles agreed that the whole Baptist congregation should gather at Ilston on only certain Sundays each month. On the other Sundays, and also on set weekdays, the congregation would divide and meet as a number of more local ‘house-groups’, in the houses of its leading members. They became sub-districts of the Ilston church. However, all serious matters, such as the baptism and admission of new members, advice to existing members who were planning to marry, and questions of discipline were to be referred to the full Ilston meetings. During this period, there were also the inevitable controversies and disagreements that needed to be sorted out, including discussions about church structures and meeting patterns and, arguments about whether or not the Psalms were to be sung in meetings in the Anglican pattern. There were also debates regarding the laying on of hands. The Ilston Churchbook records that on several occasions members were disciplined for failure to attend regularly or for immorality. There, too, training sessions on preaching took place, and approval was given to new preachers. Although John Myles had acted as leader from its foundation, not until November 1651 did the Ilston Baptists formally appoint their own officers. John Myles was elected pastor, assisted by an elder. Deacons were also elected for each of the sub-disticts.
John Myles was determined to spread his message throughout South Wales. In the early 1650s, and under his influence, further Baptist churches were founded elsewhere: at Hay-on-Wye and Llanharan/Llantrisant in 1650, Carmarthen in 1651 and Abergavenny in 1652. Sadly, the records of these churches are much poorer than those of the Ilston church. The five churches maintained close and regular contact and representatives from each met periodically to discuss points of difficulty or dispute and to maintain overall discipline. Between 1650-56 at least seven such ‘General Meetings’ are known to have been held, the first at Ilston on 6-7 Nov 1650.
John Myles’ star was in the ascendant during the 1650s. As well as his work with the Baptist churches, he was minister of Ilston parish, appointed an ‘Approver’ under the Act for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales of Feb 1650 and named a ‘Trier’ under the Protector’s Church Ordinance of Aug 1654. However, by 1658 Oliver Cromwell had died, leaving something a political vacuum, which ultimately laid the way open for Royalism to reassert itself. In 1660 the monarchy resumed power when Charles II ascended to the throne. The situation of “nonconforming” ministers and their congregations became precarious. John Myles was one of many who lost his living in the ensuing period, and effectively became a wanted man. At Ilston, the former minister, William Houghton, restored.
In 1662, a law, the Act of Uniformity, was passed that compelled every clergyman of every name, on or before 24 August (St. Bartholomew’s Day) to assent in to the Book of Common Prayer, under penalty of losing his benefice, and compelled every occupant of a benefice to receive a bishop’s ordination. This law must have produced a crisis for Rev. John Myles, and most likely would have prevented him from continuing his practice of ministry in Wales. For a time, he probably struggled on in the Ilston area, but by 1663 the situation was so intolerable for John Myles and a faithful band of devoted followers, that fleeing the country became preferable to returning to the old ways of worship. And so it was that in 1663 a small band of Welsh Baptists took ship for the New England colonies. Back in Ilston, the remaining members of his Baptist congregation were scattered, or forced underground, by the Conventicle Act of 1664. Not until 1689 did the Baptists and other Protestant nonconformists win grudging religious toleration in Great Britain. In time, Wales in general and Swansea in particular became strongholds of revived Baptist practices, but Ilston never recovered its former prominence and sank back into obscurity.
The parish church of St. Illtyd in Ilston, where John Myles was rector or minister (though they always referred to the place as their “Meeting House”, not their “church” or “chapel”), is still in existence. It’s located on a small country lane just at the western end of Swansea airfield. Here, a small brook rapidly descends a narrow valley on its way to join Pennard Pill at Parkmill. Their combined waters then enter the sea at Three Cliffs Bay about a mile further on. According to several accounts I have read, Three Cliffs Bay is arguably one of the loveliest in the entire British Isles. The church of St. Illtyd was built by the local de Breos family in the thirteenth century, probably on the site of an earlier Christian cell. It was drastically “restored” inside and out in the mid nineteenth century, and many of the features familiar to John Myles and his Baptist congregation have been destroyed or altered beyond recognition. It is a fairly plain building, with a chancel, a nave with a south chapel, a massive, squat tower with a saddleback roof on the south side of the nave and a south porch. Memorial tablets from the chancel, some dating from the late seventeenth century, have been replaced in the vestry. The church at Ilston is dedicated to St. Illtyd, the Celtic saint who established an important centre of learning at Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major). In fact the village name is derived from his. It is likely that one of the monks from Llanilltud Fawr came here almost one and a half thousand years ago to establish a cell which he dedicated to his discipler, Illtyd. He was probably the first to bring Chistianity to this part of Glamorgan. St. Cenydd had another monastic site associated with him at Burry Holmes at the north-west corner of the Gower peninsua near present day Llangennith, the village named after him, which was possibly his place of retreat, given it is effectively on an island. His main cell could quite possibly have been at Ilston. According to one traveller’s description, “the church at Ilston today is a somewhat higgledy piggledy amalgam of 13th century tower rivalled in height by an ancient yew tree and later additions, built on the site of the 6th century monastic cell. It’s a very beautiful and utterly peaceful spot”.
Over half a mile southwest of the church, deep in Ilston Cwm and near the bank of the stream, is another religious site. The date and history of the remains are not entirely clear and no thorough archaeological or architectural survey has ever been published. On the Ordnance Survey map of the area these ruins are prosaically marked with the words ‘”Chapel rems of” – as one traveler observed, “a label which totally masks the fascinating history of the site”. The place is locally known as Trinity Well, but was at one time called St Cenydd’s Well. A small stone oratory or chapel, was built here by the Knights of St. John after 1221, on an original Celtic site originally established by Cenydd. It was probably the Knights of St. John who also built the tower of St. Illtyd’s church. The chapel incorporated the original well, which in the medieval period became known for its healing properties, and was sought out particuarly by those suffering from eye problems. During the Reformation, the place fell into disuse. According to a strong tradition, but one which receives no clear confirmation in surviving contemporary documents, at some stage – perhaps between 1660, when John Myles lost his living and therefore the use of the parish church, and 1663-4, when the congregation broke up or was suppressed – John Myles and his followers used either this pre-Reformation chapel or a small, crude building erected next to it as a Baptist meeting house. If so, the site, although used by the Baptists only briefly, would have considerable historical significance.
Deserted, neglected and allowed to decay over the subsequent centuries, the ruins attracted renewed interest in the years between the two World Wars. During the 1920s plans were put in hand not only to tidy up and consolidate the surviving remains of the pre-Reformation chapel but also to commemorate the Baptist association with the site. In 1928 a ceremony took place to unveil a memorial tablet there, in the form of a stone pulpit bearing an open bible. The inscription was suitably cautious:
To commemorate the foundation in this valley of the first Baptist church in Wales 1649-60 and to honour the memory of its founder John Miles. This ruin is the site of the pre-Reformation chapel of Trinity Well and is claimed by tradition as a meeting place of the above Cromwellian church. This Memorial has been erected with the permission of Admiral A. W. Heneage-Vivian, C.B., M.V.O.,and was unveiled by the Right Hon. D. Lloyd George, M.P., O.M., 13th June, 1928.
David Lloyd George was guest of honor, and he unveiled the memorial and delivered an oration.
According to one source, in recent years the site has sunk back into obscurity and is rather overgrown in summer. It can, however, be visited quite easily, for it lies close to the public footpath which runs along the bottom of Ilston Cwm. It is roughly a quarter of a mile from the southern end of the footpath, which joins the main A4118 half a mile or so east of Parkmill. A longer but far more attractive walk is to approach the ruins from the northern, Ilston end of the cwm – the footpath begins by St. Illtyd’s church.
In the late 1930s at least two ‘Grand Pageants’ were held in the Ilston valley to commemorate Myles’s Baptist church. They took the form of costume re-enactments of historical scenes, factual or imaginary, interspersed with music and singing. Local clerics and civic dignitaries took the leading parts, including those of Myles, Proud, Houghton, Philip Jones (governor of Swansea) and Oliver Cromwell. The latter appears in Scene IV, stopping at Swansea en route to take ship to Ireland and supposedly deciding to visit Myles at Ilston. There he was welcomed by Myles and was presented with gifts from ‘Morriston maidens’ before replying in a speech in which he played on his own Welsh ancestry, stressed the need for religious liberty and praised Myles and his church. In reality, Cromwell’s brief stay in Swansea while en route to Milford Haven and Ireland occurred at the end of July 1649, two months before Myles established his Ilston church. There is no evidence that Oliver Cromwell ever met John Myles, let alone traipsed out to Ilston.
The last word on Ilston and its Baptist church should go to John Myles, as recorded in the Ilston Churchbook:
We cannot but admire at the unsearchable wisdom, power and love of God, in bringing about his own designs, far above and beyond the capacity and understanding of the wisest of men. Thus, to the glory of his own great name, hath He dealt with us; for when there had been no company or society of people, holding forth and professing the doctrine, worship, order and discipline of the gospel, according to the primitive institution, that ever we heard of in all Wales, since the apostacy, it pleased the Lord to choose this dark corner to place his name in, and honour us, undeserving creatures, with the happiness of being the first in all these parts, among whom was practised the glorious ordinance of baptism, and here to gather the first church of baptised believers.
More scenes of Gower peninsula, Glamorgan, Wales (I’m hoping to visit someday – It looks like a beautiful area):
In about 1666, John Myles begins to appear in the records of Plymouth colony in the town of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, where he is proposed as an assistant to the minister of the Rehoboth church, Mr. Zachariah Symes by Captain Thomas Willet. The relationship between John Myles and the established Puritan church of Rehoboth was tenuous. In 1666/7 the Plymouth Court fined John Myles, Nicholas Tanner, a Welshman identified as a member of the Ilston congregation and others for unauthorized religious meetings (presumably Baptist) and ordered the removal of their meeting from Rehoboth. Soon John Myles, Thomas Willet and others are allowed by the leaders of the Plymouth colony to found, in 1667, both a congregation and a town, named Swansea, Massachusetts, after the town of that name in Wales.
Rev. John Myles led the Baptist congregation in Swansea for twenty years. On 20 Jun 1675, the first Indian attack of King Philip’s War had all 70 settlers confined to their stockade when the Indians attacked this town at the time of worship. Many were wounded, one was killed, and much of the town was burnt. John Myles‘ house was made a fortification. John Myles subsequently repaired to Boston and there became a leader in the Baptist church for a few years. The Swansea church erected a new house of worship in 1679, and a parsonage was built for John Myles about the same time, where he dwelt until the time of his death in 1684.
John Myles wrote the organizing covenant for Swansea’s Baptist congregation, which was signed by six other men. This document manifests a remarkable sense of God’s grace and a profound character of tolerance and cooperation. The document reads in part (full text):
…We also know that it is our most bounden duty to walk in visible communion with Christ and each other, according to the prescript rule of his most holy word; And also that it is our undoubted right through Christ to enjoy all the privileges of God’s house, which our souls have for a long time panted after… And we humbly engage that through his strength we will henceforth endeavor: to perform all our respective duties toward God and each other; to practice all the ordinances of Christ according to what is or shall be revealed to us in our respective places; to exercise, practice and submit to the government of Christ in this His Church: Namely—further protesting against all rending or dividing principles or practices from any of the people of God, as being most abominable and loathsome to our souls and utterly inconsistent with that Christian charity which declares men to be Christ’s disciples; Indeed further declaring that, as union in Christ is the sole ground of our communion with each other, So we are ready to accept and receive too, and hold communion with all such as by a judgment of charity we conceive to be fellow members with us in our head Jesus Christ, though differing from us in such controversial points as are not absolutely and essentially necessary to salvation…
The case for the 1663 date of the Swansea Baptist Covenant is advanced in the following article: Hartman, (Rev. Dr.) Charles K. II. ”The Mystery at the Beginning: Towards dating the organizing covenant“, A paper prepared for and presented to the Annual Meeting of The Massachusetts American Baptist Historical Society held at the First Baptist Church in Swansea, 3 Oct 2004.
For a book-length treatment of this subject, refer to Brackney, William H. (with Charles H. Hartman). Baptists in Early North America-Swansea, Massachusetts, Volume 1 (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press) 2013. Volume 1 of the series covers the period 1649-1844. Known in part as the “Ilston Book”, it is the oldest surviving record of a Baptist congregation in North America and contains equally unique material from the Welsh period of the congregation gathered by John Myles. The record follows the history, theology, and community development of a congregation transplanted from Wales to Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The original one-volume book is one of the treasures in John Hay Library, Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island).
Two old articles that include information on the early history of the congregation:
- Fisher, Ariel (Rev., Pastor). “History of the First Baptist Church of Swansea, Massachusetts“, The Baptist Memorial and Monthly Record, 1845.
- Jones, John (Rev.) and translated from the Welsh by Rev. John Thomas Griffith, “John Myles and His Times“, Baptist Quarterly Review, 1888
John also authored the “founding covenants” of the town of Swansea, Massachusetts, which articulated a compromise between the Congregationalists and the Baptists, allowing them to live and worship together in spite of theological differences. The agreement, consisting of three articles, was drawn up and signed by the intending settlers. The agreement provided (1) that no erroneous person should be admitted either as an inhabitant or sojourner of the town; (2) that no man of any evil behavior and no contentious person should be admitted and (3) that no man should be admitted who might become a charge upon the town. These three articles were explained to the satisfaction of the Court at Plymouth, an erroneous person being defined to mean:
“…only the holders of such damnable heresies as Unitarianism, transubstantiation, merit in good works, denial of Christ’s ascension and second coming or the divinity of all parts of scripture, and belief in any other anti-christian doctrine; that the contentious be those alone who dispute the magistrate’s authority, the giving of honor where due, the laudable custom of our nation, each to the other, as bowing the knee of body, or the clergy’s authority and right to support, or who reproach any of the churches of the colony. Error should not include anything yet in controversy among the godly learned, especially infant baptism, but parents be free to present or withhold their children, and pastors free to baptize infants and adults, or not. These definitions were approved by the committee, and submitted to the town meeting. All the fifty-five freemen signed the document.”
Although the definition may seem restrictive to modern ears, this last clause was actually the keynote of what was for that time the broad and liberal spirit of the founders of the town of Swansea. Throughout the Colonies of Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay, taxation for the support of the churches was general and no citizen was exempt by reason of non-membership in the Church, but it became the custom of the Swansea pastors to expressly waive their right in this respect and to claim support only from those who sat under their teaching. Expressing also the right of liberty of conscience, the town records show a consistent adherence to this tenet, and various prosecutions were dismissed because the spirit of the original agreement allowed to every man freedom of belief in matters of religion.
The Swansea congregation was therefore unique in the development of Baptist practice in the 17th century. From 1667 it was the “established” church in the town, allowed for either adult or children’s baptism and practiced open communion. Within the first 100 years the congregation continued John Myles’ spirit by sending out people to found other Baptist congregations in Bellingham (Massachusetts), Oswego (New York) and Warren (Rhode Island). It was in this last congregation that the Warren Association was founded, and Brown University was organized. There are other churches, including the Congregational Church in Barrington, Rhode Island and the First Baptist Church in Rumford (East Providence), Rhode Island, that claim early influence from this venerable congregation. There is also some evidence that Baptists from Swansea were instrumental in founding the first Baptist congregation in Canada. The Swansea Baptists and those in Newport were in regular communication with each other and cooperated in the founding of the Oak Swamp congregation (now defunct) in Rehoboth about 1731.
John Myles died 3 Feb 1684, and after the lapse of more than 200 years there was no stone to mark his grave. Indeed the place of his burial is not positively known, though he was probably buried in the old graveyard near where his meeting house and dwelling house stood at Tyler’s Point in the present-day town of Barrington, Rhode Island. Through the efforts of Hon. Thomas W. Bicknell, President of the Barrington Historic Antiquarian Society and of the Bristol County Historical Association, a rough boulder was procured and placed in the old cemetery near the supposed place of the grave and dedicated to John Myles‘ memory on 17 Jun 1905. An address delivered at the time of the dedication was published by Rev. Henry Melville King (Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island) in 1905 entitled Rev. John Myles and the Founding of the First Baptist Church in Massachusetts: An Historical Address Delivered at the Dedication of a Monument in Barrington, Rhode Island (formerly Swansea, Mass.), June 17, 1905 (Providence, Rhode Island: Preston & Rounds).
While there is a significant record of John Myles’ public ministry, remarkably little is known of his family and personal life. He married Anne Humphrey, the daughter of John Humphrey of Chaldron, Dorset, England and Elizabeth Pelham, discussed under their own heading. Anne was born 17 Dec 1625 in Fordingham, Dorset, England and died on 17 Dec 1693. Their daughter Hannah Myles was born 5 Jan 1669 at Rehoboth, Massachusetts and died after the date of her husband’s death around 25 Jan 1741 at Swansea. She married Isaac Mason, born 15 Jul 1667 at Rehoboth and died 25 Jan 1742 at Swansea, Massachusetts. I, in turn, am descended from two of their sons, Sampson Mason (1700-1731) and Nathan Mason (1705-1758). This lineage is continued under the heading of their grandfather, Sampson Mason (1625-1676).
 This is the same institution attended by Richard Mather (1596-1669). He was a Puritan clergyman in colonial Boston, Massachusetts and father to Increase Mather (my 1st cousin 11x removed) and grandfather to Cotton Mather (my 2nd cousin 10x removed), both celebrated Boston divines (see article under “Notable Kin”).
 The Baptist movement mushroomed in England and Wales during the 1640s, taking advantage of the religious freedom of the civil war years and the breakdown in censorship. Baptists split into two groups: General Baptists, who rejected Calvinist ideas of predestination and believed that all might be saved through grace, and Particular Baptists, who held to the Calvinist belief that only the elect were predestined to be saved. Both stressed the need for the complete separation of church and state, believed in rigorous self-discipline, shunned all types of ‘sins’, including gambling and dancing, and laid great weight on the gospels. Baptist congregations were voluntary associations of free and equal members, who organized their churches on a democratic basis, electing their ministers or elders. They held that the baptism of the unthinking, unknowing infant was worthless. Instead, the baptism of the adult believer sealed the covenant of grace and marked his or her entry into the church. The Baptist movement grew rapidly from the mid 1640s onwards and by the Restoration there were around 250 Baptist churched in England and Wales, with a total of perhaps 25,000 Baptists.
 i.e., the denial, on scriptural grounds, of the validity of infant baptism.
 One American church historian mentions the names of some of those who came with Myles to New England from the Ilston church. They were Nicholas Tanner, Obadiah Bowen and John Thomas, and others, though in the records of the church subsequently established by Miles in New England, only Tanner’s name appears among the names of the founders.
 David Lloyd George, 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor OM, PC (1863-1945) was a British Liberal politician and statesman. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the head of a wartime coalition government between the years 1916–22 and was the Leader of the Liberal Party from 1926–31. During a long tenure of office, mainly as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was a key figure in the introduction of many reforms which laid the foundations of the modern welfare state. He was the last Liberal to be Prime Minister, as his coalition premiership was supported more by Conservatives than by his own Liberals, and the subsequent split was a key factor in the decline of the Liberal Party as a serious political force. When he eventually became leader of the Liberal Party a decade later he was unable to lead it back to power. He is best known as the highly energetic Prime Minister (1916–22) who guided the Empire through the First World War to victory over Germany and his allies. He was a major player at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that reordered the world after the Great War. Lloyd George was a devout evangelical and an icon of 20th century liberalism as the founder of the welfare state. He is regarded as having made a greater impact on British public life than any other 20th century leader, thanks to his leadership of the war drive, his postwar role in reshaping Europe, and his introduction of Britain’s social welfare system before the war. Although many barristers have been Prime Minister, Lloyd George is to date the only solicitor to have held that office. He is also so far the only British Prime Minister to have been Welsh and to have spoken English as a second language, with Welsh being his first.
 John Myles officially closed the register kept in the Ilston Churchbook on 12 Aug 1660, but subsequently took the book with him in the hope of being able to continue to gather a church once he arrived in America. This he was eventually able to do.
 The Court at Plymouth delivered its judgment as follows (Plymouth Colony Records. Vol. 4, part 1, page 163): Mr. Myles and Mr. Brown for their breach of order in setting up of a public meeting without the knowledge and approbation of the Court, to the disturbance of the peace of the place are fined each of them the sum of five pounds and Mr. Tanner the sum of twenty shillings. And we judge that their continuance at Rehoboth being very prejudicial to the peace of that Church and that town may not be allowed and we therefore order all persons concerned therein wholly to desist from the said meeting in that place or Township within this month yet in case they shall remove their meeting to some other place where they shall not prejudice any other Church and shall give any reasonable satisfaction respecting their teachings we know not but they may be granted by this Court liberty so to do.
 Parts of its territory were originally part of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. What is now Barrington, Rhode Island (part of Massachusetts until 1747) was separated from the rest of Swansea in 1717, again over religious differences.
 There is a brief history of the First Baptist Church of Swansea in Otis Olney Wright, History of Swansea, Massachusetts: 1667-1917 (published by the town, 1917) p. 101-107.
 This is the oldest extant Baptist covenant in the Americas. It was attested by Isaac Bachus from the Swansea church records which he held as he wrote his Baptist history in the 18th century. The original copy within the John Myles record book (from 1649) is held at the John Hay Library, Brown University. It was most probably written by Myles and may have been originally used by his congregation in Wales before it was adopted by the Baptist church at Swansea, Massachusetts.
 Otis Olney Wright (cited above), p. 197-198.