Radnorshire is one of the most unspoiled of all the counties in Wales and it was a delight to travel fifty miles from Aberystwyth there recently. Its contours and colours, sounds and smells, even the feel of the wind and rain are fixed in my mind. This small and fragile territory of bare hills and brooks defies and excludes the modern age with its barbarism. There is not even a single wind farm of wind turbines to spoil its tranquil landscape. The area is almost exclusively sheep-farming, dairy and beef having become increasingly uneconomic. We passed one nature reserve where the managers had grown a field of oats and another of oil-seed rape. I think that that was as much for the parties of school children who call there as for any profit. We saw one farmer bringing in the hay with his son from a small field on a hillside, packing it into the black plastic containers for winter feed. All these were the exception. The men are sheep-farmers living in handsome farmhouses with their delightful chimneys. Nothing has changed since I first began to preach there in little Baptist churches with their Sankey hymn-books. They have been the only denomination which has kept the gospel alive in this community. I privately questioned forty years ago whether these churches would be still open by the end of the 20th century, but they seem today the same sized congregations as when I first visited them. They have heard the modernism of various preachers that have come for a few years and moved on but it neither inspired nor impressed them. They were polite, but they like the gospel.
I was in Bwlchysarnau Baptist Chapel for their Harvest Thanksgiving at 2.30 and 7 p.m. on a Thursday. It is the largest attendance of any meeting in the year. I preached from Galatians 5 on sowing to the Spirit and to the flesh in the afternoon, and on the seed growing automatically in the evening. The place was full in the night and they sang, “Bringing in the sheaves” with gusto. I can’t remember how many years it has been since I sang it. They also sang “We plough the fields and scatter” and “Come ye thankful people come.” They were trying out a new expensive public address system with a tie-mike and were well pleased with the outcome – “though you don’t need a microphone Mr. Thomas.”
There were spiritual encouragements. I had taken their mission thirty years ago and a man from the Midlands who had come to live in the area had professed faith. I have seen him three or four times since then, and he was there again in the afternoon. He is a deacon and leader in a nearby church, still going on in Christ. Then, as I sat in the ‘big seat’ beneath the pulpit waiting for the service to start, a deacon said to me, “You see that man coming in? He is the local county councillor and he was in the Harvest services of a nearby church on Monday night where John Trehearne was preaching” (John is a graduate from Aberystwyth and an earnest preacher.) “He said to me after he had heard him preaching, ‘There’s not much hope for me if what he says is true.’ I said to him, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘He told us we could do nothing to save ourselves.’ I said to him, ‘Yes, you can believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.’” So I said to the deacon that I would also tell him something to do to trust in the Son of God that night. And I did.
We had an exceptional farm-house tea in the Bwlchysarnau Farm, walking distance from the chapel, between the meetings, though it was a good thing that the suspicious snarling Radnor dog was chained to the garage. The table was loaded with white bread with the crusts off, cheese, apricot jam, home made éclairs, meringues, fruit cake, sausage rolls, sponge cake, blackcurrant tart, sandwiches – what a repast. Iola said to me later she had never eaten so many cakes for years. Then we sat back and had good fellowship around the fire before the evening service. The journey home was through the dark lanes and over Plunlumon mountain; we were illuminated for the whole journey by a full moon.
On Saturday, which happened to be my birthday, I took the 1.30 train to Dewsbury in Yorkshire, travelling via Manchester . I was preaching at the 33rd anniversary of the Dewsbury Evangelical Church and the 32nd anniversary of the only pastor they have had, Graham Heaps. Graham came to Aberystwyth as a student in 1968, three years after I had started. He had been converted through the witness of the Covenanters which is a fine para-church Bible study group for boys held in people’s homes. In the months that followed his conversion he wondered why, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, he wasn’t enjoying going to church. He was, of course, going to congregations where the gospel wasn’t preached. He arrived in Aberystwyth and attended the Methodist church with much the same response, but got great teaching from the Christian Union. A shy boy, he longed for someone to invite him to the Baptists, but no one did. During his second year he moved in with the future evangelical leader Gwyn Davies, but Gwyn was going to a Welsh language church and so it was some weeks before he got the invitation and arrived in Alfred Place . He said to me on Sunday, “I must have been the only person there who at the end of 40 minutes would say, ‘Why is Geoff stopping? Why are there only two services on a Sunday? Why is there only one service during the week?’” He sat open mouthed through the services – a sweet phenomenon. If only it were repeated in hundreds more, but folk are not being invited to come to church. I do not invite as many people as I should; I seem to have some doubts about my own preaching. What a strange phenomenon that is.
Graham met Sue in the congregation, and then he studied in the Bible College of Wales in Barry; 33 years ago the 10 month old free grace assembly in Dewsbury invited him to preach and he went there to church plant and pastor those dozen souls. When they interviewed me about his going there I was daft enough to say to them, “I don’t know about what church planting gifts Graham has.” I have often said that to Graham, showing my old brashness and doing a bit of breast-beating. He has not only built this church in its fine building (it was formerly an old stone mission hall – the ‘Out and Out Mission’), but fifteen years ago a group of them were sent to begin another church in Mirfield which today has a finer building so that both churches hold their wedding services there, and whose congregation has become a little bigger than theirs. There they have also had a number of conversions in the past few years. The pastor, soon to retire from that church, is John Harris, the secretary of the Westminster Conference. On Sunday night one of their elders came across to our service and asked me afterwards whether I could recommend ‘another Graham’ for them, to follow John Harris, and I mentioned one of our men who is now studying at London Theological Seminary.
Dewsbury is one third Pakistani and the Evangelical Church has some of those converted Muslims in its midst. It also has Zimbabwe asylum-seekers, fine Christians, hoping that a recent ruling – just of the past few days – will assist them not to have to be consigned to a return to dangerous Zimbabwe . The church has supported a full-time worker amongst the Asian Muslim and Hindu community. There was an American worker, a farmer’s son from Kansas , who has learned Ur
du who also evangelises under the church and he was in the congregation on Sunday. The Muslims who have been converted have mainly Iranian, and that is a phenomenon evident everywhere in the gospel churches of Britain .
Graham and Sue have five children, all of whom are in the Lord, three of whom are graduates of Cambridge University , one of whom is a preacher and another (who studied Russian in Cambridge and speaks it like a native) is married to a man from Kazikstan in Russia . He, Sergei, and she, Elizabeth, were in the services on Sunday and they are planning to return there in the next year or so to preach God’s free grace and bring in his Kingdom.
It was an encouraging weekend to be with them, Graham is wonderfully tender, humble-minded, meek and honest and I feel my lack in all those graces when I am with him. Little wonder his children are all in the grace of God with such an exemplary man as their father and pastor.