Congregational (or Independent) churches were always comparatively few in Radnorshire where Nonconformity has been more strongly represented by Baptists. The Independent church of Carmel is a daughter church of Tabernacl, a long-established Congregational cause in Rhaeadr that traces its origins to an ejected minister, John Hanmer, from an early nonconformist nucleus in the upper Teifi valley, north of Lampeter. John Hanmer organised clandestine meetings at Neuadd-lwyd, Nantmêl, some five miles to the east of Rhaeadr, during the penal years of the restoration. With the passing of the Toleration Act (1689), Tabernacl was licensed for public worship in Rhaeadr under the ministry of Thomas Walters, who hailed from the same Teifi valley community as John Hanmer. His Rhaeadr congregation is recorded in Dr John Evans’ List (1715) as having a congregation averaging 400, with a core of 40 members. In 1735, Simon Williams succeeded Thomas Walters at Rhaeadr, adding Caebach to what continued, intermittently, as a joint pastorate.
In 1767, the ordination of Ioan Thomas to an extended joint pastorate of Rhaeadr, Caebach and Y Garn (the latter a farm church in Bettws Disserth) marked a significant point of transition in the spiritual life of this cause. Born and raised at the epicentre of the early eighteenth-century Methodist revival in south-west Wales, Thomas had been imbued from an early age with its evangelical fervour. Aged 15, he joined the household of Griffith Jones, Llanddowror, as a servant, learning to read and participating in meetings of local Methodist societies. He went on to attend the Independent Academy in Abergavenny, coming to the Independent ministry by that route, but his preaching in Rhaeadr was thoroughly Methodist in tone and his ministry is notable for itinerant preaching uncharacteristic of the settled ministry of Old Dissent; indeed, he resigned after a year to embark on lengthier preaching tours. Long after his departure, pulses of revival reverberated through the area’s nonconformist denominations.
Following a series of short-term ministries, Daniel Evans from Crugybar was invited to take charge of the congregation in Rhaeadr, where he ministered successfully for thirty-five years; no longer a joint pastorate – Caebach now had its own pastor – this church now experienced a rare period of settled ministry. Daniel Evans nevertheless continued the evangelical tradition, holding meetings akin to those of the early Methodist societies in farmhouses in the area, including Caerfagu, Gilfach and Gelynen on the south bank of the Afon Dulas, to the south of the main road from Penybont to Rhaeadr in the vicinity of Nantmêl. It was to serve this scattered farming community that Carmel was opened in 1829 and it was Daniel Evans’ son Thomas Evans who was ordained as Carmel’s first minster on 8th June 1831 having supervised the construction of the chapel over the previous eighteen months. He was to serve as minister at Carmel for the remainder of his days, a ministry of close on 38 years, a similar span of years to his father’s ministry in Rhaeadr. Carmel’s burial ground contains family members from the three founding farms, each of which provided the church with a deacon, and Carmel’s sole but impressive internal memorial, affixed to the rear wall facing the pulpit, commemorates one of them: David Evans, Caerfagu, his wife Anne and two of their children who died in infancy.
An indefatigable preacher, Daniel Evans opened another chapel in 1832, Penuel, at Llanwrthwl, south of Rhaeadr, on the west bank of the Wye in Breconshire. Two years later, following his father’s death, Penuel was added to Thomas Evans’ pastorate and he took up residence in Llanwrthwl, close to the family farm at Dyffryn. It seems that the full extent of his education was a term spent at the grammar school attached to the Congregational Academy at Newtown, this following the early death of his first wife Ann. With nine children from his second wife Charlotte, he spent most of his ministerial career in straitened financial circumstances.
In his 1851 census return Thomas Evans estimated the seating capacity of Carmel at 151, with standing room for an additional fifty. The general size of the congregation, for an afternoon service in fair weather, was given as eighty; on census day itself, a “boisterous” Sunday in March 1851, the numbers attending were reported as 66 for the morning service and 35 in the evening, with children (“scholars”) in addition.
Suffering from gout, Thomas Evans died aged 73 years on 21st February 1869 . Fondly remembered more for his pastoral skills than his eloquence in the pulpit, he was interred in the burial ground at Penuel in the winter of 1869 beside his second wife Charlotte who had predeceased him in 1860. Thereafter, Carmel came under the care of the successive ministers of Penuel beginning with Revd John Wyndham Jones, Pontypridd. Its small congregation thrived, with a notable reputation for the quality of its singing, under the direction of David Evans, Court Gwyn, a neighbouring property. Repairs to the fabric of the chapel, completed in 1881, were celebrated with a preaching festival featuring two hoelion wyth of the denomination, Dr Thomas Rees, the pre-eminent historian of Welsh Independency and the crowd-pulling minister of neighbouring Caebach, Kilsby Jones. A century later, capacity congregations were a distant memory and in 2017 Carmel, a Grade II* listed building, passed into the care of Addoldai Cymru.
David Barnes, Calan Gaeaf, 2020