Bethel Chapel is the oldest surviving nonconformist chapel in Blaenavon. The building is of significance to the religious heritage of the town and is illustrative of trends in religious nonconformity in the south Wales coalfield during the nineteenth century. It is recognised as a component of the outstanding universal value of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape World Heritage Site.
Originally a Primitive Methodist chapel, Bethel was opened on 6 December 1829. A modest structure, measuring 23ft by 35ft, the chapel was extended considerably in 1853 and 1861. During the latter renovation, substantial interior alterations were made to increase the accommodation to approximately 600 people. These improvements included the addition of a three-sided gallery and the division of the body of the chapel into two rows of pews, with an aisle each side. This provides an indication of the growth of religious nonconformity in Blaenavon during the Victorian period and how chapel buildings evolved to meet the demand.
In 1877-78, the Primitive Methodists built a more substantial chapel nearby and Bethel became vacant on its completion. Around this time, some 46 Baptists seceded from Broad Street English Baptist Chapel and were in search of a new meeting place. Such splits were common among the nonconformist congregations of south Wales in the nineteenth century. Disagreements over scripture or the appointment of a minister could result in fragmentation and the formation of a new chapel. Indeed, in 1878, the Baptists raised sufficient funds to purchase the King Street building from the Primitive Methodists and Bethel became a Baptist chapel, which it has remained for upwards of 140 years.
The opening of the King Street English Baptist Chapel came at a time of religious fervour in south Wales. A religious revival was underway in Blaenavon in early 1879, with various preachers travelling to the town to spread the gospel. Among these were the notable revivalists Owen Tidman (1843-1934) and his wife Sarah Goseley (1849-1932). In March 1879, Sarah addressed an audience of some 700 worshippers in a crammed Bethel Chapel. Not only does this illustrate the popularity of the revival but it also provides evidence of the active participation made by women in religious services. Sarah’s husband Owen led the King Street Baptists on street missions, preaching in the streets of the town, and was known for his ‘healing hands’. The evangelist accepted the pastorate of Bethel Chapel in April 1879. During his tenure, he oversaw further renovation to the chapel in 1883 and the construction of a Sunday School extension in 1887.
Typical of chapels of this period, Bethel had a diverse programme of events, including lectures, social clubs, a choir and a vibrant Sunday School. The chapel would undoubtedly have played a central role in the life of its members, as well as providing moral and spiritual guidance.
In January 1905, during Wales’s last great religious revival, one of the national leaders Sydney Evans, preached at Bethel Chapel. However, as the twentieth century progressed, religious nonconformity entered gradual decline amid profound social and cultural change. The attitude of chapels towards the First World War was arguably a contributing factor in the changing fortune of Welsh nonconformity after 1918, as old truths and authority were questioned. Like many Welsh nonconformist chapels, the pulpit of King Street was used to recruit young men to war. The minister of Bethel Chapel, D.T. Benjamin, viewed the war as ‘overwhelmingly righteous’ and proclaimed that it was ‘only right that every young man should rally to the Colours’. The King Street Chapel Roll of Honour, currently at Blaenavon Community Museum, poignantly shows the human cost exacted on Bethel’s flock.