These notes were prepared by our former Paster, The Rev. Dr. Charles K. Hartman
John Myles: Church Planter
As the name and history of this man is now being attached to the contemporary movement to plant new congregations in the United States, particularly in Massachusetts, some helpful knowledge of his life and ministry is in order. I can offer a brief synopsis of the Swansea story taken from my paper presented to the Massachusetts American Baptist Historical Society which was presented at their annual meeting in October 2004.
John Myles, a man, born about 1621 and raised in Wales, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, trained ostensibly for the ministry, went in 1649, soon after Charles I was beheaded, to 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. There Myles became convinced of Baptist principles. He returned to Wales and founded a nonconforming, antipedobaptist congregation near Ilston.
From 1649 until approximately 1662 he worked to found and minister to an additional four congregations of the antipedobaptist persuasion. During this period he held a position with Cromwell’s government called a “tryer”, an office which supervised the qualifications of those seeking to be recognized ministers. In 1662, a law, the Act of Uniformity, was passed that “compelled every clergyman of every name, on or before August 24th, St. Bartholomew’s Day, to assent in toto 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 would have produced a crisis for Myles and most likely would have prevented him from continuing his practice of ministry in Wales. Myles appears publicly in the Plymouth colony in the town of Rehoboth, in March of the year 1665/6. Shortly after, he is proposed as an assistant to the minister of the Rehoboth church, Mr. Zachariah Symes by Captain Thomas Willet.
The relationship between Myles and the established Puritan church of Rehoboth was tenuous. Next we see that in 1666/7 the Plymouth Court fines Myles, Nicholas Tanner, a Welshman identified as a member of the Ilston congregation, and others for unauthorized religious meetings (presumably Baptist) and ordered to remove their meeting from Rehoboth. Soon 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 after their home town in Wales.
Myles led the Swansea, Massachusetts congregation for twenty years. During this time there was a war in which the meeting house and Myles’ own garrison house were burned by the Wampanoag warriors. During the King Phillip war, Myles repaired to Boston and there became a leader in the Baptist church for several years. Returning to Swansea he led the congregation successfully until his death in 1683. He was succeeded by Samuel Luther as pastor.
John Myles wrote the organizing covenant for the Swansea (Massachusetts) congregation which was signed by six other men. This document manifests a of remarkable sense of God’s grace and a profound character of tolerance and cooperation. He also authored the “founding covenants” of the town which articulated a compromise between the Congregationalists and the Baptists allowing them to live and worship together in spite of theological differences.
The congregation was 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 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 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. In 2004 the Swansea congregation has reclaimed its early influence by being supportive of the planting of new Baptist congregations in Honduras.
The only book extant that focuses solely on Myles was written in 1905 by the Rev. Henry M. King then pastor of the First Baptist Church in Providence. Myles work is noted by such Baptist historians as Newman, Vedder, and Torbet. There has been little effort since early in the 20th century to discover more about this Baptist pioneer, though there are many original documentary sources available. Certainly such research could be very helpful to understanding the formative years of our Baptist identity and practice.
That John Myles name be associated with those who now labor to plant new congregations is a fitting tribute to this early Baptist hero and an appropriate honor for the congregation which he founded so long ago. Doing so claims a radical Baptist tradition that can be traced to the very earliest witness of those who are called Baptists.