THE CIRCULAR LETTER
FROM THE MINISTERS AND MESSENGER OF THE PARTICULAR BAPTIST CHURCHES,
CONSTITUTING THE BERKS WEST AND LONDON ASSOCIATION;
Receiving the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as their only and sufficient guide in faith and practice; and thence deriving a belief in the important doctrines of the Trinity in the Godhead; the Responsibility of Man, his Guilt, and the Corruption of his Nature; Free Salvation by the death of Christ; Discriminating Grace in Election; the Substitution of Christ for his Church; Justification by Faith, through the Imputation of his Righteousness; Regeneration by the Holy Spirit; the Obligation of Holiness; the Perseverance of Saints; the Everlasting Misery of the Wicked, and Happiness of the Righteous; and maintaining inviolably the Congregational Order of the Churches;
Assembled at Newbury, September 12 and 13, 1826.
Written by John Howard Hinton of Reading
To the several Churches which they represent.
AMONG the purposes for which we are associated are the cultivation of christian intercourse, and the furtherance of mutual edification; interesting and delightful objects, to which our annual letter will be more particularly devoted, and we trust happily conducive. With this design we propose to bring before you, on the present occasion, such historical details of the associated churches as can be collected; in order that we may in the first instance be some acquainted with each other; and know how to cherish dispositions appropriate to the past, the present, and the future.
Only two of them carry us further back than the year 1767. These two are Reading and Newbury, the beginnings of which, through the want of documents, are involved in obscurity; but which can nevertheless be traced for a period of nearly two hundred years, and into the most interesting portion of English history, the natal hour of our civil and religious liberty.
The church at Newbury has no records of later date than 1770. At that period Mr. Bicheno collected the fragments of its early history from an aged member, who had been baptized in the year 1718, and was in possession of the traditionary details authoritatively current in her youthful days. Upon her information it is stated, that "the first minister and the then members suffered much from king Charles's army during the civil wars." There can be no reason whatever to attach doubt to this circumstantial tradition, inasmuch as there is no assignable motive for its invention or embellishment. We are referred therefore to 1644, on the 27th of October, in which year the battle of Newbury was fought. The baptist church there it appears was then in existence under their first minister. Now the history of this period shews that, during the few years preceding this date, the baptists were considerably on the increase in England, advantage being taken of the liberty of judgment and practice then claimed by the [B]rownists or independents, and a stimulus being administered by the discussions which took place in the Westminster assembly of divines: it is highly probable, therefore, and seems indeed scarcely to admit of a doubt, that the origination of the church at Newbury is thus to be accounted for.
Ground exists for believing that there was a baptist church in Reading at the same, if not at an earlier period. Of the few documents which remain, one is dated in 1656, and enacts regulations which plainly indicate an established and extended society.(1) And although no materials exist for tracing with certainty the previous history of this church, as this paper authorizes the idea that it must then have been a considerable time in existence, it seems not to belong to the class which sprang up amidst the religious disputes and the incipient freedom of the last years of Charles the first, but to one of an earlier date. Now it is [a] matter of history that the first baptists in England were persons who fled from continental persecution, some of them in the beginning of the reign of Henry the eighth, and others at subsequent periods. These emigrant parties consisted not merely of individuals, but of families, and in many instances of large companies of persons, who settled together, and therefore at once formed a congregation, adapted to maintain and propagate their peculiar opinions. A work of the year 1646 asserts that the number of baptists "till of late in England was not great, and the most of them were not English, but Dutch strangers."(2) We can scarcely be wrong, therefore, in ascribing the commencement of the baptist church at Reading to the settlement of one or more of these emigrant parties. We do this with the more confidence, because there is another church in the western part of the same country, at Faringdon, which unquestionably had such an origin; the manorial records affording traces of the grant of land, nearly so far back as the year 1520. The course of these wanderers was naturally from the eastern coast, where they landed; towards the western and more interior parts of the country; and nothing can be more probable, therefore, than that some of them should have settled at Reading.
On this point we make but one more remark. A great number of the congregational churches in England took their rise from the act of uniformity, which occasioned the ejectment [sic] of about two thousand invaluable men from the livings of the establishment. These were the fathers of English nonconformity, and to their labours and sufferings are many, we may say most of the old dissenting interests to be referred. It is quite plain, however, that the history of the baptist churches of Newbury and Reading leads us to a more distant period. The act of uniformity was passed in 1662: the baptist church at Newbury existed at least twenty years before this, and that at Reading certainly in 1656, and probably at a much remoter period. The inscription in the church book, given below, suggests the idea that the latter was in being before any other congregational society in the same town.
As no other of the associated churches connects itself with these distant times, we shall defer our notice of them till we have traced forward the history of these two societies. And first for that of Reading, as affording the only document(3) which throws light on their earlier history, and one indeed which may justify the more particular notice, as yielding some general illustration of the state of such churches as then existed.
They had, it appears, two services on the sabbath; in the morning at seven (or eight in the winter) and in the afternoon at one; an arrangement probably intended, and perhaps from necessity, to remove their periods of worship from the hours of divine service in the churches of the establishment. They had also preachers, it would seem, to an indefinite number, doubtless gifted brethren raised up within the church, and contributing to the edification of the body on the system of mutual exhortation. The enactment that the officiating brethren should be determined by the overseers, seems to intimate the existence of some previous disorder; the more perfect removal of which was subsequently (in 1695) attempted by the church itself in the following manner: "Agreed for the settling of the ministrie, that our brother Key preach once every Lordís day, and that brother Wigg and brother Boote carrie one the rest of the time; And that they desier brother Blackhead and brother Dadey to preach as their occasion will admit." It is plain that the preachers held but a very subordinate place; and as the ordinance of the Lordís supper was administered by some of gifted brethren appointed for the purpose, it appears that the pastoral office was entirely vacant, a point in which the neglect of the churches is noticed as frequent and lamentable by the general assembly in London in 1689. From some cash accounts of the years1680 and 1681, it is to be collected that the preachers were generally gratuitous. There are notices of small occasional donations; and two of them at length received regular "pay," one of two shillings a week, another of three pounds ten shillings a quarter, the latter sum being allowed to "brother Ketch," who served them very frequently, and evidently came from a distance, his perpetual charges occurring for his "hors." This person has been supposed to be the celebrated Benjamin Keach, of London.
The appointment of overseers has the appearance of a temporary expedient. In 1679, about twenty afterwards, when at lease two them were still living, the church "did think good to prooseed to make choyce of some parsons to be there deacons, and there they did ellect" three brethren, neither of whom had been among the overseers. In 1683 one of he preacbers, Mr. Rance, was appointed to be "the mouth of the church in point of government." Neither method, however, seems to have worked satisfactorily without a somewhat frequent appeal to the constituent body, as about 1694 it was resolved "that a stated church meeting be held for the rnanadgment of the affaires of the church; and that at these church meetings all matters shall be brought respecting the members, and shall be ffended." In 1715, shortly after the choice of a pastor, the administration of the church was vested in two ruling elders and four deacons, no subsequent imitation being given, howtever, of the renewal of the former office. This want of uniformity and completeness in the constitution of the church, must probably be referred, either to the troub1es of the times, or the imperfect and progressive diffusion of scriptural knowledge.
The constitution of the church was plainly in the strictest sense congregational. The whole authority invested in the body collectively, without any distinction of one class of members from another; and to the body was the executive responsible, as appointed by it. Great freedom, with some warmth and disorder of discussion, appears also to have existed. The regulation upon this topic bears one interesting vestige of these times, in the direction to ďmove nothing in the church, but what relates to it as a church." It is well known how completely politics and religion were then mixed up, and how much jealousy was entertained of the separate congregations, and indeed how much persecution was directed against them, on the pretext of their becoming scenes of political or suspected seditious debate. It is a consequence of this feeling, that dissenters in England have never acquired a legal right of holding any meeting with closed doors.
Two other particulars are deducible from the fragment of the cash account which remains. One item is for expenses "the weeke the fast was;" no doubt a voluntary fast, and with sufficient cause in 1682, when the second James's systematic attempts to introduce popery afflicted the pious of all communions more than persecution had done, and was generating the elements of his own expulsion and the glorious revolution of 1688. Another item is "for entertaining the friends when the messengers were here;" a record which shews that, though independent, these churches were not insulated, but maintained, even in times of peril, a consolatory and cooperative intercourse.
Where the church assembled during the early part of the period we have been treating of is not known. In 1680 they met in a private house, belonging to sister Aslet or Haslet, paying a rental of thirty shillings a year. In the cash account this is called "the renting-hous;" but their meetings seem to have in privacy and by stealth, as when afterwards, in 1692, a placed worship was built, it is emphatically called "the publique meeting house." This place of worship was erected on an estate in Church Street, which, with some other property, was the legacy of Mr. William Butler, one of their deacons, and then began, as it still continues, to be used for a burying ground.
In 1695 it was agreed to send "messengers to Mr. Ward and his church, to consider of matters concerning union in preaching and praying:" singing not being then universally introduced, but in fact a matter precisely at that period most warmly controverted. It may be gathered also from this expression that it was not intended to unite or identify the churches; a remit, however, which appears to have followed in fact. "The answer was as followeth (viz.) that though they seemed willing for union, yet with that proviso, that none should preach on Lordís days but Mr. Ward and Mr. Key, to which the church doth not agree." There was a difference therefore as to the practice of mutual exhortation, which threatened to keep them asunder. The impediment was got over by Mr. Ward and his friends relinquishing their objection; and the negotiation being concluded, the church resolved "that this meeting be removed near to the Beare." Mr. Ward's place of worship was in Castle Street; so that both congregations must have abandoned their meeting houses, unless indeed, which is perhaps more probable, the situation of Mr. Ward's, which is understood to have been as "near to the Beare" as any spot in Castle Street could be,(4) and in fact a very short distance from it, may be thought to be intended by this description. In this case it may be inferred that his congregation was of the greater magnitude and importance.
This record is particularly interesting as bringing into view a second baptist church in Reading at this period. We find no trace of its origin, but to the general assembly of the baptist churches held in London it is recorded to have sent messengers(5) which the church whose history we have been tracing did not. Now it is stated by Mr. Ivimey, that it was the churches of the Particular baptists who sent messengers to the general assembly; and that the churches of the general baptists, though at this time very numerous, and both bodies on very friendly terms, did not do so. We can scarcely err therefore in concluding that Mr. Ward's church were particular, and the other general baptists. This idea is confirmed by the phraseology of the trust deed of the meeting-house erected in Church Street in 1692, which is as follows: "holding the universall love of God in sending his Sonne into the world." The union with Mr. Ward's church led not only to an amalgamation of the two societies, but to the complete adoption and prevalence of the calvinistic theology. The united churches entered upon a new meeting-house in Hosiers Lane in 1752.
The succession of pastors, or even ministers, at Reading, it is impossible to trace perfectly. In 1656 there were several preachers, but no pastor. In 1678 the church called Mr. John Rance to be their minister, but neither was he their pastor; he seems only to have taken his place among the preachers, Mr. Richard Merefield and Mr. Ketch (supposed Keach) being of the number. In 1695 the church contained the following gifted persons, brethren Key, Wigg, Boote, Blackhead and Dadly. In 1715 we find the first mention of "the pastoral charge," of the benefits of which they say they had been "destitute for some time," so that this was a revival of the office. It was then accepted by Mr. Jonathan Davis. How or when he vacated it does not appear, but in 1735 we find that Mr. Peter Belbin, an attorney, had filled it for some time previous to that year, and had then recently conformed to the establishment. The people were then destitute until 1741, when they were settled under Mr. Daniel Turner, till his removal to Abingdon In 1748. The next year they were again settled under Mr. Thomas Whitewood, who left them in 1766. Mr. Thomas Davis, from Woolwich, came among them in the year following, and in 1768 was ordained. Upon his death, which took place in 1796, Mr. John Holloway, then assistant to Mr. Lovegrove at Wa1lingford, succeeded, being ordained in 1798; and on his removal to Bristol in l811, Mr. John Dyer, pastor of the baptist church at Plymouth, whose settlement took place in 1814. Mr. Dyer having become secretary to the baptist mission in 1818, the church were destitute of a pastor for about two years, when that office was accepted by their present minister Mr. John Howard Hinton.
During so long and varied a period the church must doubtless have gone through many changes. Its numbers in 1656 must be supposed to have been considerable. From Sept. 25, 1678, till Dec. 7, 1680, twenty-two persons ware baptized. The rate of increase during this period is about ten persons in a year, by no means small, nor perhaps hazardous to be assumed as an average for a longer period. In 1715 the church contained 105 members, some of whom were resident at Henley, Twyford, Wokingham and Basingstoke. In 1741, on the settlement of Mr. Turner, the number of members was 85, of whom 13 were added during the six years of destitution after the conformity of Mr. Belbin. During the labours of Mr. Whitewood the church greatly diminished, and on his removal contained only 41 members. It appears that his ministry was so much interrupted by illness, and generally so unacceptable, that they held a meeting at which they requested him to seek another station; after which the congregation was so low and dispirited that the place was shut up for nearly half a year, until Mr. Thomas Davis was brought among them. Under his preaching, which was of a very vigorous character, a considerable revival took place; and during his ministry about five hundred persons were added to the church, affording the large average of seventeen for each year. Connected with this increase was the munificent liberality of Mr. Robert Willis, a member of the church, who gave a piece of land adjoining the burial ground for its enlargement and was at the whole cost of erecting two galleries in the meeting- house. Mr. Davis's pastorate, however, in its early period was considerably affected by discord; nor is it perhaps surprising that such rapid increase should have been associated with a proportionally large measure of instability and inconsistency. In the course of it there were called to the ministry the following persons: Charles Holmes, first assistant to Mr. Lovegrove at Wallingford, and subsequently pastor of the second church at Wantage, since extinct; William Augustus Clark, who had separated from the church at Oxford; ______ Mills, Robert Collier, and William Dunham. Mr. Richard Burnham, also, the pastor of the independent church at Staines, was baptized, a circumstance which led to the formation of the baptist church in that place.
The ministry of Mr. Holloway commenced with very pleasing appearances, the congregation so much increasing that an enlargement of the meeting-house was judged necessary, and was immediately executed. The increase of the church was also great, amounting to about three hundred during the fifteen years of his ministry, or nearly twenty for every year. Partial dissatisfaction however appeared, and one of the members, Mr. William Weller, commenced preaching in opposition. Afterwards some valuable men were called to the ministry; namely, Mr. Philip Davis, who was first pastor at Wokingham, and subsequently at Whitchurch, Hants; and Mr. James Millard, first settled at Hartley Row, and, after preaching some time at Whitchurch, ultimately at Lymington. At Hartley Row Mr. Holloway introduced the gospel, Nov. 7, 1805, and the church was formed there under Mr. Millard's care, on the same day, 1808. Within the same period also, Mr. Richard Chapman, who closed his days at Chobham, Surrey, was sent into the ministry, and a small place of worship was built at Eversley in Hampshire. During the pastorate of Mr. Dyer many members withdrew. Under their present pastor pleasing appearances exist, and prospects of usefulness.
The church at Newbury we have traced to about the year 1640. Its first pastor was Mr. James, who must have been very young at the commencement of his labours, as he continued them upwards of sixty years. He was succeeded in or near 1716 by Mr. Jefferies, the father of Dr. Jefferies, whose daughter was the first wife of Dr. Caleb Evans of Bristol. He had been ordained as assistant, at Taunton, Somerset, to which place he had engaged to return on the death of his principal. He was pastor five years, very much beloved, and departed amidst the blessings of his people. About 1724 a minister was settled over them whose name is not recorded, but his sentiments tended to arminianism and arianism. In 1730 Mr. Brittern was pastor at Newbury, but after a short stay he removed to Whitchurch. Mr. Taylor succeeded, and after some years removed to London, where he joined the presbyterians. The next pastor was Mr. Edward Harrison, who after several years, in consequence of a misunderstanding, accepted an invitation to Broadmead, Bristol, as assistant to Mr. Bernard Foskett; during which period the place was kept open by gifted members of the church. Mr. Harrison subsequently returned, but his moral character proving bad, after much contention, he was dismissed. Mr. Wilkins from Warminster was then invited, and remained with the church some years as minister, Mr. Beyley of Wantage coming over occasionally to administer the ordinances. In the year 1748 Mr. Francis Lewis was chosen pastor, and with the exception 0r a temporary schism in 1779, continued so till his death in 1780. On the 20th of September in the same year Mr. James Bicheno entered on the office, which also he resigned in 1807. He subsequently took the charge of the church at Coate, Oxon; but, advancing in years, he returned to Newbury, where he continued to manifest the most cordial attachment to the cause. In 1805 he introduced to the pulpit Mr. John Perry, from Malmesbury, Wilts, who was ordained on Mr. Bicheno's resignation in 1807. He was removed by death in 1812, and succeeded by Mr. Thomas Welsh, the present pastor.
The labours of Mr. James, which it will be remembered were in troublous times, were much blessed, and the church enjoyed great harmony. They first met in the house of Mr. Jabez Hill, a grocer, in Northbrook Street, the house in which Dr. Friend lived for many years, and which is now inhabited by Mr. D. Atlec. After the revolution of 1688 they availed themselves of their privileges, and erected a place of worship in North Croft Lane in 1702, the members being then about fifty. Mr. Jefferies was both popular and beloved. During the five years of his ministry fifty persons were baptized, and he left the church in a very promising state. From his departure, however, is to be dated the commencement of its decline, as the preaching of his successor, partaking of the character of the day, was tinctured with arianism, and hastened the falling off of many of the most substantial families to arian doctrines, and the presbyterian body. During the following years the church continued to decay, and under the ministry of Mr. Lewis were extremely low. Nor under that of Mr. Bicheno did they revive. When Mr. Perry commenced his labours the members were very few, and from some of them it was necessary to withdraw. The word however was blessed, and several persons brought into the church whose piety was decided, and who strengthened his hands by their humility, tenderness, and prayers. A man of holiness, he promoted salutary discipline, and was zealous in dispensing the word of reconciliation, and these excellencies greatly contributed to the subsequent prosperity of the church. During his ministry eight were added by baptism, and one by letter; an accession not large, but of great worth and promise. The church, though small, was now united in sentiment and affection, walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Ghost. Under Mr. Welsh's care they have been favoured with a continued increase.
We cannot take leave of these two churches, without briefly adverting in conclusion to the times of public agitation and calamity through which they passed. It was quite natural that the church at Newbury should suffer much from King Charles's army, since all nonconformists were abhorred by the church party, and the baptists more bitterly hated than the rest. Their brethren at Reading may be supposed not to have suffered equally, if at all, upon this occasion; since on the eve, of the battle of Newbury the town was occupied by the parliamentary troops, and within a mile and a half of it, at Southcot House, were the head-quarters of Cromwell himself.
Having thus given the history of the older churches, we now advert to the younger. In Wokingham some members of the church at Reading resided so long since as 1680. From the document of 1656 it may also be inferred that gifted brethren occasionally preached there. It is certain that the place continued to furnish both hearers and members to Reading in the early part of the last century; and in the year 1767, immediately after his settlement, Mr. Thomas Davis commenced preaching in a hired room. This step was met with the most violent and determined opposition, which indeed had long been shewn towards the few who came to Reading on the Lord's day; but it led notwithstanding to the erection of a place of worship in 1773. In 1774 many of the members resident at Wokingham expressed themselves dissatisfied with Mr. Davis, and preferred charges against him, from which the body held him clear; in consequence of which they withdrew and formed themselves into a distinct church the same year, under Mr. Freeman as their pastor. This the parent church visited with exclusion, and repelled all attempts at reconciliation, until the whole body acknowledged their fault, were reinstated as members at Reading, and a second time formed in church order, in 1778, by the dismission of seventeen persons for that purpose. Mr. George Goodrick then became their pastor, but resigned his office in the following year, from which till 1781 the people were supplied almost entirely by Mr. William Burnham, residing at Maidenhead, but a member of the church at Reading, by which he had been called to the ministry. Mr. Thomas Stiles, from Chatham was ordained in 1782, but some painful circumstances led to his resignation in 1785, when the pulpit was frequently supplied by Mr. John Paul Porter, now of Bath, but then residing at Frimley. In 1790 Mr. Thomas Burgwin, now of Blackwater commenced preaching at Wokingham and in the following year was ordained, but resigned his charge in 1794; after which (in July 1795) Mr. John Wills, from Witney, Oxon, became pastor, and so continued till the year 1804. After his retirement the chinch was supplied for two or three years by the conjoint labours of Messrs. Chapman, Millard, and Davies, members at Reading; this effort however by degrees devolving on Mr. Davies only, who finally accepted the pastoral charge in 1807, and retained it till his removal to Whitchurch, Hants, in 1818. In the year following the church was again settled under Mr. John Coles, of Poplar, their present pastor.
Much prosperity does not seem to have attended the early years of this church. The ministry of Mr. Stiles, from 1782 to 1785, during which twenty-six persons were added, was the most favoured. In the following five years, while kindly aided by Mr. Porter, from Frimley, service was often conducted by reading and prayer without a minister. The nine years of Mr. Wills's ministry, from 1795 to 1804, are marked by the addition of only eight persons. From this period however may be dated a revival, under the voluntary and zealous efforts of the brethren from Reading, and the affectionate pastorate of Mr. Davies, during the eleven years of which fifty-seven persons were added to the church. In the seven years which have elapsed since Mr. Coles's settlement, there has been a further gratifying increase.
The next in order of origination is Staines, of which we have the following account Some time in the year 1774, Mr. Richard Burnham, then pastor of the independent church in this town, embraced the sentiments of the baptists. He was baptized at Reading, intending to be silent on the subject and to retain his office. Conscience however compelled him to avow his sentiments, which led to an immediate separation from his charge. Mr. Burnham ultimately joined the church at Reading, and was by them called a second time to the ministry in 1777. He then commenced preaching in his own house, where large numbers attended, of whom several were called to the knowledge of the truth, and five were baptized at Reading. These continued to assemble in Mr. Burnham's house for nearly two years, during which period some others were baptized in a pond in the garden. The place of worship was erected in 1777, and in 1778 fifteen persons, including Mr. Burnham were dismissed from Reading to constitute a baptist church in Staines. In 1784 Mr. Burnham removed to London, and during the succeeding six years the church was supplied by occasional preachers. In 1790 Mr. Sylvester was ordained pastor, and retained his office till within a few months of his death in 1814, his ministry having been generally useful. He was immediately succeeded by Mr. Dawson, whose ministry was far from being acceptable. In a declining state when he entered on his charge, during his pastorate the church continued to decay, so that in 1828 he left it on the verge of ruin, and shortly afterwards the meeting-house was shut up and the church dissolved. A few however lamented the desolations of Zion, and ardently prayed for the restoration of their privileges; and desperate as their circumstances were, the Lord heard and answered their prayers. About this time was formed the baptist home missionary society for the south west of Middlesex and parts adjacent, and their attention was directed to Staines, as an important central position. The meeting-house was reopened by them in January 1834, and in May following Mr. Gregory Hawson, from Portsea, entered upon the station. Through the divine blessing, a gradual revival has been realized. In July 1825 was formed a new church, of twelve members, under the pastoral care of Mr. Hawson. The number has since increased, and the spiritual prospects are encouraging.
In 1786 the foundation of the church at Datchet was laid by the liberality of Mr. Fleetwood Marsh, a gentleman now living in America, but then a resident at Datchet, and a member of the church at Colnbrook, which had been formed in 1708. He fitted up the present meeting-house, then a part of his own property, and conveyed it in trust for the worship of God. The place was supplied by ministers of different denominations. The first, Mr. Searl, was a baptist, and the next a pedobaptist, Mr. Burgis, who preached also at Windsor, the congregation at both places being nearly the same. Mr. James Fryer, of the same connexion, succeeded, and his labours were very acceptable and much blessed, till terminated by death. From this period the place was dependent on various supplies, of some of whom the recollection is deeply painful, till 1805, when Mr. John Young, from Staines, occupied the pulpit for two years, at the expiration of which there was formed a baptist church, over which he was ordained. The church consisted of only five members, but was much increased under Mr. Young. He resigned his charge in 1815, after which, for about eighteen months, supplies were brought from London. The church then had recourse to the gifted brethren within their own body, and were thus led to the choice of their present pastor, Mr. William Bailey, who was ordained in 1819. The difficulties here are great and the prospects not of the most animating kind.
The baptist church at Wallingford originated in the zeal and liberality of Mr. Robert Lovegrove, a solicitor, who commenced preaching at first in his own house, where many persons heard him with much pleasure, and encouraged him to persevere. This induced him to erect a place of worship, which he did in his own garden, and almost entirely at his own expence. It was opened for public worship, and Mr. Lovegrove himself baptized, by Mr. Davis of Reading, May 20, 1794. On the 27th of July Mr. Davis baptized six other persons, and of these seven the church was formed the same day. Mr. Lovegrove continued to labour fill his last illness and death in 1813, and was succeeded by Mr. Dobney, in the folowing year. He held his office till 1818, when the church were supplied by Mr. Tyso, from Watchett, under whom they were finally settled in 1819.
Mr. Lovegrove's pastorate was a time of great activity, and considerable increase. Besides his own labours in Wallingford, he supported an assistant minister for itinerating in the neighbourhood, a post which has been successively occupied by Mr. Charles Holmes, from Reading, afterwards of Wantage; Mr. John Holloway, from Wantage, and afterwards of Reading; Mr. Seymour; Mr. Joseph Ivimey, now of Eagle Street, London; Mr. Melony, and Mr. Cooper. He also purchased two cottages for preaching at Roke, a village about three miles north east of Wallingford. A chapel was built at Cholsey a large village two miles south of the town, and another at Slade-end by Mr. Wells, one of the original members of the church, who himself became a preacher. In the nineteen years of Mr. Lovegrove's pastorate, two hundred persons were added to the church. During the early part of Mr. Tyso's ministry the meeting-house was considerably enlarged.
The meeting-house at Blackwater was built about 1813 by the wesleyan methodists, but being given up by them, was purchased by its present occupants. It was reopened in 1816, and in 1819 twelve persons united themselves in church fellowship under the care of Mr. Thomas Burgwin. The number has since increased, but their strength is small, and they labour under considerable discouragement and depression.
The baptist church at Chelsea, the most recent, originated in an association of several ministers of that denomination for the spread of the gospel in the neighourhood of London. For this purpose they opened and supported a place of worship in Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, where a small society was formed, under the care of Mr. Owen Clarke, in 1817. In the same year Paradise chapel, Chelsea; their present place of worship, but formerly belonging to the independents, was taken and reopened for their use. Mr. Clarke resigned his office in 1822, and Mr. William Hutchings, their present pastor, was settled over the church in 1824. Their increase has been considerable, and their prospects are highly encouraging.
Let us now take a general review of the details which have passed before us.
It appears that the district was first impregnated with the principles we hold by emigration, persons maintaining them on the continent of Europe escaping hither from the iron hand of persecutors. A most primitive and apostolical method. The very method in which the gospel was at first diffused from Jerusalem, upon the persecution which arose about Stephen; characteristic therefore of the ways of God, and eminently expressive of the wisdom of his administration.
The leaven thus introduced was preserved amidst fiery trials, and began to operate with more vigour immediately on the enjoyment of even a small degree of religious liberty. For liberty me the friend of truth, and affords all that is requisite to facilitate its progress and ensure its triumph, namely, scope for its unimpeded action.
Our principles have beep further diffused by radiation from the central points thus formed a course most natural and much be expected, that a church, when established, should regard the welfare of its vicinage, and promote the formation of kindred societies.
And finally the same end has been effected by the ardour of individual zeal, inspiring the tongue to speak, and the hand to labour; results of christian feeling and principle perfectly in character with the obligations of redeeming mercy, and the influences of divine grace.
We may look therefore on the propagation of our principles with satisfaction. If, in connexion with them, we behold either the faggot or the sword, it is as it ought to be, lifted up against them, and not on their behalf. For them no violent, unhallowed, or worldly means have been employed; but such alone as are generated by christian character as are sa[n]ctioned by christian truth, and have been systematically employed and blessed by the author and finisher of our faith.
This system indeed has an appearance of weakness, and is in truth destitute of worldly resources and secular power; yet we hold it nevertheless to be the test adapted for the preservation and diffusion of pure and undefiled religion. But can we venture to appeal to its efficacy as a test of its worth; to ask whether it has worked well, and accomplished all that might have been expected from it?
From this question it were vain to endeavour to shrink. Our antagonists will ask it, if we do not; they do ask it, and triumph in the supposed unfavourable answer. Nor is there any reason why we should wish to evade it. Why should we be afraid to discover the faults of our system? Is it not better to correct them? Or if beyond correction, to abandon what is incurably bad? Who wishes to cling to a system of evils and mischiefs? We certainly do not. If we maintain or value our principles, it is because we think them good ones, and we have a few words to say before we altogether allow that they are not.
We are quite aware it must be admitted, and we are willing to admit it in the outset in the most express and ample manner, that our system has not accomplished all which might have been expected from it. So far from producing kindred societies or even increasing their own strength, there are in some churches marks of decay, and even a struggle for existence. In conjunction with this, however, let it remembered that internal mischiefs have kept pace with the external, and enable us to assign a sufficient cause for them. Sometimes the introduction of false doctrine, arianism here, and there antinomianism; sometimes the neglect of wholesome and necessary discipline followed always by a declension of vital godliness, and often by the prevalence of flagrant immortalities sometimes the disregard of divine ordinances, with the very inefficient occupation of the ministerial or pastoral office; and sometimes a spirit of disunion and mutual estrangement, fostered and embittered by angry debates respecting trifles and absurdities; by these various maladies have our churches been afflicted; and is it surprising that their strength has wasted, and their usefulness been impeded? No rational ground can be exhibited for expecting a different result. But what is this to the reproach of the congregational system? Are these necessary or approved parts of it? Are these among the elements from which we have ever professed to anticipate good? Assuredly not. We expect beneficial results only from sound doctrine and faithful discipline, from pure hands and united hearts. Such things are the sinews of the body; they are actually to be found in it; and in exact proportion to their prevalence has been the prosperity and usefulness of our churches. To say this is to say everything. It is to admit that the system, so far as it has wrought at all, has wrought well. That the evils which attach themselves to it should produce advantage, is neither possible nor desirable. Why should there be a bounty upon false doctrine, or unholy living? Rather let those who wish to be either happy or useful, learn first to be holy and true.
It may be observed, indeed, that as under such influences our societies decay, and in some instances perish, their capability of future usefulness is injured. We are far from regretting such a result. It is a most happy element in any institution, that its power to act at all should precisely correspond with power to act beneficially. Further than it is beneficial there is no importance at all in maintaining any society, most of all a religious one. When it becomes useless, let it decay. Additional force is derived to this sentiment from the very important fact, that in proportion as religious institutions become useless, they become also mischievous; at all events by preventing, or perhaps repressing, the operation of better elements which, without such obstruction, might come into action and almost inevitably also by fostering and propagating the most serious evils. With respect to a church characterized by false doctrine, or lax discipline, or unholy lives, we wish that it may be either reformed or exterminated. We cannot conceive why it should be maintained for its own sake, either to become an actual nuisance, or to afford an argument against the necessity and an obstruction to the practicability of better adapted means. In these respects it would in our opinion have been unspeakab1y advantageous, if all churches had resembled our own.
If it should be thought discreditable to our system that it is obnoxious to the generation of evils which may prevent its usefulness and cause its decay, we might answer that it is so in no greater degree than other religious institutions. Endowed or established churches are equally liable to similar mischiefs, so that they at least can claim no advantage, and are entitled to throw no stone. But we go further and assert that such churches are far more readily overrun by them, and by many others from which the congregational method is exempt; while they have in themselves no reforming or renovating power, being adapted only to perpetuate and sanction things as they are, or as they become under the operation of involuntary causes. The evils to which our system is subject are in number fewer, and in magnitude smaller, than those which attend any other; while the principles of the system itself tend to keep open every eye to their entrance, and arm every hand for their expulsion. The instances are not rare in which the purity and vigour of our churches have been maintained by these means, and in many others the inherent vitality of the system has shewn itself by a determined and successful struggle.
For the correctness of this statement we are perfectly willing to appeal to facts. And we ask, what has been the state of other religious bodies during the period under review? Two principal ones come into the comparison; the episcopalian, and the presbyterian. The presbyterian churches have almost universally become both false in doctrine, lax in discipline, low in piety, and deep in decay, to a degree far exceeding that in which the congregational churches have ever suffered. And the same may be said of the episcopal, or established church, which, after its triumph by the act of uniformity in 1662, fell into the most profound slumber, and made not the smallest beneficial use of its vast advantages; but occupied itself solely in fostering the irreligion of the nation, and protecting an ignorant people from the unwelcome efforts of those who would fain have enlightened them. During this long period of more than a hundred and fifty years, all religious bodies felt the inroads of evil and decay; but the congregational felt it the least, and retained the largest measure both of vital godliness and effective usefulness. It was in truth among them almost exclusively that pure and undefiled religion could be found. If the good effected by them was small; it was nearly the whole that was accomplished in the country; and as these societies were the first to arouse themselves from their slumbers, so their system afforded the only receptacle for those elements of revival which the hierarchy contemptuously expelled, but could not destroy, and in the remote influence of which upon their own body there is found so much matter of gratulation [sic] and boasting. It is the glory of the congregational churches to have been the means, both of preserving the light of truth in their own sanctuaries, and of rekindling it in those of the establishment.
It adds to the force of this comparison, that it is made under circumstances so unfavourable to the efficacy of the congregational system. During this period other religious bodies were in prosperity, ours in oppression. They were acting out their principles, we were abandoning ours. Their decay arose from the real tendencies of theft system ours from adventitious evils. Had their principles operated more powerfully, they would have produced more mischief; had ours, they would have accomplished more good. If so defective an exertion of them effected something valuable, how much more would have resulted from their greater purity and vigour!
While therefore, on the one hand, it is gratifying to know that the comparatively small results of our system afford no valid argument against its excellence, it becomes us, on the other hand to pay the most earnest attention to its present character and future influence. Why should a system adapted for wide extension, and capable of great effects, be suffered to be half dormant, and rather be pushed to the extent of its capability? Why should its efficacy be impeded by deviations from its true principles, or tolerance of evils which it has power to repel? Many considerations operate -- the love of God, and the love of man; our obligations to Christ, and our desire for the extension of his kingdom; gratitude for our superior privileges, and the responsibility resulting from them; the prosperity of our existing churches, and the hope of their multiplication and increase; ó many considerations operate, nay, all motives combine to forbid this.
Two things therefore remain for us. The first is to see that our system is preserved in its purity: the second, to bring it into full and adequate operation.
It is important to preserve it in its purity, for upon this depend both its utility and vigour.
Now the congregational system is strictly and essentially popular. Its first principle is that the interests of the church are to be promoted, and its duties to be fulfilled, by the members as a body, and by each member as an individual. This constitutes its vitality, the best and only pledge of its stability. Let us beware therefore of a departure from this principle. It is not one that any portion of church should wish to become dormant on the one hand, or should suffer to become so on the other. And in maintaining the principle, let us not forget to cultivate its spirit. It proceeds on the supposition that to every member the welfare of the church is dear, and unquestionably it ought to be so. Perhaps it is not in all cases so much so as it should be. Yet we, though many, are one body: when shall the time come that fervent affection, like the vital flood shall circulate through every part, and warm attachment animate the whole?
The points to which the attention of the churches should be most carefully directed are the support of sound doctrine, which alone possesses any adaptation to communicate benefit to man, or engage the blessing of God; the maintenance of faithful discipline, a connivance at sin under any circumstances having a direct tendency to provoke the departure of the Spirit, and to deteriorate the character of the church, as well by the allowed mixture of incongruous character as the influence of evil example; and the cultivation of eminent spirituality, which alone will be a security against the encroachments of formality, and preserve the rectitude and simplicity of purpose, the wisdom and vigour of action, the prudence and unity of temper, which "a congregation of faithful men" may so well be expected to exhibit.
If our churches are such as this, they will be above all other kinds of religious bodies adapted for extension and usefulness. But in order to realize these ends, it will be further necessary that the apparatus should he brought fully into action. No power can act further than it is exerted and applied. Now it cannot be too vividly recollected, that the whole force of congregational churches lies in their voluntary effort. It is in fact their only mode of acting at all. There is nothing official or mechanical about such a society, which may be trusted to act while the members sleep; indolence on their part annihilates all its capabilities, and leaves only a body without a soul. It is most materia1 therefore that the members of our churches generally, and every member in particular, should become tenderly alive to the welfare, increase, and usefulness of the churches themselves. Let each inquire, Is the church prospering? Is it as pure, as peaceful, as spiritual, as active as it ought to be, as it might be? As apart of it, what am I? A specimen of what the whole should be? What can I do to promote its prosperity? May I not do more than I have hitherto done, by more fervent prayer, by more spiritual intercourse, by more assiduous ministrations of kindness, by more attractive devotedness to its interest, by more cordial and more ample cooperation in its labours? Are there no means of usefulness I could suggest, no evils I could aid to remedy, no good ends I could effect by some personal sacrifice? All this is no more than may be expected from christian feeling; it is an activity for which the congregational system affords appropriate and ample scope; and nothing short of it is worthy of our privileges, or suited to our principles.
In addition to this, however, it is necessary also that the churches should act, not only apart, but in conjunction. It is obvious that every church, however independent of others in its constitution and proceedings, has more duties to perform than those which centre in itself. There are other churches to be treated with christian regard, in its various expressions of love, sympathy, or assistance; and there are objects to be aimed at, too, which cannot be effected without united resources and joint operation. A church that acts as though it were the only church in the world, therefore, acts wrong; it must neglect some of its duties, and lose corresponding pleasures. If the congregational system, the independency of the churches, were inconsistent with, or hostile to, such conjunction, it would argue a great if not a fatal evil in it. But most unquestionably it is not. We have indeed no compulsory assemblings, no authoritative summonses: hut is there no association of a different kind, of congeniality, of friendship, and of love? For this species of intercourse, of all species the most delightful, our perfect liberty, independence, and equality, afford the most ample facilities. Our system generates congeniality, unity of heart, of interest; of design, every thing, in a word, which can make our intercourse happy or beneficial. It is not brought fully into action till such association is formed; till then we are not doing the utmost we may do, or enjoying all we may enjoy. We may indeed keep aloof from each other if we will; we have too much and too long done so; but in doing so we desert and disown our principles. We deserve then to hear them depreciated. We deserve then to become lukewarm, and to decay. We deserve then to see our weaker churches perishing, and the best of objects remaining unaccomplished around us. But we wish for other things. We wish to augment our own fervour and that of others; to lift up the weak hands, and strengthen, the feeble knees; to consolidate the churches newly formed; to perpetuate the labours of devoted men; to bring to maturity rising congregations, to penetrate the dark places: in a word, to render the district all that it may be expected to become by the influence even of a small number of voluntary societies of sincere christians. Let us then coalesce. Let us be as the heart of one man, and let us operate together. Let us do all that our principles are adapted to do; let us push our system to its utmost capabilities. Why should they be as a prize in the hands of a fool? Why should there remain among us means of happiness and of good slumbering and unemployed?
We are the more strongly called upon to do so by the goodness of our gracsious Lord, whose mercy has preserved some of our churches through such a lengthened period of trial, and has given us now so great a measure both of outward tranquillity and inward strength. We bless his name that he has put it into our hearts to renew an effort which has before been made with only temporary success; and we humbly commend it to him, that his blessing may crown what our hands have begun, and our hearts dedicate to his glory.
Approved, September 13, 1826. THOMAS WELSH, MODERATOR. Notes
1. Particularly the provision made for superintending the church by dividing the town into quartets, and appointing overseers to each, with assistants, in all eleven persons. The document itself is given below.
2. Anabaptism the True Fountain of Error. By Robert Baille of Glasgow. Quoted by Mr. Ivimey in his History of the Baptists, vol. i. p. 174.
3. [All of the spelling is as it appears in the document. - jrd] The book which contains it has the folIowing inscription on its first leaf; "The Booke of Records for the Church of Reading in the Countie of Bearks: began in the yeare of our Lord God, 1656." And on the next page the following: "A book of Remembrance to leave in memory the things of God that are acted among those that have taken upon them the profession of his name, so that they may be able to give an account off all things that are accted in there generation." This design was excellent, but it was very imperfectly fulfilled. The document which immediately follows is sufficiently characteristic and illustrative to be given entire.
"At the meeting of the Church of Christ in Reading the last of the eyght moneth; It was then resolved and agreed uppon, that for the betar regulating of the affears of the Congregation, five bretharen bee set apart and appointed as overseears, which upon serious consideration wee have unanimously chosen for that worke whose names are hear under wrighten.John Masson William Lamden James Maynard John Shipway Ambros Freeman,
who are to observe these following directions.
"That thay take care as much as in them lies that all defferencis may be composed, and that thay or any three of them as often as thay shall hear of any defferencis arising among any of the members, doe send for the parties; but in case such defferencis cannot be ended by them, then thay are to bring it before the church.
"That for the betar caring on of this worke thay are impowered to call to there assistance any of the preachers, as allsoe to appoint a sartaine number of bretharen and sisters in the several quarters of the towne to visit the members of the congregation and to be ffarther assisting to the said overseears in the affears of the church.
"That the said overseears or any three of them doe from time to time take care that money be raised for the caring on of the affears of the church, and to dispose of the same accordingly.
"That the said overseears or any three of them doe from time to time appoint by noate under there handes whom thay shall think fiting to preach uppon the furst daye of the weeke and to give them notis to dayes before there preaching, and if occation requiers any to goe into the contry, that thay appoint them alsoo giving them if possable thay may three dayes notis before hand.
"That fore the more grave manidgment of all debates in the congregation, the said overseears are to appoint one of there number to whome thay that speake shall direct there speech, and he that shall soe be appointed is to take care that but one speake at once, that every man speaking stand up, and when he have done to sit downe againe, and that thay take care those that shall speake, that thay speake pertinently to the thing in hand, and that thay move nothing in the the church but what relates to it as a church, and that noe brother speake above twice to one thing without the lease of the church, and that thay take care to a lay all heates that shall arise in debates, and when the church are a debating there affears that none of the members absent themselves without acquainting the church there with.
"That noe reproofe against any of the overseears shall bee brought before the church but by some brother whoe ussally speaketh publickely.
"That brother Westwood doe observe what members shall from time to time absent themselves from the assemblinge of the church at there usiall owers one the furst dayes; that is to say at eyght in the morning and one in the aftenone in the winter: and in the somer time at seven in the morning, and in the afternone as above said: and to give in the names to the overseears of such as shall be absent, except they give him sufficient resons for there absence before the next furst day following.
"That to the end wee may improve our communion to the sperituall advantaige to each other, let us with the apostell Paul, 2 Cor. xi. 1, 2. have a godly jelosy over one another (in the whole corse of our lives) and that is presenting our holy jelosies one to another wee resolve, to take it kindly from each other; the desinge being only to presarve Christ members from the suttel wildes of satan; this wee shall expect from one another in generall, and from our five bretbaren appointed as overseears in spetiall.
"The bretharen and sisters that are thought fite to be proposed by us to the congregation to be assisting in the visiting the members in each quarter of the towne, and in other the affears of the church are as follows:
"For the south quarter, Henry Collis and sister Horsington. "For the west quarter, John Willmat and sister Stoner. "For the north quarter, Jeremiah Willmat and sister Belshamber."
The last clause of this document seems not strictly to belong to it, but is rather an appendage, in which the overseears who had been constituted by the church or congregation (for the terms are used synonimously) propose for the approbation of the church the visitors whom they had been authorized to appoint.
4. At the bottom of the yard now forming part of the brewery of Messrs. Tanner, Rickford, and Hume.
5. In 1689, Mr. William Facey, pastor, and in 1692. Mr. Jo. Ward, minister, with whom the preceding negotiation must have taken place.
The conference at which the formation of This association was effected was held in London, at Little Wild Street, April 12, 1826; when it was agreed to hold the first meeting at Newbury in the order there adopted, and then to take into further consideration a statement of doctrine, and such other topics as might arise. The Circular Letter to be drawn up by brother Hinton; subject, History 4 the Associated Churches. Brother Tyso was appointed secretary.
Newbury, Sept. 12, 1826. Tuesday Afternoon, III. Public service, commenced in prayer by brother Hinton. Read the letters from the churches, upon the contents of which brother Tyso offered a few remarks, and closed in prayer.
The ministers and messengers remained for business, and brother Welsh was chosen moderator. A statement of doctrine to be prefixed to the Circular Letter was agreed on.
Evening, VI Ĺ. Brother Hawson prayed, and brother Coles preached from Judges v. 16. "For The divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." Brother Hinton concluded.
VI Ĺ. Wednesday Morning. Met for prayer. Brethren Wallis, Palmer, (messengers) Coles, and Welsh, were engaged.
IX. Ministers and messengers met. The Circular Letter drawn up by brother Hinton, was read, approved, and ordered to be printed. The next letter to be prepared by brother Tyso, on the importance and the Means of Soul prosperity.
X Ĺ. Public service; reading and prayer by brother Dryland (independent) of Newbury. Brother Tyso preached from Philippians iii. l2-14. "Not as though I had already attain either were already perfect, but I follow, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." Brother Hinton afterwards preached from1Corinthians 1:7. Waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Concluded in prayer, brother Hewlett (independent) of Newbury.
Ministers and messengers remained for business.
Agreed, 1. To recommend the churches to observe the last Wednesday in November, as a season of special prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit on the association to commence at half past in the evening.
2. To recommend to the churches to take into consideration the propriety of defraying the expences of their ministers to and fro the association
3. To make inquiry by the Secretary, whether the ministers in the association would agree, in rotation, to prepare for the press a sermon recently preached, to be published in a cheap form on the first of every month? And measure, profits being devoted to the Home Missionary Fund?
Collections were made in aid of this fund, amounting to £7. 11s. 6d.
The next association be held at Chelsea, September 11 and 12, 1827. Put up at the Don Saltero's, Cheyne Walk.
[From a photocopy of the original at Regents Park College, Angus Library, Oxford, England. - jrd]
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