THE first introduction of Baptist principles into Colchester, took place as far back as the early part of the reign of Charles the first. One of those who at that early period joined the Baptists at Colchester, and who zealously exerted himself in promoting the spread of their doctrines, was that distinguished ornament of the Baptist denomination, the able, indefatigable, and apostolic Mr. Thomas Lamb, subsequently the founder and pastor of the Baptist church, Bell Alley, Coleman-street, London, which was formed some time previous to the commencement of the civil wars in 1640. While Mr. Lamb was labouring in his Divine Master's cause at Colchester, he was seized, at the instigation of that tyrannical prelate, Laud, at that time Bishop of London, and dragged in chains from Colchester to London for dissenting from the national church, and preaching to a separate congregation. He was arraigned before the Star Chamber, and required to confess that he had administered the Lord's Supper, the penalty for which was banishment. Mr. Lamb, however, pleaded his right as an Englishman, and refused to criminate himself, he was therefore remanded to prison. His wife solicited the bishop to take pity on a mother and eight children, and to release her husband and their father; but the unfeeling priest was untouched by her afflictions, and roughly ordered his servants to “take away that troublesome woman." Some time afterwards he obtained his liberty, and resumed his favourite employment of preaching the gospel. This brought him into new troubles, from which he was no sooner delivered, than he returned to his sacred work. Thus he pursued what he considered to be the path of duty, till he had been confined in almost every prison in London and its vicinity. He frequently observed that that man was not fit to preach, who would not preach for God's sake, though he was sure to die for it as soon as he had finished.
Another celebrated Baptist minister who laboured and suffered imprisonment for Christ's sake, at Colchester, was that eminent and eloquent preacher, and most expert disputant, Mr. Samuel Oates.
The extraordinary popularity and success which attended the ministry of this worthy man, excited the bitterest chagrin of the splenetive and choleric gangrene Edwards, whose pitiable wailings and rancorous effusions respecting Mr. Oates, as well as others, exhibit a degree of bigotry and malignity disgraceful alike to religion and to human nature. While, however, the intimations we have in various publications furnish abundant evidence that the Baptists increased, flourished, and were numerous at Colchester from about the year 1630, until long after the restoration of the unprincipled Stuarts, yet the records of ecclesiastical nonconformity furnish no specific or consecutive account of their church, or churches, in that town throughout that extended period. It is, however, certain that they became extinct some time previous to the revolution, and that the nonconformists of Colchester who bore up under the severe trials and fierce persecutions inflicted upon them, though with occasional divisions and contentions among themselves, were, nevertheless, accustomed to commune together, as one body, at the Lord's table, until the year
1689. In that year the first general assembly of Particular Baptist churches was held in London, and, agreeably with one of their resolutions, several ministering brethren were sent throughout the country, the same year, to preach the gospel, to collect and set in order the scattered flocks, and to reorganize dissolved churches. The deputation that visited Colchester was Mr. Richard Tidmarsh, who formed the present church during his stay, which he constituted on strict communion principles. In the following year, Mr. John Hammond, a native of the town, was chosen their first pastor. He is said by Crosby, in his History of the Baptists, to have been pastor of a church at Oxford, and subsequently of one at Tiverton; and, in 1690, of that at Colchester, where he finished his course in 1604, and was succeeded, in 1695, by Mr. Cornelius Rayner.
The church at Colchester has, throughout the greater part of its existence, been a truly missionary church; in the year 1702 it had twelve assistant preachers employed itinerating among the towns and villages of Essex and Suffolk. In
1707 the Dumber of members was ninety-four; the same year, the church renewed their covenant engagement, when each member signed his or her name in the church-book — Cornelius Rayner, pastor; male members forty, female members fifty-three. In May, 1708, two preaching elders were chosen to assist their aged and infirm pastor; four deacons were also chosen at the same time. It was likewise determined to hold a church meeting once every month, and to make a collection for the poor monthly. Mr. Rayner died at an advanced age in the following August, after having vigorously and successfully conducted the affairs of the church for a period of thirteen years — at the time of his death the number of members was one hundred. In 1710 Mr. John Vickers was chosen as successor to Mr. Rayner in the pastoral office; he however survived his election only nine months. The church then chose Mr. John Rootsey, who, subsequently, with eleven others, purchased their meeting house, which stood on the site of the present burial ground, previous to which they had assembled for worship in a house on North Hill, now occupied as a brewery. At that time the church was in a very flourishing state, the number of members being 174, which included branches at Earl's Colne, and Langham, in Essex; and Bildestone, Woodbridge, and Woolverstone (now Stoke Green, Ipswich), in Suffolk; places supplied by the elders, and at each of which, the pastor occasionally administered the Lord's Supper. The people at Woodbridge were once set in order as a distinct church, but in 1732, prayed to be reunited with the church at Colchester, which took place. Those at Bildestone were originally gathered by Mr. Rootsey, but afterwards became Independents. Some dissensions unhappily arose, which terminated in the exclusion from the church of twenty-nine members, who formed themselves into a separate church, and elected a Mr. Dunthorne, as their pastor; but, upon the death of Mr. Rootsey, a union of the two churches took place, and Mr. Dunthorne became the pastor of the whole; he was then sixty-six years of age, and lived to be eighty-four.
At this period (1740) there were also two other baptist churches in the same neighbourhood, both in a flourishing condition. One of these was a General Baptist church, under the pastoral care of a Mr. Instance, which met for worship in Mersea Island; this church subsequently declined so greatly, that their last pastor, and the few remaining members, discontinued their church state, and joined the church at Colchester, in the year 1770. The other was a Sabbatarian church, which also fell into a low condition, and was ultimately united with the church at Colchester; in the communion of which, the last of its members died in 1784. A Mr. Ridley had long presided over the Sabbatarians.
Mr. Dunthorne's pastorate, though not distinguished by many additions to the church, was nevertheless useful and honourable. The churches at Wolverstone (now Stoke Green, Ipswich), Suffolk; Langham, Essex; and Woodbridge, Suffolk, were formed by him, from those members of the church at Colchester, who resided at those places. After the decease of Mr. D., the church invited Mr. Thomas Eisdell, originally a member of the Baptist church, Walgrave, Northamptonshire, but at that time supplying the Independent church at Newport Pagnell. He was ordained over the church at Colchester, in 1758, and died in 1772, aged, forty-eight. Mr. Shymmons supplied the pulpit till the end of the following year (1773). At this time the church was reduced to the lowest state of depression recorded in its history. The number of members, though nominally between forty and fifty, was actually but thirty-four. From the death of that zealous, laborious, and successful minister Mr. Rootsey, to this time, scarcely any had been added to the church, which, with the dismissions to form the churches of Woolverstone, Langham, and Woodbridge, and the deaths of other members that had occurred, had considerably reduced the number of members at Colchester.
In the early part of 1774, the destitute church chose Mr. Thomas Stevens as their pastor. He was a man of eminent piety, superior ministerial abilities, and remarkable gentleness and affection of disposition. He presided over the church twenty-seven years, during which, 156 persons were added to it. But neither the gentleness of his disposition, nor the success of his ministry, could prevent some troublers of the church, from exciting many painful contentions, and divisions among the brethren. Mr. Stevens's observations often discover how
deeply and keenly these things wounded his spirit. The minutes recorded by him in the church-book are deeply interesting, they display much affection for his flock, and a spirit of true devotion. He died suddenly in 1801. The number of members at that time was 115. During his ministry the church at Earl's Colne, Essex, was formed by nine members dismissed for that purpose from the church at Colchester. This took place, August 18th, 1786. In 1795, the meeting house at Colchester was enlarged. Such were the popularity and success which attended the labours of this devoted and distinguished servant of Christ.
The discordant elements of which the church was composed, and which had, during the life-time of Mr. Stevens, been in some measure controlled, were now thrown into a state of lamentable confusion through a supply, which ended in the secession of sixteen members. At that time the church deputed three of their members to obtain the advice of the Baptist ministers in London, through whose recommendation the Rev. G. Pritchard was, in 1803, invited to accept the pastorate of the church at Colchester. In 1812, some unhappy disputes arose in the church, which terminated in the separation of the malcontents, and ultimately in Mr. Pritchard's removal. His ministry was eminently successful at Colchester, and his departure sincerely regretted by a numerous circle of friends. The pulpit was then supplied for a length of time chiefly by brethren from the church in Little Alie-street, London, one of whom, Mr. George Francies, was invited in 1814, to take the oversight of the church, which he accepted, and held until December, 1836, during which time many additions were made, so that the number of members, on the resignation of Mr. F., amounted to one hundred and fifty-nine.
The pastorate of Mr. Francies was also distinguished by the numerous and munificent benefactions of Benjamin Nice, Esq., who gave a dwelling-house for the minister, and a considerable piece of ground for the site of a new and commodious chapel, which will seat one thousand persons. The same generous donor also defrayed nearly two thirds of the cost of the building, in addition to which a school-room has since been built, which will seat between two and three hundred persons; and both the school-room and the chapel have been endowed by Mr. Nice with Christian liberality.
In 1837, Mr. Cyprian Rust, a member of the church in Meard's Court, Wardour-street, London, was chosen to the pastoral office, which, from ill health, he was compelled to resign at the close of 1842, after a short but honourable and successful course of five years and a half. He was succeeded by the Rev. R. Langford, of Sible Headingham, the present pastor. The number of members at this time is 209; of village stations, three; of sabbath-school children, 136.
[From The Baptist Reporter and Missionary Intelligencer, Volume 20, 1846, pp. 375-377. Document from Google Books. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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