The actual origins of Baptist worship in the town of Olney, Buckinghamshire are shrouded in history, but we have many items of evidence which have survived. We understand, for instance, that John Gibbs, a Baptist leader from the town was a signatory to a “remonstrance” presented to Parliament in 1657, when Oliver Cromwell, who had become Lord Protector after being a leader of the Parliamentarian armies fighting the Royalists, was petitioned by Parliament to become King. The first main documents in existence, though, came about as a result of the Conventicle Act passed in Parliament in 1664, which instituted punishment for anyone over the age of 16 attending a religious meeting not conducted in accordance with the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. In 1669 Archbishop Sheldon, the head of the Anglican Church in this area, requested all his local clergy to report any “unlawful religious assemblies” in their locality, and received a report that there was “One Anabaptist meeting in Olney at the home of Widow Teares: number about 200 ‘meane’ people, led by Mr. Gibbs, one Bredon and James Rogers, lace buyers, and one Fenne, a hatter”. Records of the local courts (Assizes) are in existence, showing that many Baptist dissenters from Olney were among those fined for being absent from the Anglican Church services for 3 or more weeks or “meeting in unlawful assembly at Olney”. At the Midsummer session of the court in 1684, for instance, 27 people (men and women) were each fined 6 shillings and eightpence (approx. 60 cents or a labourer’s wages for a week), one 10 shillings (approx 1 dollar), and one £1 (approx. 2 dollars). A number of these people still have descendants living in the town. The place where the dissenters met was a barn in the centre of the town, but when opposition became too great they would meet in Three Counties Wood, just outside the town. As its name suggests, this was a place where the counties of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire met. Since the police were only allowed to operate in their own county, worshippers could see them coming and move quickly over the border into another county.
In 1689 the Act of Toleration was passed by Parliament, which relieved the situation and made it possible for dissenters to have their Chapels officially licensed, and John Bunyan (the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, whose imprisonment for many years probably resulted in part from his preaching at Olney) applied for and obtained a preaching licence for “Joseph Kent, his barn at Olney”. It is not certain exactly when the original building was constructed, but the land was purchased in 1694 and there is a stone in our present building dated 1694 (which has obviously been moved from its original location). The upper stone levels are the work of Victorian restorers. It seems that the barn had very little in the way of foundations, and for this reason we are loath to interfere too much with the basic structure of the main sanctuary, and we often wonder where the water goes when we take the plug out of the baptistry! It seems that, as is so often the case, the Baptist cause in Olney flourished when up against opposition, but entered on a period of decline “taking things easy” once the opposition was no longer there. In the early days the Olney cause shared a Pastor at times with the local town of Newport Pagnell and at other times with various villages in the vicinity. In particular, John Gibbs covered Newport Pagnell and Olney until his death in 1699. Our Church Archives make interesting reading. In the early 1700s a Mr. Maurice led an exodus of members to join the local Congregational Church, and in 1738 a sizeable group of the members “were dismissed to become a separate Strict Baptist Church”, but in 1763 twenty-six men and forty-eight women signed a very strict Church Covenant in which they are referred to as belonging to the Particular Baptist denomination. In 1766 Olney Baptist Church joined a new Association of Baptist Churches in the area set up to give mutual support. This Association has been “revamped” a number of times since, the latest only a few years ago. The Archives of these early years are fascinating, containing many detailed reports of Church meetings. On many occasions they prayed for rain and then gave thanks when it arrived. In February 1788 they sought God’s help when fever hit the town (apparently cholera was rife at the time), and in June they gave thanks that it had gone, but they again needed rain. Members were constantly being disciplined by the Church meetings for breach of the Church Covenant, mostly for immoral behaviour. (What would they have thought of the morals of today!!!).
1775 was a very significant year for our Church, since it was the date on which John Sutcliff settled in Olney, subsequently to become Pastor for thirty-nine years. During this period he set up an academy or seminary in two adjacent houses close to the church, and under his tutelage a number of prominent Baptist preachers developed. Of these, the most well known were William Robinson, who became the first “home grown” missionary to Serampore in 1806, and William Carey whose vision of a calling to evangelise the heathen led to him becoming instrumental in the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 and becoming its first missionary in 1793. (It was Olney Baptist Church which had actually commissioned him to be a Minister after considerable discussion as to his suitability!!). The financial accounts for the period are also interesting to us today. For instance, in its first year of its existence the Baptist Missionary Society received donations from our Church totalling ten pounds, fifteen shillings, 6 pence and three farthings (our coinage was much more fun when we had 20 shillings to the pound, 12 pence to the shilling and 4 farthings to the penny and could really confuse visitors from other countries!! The only problem was that those of us who had to use calculators had to remember the decimal equivalents such as 7 shillings and 6 pence = 0.375 pounds). We learn that in 1858 gifts were made for those affected by the Indian Mutiny and for “the poor saints in Lancashire due to cotton failure”. We find, too, gifts for the families of reservists called up in the 1900 Boer War, and in 1915 gifts to causes connected with the war in France. All this among great concern on occasions about the cost of repairs and repainting and very special arrangements for an occasional social evening. In 1894 the premises were altered quite extensively and in 1986, after an arson attack by a young man who also set fire to other buildings in the town, an extension was added at the rear, providing a new hall, kitchen and toilets. The hall is named in memory of Peter Gravett, who was Pastor here for 25 years up to 1987 (this has now proved too small and we are having to consider what can be done to meet current and future needs).
We currently have 100 members, this number having remained fairly constant for the last few years. It seems that every time we get new ones someone else has to leave or simply “ceases to meet”, but we are encouraged by the fact that in our Sunday morning services the downstairs part of the sanctuary is normally fairly full. Unfortunately, though, quite a large number have to go out with the children and young people half-way through the service due to the country’s Child Protection Act, which stipulates ratios of adults to children at all times. We have a good mix of ages from 0 to 95, except for the 20-30 year olds. Our government is trying to encourage at least 50% of young people aged 18 to go to University or college, and we lose them for 3-4 years. When they complete their education they either move away to work, or marry and find that the price of property in the town is quite beyond their reach. (Olney is extremely popular and is in commuting distance of London and other cities). Our present Pastor is Revd. Ian Field who came to us this year (2008), who works alongside our 3 Elders who serve for periods of 5 years at a time and our 6 Deacons who are elected for 3 year terms. Most of our members (and others from the congregation) attend the 5 week-night Growth Groups held in various houses in the town. These are about to start a new series of studies, considering what God is like and how we should respond to him. We have good relationships with the Anglican, United Reformed and Roman Catholic Churches in the town and regularly join with them in acts of worship and witness. One of the most prominent of these is the annual Holiday Bible Club held each morning for a week in August for children aged between 4 and 12. This year this involved some 280 children and about 70 leaders and helpers. We now look forward to a new 12 month period of activities and are always grateful for the prayers of other believers.
[Submitted 8/9/08 - with thanks to Donald Saunders and all other contributors. From the church's website. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More British Baptist Histories
Baptist History Homepage