History of 'Old Baptist' Chapel

Walking up the High Street, towards the Market Place, leaving behind you the River Avon, which flows through the ancient market town of Chippenham, a little side street can be seen on the left hand side between the shops. This marks the cul-de-sac known as Chapel Lane, at the head of which stands the 'Old Baptist' Chapel. Formerly, the lane was known as Gutter Lane but the forebears of the present generation of worshippers felt that Chapel Lane was a more appropriate name for the site of the Lord's house and, accordingly, they successfully petitioned the local authority to change the name to its present title, Chapel Lane.

The chapel itself is a stone building, originally completely square in shape, but it now has a later extension to the side added in Victorian times. From the outside it is fairly unpretentious, but the inside reveals a well-kept place of worship, greatly loved by those who have worshipped there in succeeding generations. It comfortably holds around two hundred worshippers and for much of its early history it was full, leaving little room for visitors.

The believers, who were first moved of the Holy Spirit to erect 'Old Baptist' Chapel, originated from the Independent Chapel (now the 'Tabernacle' United Reformed Church) in Emery Lane. There may have been some dissatisfaction with the ministry, but the principal reason for this separation lay in the ordinance of Believer's Baptism.

In history of the 'Tabernacle' Church, compiled by David Evans for their bicentenary in 1970, some very interesting facts emerge about non-conformity in Chippenham and the forebears of the generation that built 'Old Baptist' Chapel.

It was around 1730 that the so called 'Holy Club' was formed at Oxford by a number of devout graduates. These young men adhered to the practices of the established Church of England, but set up such a regular routine of worship and of visiting the poor, sick and imprisoned that they became known as 'Methodists'.
Among this group were John Wesley, John Cennick and George Whitefield. The first of these, John Wesley, never preached in Chippenham, but John Cennick and George Whitefield did. These two men differed from Wesley in that they rejected his doctrines of perfectionism and universal redemption. Whitefield and Cennick believed, as we do, in election and predestination. It seems that Cennick was the first to preach in the Chippenham area, for it is recorded that he preached to a vast concourse in the street in Castle Combe on July 16th 1740. Also, following deep disagreements with John Wesley on the doctrine, he helped Whitefield in his preaching among the colliers at Kingswood during 1742, after which he moved into Wiltshire, where the Lord gave great success to his preaching.
The villages around Chippenham of Foxham, Langley Burrell, Tytherton, Avon, Hullavington and Littleton Drew as well as Chippenham itself all had groups which had been formed as a result of Cennick's ministry. It was not all easy for him, for we are told by him that at Langley Burrell, on Tuesday November 16th 1742, that: "we were again sadly misused - the rude people, besides making a noise, cut the clothes of such as were at the meeting and threw aqua fortis (nitric acid!) on them and pelted them with cow dung etc." So it seems that although religious toleration was the official policy of the times, in practice it was far from easy to worship according to one's conscience!

Soon George Whitefield, himself, visited the area, preaching at Brinkworth, Langley, Foxton, Clack (now known as Bradenstoke) and Chippenham. "We had a wonderful time in Wiltshire," he says in a letter.

In 1745, Cennick left Whitefield to join the Moravians, but most of the small groups, known as societies, remained loyal to Whitefield. (Cennick's Moravian Church at East Tytherton is still open).

By 1747, records state that Calvinistic Methodist societies were to be found at Castle Combe, Foxham and Studley, and preaching places at Calne and Langley. Also at Chippenham itself Calvinistic Methodists were by this time well established.

This group was often supplied by an energetic man called John Croome, a weaver from Horsley near Bristol, who became known as, 'the Bunyan of the age'. He was sent from the Rodborough Connexion of the Calvinistic Methodists, near Stroud, where Whitefield's influence was very strong.

In 1769 Whitefield visited Chippenham for the last time, and afterwards wrote from Rodborough: "Ebenezer, Ebenezer! Through infinite mercy I have just now arrived here. Blessed seasons at Chippenham, Castle Coombe and Dursley on our way from Frome. Have been enabled to preach five times this week."

It was the blessing of God attending such preaching, which turned England from revolution and laid the foundations of the greatness which she later attained to in the nineteenth century.

The outcome of Whitefield's last visit was that the 'Tabernacle' in Emery Lane was built. It opened for public worship on September 30th 1770, which sadly was the very day on which George Whitefield passed to his everlasting rest. The name of the "Rev George Whitefield" heads the list of Trustees, although he did not sign the deed personally as he was in America at the time, where he later died, as stated previously. The name 'Tabernacle' was used by Whitefield for the building erected to house the huge congregations which gathered to hear him preach at Moorfields in London. It became a name often used by his followers as they erected many chapels up and down the land.

By this time the Independents, as they now were more generally known, were flourishing. Men such as Roland Hill and other famous names supplied the pulpit and attracted large congregations. So much so, that it was said in 1801 that the 'Tabernacle' was the most well-attended place of worship in Chippenham. Various pastors were appointed until deep internal divisions among the membership arose in 1804, which led to the removing of the then pastor, a Mr Bagnell. The secession, which led to the forming of 'Old Baptist Chapel' took place the same year, but he is not mentioned as being one of its founders.

Reading between the lines, it would seem that those who came out of the 'Tabernacle', not only became convinced of Believer's Baptism as the Scriptural order, but were also seeking a deeper ministry. Had a departure from the doctrines of grace, held by George Whitefield, begun to evidence itself, one wonders? It should be recorded, however, that in 1828 there were said to be an average of between 450 and 500 hearers attending the 'Tabernacle' each Lord's Day under the ministry of a Benjamin Rees who for many years was a highly esteemed man in the town of Chippenham.

With respect to the growth of Baptist Churches in Wiltshire it is interesting to note that in 1655-1666 the only Church mentioned from Wiltshire in the Western Association, was Southwick (the present General Baptist Church, which has an outdoor baptistry beside the road). There were Churches at Devizes and Porton, however, not mentioned. When the 1689 Baptist Confession was drawn up in London the number had grown to twelve, but apparently still none in the Chippenham area, Calne being the closest. By 1798 the number had increased by only four, but by 1827 fifteen more churches had been founded; Old Baptist Chapel, Chippenham being among them.

However in the Episcopal Returns of 1699 mention is made of Anabaptists at Chippenham. Anabaptists was a name given to those who, because they did not recognise infant sprinkling as a Scriptural ordinance, insisted that believing adults, who had been sprinkled when they were babies, should be baptised again. Some of the early Anabaptists also held some divergent doctrinal views which, sadly, brought all Anabaptists under a stigma which in the eyes of other reformed Churches lasted for many years. So the present Church, although the oldest remaining Baptist Church in Chippenham, was almost certainly not the first. Previous to 1688, when the Toleration act was passed under William and Mary, dissenters were not allowed to worship within five miles of a town centre. It is interesting to note that there are at Slaughterford, exactly five miles from Chippenham, ruins of a building which was evidently used as a place of worship during the troublous times of the Five-Mile-Act and the Act of Uniformity. These two acts were specifically designed to prevent the spread of non-conformity and religious dissent. It would seem that during the eleven years from 1688 Baptist groups had begun to be formed in Chippenham, but it seems that none of these were directly connected to the fledgling Church which eventually seceded from the Independents at the 'Tabernacle'.

There would appear to have been some feeling generated between the seceding members from the Independents and those who remained, as it is recorded that Paul Porter, the minister from Bath, whose ministry was used of the Lord to stir up the minds of those who seceded, had to draw up a letter in 1805, soon after the schism, to defend the infant Church from the "foolish charge" that they wanted to wrest the original building from the Independents.

At the time Paul Porter was the pastor of Somerset Street Chapel in Bath. It was he that formed the Church at Chippenham and was instrumental in other helping in the formation of other Churches too, such as those at Devizes, Malmesbury and Grittleton, for example. He was a close friend of John Sharp, a predecessor to William Gadsby of Manchester. It appears that, like John Sharp, he did not altogether follow William Gadsby's position; that the gospel is the rule of life for the believer, not the law. This caused some contention in his own Church and later led to a secession of those who followed William Gadsby. However, it is noticeable that the infant Church at Chippenham did not include an article supporting Mr Porter's position. The Articles of Faith of the church were drawn up during the pastorate of William Shuttleworth which did not commence until 1825.

The Church Book records: "In the year of our Lord, 1804 on the tenth day of June, a place was opened by I, Paul Porter of Bath, for the worship of Almighty God, attended by about 100 people, and the goodness of God appeared in the conversion of a sinner that day." "What a signal token this was, of the Lord's favour towards this new branch of the visible Church of Christ," the church book adds.

Within a few weeks a Church was formally constituted and formed. The Church Book states that Paul Porter, assisted by Opie Smith, also of Bath, baptised five persons in a meadow called Westmead. In his diary Paul Porter records: "Stood on a table and preached to about 3000 persons. The next day formed them into a Church. Oh that the Lord may bless this infant Cause!"

It is interesting to notice that, at that period, the baptismal services were always held in the River Avon. They were a truly public confession of faith. It was not until 1818 that a baptistry was built in the chapel itself. We are not told why they did this. It may have been that they met opposition from the landowners, as John Warburton encountered at neighbouring Trowbridge, or it may have been that with the growing town the waters were becoming polluted, and thus rendering them unfit for public baptisms. It is known however that, year after year, until 1818, either Paul Porter or William Clift, pastor of Westbury Leigh, whenever necessary, administered this sacred ordinance in the River Avon.

As public baptismal services declined, 'Old Baptist' Chapel became the place where many Churches round would baptise their candidates for Church membership.

It is also interesting to note that there were three offshoots from this newly fledged group of believers. Two of these were preaching stations - one at New Road, Chippenham, opened in 1850, and the other at Yatton Keynell, opened in 1835. The chapel at Yatton Keynell is still in use, although not as a Strict Baptist Chapel.

The most striking offshoot was, however, in the formation of the Church of 'Little Zoar', Studley. This was formed when Martha Wiltshire and her husband William, who had been baptised in the River Avon by William Clift aforementioned, were given an honourable dismissal by the Church at Old Baptist Chapel in 1816. Martha had found the long journey down Derry Hill to Chippenham and then back, increasingly burdensome. She had eleven children and often, for one reason or another, they could not be a complete family worshipping at Chippenham. So the Lord gave her a deep exercise of spirit that He would provide a House of Prayer for them, which He did in 1814. The chapel was built by the fledgling congregation, on ground leased to them by the landowner, Lord Lansdowne. The descendants of Martha Wiltshire still worship with others at 'Little Zoar'.

But to return again to 'Old Baptist' Chapel. It was not until 1825 that the first pastor was appointed. This was William Shuttleworth whose pastorate lasted until 1832. Nothing is known of this first pastor. He was succeeded by a Thomas Cawcutt from Plymouth in 1833, but in 1834 he gave the Church six months notice. A month later the Church itself terminated the pastorate, and he left with three other members. He was succeeded by Joseph Seymore, who came from Grittleton in 1835, and served until 1837, when he left to be pastor at Bradford-on-Avon. He was followed by John Fowler from Dunstable, who served from 1838 to 1840, before removing to Shrewsbury. It was in 1843 that the Church decided to use Gadsby's hymns in worship. Thomas Littleton was appointed in 1845, but like his predecessors his pastorate was of short duration as he left in 1846. His son, Ebenezer, later became pastor of Forest Fold Chapel, Crowborough, Sussex, where he laboured for very many years.

The Church Book suggests that the Church was in an unsettled state during these years, which partly accounts for the succession of pastors.

However, whilst all these changes were taking place, the Lord was preparing a man after His own heart to be the under-shepherd and usher in a time of prosperity which was to last for many years. This man was William Mortimer, who for seventeen years, from 1852 to 1869, laboured in the gospel at 'Old Baptist' Chapel, and that word was abundantly fulfilled: "The Lord working with them, and confirming the Word with signs following." Not only was this a period of substantial growth in the Church but also, it seems, a spirit of unity was granted.

Mr Mortimer was a close friend of Mr J.C. Philpot, often sharing the annual services with him at Calne Anniversary, an event which attracted many of the Lord's people year by year. His services were so often required amongst the Wiltshire churches that William Mortimer became known as the 'Bishop of Wiltshire'.

A Sunday School must have been established by, or during, the time of Mr Mortimer's pastorate as local records state that on March 12th. 1893, when the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra took place, a celebration was held in Chippenham. The Sunday Schools, of the various denominations, gathered in the Market Place with their teachers. It was recorded that 65 children from the Old Baptist Chapel paraded past the Mayor, who gave to each of them a new three-penny piece, whilst the Mayoress gave them a large bun.

It appears that when Mr Mortimer died in 1869, there was an unsuccessful attempt to invite William Vine, a member of 'Zoar' Chapel, Dicker, Sussex. William Mortimer had been greatly used in Mr Vine's call to the ministry, and this probably was one of the reasons for this move. However, this invitation coincided with another one given by his own Church at 'Zoar'.

But the Lord was not unmindful of the needs of 'Old Baptist' Chapel, as He sent them another minister of the New Testament, in Henry Hammond, who continued from 1874 to 1883. His ministry was greatly used for the edification of the Church of God, and a great measure of peace reigned during these years.

After the death of Mr Hammond, the Church gave an invitation to Mr Charles Young, of Yeovil, Somerset, to become their pastor. Mr Young's ministry was at this time greatly used among the friends at 'Old Baptist' Chapel, and he was instrumental in several being added to the Church. However, after careful and prayerful consideration Mr Young declined, mainly on the grounds that he did not feel to have the gifts necessary for the pastoral office, which he felt were essential for the matter to prosper. What humility this dear man showed! The late Mrs Bessie Prior, a long standing member at Chippenham (who passed away in 2001), could remember him well from her childhood, and on several occasions spoke of how highly he was held in the esteem of her godly parents.

In 1904, the Church acknowledged the Lord's goodness in maintaining a living brand of the visible church at 'Old Baptist' Chapel over the first one hundred years of their history, by holding Centenary Services on June 8th of that year. It had been intended that Charles Hemington, pastor of the 'Old Baptist' Chapel at Devizes, should take one of the services, with Mr J.K. Popham of Brighton (Editor of the Gospel Standard magazine from 1905 to 1935) taking the other two. In the event, Mr Hemington was too ill to do so. He had sustained injuries in an accident (so called) during a visit to London to fulfil an engagement at 'Gower Street Memorial' Chapel. He died as a result of the injuries in April of 1904, before the Centenary Services took place. So it was agreed that Mr Popham should take the morning and evening services, and Mr J.E. Hazelton, of London, should take the afternoon service.

The minute in the Church Book reads:
"The Lord, in His great goodness and mercy, having maintained His Cause of Truth in this place for 100 years, it was thought desirable to hold special services in the chapel in commemoration of it. A special Prayer Meeting was held in the morning, commencing at 10 o'clock, the chief object being to return thanksgiving and praise to the Lord for His many favours bestowed upon us in the past, and praying that a continuation of them may be granted for the future. That many more living souls may be added to the Church, so that the cause may still prosper and be maintained for many years still to come, if it were His gracious will and pleasure."

Mr Popham (of Brighton) preached at the morning service, which commenced at 11 o'clock, taking for his text the words: "The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and He addeth no sorrow with it" (Proverbs 10:22). A separating and encouraging discourse.

Mr Hazelton (of London) took the afternoon service, and, prior to the sermon, Mr Prewett (a member and supply minister of 'Old Baptist' Chapel) gave a short account of the history of the church from the commencement in 1804, which was very interesting.

Mr Hazelton preached from 1 Corinthians 15:35 - "But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?" A very weighty and important subject. There was a large congregation, the chapel being quite full.

In the evening, Mr Popham preached again, taking as his text, Hebrews 9. 27-28. "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto salvation." This was a very solemn and weighty sermon. As in the afternoon, the congregation was large; the chapel not being so full for several years past. We trust that it will yet be made manifest that the Lord's blessing attended these services. We can truly say such is our sincere desire.

It is an interesting fact to notice, that, throughout the whole of the twentieth century, apart from Mr Hazelton at the centenary, as stated earlier, it appears only three ministers took the anniversary services at 'Old Baptist' Chapel. These were Mr J.K. Popham, followed by Mr J.H. Gosden (successor to Mr Popham as Editor of the 'Gospel Standard' magazine from 1935 to 1964) from Maidstone, who was in turn followed by Mr C.A . Wood of 'Tamworth Road' Chapel, Croydon, who has laboured at our anniversary into the 21st century.

After a gap of some 29 years since Mr Hammond’s death, Thomas Robbins, of Bath, was appointed as pastor in 1912, and served very acceptably, with many additions to the Church. But, after only five years he was called to the pastorate at 'Zion' Chapel Leicester, where he laboured for only two years before he was taken to his eternal rest. Sadly, we have been unable to glean anything substantial of his call by grace or to the ministry.

It was during Mr Robbins' pastorate that the decision was taken to sing the hymns straight through, rather than reading them verse by verse. The original practice was followed because many of the members of the earlier congregations were not able to read. This is confirmed by the number of crosses, rather than signatures, against the names in the early Church Roll of members. By the turn of the century, however, as literacy increased, it was deemed no longer necessary to adhere to this practice. No mention is made of how this was received by the congregation. In many congregations this innovation caused major divisions. Interestingly, the singing at 'Old Baptist' Chapel has been unaccompanied by a musical instrument, for almost all of its history. It was not until the last decade of the twentieth century that an organ was introduced to accompany the singing, as no member of the congregation felt able to. Many non-conformist chapels used a flute at the time of the opening of the chapel, and it may be that, in the very early years, this was the case at Chippenham.

The next pastor, Samuel Champion, who, again, was well esteemed, served for only five years from 1918-1923. During this time, the Church at Southport gave him a call, which he declined; however he, too, was called by the friends at Leicester, following Thomas Robbins' death. Although the Church strongly wished him to remain amongst them, eventually, like his predecessor, he went to Leicester, where he laboured for many years, before returning to Chippenham in his retirement during which time he supplied the 'Old Baptist' Chapel pulpit regularly as a supply minister. Mr and Mrs Champion never re-joined the Church here, although they were invited to do so by the members. Strangely, after the present pastor was called to the pastorate at Chippenham in 1979, it was made known to him that some members at 'Zion' Chapel Leicester had him, likewise, on their minds as an under-shepherd at that time.

The Church at 'Old Baptist' Chapel felt a great sense of loss in the removal of two able ministers, so soon, from their midst, and it became their earnest desire that the Lord would give them a more permanent pastoral ministry. It was at this time that the Lord laid Harvey Carr, of 'Grove' Chapel, Chelsea, London, on the minds of many of the members. This resulted in a call being given and which was accepted in 1927. Mr Carr's pastorate is the longest until now in the history of the Church at 'Old Baptist' Chapel. It continued, in name, until his death in 1966. However, he spent the last six years of his life in the Bethesda Home at Tunbridge Wells. Prior to that, his senility had, for some years, made it necessary to have many supply ministers, to feed the Lord's people at 'Old Baptist' Chapel.

The closing years of Mr Carr’s pastorate were a difficult period for the church and congregation, and called for the exercise of much prayer and patience. Several of the younger members of the congregation left at this time, but the church remained loyal to their pastor despite his many infirmities. The Church continued to pay him, as their pastor, even when he was in the Bethesda Home, right until his death, as he was never in a fit state of mind to tender his resignation. The church loved him so much for his former labours, they felt they could not dismiss him.

Prior to his infirmities, Harvey Carr was enabled to exercise a searching, yet loving, ministry for many years. He had a most gracious spirit, and was very tender-hearted. Many of the older friends, at the time when the present pastorate began, spoke with great affection and esteem of their late pastor.

When Mr Carr went into the Bethesda Home, the following tribute was inscribed in the Church Book: "Our pastor faithfully preached the Word of God, not shunning to declare the whole counsel of God, exhorting us to make our calling and election sure, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, looking for that blessed hope and glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Church having enjoyed peace and unity during this period."

Following the removal of Mr Carr to Tunbridge Wells, the Church had a supply ministry for nearly twenty years, until the present pastorate began in 1980.



The above history of 'Old Baptist' Chapel is taken from 'Great is Thy Faithfulness', which was written for the 200th Anniversary of the Church in 2004.

The chapel building itself is a Grade II* listed building, details of which can be found on the Historic England website here and here.


Pastors:

William Shuttleworth

1825-1832

Thomas Cawcutt

1833-1834

Joseph Seymore

1835-1837

John Fowler

1838-1840

Thomas Littleton

1845-1846

William Mortimer

1852-1869

Henry Hammond

1874-1883

Thomas Robbins

1912-1917

Samuel Champion

1918-1923

Harvey E. Carr

1927-1966

Gerald D. Buss

1980-present

 

Ministers who have supplied other churches from 'Old Baptist' Chapel (in alphabetical order):

Jonathan Buss

Sent out in 2009

Henry Carpenter

(Died 1917)

Joseph Kilmister

(Died 1951)

Henry Prewett

(Died March 1925)

Ian Sadler

Sent out in 2007

Harry Salkeld

(Died 1995) (Transferred from Bradford-on-Avon 1972)

George Salway

(Died 1849)

Joseph Short

(Died 2004)

John Smith

(Died 1900)

Clement Wood

(Died 2010) (Transferred from Tamworth Road Croydon 2009)