The Northern Counties Union of Strict Baptists
From the early 1890s some of the ministers and deacons in the northern Strict Baptist Churches felt the need for a closer union, for fraternal meetings 'to confer with each other in the best interests of Zion'. Eventually, a circular was sent to all the churches, 'intimating that the time had come (as was thought) to bring the churches into closer unity with each other'. A meeting was held at Siddal on Good Friday, 1895, when 'a goodly number of representative men, ministers, deacons, and friends of the various places of truth in Lancashire and Yorkshire were present', an executive committee was elected 'to carry the wishes of the people to a successful issue'. At a later meeting, held at Rochdale, the Union was formed, it was given a name, 'with definite Rules and Articles of Faith'. Its leading objects were to promote,
the doctrines and practices as stated in the Doctrinal Basis with a view to the peace and prosperity of the Churches to promote a spirit of love and sympathy with each other . . to render mutual assistance by counsel, prayer, and other means to further the kingdom of Christ as opportunity shall be given. . to give advice on army case when required by letter to do so, and to use every means that may appear lawful to promote unity among the brethren so far as it can be done agreeably to the Word of God and the independent authority of each Church. The Earthen Vessel, 1898
Membership of the Union was open to churches and to individuals, but was limited to 'brethren who are generally known as Gospel Standard believers'.
In 1899 The Earthen Vessel warmly commended its readers to the almost '50 pages of closely printed matter' found in the Union's Annual Report for the previous year. Those present included John Booth of Bradford, J.H. Snow of Hebden Bridge, Taylor of Sheffield, together with a number of itinerating ministers and deacons. All of those who spoke expressed a conviction that union was not only scriptural, but also necessary. Those who formed the Union, 'knew that Zion was in a low state; that in some churches they had very few sitting down at the Lord's table, and it was thought that these few feeble folk might, by a closer Union one to another, be a means of mutual help one to another in the things of God'. Most of the speakers were conscious, almost overly so, of opposition, 'of a great deal of prejudice. . 'against the Union. Its work had been 'misunderstood and misrepresented', as if the intention was 'to interfere with the management of churches', but as the Secretary (Thomas Smith), went on to point out, 'our rules. . . tell you most distinctly that the reverse is the case'.
The benefits of mutual help were underlined by the Secretary in the account of a successful arbitration in the Church at Bradford, which had been 'rent in twain by circumstances which they could not themselves reconcile', with half of the Church taking another chapel to worship in. A committee was formed of men from a number of churches in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and 'these peacemakers were the means of the opposing forces coming together'. 'I am bold to say', Thomas Smith concluded, 'that if there had been no committee appointed there would have been no pastor . . . at Bradford to-day, and probably there would have been two little causes, both struggling for life'.
The progress of the Northern Union is uncharted and unrecorded. In the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century conferences were held, and Quarterly Reports were published, but there was little genuine progress in the life of the churches. Following the 1922 Annual Meetings, when the subject discussed was the state of the denomination, a weekly journal reported, 'that Mr. J. Booth, of Bradford, expressed regret that for many years there had been strife, contention, and dissension among them, so much so that it was almost impossible for the denomination to live'. With diminishing support, and the want of a Secretary, the Union appears to have faded into non-existence in 1951.
(The Minute Books, copies of the Annual Reports, and of the Quarterly Reports, have all vanished, with the exception of an incomplete copy of the 1898 Report. Might we encourage a search; in the attic, up in the loft perhaps, or even among papers on the top shelf of a cupboard in the schoolroom. The Society would gladly welcome any finds for safe keeping in our Library, or alternatively would meet the expense of having copies made. For further guidance please refer to our Advice on Records)