History of Providence Chapel, Northampton

A complete history of Providence, Northampton has now been published. More details

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to present an account of Strict & Particular Baptist history in Northampton through three interconnected churches. While all three churches were Particular, the first church was also wholly Strict Baptist, the second was Strict & Baptist for only a brief while, and the third was Baptist and became Strict, and has continued so for 170 of its 212 years of existence.

Beginnings

The origins of SB witness in Northampton originate in the early history of Particular Baptists in England. The first recognised English Particular Baptist Church began sometime between 1633 and 1637, in London, and new churches spread out across the country, this same period saw the spread of the Congregational, or Independent movement, which has an initial bearing on our subject.

In 1655, two churches were established: Stevington Baptist Church, near Bedford, and Rothwell Independent Church. Both of the churches mentioned had congregations which met in Northampton; and though next to nothing is known of their early activities in the town, due partly to the restrictions upon dissenters meetings, and also to many records being lost in the Northampton fire of 1675, it is known that there were the two main groups, one gathering under the jurisdiction of Stevington Meeting, in the west of the town at St. James Bridge, and the other, under Rothwell Meeting, in the south of the town in Bridge Street. The St. James’ meeting was Calvinistic and wholly Baptist (using a version of Dr. Gill’s Articles of Faith after 1729); the other was Calvinistic and Congregational, accepting either mode of baptism in use amongst Reformed churches, as conscience led.

We now come to consider the first of our three churches.

Church no 1. The Chapel on the Green – a Strict Baptist cause

The history of the St. James’ meeting lasts about 100 years. The Stevington Church Book records an entry in 1673, stating when that church was formed, who formed it, and who had been added since that time; this list of added names includes members residing in Northampton. In 1701, Nathaniel Brown, was placed in authority over the Northampton meeting with their consent. Brown was a preaching elder for Stevington, subsequently appointed to administer the Ordinances (the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) in 1695. More information concerning the establishment of this church can be gleaned from records kept by the Bridge Street meeting five years later, when they met to discuss the matter of the ‘disorderly walk’ of one of their members, Edward Garner. In 1706 he was asked to give an account of why he was attending the St. James’ meeting when he was already a member with Bridge Street. Garner stated that he was not happy with the method of administering the Lord’s Supper at Bridge Street and asked to be dismissed to the other meeting. This brought to the fore the matter of whether St. James could be considered a proper church, which led to an investigation by Bridge Street involving visits and letters to St. James and Stevington. It turned out that Stevington had wanted St. James to go its way as a full church for some time, and this they eventually did, though sadly after a dispute with Stevington which may well have revovled around the communion issue, as the evidence is that Stevington Church was not Strict. Bridge Street did not decide at that time whether St. James was a properly established church, the vote going 50-50; Garner himself was eventually excluded from membership in 1707 on the grounds that he had continued to take part in the Lord’s Supper at St. James while still a member elsewhere.

The following account, regarding the Strict Baptist church, is taken from a history of College Lane Chapel, written by John Ryland, Jnr:

As to the little church of strict Baptists, who latterly met on the Green, the following particulars may be gleaned up concerning them, from our old church book: There was, before the year 1706, a small number of strict Baptists, who were originally a branch of Mr. Negus’ church at Stephanton, that used to meet in a barn at St. James’-end...Toward the close of 1708, Nathan Brown was succeeded by Mr. Mawbey. In 1716 John Collis is mentioned as their Pastor, and in 1724, they were meeting at the house of Edward Garner, in Quart Pot Lane [now Doddridge Street]. After this, they made themselves a meeting house [behind St. Peter's Church; thus were subsequently known as The Chapel on the Green], Mr. Boomer, or Barmer was their Pastor till toward the close of 1733, when he, changing his judgement for mixt communion, left them with Mr. Charles Rodgers, and the people who had withdrawn with him from College Lane [see below]. These people took the old church book with them, in which a new covenant for strict communion was entered and subscribed, from first to last, by 37 men and 43 women. Mr. Rodgers was ordained, in the presence of John Brine, from London [Rodgers married his daughter], Mr. Woolinson of Rushden, Mr. Deacon of Walgrave, and other messengers of neighbouring churches present. In 1735, Mr. W. Walker, later of Olney and then Colnbrook, was called out by the chapel. Mr. Rodgers removed about 1736 and settled at Rye for some time [He was later at Coventry and Olney]. 1743, Henry Davis, was chosen deacon; in 1744, he was chosen elder, and in 1748 he settled as Pastor. Mr. (afterward Dr.) Gill of London gave the charge; Mr. Brine preached to the people. Others were present. Mr. Davis was a very worthy man, a plain, serious preacher; but the church gradually dwindled, till at last they broke up, and the building was sold to the Weslyan Methodists. [Mr. Davis preached from his home at Harlestone for a while, and died in 1780].

During the late 1740’s and 1750’s many Particular Baptist causes declined until they died out. From over 200, the numbers fell to about 150. The arrival of John Ryland, Snr. at College Lane, whose ministry, if not his communion views, would have been acceptable to the remaining members of the avowedly High Calvinist church may well have concluded the matter.

Concerning the building of the Chapel on the Green itself, and its history, a useful item is found in ‘Notes on early Methodism in Northampton’, by the Wesleyan Historical Society, 1946, which relates that:

In the autumn of 1770 a building described as ‘a more commodious place to preach in’ formerly used by the Presbyterians [a group that split from Castle Hill, probably Unitarians], which had been built about 1730 by a small sect of Strict Baptists, became the centre of Methodist activity. ‘It was a building of moderate dimensions and apparently had a burial ground attached to it. An old bill of mortality of the parish of All Saints notes one burial from this Meeting house on the Green’. The Chapel on the Green remained the home of the Methodists until February 1793, when a new chapel was erected in King's Head Lane.

Finally, the Chapel building was marked as such on the 1747 and 1807 maps of Northampton, though not on the 1841 edition. No trace now exists, the area having been extensively redeveloped. There are no pictures or newspaper reports. All that remains is the facsimile Church book in the Northampton Local Collection and John Ryland's account.

This leads us to consider our second church, which is included because of its connections with the Chapel on the Green and Providence Chapel.

Church no. 2. College Lane Chapel – nearly Baptist, nearly Strict

The early history of Bridge Street Meeting, which later moved to College Lane, is recounted by Dr. Ryland, Jnr.:

The Congregational Church1 of Christ at Northampton was planted on Oct. 27, 1697. In the year 1700, the Rev. John Moore first came among them, and after preaching to them for some months, he was, upon a solemn day of prayer, Oct. 30, received into fellowship with them, by virtue of a letter of dismission from a church of Christ in Rosendale, Lancashire.

The next important event in the church’s history is:

In May. 1712, a purchase was made of nine messuages, or tenements, formerly one messuage, situated in College Lane, Northampton, with a design to erect a meeting-house, and a dwelling place for the minister. Possession of the premises was to be had on June 24th, 1713. The meeting-house was built in 1714, but no house for the minister, as at first intended.

A survey in 1715 recorded 300 attenders at College Lane, and 400 at the Chapel on the Green.2

The Rev. John Moore died Jan. 14, 1726. There had been 80 men, and 184 women added in his time, But toward the close of his life he met with some sore temptations and trials, which brought on his death. The church also dwindled greatly and was diminished by death and dismissions, so that on March 2, 1726, the majority of members agreed to dissolve the church, as supposing themselves too weak to support a constant minister, and to uphold a church state. It is reported that Moore died ‘with grief’.

Our account now brings us back into contact with the Chapel on the Green; Ryland says that:

This act [of dissolution] was contrary to the will of the trustees and some of the members; therefore after a while, several persons agreed to enchurch again, and to endeavour to get a minister: but they met with no one whom they approved, and who liked also to stay with them, till Mr. Charles Rodgers came among them, who was received a member Feb. 27, 1732, and was agreeable as a preacher to all. But after he had laboured among them for some time [a matter of months], he declared himself for strict communion, and brought over the majority to his opinion. On Oct. 15, 1732, they signed an agreement to this purport, and desired Mr. Rodgers to draw up a covenant on the strict plan, which he did accordingly; and, sending for messengers from Coventry, Walgrave, and the church at Northampton, upon the Green, they formed a new church upon that foundation, Nov. 16, 1732.

All the trustees were averse to this plan, but made a proposal to Mr. Rodgers, that he should exchange once a month with Mr. Grant, who might break bread to the Paedobaptists as members of his church at Wellingborough; but Mr. Rodgers and his friends refused to comply with this request, March 27, 1733.

Upon this, some of the trustees withdrew themselves, and one returned no more to the place; but after a while, the others consulted together, and resolved to get possession of the meeting house, and to form a new church on the original plan. This they effected, and Mr. Rodgers and his adherents withdrew on Nov. 4, 1733, and soon after united with Mr. Boomer's people, who had used to meet on the Green, and were of strict communion principles.

The further history of the Green has been related. However, for the purposes of a continuous account, we note the following:

1759, Oct. 5. Mr. Ryland [Senior] removed to Northampton with his family and boarding school. 1760, Feb. 17, he was received as a member. When [he] came first to Northampton, the church consisted of about thirty members; but it was more than doubled the first year. Large additions were afterwards made, and the congregation so increased as to require the meeting house to be twice enlarged. Mr. Ryland left Northampton on Nov. 11, 1785, and died at Enfield, near London, July 24, 1792, aged almost sixty nine years. From his first coming to Northampton, to the end of 1792, there were added to the church, three hundred and twenty three members.

He was followed by his son, who was ordained as co-pastor in 1781; he later left for Bristol in 1794, to run the Baptist Academy there, but not before the following events ensued.

Church no. 3. Providence Chapel – Baptist, soon to be Strict

It was in 1785 that Andrew Fuller’s considerations about doctrine and practice in the Baptist churches of the 18th century, resulted in his publishing a book entitled ‘The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation,’ which caused considerable controversy. This is not the place to discuss the matter further, and there are several books available covering the history and doctrines involved. Amongst the Particular Baptists there was serious division, with many new causes being established by those who sought to maintain the ‘old paths’, or other churches ensuring that they kept apart from the doctrine that came to be known as ‘Fullerism’. There was also a raising up of men who challenged this new teaching, such as William Huntington; these events played a major role in the formation of Providence Chapel.

Amongst the membership of College Lane were James Hewitt and his wife; John Adams, Snr. and his wife; their son, also John, and his wife, Sarah. James Hewitt was at odds with the pastor, John Ryland Jnr., who had recently declared that he had been wrong about certain doctrines and practices, following the position taken by Andrew Fuller, and other Northamptonshire Baptist ministers This new position was unsatisfactory for James Hewitt and he stood out against it by obtaining a licence for his house to hold religious services there.

Hewitt and his wife were therefore excluded from the Church in 1790. He was joined in his meeting by several others, including the Adams’ (Snr. and Jnr.), who themselves were instrumental in inviting William Huntington to preach to them.3 It would appear that Adams Jnr. made it clear that he expected Ryland to offer the pulpit of College Lane to Huntington, as was his custom for visiting ministers. The Rylands, father and son, had previously met the force of Huntington’s pen due to his opposition to Fuller’s teachings, and Ryland, Jnr. had no intention of making such an offer. This gave the dissidents the excuse they needed to set up a rival meeting, and this resulted in the exclusion of all of them from College Lane, and called forth Huntington's tract ‘Excommunication’.

John Adams, Jnr. was excommunicated in Oct. 1791, and, making use of two cottages on the corner of St. Giles’ Street and Fish Street which he had recently inherited, he proceeded to convert them into a Chapel, and services commenced.4 The church was founded on the open communion principle, following College Lane; the deed of 1821, when Adams sold the building to the church membership confirms this: "Baptists holding open communion and maintaining the doctrine called by way of distinction Calvinistic".5 John Adams, Jnr. Himself left Northampton in 1811 to join Huntington’s church in London (although he later returned to the town, but not the church).

Only a few facts can be gleaned of the early history of the church, as no book has survived – which sadly leaves nearly fifty years undocumented.

Around 1800, Edward Vorley (1765-1838) became the minister (prior to this he appears to have been in membership at Irthlingborough, then ministered at Raunds for a while, licencing a house in 1800); he is more well known for taking part in the ‘ordination’ of William Gadsby, and, for holding the pastorate at ‘Ebenezer’ Chapel, Leicester. He married Sarah Slinn (also of Providence Chapel) in 1804, and their second daughter married John Foreman of Dorset Square, London. He left Northampton in 1807.

From about 1818-20 to about 1830, it would appear that William Clarke was the Pastor, whose name is on the previously mentioned deed of sale transferring the property of the chapel buildings to the ownership of the church. He appears to be one with the William Clarke, pastor of Sharnbrook from 1813 to 1818. The Baptist Magazine records his being minister of Fish Street in 1827.6

In his history of Strict Baptist chapels in the Midlands, Mr. Ralph Chambers unfortunately confuses several dates respecting the founding of ‘Providence’ Chapel, on the one hand proposing that ‘Providence’ closed down when Adams left; and on the other, assuming the church restarted in 1834, when actually there was another breakaway from College Lane Chapel at the time. However, town guides for Northampton, which listed Churches and Chapels, provide the following information:

1815 There is an Antinomian meeting in St. Giles’ street, attended by a small congregation.

1821 There is also a small meeting in St. Giles’ street, chiefly attended by those professing the religious tenets of the late William Huntington.

1841 An Antinomian chapel, in St. Giles’ street, attended by a small congregation; rebuilt and enlarged in 1823, called Providence Chapel.

There are some twenty men listed in 1821, on the deed of sale. Records show that the church building itself was ‘considerably enlarged’ in 1822, the fact being advertised in the local newspaper; and further renovation took place in 1828, unless there is a confusion of dates.

Finally, on Feb. 2nd 1835 the Church was re-established as a Strict Baptist cause (the date giving rise to the confusion of details recorded in Chambers), and was, at the same time, joined by an otherwise unknown group7 who met at St. Edmund’s End (in 1835, on the town boundary, but now known as Abington Square, in the town centre). Inspired guesswork would suggest that they were Strict Baptists. One of their number is described in the church book as "Our dear friend, Haddon".

The main reason for the change is recorded in the church book:

A Church meeting was held to take into consideration the propriety of giving Mr [George] Arnsby of Raunds an invitation to the pastoral office when it was deemed necessary to consult with him upon the subject - at this meeting we unanimously agreed to make our communion close, viz., to admit none to the Table of the Lord who have not upon profession of faith in Jesus been baptised.

Signed on the behalf of the church, John Ward, deacon.

Mr. George Arnsby was settled in the pastorate in March 1835. In May of that year, the baptistery was renovated, and the membership is recorded as standing at 29. Mr. Arnsby resigned as Pastor in 1843; some of his family remained members, and one of his descendants laid the stone for the new, and third, chapel building at the Headlands, in 1956. The later history of providence Chapel Northampton includes the move to a bigger building in 1860, the sudden death of a minister, decline after the First World War, and perseverance into the 21st Century. These events will be covered in the full history of the Chapel to be published in 2007 Dv.

Anthony Solomon, Northampton


Footnotes:

1. The church was known for some time as a Congregational Church. A volume of sermons by John Moore, one of its pastors, describes it as such in 1722. Its Baptist leanings (but not foundation) date predominantly from Ryland’s day. return

2. "College Lane had Paedobaptist pastors and was but a tiny concern. Gill, Brine, Dawkes and other Northants worthies befriended the Green till after 1748. Only with 1759 did College Lane begin to flourish, under John Collett Ryland." Baptist Board Minutes; Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society, April 1917, Vol. 5, p. 236, note 45. return

3. The name of John Adams is to be found in the subscription lists to Gill’s Body of Divinity, published in the 1770’s, and Huntington’s six volume Select Works, published in the 1790’s. return

4. The licence for Hewitt’s house was issued 4th May 1791, to the names of Richard Munday, Thomas Berry, John Adams, Thomas Smith, and Samuel Mellows. The licence for Fish St. Chapel was issued 6th Oct 1791, to the names of Adams, Munday, and James Hewitt. Licence recorded in Meeting House Book 1789-1848 QS292/3, Northampton Records Office. return

5. NPL 2662, 2308 in the Northampton Records Office,  return

6. My thanks to Graham Ward for finding this, and other useful pieces of information from his own researches into the Vorley family history. return

7. Further knowledge of this group would have made this an account of four churches. return