Although he was the pastor of a Strict Baptist chapel, Mr. Chapman had never been a Strict Baptist. This fact was well-understood by the people of “Ebenezer” when they invited him to undertake the pastorate. He was firmly convinced that the baptism of believers by immersion was the only true mode, but he also held that differences of judgment on this point should not prevent fellowship between truly converted persons. So in coming to “Ebenezer” he laid down one condition. Years after, he explained what that condition was:
“When I was invited to leave London and go to minister the Word of God in Ebenezer Chapel, then occupied by a community of Strict Baptists, I consented to do so, naming one condition only—that I should be free to teach all I found written in the Scriptures.”
This one condition, however, left the door open for the sweeping changes which followed. He found written in the Scriptures the command: “Receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.” This text, to mention no other, undermined the Strict Baptist position completely, since they will only receive those who have been baptized by immersion on a profession of faith, and reject from the Lord’s Table and from all fellowship, any who do not fulfil this condition, even though they have ample proof that Christ has accepted such as His people.
Preaching that the unity of God’s children was not dependent on any rite or ceremony, Chapman saw the minds of God’s people gradually broadening, and their hearts warming towards the truth. But he would not force the matter. He wanted to see the church of one mind before the old rule was abolished, and so the unbaptized were still forbidden to come to the Lord’s Table.
Baptism was the most delicate subject he had to deal with. In other things his fellow-believers searched the Scriptures with him, and for the most part accorded with his judgment. They looked into the matter of ministry and discovered that a one-man ministry was not to be found in the New Testament. Ministry, they found, was a matter of Divine gift, and so they waited upon the Lord to raise up from amongst them pastors, teachers and evangelists. They broke bread in simplicity, and this service developed in time along lines now familiar in many Brethren assemblies. Before the actual distribution of the bread and wine there was a devotional period during which various brethren would lead in thanksgiving, or announce a hymn, or comment briefly upon some Scripture. After all had partaken, a definite word of instruction would be given by Mr. Chapman, or by some other recognized teacher who might be present and led of the Spirit to feed the flock.
This manner of breaking bread was, however, one that developed with time. Chapman never claimed that its precise outline was laid down in Scripture. But its two main principles were Scriptural, namely, the liberty of all brethren to take part as the Spirit led, and the recognition of specific gifts in certain brethren. These principles were shaping the views and practices of several students of the Word of God at that time, especially in Plymouth and Bristol.
At Bristol, George Müller was feeling his way along similar lines in the work of Bethesda Chapel. He was not quite certain about the question of accepting unbaptized believers into fellowship, however, and sought Chapman’s advice. The two had a long and serious conversation about four years after the latter’s coming to Barnstaple. Chapman put the matter thus: “Either unbaptized believers come under the class of persons who walk disorderly—and in that case we ought to withdraw from them in accordance with 2 Thessalonians 3:6—or they do not walk disorderly. If a brother be walking disorderly, we are not merely to withdraw from him at the Lord’s Table. Our behaviour towards him ought to be decidedly different from what it would be were he not walking disorderly, on all occasions when we may have intercourse with him, or come in any way into contact with him. Now this is evidently not the case in the conduct of baptized believers towards their unbaptized fellow-believers. The Spirit does not suffer us to refuse fellowship with them in prayer, in reading and searching the Scriptures, in social and intimate intercourse, and in the Lord’s work; and yet this ought to be the case were they walking disorderly.” It was this conversation which decided Müller. He later wrote: “This passage (2 Thessalonians 3:6) to which Brother Chapman referred, was the means of showing me the mind of the Lord on the subject, which is, that we ought to receive all whom Christ has received (Romans 15:7), irrespective of the measure of grace or knowledge which they have attained unto.”
Yet Chapman did not force this viewpoint upon the friends at “Ebenezer.” This slowness to break down the old Strict Baptist practice made some of his Plymouth friends critical. Men like J. N. Darby who were then enjoying a New Testament fellowship in that city, found it hard to see why he could not set up such a fellowship immediately in Barnstaple. They argued that if a course were Scriptural it should be taken at once. But Chapman maintained that whereas this was true, it was the church that must take the course, and for some to take it in opposition to the convictions of the rest would only lead to disunity. Looking back in later years he said:
“When sixty years since I came to this place, I waited for unity of heart and judgment among the company who called themselves Baptists; and when, by the power of the Scriptures, the greater part of them were minded to throw down their wall, we waited on in patience for fulness of unity of judgment. For this I was blamed by men of much grace, who at that time were endeavouring in the south of Devon to bring about a joint testimony of saints to the full truth of God. What we now enjoy here of mutual love and the Spirit’s unity would never have been our portion had any other course been taken.”
He wanted every believer in the fellowship at “Ebenezer” to see the need for the change. He says:
“A brother who visited me in those days urged me to set aside the strict rule that none but baptized believers should be allowed to break bread. I replied that I could not force the consciences of my brethren and sisters; and I continued my ministry, patiently instructing them from the Word. I well knew at that time that I could have carried the point with a large majority, but I judged it to be more pleasing to God to toil on to bring all to one mind.”
What an example this is of pastoral patience! How much friction would be avoided in Christ’s church if all acted with like restraint! Surely this is the voice of a man of love—a brother indeed! None the less, some were offended by Chapman’s preaching, and only two years after his coming to Barnstaple a few Strict Baptists left “Ebenezer” and attempted to form a new church—a venture which quickly came to nothing. A Baptist publication (“Baptist Churches in North Devon”) says that this step was taken “in consequence of the original Baptist church in Vicarage Lane, under Mr. Chapman, having imbibed peculiar notions, and become alienated in spirit and practice from the denomination at large.” But it is noteworthy that the same publication, which appeared in 1885, whilst recording this ill-fated break-away, paid a tribute to Chapman in the following words:
“We think it right to say that, although Mr. Chapman separated himself from the Baptist body, and became what is called a Plymouth Brother, yet he has continued his Christian labours in Barnstaple for many years, and been greatly blessed of God. He has baptized many on a profession of faith. A large company of his adherents meet in what is called The Rooms. For holy living, weight of character, and self-sacrifice, few can equal him; yet simple and humble as a child. He is now full of years.”
How many men live through years of controversy, and manifest love and patience so constantly, that in their lifetime, tributes such as this are paid to them by the fair-minded among those who differ strongly from them?
Eventually the whole body of believers at “Ebenezer” were of one mind and heart concerning the terms of fellowship. It was a great day for Chapman when the old Strict rule was set aside and he was able to welcome to the Lord’s Table all who were truly born again.
One of the wealthiest gentlemen in the town, Mr. John Miller, the owner of the “Derby” lace factory, was a Baptist, and was opposed to the Strict view. At the time of Chapman’s settling in Barnstaple this gentleman was anxious to set up a General Baptist cause in the town. If Chapman had felt able to confine the changes at “Ebenezer” to those which brought it in line with the General Baptist position, he would have secured an influential follower. But he felt that to admit an unbaptized believer regularly to the Lord’s Table was to accord him the fullest possible fellowship, and he could not agree with his General Baptist brethren that such a person was “not a member.” Moreover, his views on ministry were not those of the General Baptists. And so Mr. Miller built another chapel just around the corner from “Ebenezer.” It was opened less than twelve months after Mr. Chapman’s settlement in the town. But bricks and mortar do not make a church, and things went so badly with this new cause that in three years’ time the building was up for sale and the Roman Catholics, who were anxious to start a work in the town, were negotiating for it. Fortunately, these negotiations came to nothing. After a second attempt, the General Baptists were more successful.
Meanwhile the work at “Ebenezer” was going on from strength to strength under the blessing of God. All who were in fellowship were keen to follow out the teaching of the Word of God. There were very real bonds of affection among them, and the sisters, when they met or parted, would always kiss one another—a somewhat precarious exercise so far as their bonnets were concerned. Those who passed by the chapel-yard on Sundays were often amused to see that even the brothers would “greet one another with an holy kiss.”