A good deal of building was being done at that time at the eastern end of Barnstaple, and a new street called Grosvenor Street had come into being. This was handy to “Derby” and not too far from other parts of the town, and when a piece of ground in this street became available, Mr. Chapman and his friends discerned the hand of God in the matter, and the site was obtained.
By 1848 the new chapel had been erected. It had no special name, but was usually referred to as “The Room”—a common term among the early brethren. It was a plain structure, but much larger than “Ebenezer.” No attempt was made to conform to any style of ecclesiastical architecture, and the interior might nowadays be termed dull, since there are considerable unbroken expanses of wall, the windows being set very high. Formerly the walls were coloured blue, and this must have produced a rather weird effect.
A considerable part of the modern book “Mary Lee” by Geoffrey Dennis, centres upon the chapel at Grosvenor Street. The author gives a graphic description of Mary’s first visit to the meeting:
“Grandmother took my hand as we mounted the steps from the street; we passed into the Holy Place. I received at once the curious effect of a light bluish mist which, though brighter, reminded me of the thick blue gloom of my attic, and which was caused by the light-blue distempered brick of the walls and ceiling. There were eight windows in the Room, which was many times larger than our parlour and by far the largest place I had ever entered; each consisted of twenty-four small square panes, six in the perpendicular by four breadthways, a source for years to come of endless countings and pattern-weavings and mystical mathematical tricks. There were two of these windows at each end of the room, and two down each side. All eight were set so high as almost to merge into the ceiling. The curious result was that while near the floor it was comparatively dark, the upper part of the room was very light. A symbol, I thought; for Earth is dark, but Heaven bright. Aunt Jael led the way up a druggeted sort of aisle to the front pew where we alone sat; the family’s immemorial place, though purchased by no worldly pew-rent. In the first rush of newness I but dimly apprehended the benches of black-clad figures we had passed. Immediately in front of us stood the Lord’s Table, covered with spotless white damask, and laden with two tall bottles of wine, two great pewter tankards, and two cottage-loaves on plates. Beyond the Table was a low raised dais from which the Gospel was preached at the evening meetings for unbelievers.”1
All this refers to 1853. But “Mary Lee” is fiction, and while the description of the building is generally accurate, the picture given in the novel of the assembly in those days is very different from that which these pages present.
There is no record of any public ceremony at the opening of the new chapel, and no foundation stone is visible, although, as the frontage was reconstructed some years ago, the latter—if it ever existed—may have been removed or covered up. The actual date of the opening is not known, but from the superscription of the first of Mr. Chapman’s letters from Ireland, we learn that the place was in use in February, 1848. Gardiner in “Barnstaple, 1837-97,” gives the date of erection as 1848, but does not cite his authority. It follows from the letter mentioned above that most of the building must have been completed before the dawn of 1848. A further complication is provided by the fact that a map in the North Devon Athenaeum shows a chapel on the site in 1843.
The seats in the chapel were bare and cold, and members of the congregation might be seen carrying their own cushions to meetings. A later generation of elders has made a concession to the comfort of worshippers by providing warm coverings.
There was no baptistery in the new chapel, although there had been one at “Ebenezer.” It does not seem that Chapman ever used a baptistery, preferring to baptize in the river. In recent years, however, a baptistery has been installed at Grosvenor Street as it is felt that the state of the river makes baptizing there inadvisable.
The visitor to Grosvenor Street in Mr. Chapman’s day would have found the chapel rapidly filling up for the Gospel service. People of all classes came in: the very poor from “Derby,” a large number of tradespeople, professional people, and a few gentry. Rather before the appointed hour, Chapman would enter through a door which led directly into the plain and simple pulpit, and take his seat on the tiny bracket provided for the preacher. This door was left open, because the passage behind it was crowded with mothers with their young children. One elderly lady has described how as a little child she used to look with awe through the door (now used as the door of a cupboard) at the grave preacher, and how she shuddered each time he sat down on his perilous perch.
By this time Chapman had vastly improved as a preacher, and had learnt to express profound truths in the simplest language. In this Gospel service he habitually opened up the doctrines of grace, preaching for an hour or more with great energy, and enlivening his discourse at intervals with striking sentences such as the following:
“The Bible is always a new book to those well-acquainted with it.”
“Absalom’s vanity let his hair grow long; and his long hair did the service of the hangman’s rope.”
“Soon as the word is uttered, ‘I have sinned,’ that very moment flies the seraph.”
The congregation learnt to wait for these gems of spiritual wisdom. They felt that they were listening to a true man of God, and, as conversion followed conversion, they discovered that God had given them an effective evangelist. There was no jealousy among other brethren, no thought that it was wrong for Chapman to be in the pulpit week after week as the Gospel messenger. Certainly no one gave utterance to the God-dishonouring argument that a Spirit-given evangelist must become stale and repeat himself after some weeks. Indeed, they knew from the Scriptures that the same man might be God’s appointed messenger in a town every day for years, and never become a mere bore, or take to himself powers beyond the will of God.2 At that time, in fact, the arrangements obtaining at Barnstaple were quite common among Brethren. Each assembly looked to the Lord to provide the Gospel ministry from within itself, with the occasional assistance of some gifted brother who might be staying in the district or who could walk over from a nearby meeting. Where it was manifest that one man was gifted above his brethren, he would sometimes take all, or the greater number, of the Gospel services. The introduction of Sunday travelling has brought about changes in this respect, and the system of having a different preacher from other districts each Sunday of the quarter is now followed in many assemblies. It is perhaps worthy of consideration whether the unconverted are best reached in this way, or by means of men whom they know, and personally respect. One thing is certain, that a great number of unconverted people followed Chapman’s ministry week after week. God used his personality as a vehicle for conveying the truth to their minds. It provided continuity—an important factor in evangelism. Many came because they saw the man at work in the town during the week, serving others without a thought for himself, and living Christ. The Spirit used this to give great practical force to the message, and week after week men and women were born again.
At the Breaking of Bread, Mr. Chapman would sit to the right of the pulpit in a seat set at right angles to the main part of the congregation of worshippers. From this position he could rise to minister the Word and be heard and seen by all. The practice followed at Plymouth by J. N. Darby and others, of stepping forward to the table and speaking from there, was not adopted at Barnstaple, but teachers generally sat where they could most conveniently minister if led to do so.
There was no ranting or cheap emotionalism in the services. Not all who took part in this meeting were as gentle and cultured as Mr. Chapman, but his example and influence went a long way towards overcoming the peculiar difficulties which surround the so-called “open” meeting. If a brother who had no spiritual message persisted in holding forth, much prayer would be offered. If the trouble continued, he would be spoken to very gently and lovingly. Chapman never followed the unhappy practice of administering a public rebuke to a brother while pretending to address the Lord.
The hymns sung were many of them new, at least as far as the words were concerned, for the Brethren had early discovered that there was a deficiency of hymns centering upon the Lord’s Table, and stressing the priesthood of all believers. There was no choir, but musically-minded friends were encouraged to meet together during the week to practise tunes, so that hymns in some of the rarer metres need not be confined to the same few tunes. It was at these informal hymn-practices that some of Mr. Chapman’s hymns first began to be sung.
Many who had been brought up in the Establishment or in traditional nonconformity, found a new inspiration in the Lord’s Supper as it was conducted at Grosvenor Street. It was the sense of directness in the approach to God which impressed most. Even some who had always believed in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers now discovered for the first time what it really involved. The whole congregation offered up spiritual worship as the Spirit led them. During the first three-quarters of an hour one brother after another would rise to offer praise, or to point briefly to Christ in the Scriptures. Then Mr. Chapman would break the bread. When all had partaken, a teacher would minister the Word, or the task would be shared by two. Often Mr. Chapman would speak at this point, and in an exposition lasting twenty minutes or more, would instruct the mind and challenge the conscience and will, in some such sentences as these:
“If we read the Word of God chiefly to get comfort we shall have but little, and that of doubtful kind. Let us put away this selfishness, and use the Word of God as the Sword of the Spirit against the flesh in us.” “Would that the saints of God tried themselves by this test: ‘How much do I believe?’ instead of ‘How much do I know?’”
Such faithful dealing sometimes sent men and women away from the Lord’s Table with sore hearts, and yet with the sure knowledge of the Source of healing. It was not easy to go on breaking bread under Mr. Chapman’s ministry if one favoured a low standard of Christian living. His simple remarks upon the Scriptures cut into a man’s business and social life, and stressed the practical nature of true Christianity. Some of the early Brethren were recognized exponents of one particular branch of truth such as the Tabernacle, or the Second Coming. Those who heard Chapman could never tell in advance what doctrine he might emphasize on a particular occasion, but they were sure that he would soon get to its practical application. The Spirit’s arrows soon began to fly as he warmed to his subject. As he himself said: “The Spirit of God never heals, save as He wounds.”
Although sisters did not minister in the assembly at Grosvenor Street (in accordance with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35), one of the most prominent worshippers there was a lady, Miss Bessie Paget. She had formerly lived with her sister at Exeter, where she had exercised a considerable influence upon the life of Anthony Norris Groves. Through her example the Barnstaple assembly learnt what a fruitful ministry a woman could carry on without disobeying the Scriptures. Bessie Paget was undoubtedly a remarkable character. In her contact with Christian workers she gave them the highest encouragements, and she acted as a spur to the devotion and service of many men. Chapman himself owed not a little to her influence. Upon coming to Barnstaple she obtained a house in New Buildings, where she was able to assist in giving hospitality to all comers. In fact the two houses were practically regarded as one, though they did not stand next to each other, and on Thursday evenings Mr. Chapman went across to “No. 9” for the weekly Bible readings.
Besides encouraging and assisting the menfolk in their work, Miss Paget sometimes struck out along a line of her own, or, better, of the Lord’s choosing for her. One such venture was a Sunday School which she carried on in a hall in Union Street, right in the centre of the “Derby” district, and quite near New Buildings. Here she had full scope for her initiative and her administrative talents. The children of “Derby” were ill-clad and under-fed, and they had no sense of discipline; but in Miss Paget they met a firm disciplinarian and a warm-hearted benefactor. Doubtless some people smiled at the notion of a woman dealing almost single-handed with such raw and unpromising material. But Miss Paget’s Sunday School prospered, like most of the things she undertook.
Mr. Chapman and his helpers were not afraid of social work, for they saw the Lord caring for men’s bodies in the Gospel records, and they knew how God was blessing Mr. Müller’s labours for the orphans at Bristol. “Derby” offered plenty of opportunity for loving one’s neighbour, and the flock at Grosvenor Street were not slow to seize it. They did not confine their bounty to believers, for they saw that the Scriptural injunction was “do good unto all men, especially (not exclusively) unto them who are of the household of faith.” And so various activities were carried on for the benefit of the poor, activities in which Miss Paget played a leading part. At one time a soup kitchen was opened up in New Buildings, and this did a very good work. Great liberality was shown to the needy, and Chapman was always ready to put their interests before his own. He was once given a new coat by a friend who felt that his old one was too shabby for him to wear. Weeks passed and he never appeared in the new garment. The donor naturally made enquiries and found that Chapman had given it away to a man who had none. What puzzled Chapman, however, was the fact that believers should think that there was something extraordinary in such conduct, for even John the Baptist had taught: “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none.”
Many people felt that New Buildings was scarcely the place for a man of Chapman’s type to live in. In fact a good part of the congregation at Grosvenor Street would have found it difficult to live there in those days, for drunkenness, filth and poverty were evident in the alleys around. One day a wealthy gentleman approached him with a most attractive proposition. A fine house, standing in its own grounds in the country on the outskirts of Barnstaple should be his if he would agree to live in it. But the offer was courteously declined. “No,” said Chapman, “I must live where the poorest saint can visit me.”
One day Mr. Chapman had the pleasure of an unexpected visit from a relative, who evidently desired to know how he lived. This relative arrived at the railway station and engaged a cab to take him to Chapman’s home. When they stopped in New Buildings he said to the driver in surprise: “I told you to drive to the house where Mr. Chapman lives.” “Well, sir,” returned the man, “I have done so. He lives here.” Evident amazement filled the visitor’s face as he rang the bell and waited. It was not long before the door was opened and he was greeted by Chapman.
“Robert, what are you doing here?” the visitor cried.
“I am serving the Lord in the place to which He has sent me.”
The visitor went into the house, but he was full of questions.
“How do you live? Have you a banking account?”
“I just trust the Lord, and tell Him all I need. He never fails, and so my faith is increased, and the work continues.”
Curiosity filled the mind of the visitor, and he opened the larder door. There was very little there. He asked permission to get some groceries, and Chapman agreed, but stipulated that they should be purchased at a certain shop. When he had found the shop, Chapman’s relative awed the shopkeeper by the size of his order. As the amount of goods increased he became very grateful and courteous. When all was completed and the bill paid, the grocer became very keen to do his part, and said: “I will deliver the goods myself if you will give me the address.”
“Please deliver them to Mr. R. C. Chapman,” requested the customer.
“But—but there must be some mistake!” cried the grocer.
“Oh, no,” he was assured, “Mr. Chapman specially directed me to come to you.”
The man was completely broken down by this because he had for years made Mr. Chapman the target of his abuse and wicked criticism. In a short while he was at New Buildings, where Chapman’s relative was amazed to see him lying prostrate before the man of God in tears and sincere repentance, asking for forgiveness, and yielding to Christ as his Saviour.
The work of God at Grosvenor Street was opposed by others than the grocer just referred to. Members of the Established Church were displeased when persons in their families sought baptism. Mr. John Bridgeman, residing at Northgate, Barnstaple, was secretary of the North Devon Infirmary, and a religious man who attended the Parish Church regularly. His four very musical children formed a Vocal Quartet in Barnstaple, and were much in demand in religious circles. One son was a gifted ’cello player and organist. Of the two daughters, the younger, Miss Susan P. Bridgeman, while still very young, began to attend, with her mother, the meetings at Grosvenor Street, and there accepted Jesus Christ as her Saviour. When she later decided to obey her Lord in believer’s baptism, her father was very angry and refused his permission. He threatened to lock the door on her if she were baptized. This was a great test for her, but when the day arrived she told him she must obey God’s Word. He did all he could to induce her to abandon her decision. However, when this was of no avail, he said in a deliberate way: “Remember what I have said.” So the young lady was baptized in the River Taw by Mr. Chapman. But as she returned through the streets of Barnstaple in her dripping garments, God intervened for her. The door was open, and she entered home with the experience of joy through obedience, knowing the presence of the Lord. Later, as Mrs. Swaine Bourne, she had the privilege on many occasions for several weeks at a time, of entertaining Mr. Chapman at her home in Edgbaston, Birmingham. Mr. Chapman described “Elford House” as “my Birmingham home.” Her son, Mr. K. Swaine Bourne, writes: “Mr. Chapman dealt with me at a Christian father in the Lord, and through that long ministry and contact with him, my life was influenced spiritually. He also very graciously invited me to stay with him at New Buildings, Barnstaple, on several occasions, for a fortnight at a time. With Mr. Chapman as head of his own table, with invited guests (sometimes as many as twenty missionaries would be there at a time) I could not but be deeply influenced by the atmosphere of Christian fellowship and communion. Some of the Lord’s people staying there were under a cloud of trial and frustration, but were uplifted and released from bondage through the ministry of the Spirit through God’s servant.” It was at this time that the photographs of Mr. Chapman’s bedroom and workshop were taken.
1 Geoffrey Dennis. “Mary Lee.” pp. 36-37.
2 Acts 19, 8-10.