Looking back over a hundred years, years pregnant with a multitude of events, which in their course were to become living milestones in the long march of Church history, one cannot but be sensibly impressed as, in panoramic sequence, the picture of a century’s triumphs and failures slowly passes before our vision, leaving on the mind an indelible impression. We stand aside that one might view the historic picture in its true perspective, at the same time unconsciously eliminating the many recurring shadows which ever and anon would seek to darken an otherwise fascinating canvas.
There, in the forefront, are the stalwarts of the faith, Groves and Bellett; Darby and Parnell; Craik and Müller; Deck and Chapman. The scroll is unfolded and we catch a glimpse of a familiar location in these islands. Instinctively our eyes are focussed on a clearly defined spot beyond the Irish Sea, which was to become the virtual birthplace of a great and wonderful movement. And as we watch, we see the living line move—Dublin—Plymouth—Bristol—to encompass the world.
This graphic picture momentarily portrayed on the mind, looms up afresh as we seek to review God’s wonderful ways in leading out His beloved people from the bewildering maze of ecclesiastical intricacies, doubtless inborn by generations of unquestioned usage, to the simple and unostentatious gathering of themselves together on lines untrammelled by man, and solely according to Scripture.
Before coming to more recent times and events in the history of the various assemblies throughout this land and the lands beyond the seas, it is necessary to give a brief survey of the early days of a remnant of God’s people, who came to be known by the sobriquet of Plymouth Brethren.
Years before what is now regarded as the first public meeting of Brethren, which, as we know, took place in Dublin in 1830, there were, in different parts of the country, many godly Christians, who, unknown to each other, had had their thoughts directed along similar lines to those eventually adopted, and pursued by men of God who were to form the nucleus of a world-wide movement. These faithful believers were known to have met together on the first day of the week for the purpose of promoting New Testament principles—which to them had long since been a dead letter—including the fellowship with all those who love the Lord, irrespective of sect or religious denomination, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the observance of believers’ baptism, according to light received through a diligent study of the Scriptures. Very little is left on record of those early Christians, and it was only when development of a more pronounced character made itself evident in the region of the Irish Capital, that these isolated gatherings became known.
J. G. Bellett in his
Reminiscences mentions an instance of the independent action of the Spirit of God in the case of J. Mahon, an honoured servant of the Lord living at Ennis, County Clare, who, with other Christians, prior to the first public meeting in Dublin, had been meeting together in his house, where the little party had “breaking of bread” each Lord’s Day morning. Bellett further tells of a visit to Somerset in 1831 or 1832, to the residence of Sir Edward Denny—who afterwards wote many beautiful hymns in use in our assemblies today—when Sir Edward asked Bellett to give him some idea of the “Brethren.” “We were sitting round the fire,” he wites, “and the daughter of a clergyman was present. As I stated our thoughts, she said they had been hers for the last twelve months, and that she had no idea that anyone had them but herself. So also being—shortly afterwards, a dear brother, now with the Lord, told me that he, his wife, and his wife’s mother were meeting in the simplicity of the ‘Brethren’s’ way for some time before he ever heard of such people.”
It is of interest to trace these circumstances, for they help to assure us that the Lord’s hand was independently at work designing to revive a testimony here, and another there, in the midst of His own children. But there have been faithful followers of the Lord since the days of Paul, and though the vicissitudes of time and circumstance may have obscured all trace of their existence there were ever those faithful to Apostolic teaching who came together under the Holy Spirit’s influence and guidance, in like manner as we assemble ourselves today. Indeed, God has maintained a simple testimony of the Church on Scriptural lines since Pentecost; and down through the ages many at the cost of martyrdom witnessed to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Thus while we seek to review a spiritual movement of more recent times, which because of certain circumstances may have received undue emphasis, it should not be assumed that the gathering to the Lord is a new movement.
To regard such would be to set on one side the faithfulness and loyalty of those early saints who paid such a price for the Testimony, while the present gatherings, to whom the cost of witnessing for the truth was not so great, are given a unique position.
The period around the late twenties of the nineteenth century was to become a memorable landmark, when the smouldering fires of past centuries were to burst forth into a radiant flame, heralding a new era in the vicissitudinary history of the Church. Men chosen of God were to be raised up, a serious attempt was to be made to break down Church differences amongst the Lord’s people, with an immediate return to the true teachings of Scripture, so long obscured and overruled by petty ecclesiastical prejudices.
Foremost amongst those who took a prominent part and exercised a powerful influence of the founding and the development of the newly formed company of Christians were: Anthony Norris Groves, John Gifford Bellett and John Nelson Darby. In addition to these, two others, John Vesey Parnell (afterwards Lord Congleton) and Dr. Edward Cronin, were also closely identified with those early proceedings.
So that the reader may be better able to follow the some- what erratic course of events, it is necessary that a brief sketch be given of the men whose names are inseparably associated with those primitive beginnings which were to become historic.
Anthony Norris Groves was born at Newon, in Hampshire, in the year 1795. He received in London a professional training as a dentist, and after practising for a time in Plymouth, removed to Exeter, where he built up a successful business. Before he was thirty years of age his income was over £1500. Early in his career Groves decided to devote the whole of his property, including the greater part of his large income, to the Lord’s work, freely distributing to the poor, of his bountiful store, and leaving only a small balance for his household and personal needs. A tract published by Groves, entitled
Christian Devotedness, very clearly taught this line of doctrine as a distinct evangelical duty.
Mr. Groves was married at twenty-one, and it was about this time that the desire was laid on his heart to go abroad as a missionary, but the opposition of his wife, who could not yet see the way clear, kept him from taking the step till some years later.
It was with a view to preparing himself for missionary work that Anthony Groves, in 1825, after giving up his professional business, journeyed to Dublin for the purpose of entering Trinity College, that he might study for ordination in the Church of England, a circumstance which had such far-reaching results, as we shall see. Groves was a non-resident student, and during his frequent visits to the Irish metropolis he made the acquaintance of J. G. Bellett, a fellow churchman who, with other Christians, came together for prayer and study of the Scriptures. Those evening meetings were productive of bringing together a number of believers of deep spirituality who began to discern altogether new truths never before revealed to them, and it would appear that Groves was mainly instrumental in directing the company of believers in taking a very significant step towards the realisation of what he considered to be the true interpretation of Scripture regarding the union of the Lord’s people, and their practical observation of apostolic teaching. We learn from Groves’ Memoir that at one of these meetings J. G. Bellett made this significant statement—“Groves has just been telling me that it appeared to him from Scripture, that believers meeting together as disciples of Christ, were free to break bread together, as their Lord had admonished them; and that, in as far as the practice of the apostles could be a guide, every Lord’s Day should be set apart for thus remembering the Lord’s death, and obeying His parting command.” “This suggestion of Mr. Groves,” continues his biographer, “was immediately carried out by himself and his friends in Dublin.”
Such thoughts and convictions simply expressed by Groves may to the casual reader seem commonplace, and may give no occasion for surprise. It is well to remember, however, that both Groves and Bellett were ardent churchmen, as were possibly the greater number of those who attended these meetings; but it was unmistakably evident that many of their deep-rooted prejudices were now breaking down under the penetrating influence of the Holy Spirit’s teaching, in the light of the new truths discovered.
Having seen from the Scriptures of the liberty and power through the Holy Spirit in the ministry of the Word, Groves now began to wonder whether he should further pursue his studies towards ordination. With these thoughts in his mind he made application in London to the Church Missionary Society to arrange for his going out to the foreign field as a layman. Their refusal to allow him to celebrate the Lord’s Supper when no minister was near came as a rude shock. Soon afterwards he was forcibly impressed with the conviction “that ordination of any kind to preach the Gospel is no requirement of Scripture. To me,” he continues, “it was the removal of a mountain.” This revelation he communicated to his friend Bellett, to whom it came with startling force.
This absorbing matter still occupied the attention of the latter when Groves returned to Dublin just previous to his departure for Baghdad, where he felt called of the Lord to carry the Gospel, relying solely upon Him to
meet his needs. This was towards the close of 1828. The two friends were passing along Lower Pembroke Street when Groves remarked: “This I doubt not is the mind of God concerning us—we should come together in all simplicity as disciples, not waiting on any pulpit or ministry, but trusting that the Lord would edify us together by ministering as He pleased and saw good from the midst of ourselves.” In giving an account of the incident Bellett relates: “At the moment he spoke the words, I was assured my soul had got the right idea; and that moment I remember as if it were yesterday, and could point out the place. It was the birthday of my mind, may I so speak, as a brother.”
In 1829 Groves with his wife and two boys, and accompanied by three Christian friends—including a poor deaf and dumb lad, who afterwards became the famous Dr. Kitto, the author of
The Pictorial Bible—set out for Baghdad. They sailed up the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg, and. travelled overland by way of Tiflis, their heavy lumbering wagons traversing the rough mountainous roads and passes where, during the wearisome journey, the travellers were exposed to great hardship and encountered many perils on the way. The journey took six months to accomplish. The story of his life at Baghdad, where the little household was established, is one which will always take an honoured place in the annals of pioneer missionary work. The ravages of plague, followed by flood, famine and war, almost wiped out the densely crowded city, sixty thousand dying out of a total population of eighty-five thousand, and Mrs. Groves was one of the victims. Yet, amidst the horrors of it all the faith of Anthony Groves was still in his God, and he was able to wite home at this time: “The Lord has allowed us great peace, and assured confidence in His loving care, and in the truth of His promise that our bread and our water shall be sure; but certainly nothing but the service of such a Lord as He is would keep me in the scenes which these countries do exhibit, and I feel assured will, till the Lord has finished His judgments on them for the contempt of the name, nature and offices of the Son of God; yet I linger in the hope that He has a remnant even among them, for whose return these convulsions are preparing the way.”
The little missionary party were greatly cheered by the arrival in the summer of 1832 of Dr. Cronin, John Parnell and Francis W. Newman (whose brother later became the Cardinal, the well-known author of “Lead, kindly Light”). Soon after this, Groves made a journey to India, having as his travelling companion Colonel Cotton, the noted engineer whose skill and Christian care for the people of India abolished the dreadful famines of the Godaveri Delta, and brought prosperity to the people of that region. Groves tells us that one object in going to India was “to become united more truly in heart with all the missionary band there, and show that, notwithstanding all differences, we are one in Christ; sympathising in their sorrows and rejoicing in their prosperity.”
After a sojourn in India, Groves visited Britain, and following a stay of fifteen months, when he freely associated with the brethren at Plymouth and Bristol (which will be referred to later), he returned to India, taking with him a missionary party including the brethren Beer and Bowden and their wives from Barnstaple. It is interesting to note that the children and grandchildren of those pioneer missionaries are still carrying on the work. Groves himself proceeded to Madras where he was soon afterwards rejoined by the brethren he had left behind at Baghdad. “Having long depended for his supplies on such gifts as the Lord sent through His servants, he felt that now, in Madras, the circumstances were such that it would be better for the testimony that he should follow the example of Paul, who was ready, according to circumstances, either to live from the gifts of the churches, or from his own labour and earn his own living. He therefore took up practice again as a dentist and was successful in this.”
We have gone to some length in sketching the missionary enterprise of A. N. Groves, but so many circumstances converge upon this initial undertaking and all that transpired thereto, that one has found it imperative to include such matter that the reader might more fitly be able to follow the trend of things, at the same time observing the working of the minds of these early brethren, thus using in some measure what has been set down as a background to the momentous events which were taking place at home.
While Groves was pursuing his labours in other lands, the feeble light that had been kindled ere he left these shores had not been permitted to die out. On the contrary, its influence was beginning to make itself felt in a very marked way. The friends he had left behind in Ireland were steadily moving along lines propounded by Groves, and had by the close of 1829 made notable progress towards the fruition of the ideal he longed might some day take tangible shape.
The remarkable development was due in no small measure to John Gifford Bellett Born in Dublin on the 19th of July 1795, he was thus about the same age as his friend A. N. Groves. Bellett was educated at the Grammar School, Exeter, where he gave high promise as a classical scholar, and with a view to studying for the Bar he proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin. Here he first met J. N. Darby. Both were decided Christians, and an intimacy soon sprang up between the two young students which ripened into a life-long friendship.
Bellett was called to the Bar in Dublin but practised little if any at all, his interests evidently running along an altogether different groove. He came of a family having strong religious connections, both his brothers being clergymen and his only sister was married to a clergyman. Breaking away from the restraining conventionalities of the Established Church, Bellett lost no opportunity in devoting himself as a layman in whatever religious service exalted his Lord.
As we have seen, the coming of Groves to Dublin not only accentuated the beliefs which were gradually maturing in the mind of his friend, but opened up an entirely new field of religious thought which had its consummation in the hallowed atmosphere of those informal Bible Readings.
While the Movement in Dublin was yet in its embryonic state, J. G. Bellett brought into the circle of those devoted Christians one who for some time to come was destined to wield a powerful influence.
John Nelson Darby—for he it was-—was born at Westminster in 1800 of Irish parents. He received his early education at Westminster School, and as we have already seen, he afterwards prosecuted his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated as Classical Gold Medallist, before he was nineteen. Though called to the Irish Bar about the same time as Bellett, he soon afterwards gave up the profession for the Church. In 1825 Darby was ordained by Bishop Magee, and accepted the curacy of the Wicklow parish of Calary. Bellett never lost contact with his old college friend, and in course of events as Darby’s High Church ideas began to wane, because of internal ecclesiastical differences brought about by the controversy over the union of Church and State, which Darby in a pamphlet vehemently declared to be Babylonish, his visits to Dublin and his intercourse with those Christians who had a sincere love for the divine teaching of the Scriptures became more frequent.
First Public Meeting
We are now approaching a decisive epoch in the history of those early beginnings, but ere we proceed further along the road which was to become fraught with countless difficulties, it is necessary to retrace our steps to the summer of 1826, when a young medical student in search of health came up from the south of Ireland to Dublin. He was a member of an Independent Church. His father was a Romanist, in which faith the son had been nurtured. The high spiritual character of his Protestant mother, however, appears to have had an impelling influence over the thoughtful boy, and before he had entered manhood, not only had he renounced the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but had taken a definite stand as a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. His name was Edward Cronin.
On his arrival in Dublin he visited the different Dissenting chapels, where he enjoyed communion. When it was learned that Cronin’s stay in the city was to be permanent, he was informed that he could no longer be allowed to take his place at the Lord’s Table as a communicant without
special membership with one particular congregation. This to his mind appeared contrary to what the Scriptures taught. Reasoning within himself that all true believers are members of the body of Christ, he refused to submit to their Church order and was soon afterwards publicly excommunicated. Thus cut off from fellowship and feeling the separation very keenly, Cronin spent the following Lord’s Day mornings in quiet meditation under a tree or a haystack during the hour for service. Soon afterwards one of the Deacons of the Dissenting Chapel, Edward Wilson (assistant secretary to the Bible Society), protesting against the action of the minister, also left. Thus cut off, the two began to study the Word with a fresh earnestness of purpose, which ultimately led them to come together on Lord’s Day morning for the breaking of bread and prayer in Mr. Wilson’s house. They were joined by the two Misses Drury, cousins of Dr. Cronin, and later by Mr. Tims, a bookseller in Grafton Street. On Mr. Wilson’s departure for England several others were added, and the little company met in the back parlour of Dr. Cronin’s house in Lower Pembroke Street. “It then became noised abroad,” says Cronin, “and one and another became affected by the same truth, which really was the Oneness of the Body and the presence of the Holy Spirit, also seen by us very clearly. Here Francis Hutchinson found us and, as we were becoming numerous, offered us the use of his large room in Fitzwilliam Square.”
Although constantly in touch with what was taking place in Dublin, Darby was still ministering to his flock in the mountain parish of Wicklow, while Bellett had not yet severed his connection with the Established Church. But events were moving quickly, and it would appear that it was about this time that the two joined the little company of believers. This fresh infusion was to bring about decisive action on the part of those faithful Christians, culminating in an entire separation from ecclesiastical systems and owning no other than the presence and Sovereign action of the Holy Spirit in their midst.
The Movement received a distinct stimulus in the publication of what may be regarded as the first Brethren pamphlet:
Considerations in the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ. This was the forerunner of many others which, before a generation had passed by, were to become such an outstanding feature in the prosecution of the Movement’s widespread activities, and the deciding—or perhaps, alas, aggravating—of many momentous issues, which had such far-reaching results. The author was J. N. Darby. The tract forcibly set forth what those early brethren believed and practised, and the divine ground on which they acted. It contained in a large measure those paramount truths which are held by and characterise so-called Brethren to-day.
“If the view that we have taken of the state of the Church be correct,” wites Darby, “we may adjudge that he is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in the ‘power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ’ ought carefully to keep from such a spirit: for it is drawing back the Church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the Word…Christians are little aware how this prevails in their minds; how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ; and how it dries up the springs of grace and spiritual communion; how it precludes that order to which blessing is attached, the gathering together in the Lord’s name. No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God, on the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fulness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it—because its faith does not embrace it…Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s Supper; ‘for we being many are one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.’ And what does St. Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever ‘we eat of that bread and drink of that cup, we do shew the Lord’s death till He come.’ Here there are found the character and life of the Church—that into which it is called—that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity.”
As others were being added to the company meeting in Francis Hutchinson’s house it seemed, obvious that a larger room would soon be required. It is at this juncture there is introduced a young man in his early twenties whom God had designed to occupy a notable position in the gradual unfolding of His purposes. His name was John Vesey Parnell, afterwards Lord Congleton. It was he who rented a lame and commodious room in Aungier Street, belonging to an auctioneer, to which the company of believers was transferred.
Alluding to what happened at the particular period to which we refer, Dr. Cronin feelingly wites: “We soon began to feel, as humbler brethren were added to us, that the house in Fitzwilliam Square was unsuited, which led us to take a large auction room in Aungier Street for our use on Sundays. And oh! the blessed seasons to my soul with J. Parnell, W. Stokes, and others, while moving the furniture aside and laying the simple table with its bread and wine on Saturday evenings—seasons of joy never to be forgotten—for surely we had the Master’s smile and sanction in the beginning of such a movement as this was!”
This was in the month of May in the year 1830; and it is from this time and place that we will seek to trace the development of this wonderful Movement, in our own and other lands, when we shall view the work of the Holy Spirit carrying out through feeble instruments His own blessed purposes of grace.
A notable factor which gave direct impetus to the Movement was the establishment of what was then known as Reading Meetings. Darby was quick to observe the usefulness of these meetings, and soon after the formation of an assembly at Dublin, he paid a visit to Limerick. Here with the help of a local Christian named Thomas Maunsell— who afterwards became actively associated with the Movement—he instituted a reading meeting to which considerable numbers came, and the Lord opened the way for the ministry of the Word which continues in that city to the present time.
Those gatherings of Christians sprang up almost simultaneously in many parts of the country. Usually held in the drawing-rooms of the gentry, they were attended largely by men of good position and repute including not a few members of the clergy. Thus were the Scriptures prayerfully searched and studied, and thus God raised up faithful men, who, finding no Scriptural authority for the system of things prevailing in the professing church, were led to renounce all that this world esteems; that they might take a lowly place as true followers of the despised and rejected Son of God, realising that they could no longer pursue a course they well knew to be contrary to Divine order, embraced the truth revealed to them, and left their respective denominations.
“Amongst those who separated from the various organisations,” says C. H. Mackintosh, “were some men of considerable gift, moral weight, intellectual power and intelligence—clergymen, barristers, solicitors, military and naval officers, physicians, and men of high position and property. Their secession, as you may suppose, caused a very considerable stir and drew forth much opposition. Many a link of
friendship was snapped; many sacrifices were made; much sorrow and trial were encountered; much reproach, obloquy and persecution had to be endured.”
As can well be imagined the spread of this new aggression in the field of religion, which was drawing so largely from practically every Christian denomination, created no little alarm in ecclesiastical circles. Who were those people? What new creed was this? Such were the questions asked; such were the anxious fears expressed; but no one seemed able to give an intelligible answer to the queries which appeared to disturb the peace of the religious communities.
The leaders of the churches thus affected, however, appeared to console themselves with the thought that this mysterious movement, with no ordained minister or president, and having no definite organisation, would before very long come to a pitiable end. “But the Lord Himself was with them—true to His promise, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.’ And there the Lord was to the joy, blessing and edification of His beloved people. If we allow Him His proper place at the table, He will not only take it, but His presence will fill our hearts with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Thus were the Brethren strengthened, and thus the good work of the Lord went on. The Gospel was preached with a clearness, fulness and power, unknown since the days of the apostles.”
Having followed the course of events which led up to this important stage, we have now opportunity to observe the work of the Holy Spirit in the spread of the Movement to other spheres. Darby, whose powerfully worded pamphlet had sounded a clarion call arousing thoughtful believers to the culmination of momentous decisions, was just thirty at the time of the historic meeting at Aungier Street, Dublin. As this man of prodigious mental energy and physical endurance figures probably more than any other person in the history of the early Brethren, it may be of interest to read what his erstwhile friend, F. W. Newman, has to say in the course of an autobiographical sketch, in which the witer, referring to Darby, states: “He was a most remarkable man, who rapidly gained an immense sway over me…His bodily presence,” continues Newman, in describing the personal appearance of Darby, “was indeed weak. A fallen cheek, a blood-shot eye…a seldom shaven beard, a shabby suit of clothes and a generally neglected person, drew at first pity, with wonder to see such a figure in a drawing-room…This young man had taken high honours in Dublin University, and had studied for the Bar where he had excellent prospects; but his conscience would not allow him to take a brief, lest he should be selling his talents to defeat justice. With keen, logical powers, he had warm sympathies, solid judgment of character, thoughtful tenderness and total self-abandonment.”
With this brief pen-picture of this extraordinary man, we will follow his activities to another part of the United Kingdom, which was destined to become, after Dublin, a place pre-eminent in the history of the Brethren, While his friends in the Irish capital sought to build up the little assembly there, Darby, his bosom burning with an unquenchable desire to carry the truth of God whithersoever the Holy Spirit might lead, looked farther afield, and after a sojourn in many isolated places in Ireland he crossed to England—and to Plymouth.
Witing to a friend some years later, Mr. Darby gives the date of his memorable visit to Plymouth as “
about 1831.” “I went to Oxford,” he says, referring to the occasion, “where many doors were open, and where I found Mr. Wigram and Mr. Jarratt. Subsequently in calling on Mr. Newman I met Mr. Newon, who asked, me to go down to Plymouth, which I did. On arriving I found in the house Captain Hall, who was already preaching in the villages. He had reading meetings, and ere long began to break bread. Though Mr. Wigram began the work in London he was a great deal at Plymouth.” W. Blair Neatby, in his
History of the Plymouth Brethren, suggests that the date given by Darby is incorrect, and this seems obvious for, as we have seen, it was at this time that Darby called upon his friend, F. W. Newman, and it will be remembered that Newman sailed for Baghdad on 30th September 1830. So that it is quite probable that the visit to Plymouth would be in the month of August or early September, 1830.
Thus came about the formation of a company of Christians definitely separated from ecclesiastical organisations, and gathered solely to the Name of Jesus. This gathering of believers at Plymouth, notable perhaps because of the fact that its existence gave birth to the appellation “Plymouth Brethren,” by which future generations of Christians faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures were to be ungraciously designated, was to go down in history as the first assembly of Brethren in England. The place in which the assembly worships, now known as Raleigh Street Gospel Hall, was the first building erected by Brethren in Plymouth. “When the brothers began to preach the Gospel in the open-air and in the villages around,” says Andrew Miller, “no small curiosity was awakened to know who they were; there was something new in their preaching and in their going to work. But as they belonged to none of the denominations they were spoken of as ‘Brethren from Plymouth.’ This naturally resulted in the designation ‘The Plymouth Brethren,’ which has been applied to them—sometimes in derision—ever since.”
An important and influential assembly, it was for many years the rendezvous of most of the early leaders of the Movement, who resorted thither from various centres for the ministry of the Scriptures and the unfolding of the mind of Christ as revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In a communication witten by W. H. Cole to a personal friend, the witer portrays a vivid picture of those times of unsullied happiness, when the skies were cloudless and the breakers which one day would dash with ruthless energy upon the peaceful shore were as yet unknown. An excerpt from this letter, which recently came into my hands, is worthy of recounting here, for it reveals the gracious humility and godly sincerity of those brethren at Plymouth in their desire to follow the mind of the Spirit and to obey the commands of our risen and exalted Lord. “Converted to God in early youth in Plymouth my native town,” wites Mr. Cole, “I was soon afterwards brought into fellowship with those who, I learnt, assembled upon principles taught in the Word of God, where no sectarian wall of division was acknowledged, and where there was the liberty of the Spirit of God, to minister the truths of Scripture by those who were gifted by Him for that purpose.
“At that time all was happiness and peace, unruffled by personal questions, and undisturbed by jealousies or ambitions. The distinctions between rich and poor were lessened by holy, loving fellowship and unity which characterised their intercourse. Their dress was plain, their habits simple and their walk distinguished by separation from the world. The meetings of the assembly were calm, peaceful and hallowed; their singing was soft, slow and thoughtful; their worship evinced the nearness of their communion with the Lord; their prayers were earnest for an increased knowledge of God, and for the spread of His truth. Their teaching showed their deep searching of the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, while the exercise of the varied ministry, under the power of the Spirit, testified to the blessedness of the teaching of God’s Word on each important subject. It was into this scene I was privileged to enter in the year 1843.”
The Church at that time had grown to a considerable number. It began in a small house in King Street, Plymouth, and finally settled in Elerington Street, where there was accommodation for one thousand in fellowship and about four hundred others. This was a large plain building erected according to their own plans, without gallery. The large table was placed in the centre, around which were ranged the seats on a gentle rise from the floor. There were no pews, but plain and comfortable benches. The acoustic properties of the spacious hall were, however, very deficient, so that those who spoke, unless possessed of very strong voices, were compelled to stand at the table.
The leading ministering brethren were J. N. Darby, B. W. Newon, J. L. Harris, H. W. Soltau, J. E. Batten, Dr. Tregelles and W. Dyer. The exhortation of
these several teachers was to a holy life in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ, to the cultivation of love, to a walk worthy of our heavenly calling, and to animate the blessed hope of our Lord’s return. “I breathed what appeared to me the pure element of love,” continues the witer; “I was in the enjoyment of the liberty of home. I was enlightened by its teaching, cheered by its joys, comforted by its hallowed fellowship, strengthened by godly companionship and encouraged by those who were over me in the Lord. Those were delightful times, so sweet for their simplicity. The fruits of the Spirit were in evidence. Whatever undercurrents were at work they threw nothing to the surface. But it was too fair a scene for Satan to contemplate, and he must by some means mar its beauties and devastate its loveliness.”
The devastating work, hinted at by the witer of the letter, began soon after the return of J. N. Darby from the Continent, in 1845. It is not the purpose of this book to revive the memory of those painful years of strife. Suffice it to say that the principles of Christians called Open Brethren are those originally taught and maintained by the early Brethren in Plymouth; from which Darby and consequently his followers departed, if not previously, certainly in 1848.
From small beginnings, the Plymouth Assembly at one time numbered over a thousand; and though to-day in some measure shorn of its old-time lustre, it still maintains a faithful testimony, standing true to those principles which marked the early days of its inception.
Before proceeding further we will briefly introduce to the reader those men whose names have been mentioned, and who under the guidance of the Holy Spirit were used of God in the founding and development of this and other assemblies.
When J. N. Darby and his friends arrived at Plymouth to begin work, they found a young man there who had already become known in the villages round about the ancient seaport town as a faithful and zealous preacher. He was just twenty-six. Previous to this time he had resigned a captaincy in the Royal Navy, for conscience’ sake, although, it is said, he could ill afford the loss of his pay. His name was Captain Percy Francis Hall—a name which for half a century was closely identified with the activities of the Lord’s people, principally in the south of England.
A man of peculiarly independent inclinations, accounted by some as eccentricities, his views are propounded in a tract,
Discipleship) which displays not only the courage and fearlessness of the witer, but his unfailing devotion to the fundamental truths, which he ever sought to manifest in precept and practice. Warmly interested in prophetic teaching. Captain Hall was a frequent visitor to Powerscourt House, County Wicklow, the residence of Lady Powerscourt, where, along with Bellett, Darby and others, he took, an active part; and in the troublous times of 1848-49 his counsel was sought in the interests of
George Vicesimus Wigram was about the same age as Captain Hall at the time when he formed one of the little company of believers at Plymouth. He had been brought to the Lord a few years previously, whilst a subaltern officer in the army, but soon afterwards relinquished his position to enter Queen’s College, Oxford, with a view to taking orders in the Church of England. It was here that he made the acquaintance of those men whose names in years to come were destined to figure so prominently in the Brethren Movement. G. V. Wigram was the twentieth child of Sir George Wigram, a merchant and shipowner in London, and was born in 1805. A profound Bible student, he devoted many years in the preparation of
The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance to the Old Testament, and a cognate one to the Greek New Testament, in which occupation he freely used the greater portion of a considerable fortune.
Wigram interested himself in the compiling of
Hymns for the Poor of the Flock, a hymn book which to-day, in a somewhat altered form, is still in use amongst assemblies known as “Exclusives.” The first collection of hymns specially compiled for the use of Brethren was called
A Christian Hymn Book, and was issued from Plymouth from the publishing office of their first magazine,
The Christian Witness. The name of George Vicesimus Wigram is notably associated with the founding of the first assembly in London. Commenced on similar lines to the parent meeting at Plymouth, it was the forerunner of many other assemblies, which, in a comparatively short time, sprang up throughout the Metropolis.
In Wigram, J. N. Darby found a loyal and strenuous supporter throughout the unfortunate controversy waged by the indomitable Irish leader, and during the lamentable eruption of 1845, which brought so much pain and bitterness in its train, Wigram took a prominent part. This is no place nor is it the purpose of these pages to open up old wounds, which time the great healer has sought to close for ever. Suffice it to say that though he may have erred in his judgment on matters which affected the well-being of the Church through his unwavering loyalty to an adamant leader, “his sincerity was never questioned, his motives recognized” by at least one who stood in the forefront and received the full force of the onslaught: the venerated George Müller, of Bristol, of whom we have still to wite.
It was Benjamin Wills Newon who invited Darby to Plymouth. A theologian of some distinction and an able expositor of the Scriptures, Newon very soon rose to a position of influence amongst Brethren. Born in 1807, he was thus the youngest in the group of Brethren who first gathered around the Lord’s Table at Plymouth. Intended for the Church his views had already been diverted from pursuing that course before his meeting with Darby and his friends at Oxford, and he readily gave up all thought of the ministry that he might more faithfully obey the will of the Lord, according to this fresh revelation in regard to the true interpretation of Church order. From its inception, B. W. Newon was actively associated with the meeting at Plymouth, until his secession from the Brethren seventeen years later.
The influence of this new Movement, despite the many fiery darts of the enemy, was making its presence felt, not only in the town of Plymouth but farther afield, and many were added to the assembly. A noteworthy adjunct was J. L. Harris, perpetual curate of Plymstock, who gave up a comfortable living in the Church of England that he might be associated with those believers who came together on the first day of the week to remember the dying love of the Lord Jesus. This fresh infusion greatly strengthened the growing assembly. Mr. Harris was a man of considerable learning, and for a number of years conducted weekly Bible readings at Plymouth, which were attended by people of other denominations and by all classes. It was under his editorship that
The Christian Witness, the first periodical of the Brethren, was started in 1834. “J. L. Harris was certainly one of the chief men among early Brethren as to his individual and assembly connections with B. W. Newon and J. N. Darby, as to his active part in the subsequent troublous times, and as to his witings, which fortunately remain when the sorrows are gone, and continue to breathe the fragrance of the Spirit of Christ possessed by their author.” He was a prolific witer and many of his books, including
Precious Truth, Law and Grace, and
The Priesthood and the Cross of Christ, held a high place amongst Brethren literature.
In the same year that the illustrious group of Brethren gathered to remember the Lord at Plymouth, where a lamp was lighted which was destined to burn undimmed through the winds and tides of a hundred years, a young German who had lately undergone a great spiritual change, arrived in the Devonshire town of Teignmouth to occupy the pulpit of a small chapel. His name was George Müller—a name which to-day is loved and revered the world over. Previous to this, the young pastor had been powerfully influenced by the reading of Anthony Norris Groves’ pamphlet,
Christian Devotedness, and his mind was working rapidly along lines which were to materialise into the exercise of the principles now practised by Brethren. It was about this time that he made the acquaintance of a godly young Scotsman named Henry Craik, who, since Müller’s arrival at Teignmouth, had become pastor of the Baptist Chapel in the neighbouring village of Shaldon. Both were only twenty-seven years of age, the former having been born in August, 1805, and the latter in September of the same year. Having much in common, the two became closely attached to each other, with an affection which has been likened to the friendship of David and Jonathan—a friendship which was unbroken through the thirty-six years that, these two saintly men were engaged as fellow labourers together in work truly ordained of the Lord. It is a remarkable circumstance that while George Müller’s spiritual outlook had been completely changed by the witten ministry of A. N. Groves, the life of Henry Craik had been similarly transformed through the personal influence and teaching of Groves, in whose family he had for some time acted as tutor. Singular though it may appear, it was the arrival of these two strangers in this peaceful corner of Devon that sowed the seeds which were to have their fruition in the formation of an assembly some miles away in the cathedral city of Bristol. It is an interesting story and worthy of recounting here. A Christian gentleman, belonging to the Church of England, while on a visit to Teignmouth, happened one day to attend Craik’s chapel at Shaldon. So impressed was he with the ministry of the earnest Scotsman, that, soon after his return to Bristol, he wote urging Mr. Craik to come to that city, which would afford a much wider sphere for his usefulness. Such a request came as a surprise, but seeing in it the hand of the Lord, he decided, after deep spiritual exercise, to go to Bristol. There was no settled pastor at Gideon Chapel at that time, and here Mr. Craik began his mission. So successful was the work, and so signally was the young preacher used in the edification of the Lord’s children and in the conversion of the unsaved, that he was led to wite, entreating his friend Mr. Müller to join him in the work.
Henry Craik had been ministering in Gideon Chapel about four weeks when his friend joined him. This was towards the end of April, 1832. Soon afterwards, so great was the interest manifested that the congregation rented Pithay Chapel in the same neighbourhood, and much blessing followed the labours of those faithful servants of the Lord in both places. Müller had not yet acquired fluency in the English language, and many were attracted to the meetings out of curiosity to hear the young foreigner preach. Cowper has well witten:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform.
Amongst those who attended the services was a notorious drunkard of whom it is said that he would sell his clothes from his back in order to buy gin. Lie had followed the crowd to hear what the German preacher had to say, and thus it came about that on the first occasion that George Müller preached the Gospel in Bristol a soul was saved.
Before many weeks had passed the attendances had increased to such an extent that it was obvious that a larger building would be required. Besides this, as the truths of Scripture became more real, and having a sincere desire to follow the Lord more fully, it was realised that they must have more liberty of action in bringing these truths into practice. At that time Bethesda Chapel, a spacious building situated at the top of Great George Street, which had a few years previously been built by an ex-clergyman of the Church of England, stood empty; and this was rented for one year. Here, in the month of July, 1832, George Müller and Henry Craik commenced work, the fruits of which will only be revealed in a coming day.
It is well to remember that up to this time these two brethren, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, had been acting independently of what was taking place at Plymouth; and there appeared to be so many tokens of Divine approval that, after much waiting upon God, it was decided that they come together to remember the Lord’s death in the breaking of bread, and so, on the evening of 13th August 1832, “at Bethesda Chapel, Mr. Müller, Mr. Craik, one other brother and four sisters—only seven in all—sat down together, united in church fellowship,
without any rules, desiring to act only as the Lord should be pleased to give light through His Word.”
From that time forward the work at Bethesda, under the able ministry of those two devoted brethren, prospered exceedingly. Crowds continued to flock to hear the Gospel, souls were saved, and there were numerous applicants for fellowship. So that, ten years after the historic opening service the membership had increased to nearly six hundred, and ten years later the number in fellowship had reached a thousand. I cannot refrain from recounting here the personal testimony of a lady, eight years after services were commenced at Bethesda, related by Mr. E. R. Short in his interesting little brochure,
The Story of Bristol Bethesda.
“It was in 1840 that I first became acquainted with the ‘Brethren.’ I had come from a well-filled, well-upholstered London chapel with grand organ, well played, and good singing, and where the elite
attended. Our pastor was a gentleman of means and education and dressed as such, with knee breeches, silk stockings, buckled shoes and ample shirt front. In the pulpit he wore a large silk scarf on his shoulders. Imagine my surprise on the first Sunday morning when I entered Bethesda, a large bare chapel, half empty. A very few grave-looking men and women came in and knelt down for a few moments, then rising sat with closed eyes till the service began. The sisters’ dress was grotesquely ugly. A coarse brown woollen dress with a drab shawl, a straight speckled straw bonnet with drab or brown veil, servants and mistresses all alike. Soon a brother rose and prayed. Now we were at once in the presence of God. It was a Spirit-led prayer. I forgot the dress and all else, then a pause, then a hymn, sung like a funeral dirge with closed eyes and all sitting, and very badly sung too. Another prayer and then the bread and wine were passed round; pause again, then prayer. Now Mr. Craik stood up to speak. All had their Bibles and used them. His exposition of Scripture was quite a new feature of worship to me, and it was indeed marrow and fatness. The meaning of the passage read was brought out as I never heard it before, and I found myself feeding truly in green pastures. Dr. Maclaren, of Manchester, is the only man I know to compare with Mr. Craik. His knowledge of the original language was beyond that of most men of learning, and his insight into the meaning of Scripture also. It was a great privilege to hear such a man. ‘I shall come again,’ I said, and I did go again and again, and never went anywhere else while in Bristol. To me it was like a new conversion. Now I heard a clear Gospel that I could understand. The Bible became a new book to me. The brotherly love shewn was such as I had never seen before. The godly and simple lives of even wealthy people who had moved in the highest society were such as to carry one back to the days of the apostles and I felt that this was indeed Christianity of a high type.”
The honoured name of George Müller, of Bristol, will ever stand a monument of imperishable testimony to the infallibility of a God who answers prayer. To-day his name is a household word, while the results of his labours extend to the ends of the earth. It would be superfluous, therefore, to wite at any great length, the story of his life is so well known. And yet one cannot pass it by without the mention of a few salient features relative to a Spirit-filled life, which at once marked this man of God as one of the most outstanding stalwarts of the Faith of the last century.
A Prussian by birth, Müller was born at the village of Kroppenstaedt, where his father was a collector of excise. His early years lacked proper parental care and correction, with the result that long before he had reached manhood he had fallen a victim to vicious indulgences and wanton wickedness. With this knowledge of such a record of sin, it may astonish the reader to learn that during the years of dissipation he was all the time studying for the ministry, and had actually been accepted as a candidate for holy orders in the Lutheran Church. But God in His abundant grace suddenly stopped the wild career of the wayward youth, and at the age of twenty, George Müller was soundly converted. Four years later he came to this country with a view to labouring among the Jews in London. Here his zeal and strenuous labour in the Gospel brought about a breakdown in health and he was advised to seek a change. Thus George Müller was providentially guided to Teignmouth where, in the narrative of these events, we first made his acquaintance.
Apart from the prominent part he took in the spiritual well-being of Bethesda, of Bristol, from its inception to his Home-call in 1898, the name of George Müller is inseparably associated with the Ashley Down Orphan Homes, where, during his lifetime, this man of faith was instrumental in the erection of several large homes with accommodation for over two thousand orphans, which in later years required an annual income of about £30,000 for their maintenance. This tremendous enterprise he carried through by prayer and faith alone; nor did he once depart from this golden rule. And God has abundantly supplied the needs of this institution, from the opening of the first home one hundred years ago, to the present time, without making known their needs to any man, and without a public or private request for a single penny.
Henry Craik, his beloved fellow helper for thirty-six years, was a man of great learning and rare ability. He was born at Prestonpans, East Lothian, and after a course at a parish school of which his father was master, he proceeded to St. Andrews University where he had a distinguished scholastic career. It was during his student days that young Craik became troubled about his soul, which resulted not only in his conversion but the complete consecration of his talents to the service of the Lord. As has already been mentioned, he became tutor in the family of A. N. Groves at Exeter, where he remained for two years. He had a pro- found admiration for his friend and employer who so mightily influenced his life, and in after years he paid this fine tribute to the memory of the saintly Groves: “It was not at St. Andrews, it was not at Plymouth, it was at Exeter that the Lord taught me those lessons of dependence on Himself and of catholic fellowship, which I have sought to carry out.” On the departure of A. N. Groves to Baghdad, Henry Craik took up a similar appointment as tutor in the family of a gentleman at Teignmouth, subsequently accepting the pastorate of a small chapel in the village of Shaldon on the other side of the River Teign, and, as we have seen, it was here that he met George Müller.
So wonderfully has the work begun at Bethesda been blessed of God, that at the present time there are about twenty such gatherings in Bristol and neighbourhood, all in happy fellowship. In a small chapel in Unity Street, St. Philip’s, a work was commenced by Mr. Victor which grew to such dimensions that a larger building soon became needful. He was succeeded by Major Tireman, a man of great kindliness and originality, who soon won the hearts of the people. Untiring in his labours, and with a zeal which seemed to know no abatement, it was mainly through his efforts that the spacious building known as Unity Chapel was erected in 1862.
Ten years later, the assembly worshipping at Clifton Bethesda, Alma Road, had its origin under somewhat remarkable circumstances. In the centre of Clifton there was a large and valuable triangular piece of land on which stood a conspicuous notice board, intimating to all and sundry that this piece of land might be had gratis, on condition that it was used for the purpose of the erection of a place of worship, the ground area of which should be devoted to free and unappropriated sittings. Strange though it may seem, up to that particular time nobody applied for that land. To-day, the visitor to Clifton Bethesda may observe a tablet bearing this inscription:
“The ground upon which this Chapel is erected was dedicated by the late John Evans Lunell, Esq., of Clifton, in his lifetime for the erection of a place of worship, in which all the seats on the ground floor should be free for ever; and in conformity with the known intention of the above, £1500 were given by his widow for the erection of this building.”
It was in this place of worship that the saintly George
Müller gave his last address on Lord’s Day morning, 6th March 1898. On the following Thursday, after finishing his usual day’s work at the Orphan Homes, he just said, “I am tired,” and that night the Lord called him to his eternal rest, in his ninety-third year.
In 1875 a testimony was begun in the Bedminster district by Mr. Welchman. As the little company of believers increased in numbers, Henry J. Harris, of the Bethesda Oversight, felt led to devote himself to pastoral and gospel work amongst them. The Lord wonderfully honoured the labours of this faithful brother, and he eventually gave his whole time to this service. The assembly first gathered in the Conservative Hall, afterwards removing to the Temperance Hall. In 1889, the present building, known as Merry-wood Hall, was erected, and here the good work still continues.
In the year 1874 a large tent was pitched in Great Gardens, Newfoundland Street, by J. A. Vicary, known then as the “Singing Evangelist.” He was assisted by Harrison Ord and others, and God greatly used His servants not only in the salvation of many souls, but also in the upbuilding of His own people. Almost from the first considerable interest was aroused, and so manifest was the work of the Holy Spirit that in the following year the commodious building known as the St. Nicholas Road Gospel Hall was erected. Here Mr. Vicary ministered the Word for many years. “I well remember Mr. Wight’s prayer at the laying of the foundation stone,” says Mr. E. R. Short, to whom the witer is indebted for a narrative of so many interesting facts and incidents in this connection. “The first gift towards the cost was a sovereign found in an envelope addressed to Mr. Coultas in a room in the Y.M.C.A., St. James’s Square, where a few men were gathered together in conference. The sovereign was laid on the floor and they all kneeled round it in prayer and faith.” How the prayers of that faithful few were answered is revealed in an unbroken testimony of half a century.
The Stokes Croft Assembly first came together in the year 1878. Their meeting-place was a disused skating rink situated in a convenient centre, which had been leased by a few brethren. The building was in a very dilapidated condition but was soon made comparatively comfortable and attractive, and as Salem Chapel was now closed, the opening of this old building as a place of worship drew many to the services. So rapidly did the Lord’s work develop that additional premises were soon required. The names of E. T. Davies and D. D. Chrystal will long be remembered as associated with this assembly.
It was about this period that Mr. Vicary the evangelist pitched one of his Gospel Tents in a field at Bishopston, upon which the Jail now stands. Here services were continued throughout the summer months and much blessing was realised. During the mission there was a special work amongst the soldiers quartered at the Barracks in which Colonel Molesworth, Captain West and other brethren took a deep interest. At the close of the Tent Mission the Lord opened the way for a permanent testimony, and thus was established the present Bishopston Gospel 11 all.
It is worthy of note that from the Bristol United Bethesda Church there have gone forth to other lands to preach the Word many brethren and sisters, looking only to the Lord for support and guidance; the number at present being about twenty labouring in Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Roumania, India, China, Japan, Algeria, Central Africa, Barbados and Argentina. Surely a royal record, which is indeed honouring to the Master for Whom they left home and friends to serve in regions beyond!
Early Days In Hereford
In the same year that the little company of believers first gathered together in Bethesda Chapel, Bristol, there passed away at Aberystwyth, at the comparatively early age of forty-four, a Church of England clergyman. His name was Henry Gipps. Strange though it may seem, it was mainly through his faithful ministry while Vicar of St. Peter’s, Hereford, that seeds were sown which in days to come had their fruition in the formation of an assembly of Christians, who were to be fettered no longer by creed or ordinance of Church and State.
Mr. Gipps was a man greatly beloved, and it is said that when the tidings of his death reached Hereford, not only the members of his own congregation but the whole city were cast into mourning. His preaching had indeed been richly blessed of God, both in the salvation of sinners and in the building up of His people, which resulted in many Christians from other parishes in the city being attracted to his ministry. John Venn, his successor—who is still remembered in the city because of his philanthropy—was a man of much grace and charm, but his preaching lacked the clear and decided tone that characterised the sermons of Mr. Gipps. Besides this, his interpretation of the Scriptures did not coincide with what his congregation had come to know, by a close study of the Word, to be the teaching of the Holy Spirit. This state of affairs in the Church somewhat unsettled a number of the most intelligent and influential Christians amongst his congregation, and they began to pray for a more Scriptural ministry. Prominent amongst these were Mr. and Mrs. William Yapp, Dr. and Mrs. Griffiths and Mr. Humfrys.
During this period of spiritual unrest Mrs. Griffiths, while on a visit to friends at Plymouth, attended some meet- ings where Captain Percy Hall ministered the Word. So pleased was she at the wonderful unfolding of the Scriptures that she begged the Captain to come to Hereford, assuring him that there were many Christians who would gladly welcome such teaching. Captain Hall accepted the invitation, and the first meetings were held in Mr. Yapp’s house in Bridge Street. These were followed by larger gatherings in various schoolrooms and chapels in the city. His exposition of the Scriptures received general approbation, and it was felt that Captain Hall’s coming to Hereford was the Lord’s answer to the prayers of His people. Mr. Venn, the new vicar of St. Peter’s, had given them elementary truths, but here was “strong meat” indeed, and an opening up of dispensational truth such as they had never heard before. The result was that Captain Hall was invited to take up residence in Hereford. Realising this to be the will of the Lord he consented, and a suitable house was obtained and furnished for him at Breinton, three miles out of the city, to which he and his family removed. This was in the year 1837.
It was now felt desirable to commence regular meetings, and a large room at the rear of Mr. Yapp’s house was soon made ready for that purpose. As these meetings became known the attendances rapidly increased, and not only were Christians from various denominations in the city attracted but large numbers came in from the country districts to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread, so that it was no uncommon sight on Lord’s Day mornings to see a row of carriages lining the side of the street in which the Hall was situated. “At that time,” wites Mr. W. R. Lewis (to whom I am gratefully indebted for this interesting account of those early days at Hereford), “the leaders arranged beforehand who should break the bread on the following Lord’s Day, thus little by little learning for themselves the true leading of the Spirit, which, as one might well suppose, was not learnt all at once. The premises soon becoming too small had to be enlarged to seat between three hundred and four hundred, brethren and sisters selling their plate and surplus furniture to provide the means for defraying the cost of such extension.”
As might be expected, these meetings greatly disturbed Mr. Venn. Fie preached a sermon against the “Brethren from Plymouth,” but despite every effort to hold his flock together he had the mortification of seeing the cream of his congregation forsaking his church, to gather with those brethren whose ministry he sought by speech and pamphlet to refute.
According to the testimony of William Seward, who passed away in 1908 after seventy years’ close association with the Movement at Hereford—almost from the first—it was not the apprehension of dispensational truth nor was it the knowledge of church truth which separated so many at that time from the Establishment, but rather the deep need for that spiritual teaching which many found in Captain Hall’s ministry.
The striking feature which from the start characterised the Brethren Movement, in that professional men and those of high social standing were among the first to be led out of the systems around them, was notably evident at Hereford. They were men who had gift for public ministry which their ecclesiastical position had hitherto suppressed, but now being brought out into liberty were exercised either in the way as pastors, teachers or evangelists. These Brethren now found scope for the exercise of the gifts which God had bestowed upon them, and on occasions would journey by horse and trap to neighbouring towns, as well as to the country villages, to preach the Gospel.
The young assembly at Hereford was visited by such men as J. N. Darby, the Hon. John Parnell and others who sought to establish the saints in the heavenly calling and hopes of the believer. Referring to Mr. Parnell’s visit to Hereford about this time, Henry Groves, in his
Memoir of Lord Congleton recalls one occasion when Captain Hall was confined to bed through illness and there was no one to take his place in the ministry of the Word. Mr. Parnell was asked to take the meeting, which, rather reluctantly, he did. Though possessed of some gift he was always diffident of his capabilities as a preacher. On this occasion his subject was the resurrection life, in connection with Romans 6 and Col. 3. “I had heard others speak on the same subject before,” relates one who was present, “and, as it appeared to me, more from the head than the heart; but when I heard him, though his style was rather peculiar, I felt at once here is something real and in the power of the Spirit; here is one who has first learnt of God and realised what he speaks in his own soul, and out of the fulness of the heart speaks to the hearts of others.” Thus, with such help, the good work received God’s smile and continued to prosper.
As we have already seen, amongst the company of believers at Hereford was William Yapp—remembered as the originator of the “Yapp” edged Bibles—a man of high spiritual character, whose love for the Lord’s work seemed to be unbounded. So zealous was he in the spread of the Gospel that at one time he kept five horses in his stables for use of brethren engaged in carrying the glad tidings to the country districts. In this work Mr. Yapp was greatly encouraged and helped by Dr. Griffiths, who was at that time the leading surgeon in the city. For long years the good doctor was remembered as the great tract distributor, often throwing the Gospel messages out of his carriage as he went his rounds, which were by no means confined to the city. Of a kind and benevolent disposition, Dr. Griffiths had a hospitable heart of love for the people of God, and it is said that whenever a gifted brother came along he would invite brethren to breakfast to meet him; and as on Lord’s Day many would come long distances—some walking miles for the purpose of remembering the Lord in the breaking of bread—the doctor would have a cold luncheon laid out in a large room in his house for any—rich and poor alike— who cared to partake of it.
When in 1848 trouble and dissension, the work of the enemy of souls, rent many a happy company of God’s children, Hereford was mercifully preserved from division. Two years later, however, a difference of opinion as to the necessity of a Gospel testimony on Lord’s Day evenings in preference to addresses to believers, resulted in an estrange- ment between Captain Hall and Dr. Griffiths. This unfortunate occurrence brought about the separation of those two brethren, the former taking with him a few who sympathised with his views. Captain Hall, who strongly advocated ministry meetings, was pre-eminently an expositor of the Word, while Dr. Griffiths was essentially a Gospel enthusiast. There is little doubt, however, that other causes were at the root of this unhappy division, but according to Mr. Seward, “this was the final cause which led to outward separation. Shortly afterwards Captain Hall adopted Mr. Darby’s view in the unfortunate Bethesda division, though in 1870 he had cause to separate from Mr. Darby owing to the latter’s teaching concerning the sufferings of Christ.”
In those days, before the passing of the Burial Act which secured for Nonconformists the right of burial within the precincts of a parish churchyard, Dr. Griffiths, in 1851, purchased a piece of ground which he vested in trustees, to be used as a burial-ground, not only for those in fellowship at Hereford, but also for those in the county. It was upon a portion of this ground that the present Barton Hall was subsequently built, when, at its opening, those in fellowship numbered over three hundred.
About this time there came to Hereford an Irishman whom we first introduced to the reader at Limerick, in company with Darby. His name was Thomas Maunsell. Like not a few of those early brethren, he came of good family. Educated for the Law, he was possessed of a mind of remarkable clearness, so that these trained habits of thought were made use of by the Spirit of God in the ministry of His Word. For thirty years Mr. Maunsell was indefatigable in his labours for the Lord in the Barton Hall Assembly, and he lived to see a new generation brought in during his period of ministry. In those days the morning meeting commenced at ten-thirty and lasted till nearly one o’clock, thus opportunity was afforded of consecutive ministry of the Word. This was felt desirable and needful in view of the distances many had to come to remember the Lord, and since it was their only opportunity of being instructed in the Scriptures. During the vicissitudes of a hundred years, the testimony at Hereford has continued unbroken, and though time and circumstances have wought many changes, the evangelistic spirit, a notable feature in the early days of the assembly’s history, is still kept alive by those whom God has chosen to bear aloft the banner of the glorious Gospel of the grace of God. Two have gone forth from its midst to regions beyond: Mr. William George to Central Africa and Mr. John Griffiths (who is still serving in the Gospel) to Algeria,
The history of Hereford Assembly has occupied considerable space in these pages. One reason for witing at some length in this particular instance is that it may, in a measure, give the reader an insight into the birth and building up of such assemblies in those early days. Not a few of our assemblies throughout the country had their origin and subsequent development on lines very similar to those of Hereford, which shall be seen as we proceed, although, for obvious reasons, it may not be thought expedient to enter too minutely into the details of each specific instance in the narrative of events.
In point of time we are far removed from those days when men of God, faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures and with the courage of their convictions, broke away from the bondage of ecclesiastical rule and established practices, that they might assemble themselves together in simple faith and lowliness of heart, as did the followers of our risen Lord in apostolic days. And yet in recent times there have been those, not only in our favoured centres of Bible teaching but in remote parts of the earth, with no one to point the way save the Holy Spirit Himself, who have been led to see the truth of believer’s baptism and the breaking of bread, as known and practised to-day by Christians obedient to the Word. A remarkable instance relative to this was communicated to the witer by Mr. A. Hamilton of Belfast, who received the story from the late Mr. T. McCall himself. Mr. McCall was an architect in Belfast and a member of a Baptist Church. Having received an appointment with the Canadian Pacific Railway, he, along with his wife, emigrated to Canada. They were situated at a lonely post many miles from the nearest place of worship. One bright Lord’s Day morning, after they had breakfasted together and the things were cleared from the table, the wife turned to her husband and said, “Tom, I would like to remember the Lord’s death to-day.” The husband, wishing to place a difficulty in her way, replied, “You cannot do that, dear, as we have no clergyman here.”
“There is no need for a clergyman,” was the rejoinder; “our Lord has said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Seeing he was defeated in this, Mr. McCall then raised the question of the wine. “There is a bunch of grapes, and I can soon make wine,” was his wife’s ready answer; and suiting the action to the word, she crushed the juice from the grapes into a tumbler, placed a loaf of bread on the table, saying as she did so, “You and I are two, Tom, so let us now claim His promise.” And they sat clown together and remembered the Lord’s death. The husband admitted that for the first time in his life he realised the truth and beauty of the Lord’s words in Matt. 18:20, and the simplicity of the order of meeting together in His name. This was the beginning of one of the largest meetings of Brethren in Montreal.
As we have seen, there went forth from Hereford many of the Lord’s servants to evangelise the districts round about. The town of Ross-on-Wye came within the province of those frequent expeditions. How the work began in this district has been related to the witer by Mr. James Metcalfe. But ere we proceed, it is necessary to go back to the early years of last century, for, as the mightiest rivers are traceable to a tiny spring far up the mountain track, even so the origin of this meeting may be traced to a seemingly unimportant event.
In the year 1815, a promising young naval lieutenant was stationed in the West Indies. One evening, while bent on the pursuit of some worldly pleasure, he happened to pass the open door of a house where a company of negroes were assembled. Hearing the voice of a man in earnest appeal, he stopped and listened. It was a poor illiterate negro telling out of the fulness of his heart God’s great love to sinners; love which reached out to all mankind, whether black or white, bond or free. What the young officer heard from that poor black man was the means of his foregoing the purpose of his evening revel, and he returned to his quarters disturbed by serious thoughts concerning the welfare of his soul.
Not long after this event, peace having been proclaimed throughout Europe, William G. Rhind—for such was his name—retired from the Navy, receiving the rank of captain, and returned to Plymouth where he took up residence. Happening one day to enter a place of worship in that town, where an aged servant of the Lord was preaching from the text: “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world,” he was led to the Saviour. Of the reality of his conversion, his subsequent life gave ample proof. He had a thought of entering the ministry of the Church of England, and with this object entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, but after three years’ diligent study there his health gave way, and he returned to Plymouth, where he took up his abode with his mother. He afterwards removed to London, and then to Ireland where he remained seven years. Returning to England in 1838, he settled in Hereford.
Having from conviction embraced the views held by those Christians who meet simply as brethren in Christ, Captain Rhind and his wife met every Lord’s Day with the company of believers at Bridge Street. Conscious that he was more particularly called to do the work of an evangelist, Captain Rhind did not long confine his labours to Hereford, but frequently visited other places, especially Ledbury and Ross. Those journeys were made on horseback. He also made excursions to various parts of the Kingdom, preaching to large and fashionable crowds at Cheltenham and other places. Of this courageous soldier of Christ it has been fitly witten: “A great personal soul-winner, whether by rail, coach or steamboat he would immediately present every one with a tract. This he called ‘Showing his colours at once.’”
In 1843, Captain Rhind became a resident in Ross-on-Wye, and the year following, mainly through his efforts, a room in Wilton Road was rented, when ten sat down to remember the Lord in apostolic simplicity. Very soon the room became too small, and as time went on over a hundred met in happy fellowship. The evening meetings were usually crowded, and it was now considered needful to enlarge the building. Captain Hall and others from Hereford frequently gave help in ministry and in the preaching of the Gospel. Seventeen years later it was decided to build a new hall, the number in fellowship, including a few small meetings which had been opened in the neighbouring villages, being one hundred and thirty. A commodious hall was built, but as the result of building operations by a local brewery firm the hall became sandwiched between their buildings. This incongruous position arising, it was felt desirable to make a change; therefore the hall was removed and rebuilt in Henry Street, and constitutes the present Gospel Hall
Early in the year 1870 there were brought to the Lord and added to the Ross Assembly three youths, still in their teens, who were destined in years to come to be of great help to the meeting at Ross, and the meetings in the surrounding villages. They were William Royce, Henry T. Blake and William J, Barter. An able minister of the Word, Mr. Royce was highly esteemed, not only in Bristol, where he spent the later years of his life, but throughout the West of England. Mr. Barter (the father of Mrs. Matthew Brown now in the mission field in India), possessed little gift as a speaker. His special ministry lay along other lines, and during his forty years’ connection with the Ross Assembly, to the time of his Home-call in 1912, he took a keen, practical interest in the activities of the Church. Mr. Blake, the last survivor of the trio, as a boy knew Captain Rhind, and appears to have caught much of his spirit.
Soon after their conversion, Mr. Blake and Mr. Royce had it laid upon their hearts to take up Sunday School work at Grove Common. This was before the days of easy and comfortable transit such as we enjoy to-day. Walking was their means of getting from one place to another, and no doubt they enjoyed the company of each other as they “talked by the way.” Having travelled some distance from their homes they were made welcome to tea at one of the cottages near the hall, spending the time between the Sunday School and the Gospel Meeting in visiting the cottages and distributing tracts.
About the year 1868 a cottage meeting was commenced in a house at Grove Common, a village about three miles distant from Ross-on-Wye, then occupied by a Christian couple named Mr. and Mrs. Minett. As numbers increased, the need of a more convenient place where the little company of believers might meet to remember the Lord, was felt, and prayer for guidance was sought. The answer came through Mr. Minett offering to provide a site for the meeting-room on ground which formed part of his garden.
The Fownhope Assembly—some eight or nine miles distant—were warmly interested in the work at Grove Common, and several of the brethren (one of whom was a builder) came over and gave their services free in the erection of the building. The meeting-room was built at least a mile from the Parish Church, and although many professed to belong to the Church of England, it was on rare occasions they were found attending any of the services. A prominent objector to the work being carried on at the Grove Common meeting-room was the Vicar of the parish. So long as the people went nowhere the Vicar did not appear to mind, but directly he heard they were attending this meeting-room the offenders were visited and warned that unless they returned to church, they would lose the right to derive benefit from certain charities left for the poor who attended that church. This weighed with some who had families and found difficulty in making ends meet. Others, however, would not be bought in this way and they left the church.
As an instance of the opposition which confronted the early brethren who laid the foundation of such gatherings of the Lord’s people, which in later days came into being through the indefatigable labours of those stalwarts of the faith, it may be of interest to recall an incident which took place previous to this time. Captain Rhind, along with his friend, Captain Percy Hall, were on one occasion holding an open-air meeting at Grove Common. Amongst those who gathered to hear what the strangers had to say were two men who had been engaged by a local farmer to collect all the eggs they could find from the Fold Yard near by, as ammunition to throw at those servants of God. So powerfully was the Gospel delivered, however, that as they stood listening, the arrow of conviction went home to the hearts of the two country men, and instead of carrying out their nefarious work, they returned to the farmer who had engaged them, and emptying their pockets of the eggs, told him to do the job himself, remarking in their broad Herefordshire dialect, “They be good words that the gentlemen speak.”
An active interest is still being taken in the Grove Common meeting, not only in the Gospel but in work among the children, a large farmhouse kitchen being used for this purpose.
About two miles beyond Grove Common, along the banks of the picturesque River Wye, is the village of Hoar-withy. The meeting-room there was formerly a congregational chapel which, becoming vacant, was acquired by two brethren who took steps to commence meetings, and God blessed their labours, many being added to their number.
Ballingham is another little village two miles from Hoarwithy on one of the many roads leading to Hereford from that point. There has been an assembly of believers in this place for over sixty years, the outcome of the faithful labours of brethren from the Hereford Assembly.
Though there are no witten records of its early church history, it is known that the Exeter Assembly dates from the first days of the Brethren Movement; in fact the place of worship in Northernhay Street, now known as Providence Chapel, was where most of those whom we have come to regard as leaders of the Movement, and whose names have now become familiar, ministered on several occasions. In later years, owing to the unhappy division, this property was sold to the Bible Christians. The interior of the building has undergone very little structural alteration since its erection, and anyone visiting the chapel to-day will at once observe that the seating accommodation is so arranged that the Table can be seen by all present.
Among the many prominent brethren associated with the Exeter Assembly, in addition to those alluded to elsewhere, may be mentioned Sir Alexander Campbell, H. W. Soltau, Col. Stafford, George Brealey (Founder of the Blackdown Hills Mission), Samuel Weford and Henry Dyer. It was at Exeter that A. N. Groves was converted through the influence of Miss Paget—a name associated in later years with R. C. Chapman and William Hake of Barnstaple— and as we have already seen, it was in this city that Mr. Groves for a number of years practised as a dental surgeon. His eldest son, Henry, one of the first editors of
Echoes of Service was born here.
Mention should also be made of the good work carried on by Dr. Heyman Weford, in connection with what was known as a Kelly meeting. For a long period he faithfully preached the Gospel in what was then the Victoria Hall, Queen Street, where crowds gathered to hear him, and, according to the testimony of those who remember those stirring times, it was not unusual to see an audience of one thousand people at the Sunday evening service. The work was abundantly owned of God, and it is no exaggeration to state that hundreds were led to the Saviour through his preaching. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to-day of those times, and up to recently the assembly met in a small upper room, previous to the present new hall being built. It was in the home of Dr. Weford at Exeter that William Kelly passed away. Mr. Kelly is remembered amongst brethren as the leader of a party which afterwards bore his name; but also, and more happily, by his witings, largely in the form of expositions of Scripture specially helpful as being at once profound and simple. He was also a textual critic of no mean order.
Previous to 1889, when the present Gospel Hall in Fore Street was built, the assembly held their meetings in a large room over the Lower Market. This building was destroyed by fire and the meeting was transferred for the time to the Athenaeum.
At the present time there are about three hundred believers in fellowship at Fore Street, where an aggressive work, especially amongst the young, is a notable feature of its Christian activities. This assembly has the care of two Sunday Schools—one at Druids’ Hall and the other at Cheeke Street Hall—comprising nearly six hundred children. The work in the latter hall began about seventy years ago.
Witing of those days, Samuel Blow, an evangelist whose labours in North Devon are still remembered, says in his
Reminiscences: “It was in 1866 I first met Mr. H. W. Soltau of Exeter. I had been holding Gospel services in Bitton Street Meeting Room, Teignmouth, the old chapel where George Müller ministered before he went to reside at Bristol. Mr. Soltau used to come to Teignmouth occasionally where he conducted Bible readings in a lady’s house, and it was there I first met him. He gave me a cordial welcome to Exeter and believing it to be the will of God I went. We had meetings in the Athenaeum, Bedford Circus and in Cheeke Street Schoolroom, The latter place had been recently secured for Gospel testimony. It had been used as a kind of low casino, and was the resort of the most vile and
profligate. There was still at the farther end of the hall a small gallery where the musicians used to sit and fiddle while the company danced. Mr. Soltau secured it for the Gospel and a quick end was thus made of all the work of the Devil. In this place we had frequent free teas, preaching the Gospel to those gathered, and it became the birthplace of very many precious souls.”
Since then these activities have continued steadily almost without a break, which has resulted in many young people being brought to the Lord, who afterwards were received into fellowship at the Gospel Hall. Thus to a great extent the work amongst the young at Cheeke Street Hall has resulted in this testimony becoming the main artery which has, during those years, fed the parent assembly.
Soon after occupation of these premises a baptistry was placed in this little hall, and here, previous to the erection of Fore Street Hall, many hundreds of believers passed through the waters of baptism.
It was in this hall, in 1872, that George Müller opened a day school which was continued for over twenty years.
Amongst the pioneers in Cheeke Street Assembly were Mr. Soltau’s family, who laboured earnestly until they left Exeter in 1870. During his residence at Exeter Mr. Soltau was a tower of strength, not only to the little assembly at Cheeke Street, which ever claimed his constant thought’ and care, but to the many gatherings of the Lord’s people in the neighbourhood. Trained for the Bar, Mr. Soltau relinquished his profession, soon after his conversion (which came about through the preaching of Captain Percy Hall), and went to live at Plymouth, where he became associated with the company of Christians who, as we have seen, came together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit five years previously.
As in the case of not a few men of good family and position who at that time left the Established Church to cast in their lot with the despised Brethren, Mr. Soltau suffered much in the severing of many family ties, but though the loss and pain sustained were considerable, yet he esteemed “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.” He was indeed a Valiant for the Truth, and there were few villages in Devon and the adjacent counties which did not hear the sound of his voice proclaiming the glad tidings of the Gospel of peace.
In 1851 Mr. Soltau left Plymouth, and for some years he and his wife resided at Exmouth and Northam, near Bideford. It was in 1861 that he went to live at Exeter, and it was from here that many of his witings, by which he is more widely known, went forth. In 1870, when his health was failing, Mr. Soltau removed to Barnstaple, where the closing days of his life were spent in sweet fellowship with his devoted friend, Robert C. Chapman. Mr. Soltau was a diligent Bible student, a fearless Gospel preacher and an able expositor of the Word. His addresses were not only concise and full of suggestive matter but remarkably trenchant and effective. “As I listened,” wote one who sat under his teaching, “each word seemed to fail like a hammer, leaving a lasting impression…I frequently came across persons who had been converted while listening to him preaching in the open-air or at river-side baptisms.”
Besides Fore Street meeting there are now three other assemblies existing in Exeter, the result of the work of the parent assembly, the first to be established being Buller Road, St. Thomas.
About the year 1883, a number of Christians residing in the St. Thomas district, and who attended Market Hall, Fore Street, were led to commence a Gospel testimony in their own locality, so they hired a small meeting-room known as Gray’s Buildings, Cowick Street. The work began with Gospel Services on Lord’s Day evenings and Bible Readings in the afternoons. A few years later it was decided to gather on the first day of the week to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread, and to establish an assembly in that neighbourhood. Amongst those who came together were some who had a heart for the young, and whose special ministry lay along these lines. Thus a Sunday School was commenced, with encouraging results. Meanwhile the numbers attending the services increased to such an extent that the meeting-place at Gray’s Buildings was found to be too small, and after much prayer the present Gospel Hall in Buller Road was built. This was about the year 1896.
Simultaneous with the first meeting held in Gray’s Buildings about fifty years ago, a few believers had a desire to witness for the Lord in the district of Heavitree, and a small house in Alpha Street was converted into a meeting-room. Regular meetings were commenced, followed by aggressive work amongst children and believers met for the Breaking of Bread until 1906, when the assembly removed to the building which it now owns and occupies, known as Ebenezer Gospel Hall. At the present time there are over seventy believers in fellowship, with a Sunday School of a hundred, and a weekly Mothers’ Meeting of about a hundred members.
Whipton is a village which is now linked with Exeter, and Christian work has been carried on there intermittently for many years. At the beginning of the present century H. E. Marsom and his wife, then in fellowship with the Fore Street Assembly, conducted weekly meetings for children in the farmhouse of A. G. Alford. After an interval of some years, children’s work was again begun in the village by the formation of a Sunday School. After the War, when council houses were built in the district, the school greatly increased in size and the farmhouse became unsuitable for the work, so the meetings were held in a hired public building called the Institute. In 1928 the Chapelfield Hall was built by Mr. Alford and the work was transferred from the Institute to the new hall. Here the little assembly meet on the first day of the week for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and for the ministry of the Word. A notable feature of the assembly’s activities is the continued interest among the young people of the district, there being a prosperous Sunday School of two hundred children.
Robert Chapman and Barnstaple
In the narrative of events relative to the early days of Barnstaple Meeting, one name will always be associated not only with its beginnings, but with the subsequent history of this assembly of Christians—the honoured name of Robert Cleaver Chapman. It was a visit in 1831 to this old-time Devonshire town that led to Mr. Chapman, the following year, taking up his abode there. He had not yet reached his thirtieth birthday when an invitation came, desiring him to leave London—where ten years previously he had found the Saviour through the preaching of James Harrington Evans—to minister the Word in Ebenezer Chapel, a place of worship at that time occupied by a community of strict Baptists. Conscious of the Holy Spirit’s leading, and with a desire to serve his Master in this new sphere, Mr. Chapman consented, naming one condition only—that he should be quite free to teach all he found witten in the Scriptures.
That Robert Chapman had by this time closely studied and faithfully sought to follow the teaching of God’s Word is shewn by an incident which occurred early in his Christian experience. Soon after his conversion he was led to see that it was the will of God that believers should be baptized, and he at once called upon Harrington Evans expressing a strong desire to obey the Lord’s command. Mr. Evans, happy in the thought that the young convert had been studying his Bible, and no doubt seeking to test his sincerity in the step he was about to take, advised Mr. Chapman to wait a little while and further consider the matter. “No,” was the ready reply, “I will make haste and delay not to keep His commandments.”
When Mr. Chapman was led of God to take up service for Him in the town of Barnstaple and the district around, there was no assembly of Christians known as “Brethren.” A small company of believers had separated from the Baptists for some unknown reason, led by a Mr. Miller, owner of a lace factory, and a man of considerable wealth, who was largely responsible for the building of the Ebenezer Chapel in Vicarage Street. To this assembly of Christians known as “Close Baptists” Mr. Chapman found his way, and was welcomed for the spiritual help he was able to give through the ministry of the Word of God.
The charm and grace which characterised this saintly man—a charm and grace which we might well strive to emulate—up to the closing days of his long life, were unmistakably manifest at the very commencement of his Christian career.
It is a remarkable circumstance that the very year in which Robert Chapman went to Barnstaple with one purpose in view, and that to seek to learn and carry out what he found to be the will of God, George Müller and Henry Craik, who had just arrived in Bristol, were pursuing almost similar lines of thought which, as we have already seen, had such far-reaching results. Thus, though acting independently and unknown to one another, these brethren were being led in the path of obedience and in humble subjection to God’s will according to the Scriptures.
As might well be supposed, this new form of things at Barnstaple, which ran counter to the most exalted ideas of church usage, though unpalatable to a few, had the effect of sending thoughtful Christians to their Bibles. The upshot was that the Christians meeting in Ebenezer Chapel found they could no longer continue to remain in association with the Close Baptists, the trust deeds of the chapel also would forbid such action. This led the way to the erection of the hall in Grosvenor Street, a commodious building with seating accommodation for over four hundred people. Nor did the Lord forget His faithful followers, for in a remarkably short time all the money necessary for the erection and equipment of the hall came directly in answer to prayer.
A letter witten by Mr. Chapman sixty years later gives some insight into the early days at Barnstaple, and reveals to the reader the grace and patience which characterised his every action, “When I came to this place,” he wites, “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 and 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.”
It was at Grosvenor Street Hall that Robert Chapman ministered the Word with the assistance of others, especially in those early days by Henry Heath and William Hake, the latter being Mr. Chapman’s yoke-fellow for many years. The able ministry of these gifted brethren drew together a large number of people, several coming in from various denominations in the town and district. Thus many conversions took place, and believers were added from the Established Church, with the result that a membership of about four hundred continued for some years.
The meeting for ministry and Gospel testimony was held each Lord’s Day morning, when the building was usually filled to its utmost capacity. In the afternoon, Sunday School and Bible Class work was carried on, and in the evening believers gathered to remember the Lord in the “Breaking of Bread,” the meeting lasting from six-thirty to eight o’clock. “On those memorable occasions,” wites E. S. Pearce, the intimate friend and companion of Mr. Chapman in his later years, “the hall was generally crowded, and the power and presence of God deeply felt.”
From many parts of the world servants of the Lord were drawn in a peculiar way to Barnstaple and the humble abode of Robert Chapman at No. 9 New Buildings, where there was ever a loving welcome. An entry in the diary of A. N. Groves, under date 4th October 1852, refers to a visit to Barnstaple, which proved to be his last, for this saintly man, who had just returned from his life’s work in the foreign field broken in health, died a few months later. He wites: “There was a meeting at Bear Street, and I accompanied her (Miss Paget, an old and devoted friend) though tired and shaken with my journey from Ilfracombe. I slept at dear Robert Chapman’s, and they were all most affectionately kind. This morning we had a nice meeting…7th October—I went out to breakfast with the Soltaus, and there I met with T. Hull, full of affection and kindness, and we had a most happy morning. I do trust the Lord was with us to desire a fuller measure of Christian communion, and a
temper to bear with one another in our individuality of judgment. We had a most happy prayer meeting before we parted.”
The work in Barnstaple town continues, but owing to various causes, principally deaths and removals, the assembly membership has decreased in recent years. There has, however, emanated from this meeting, mainly through the ministry and Gospel testimony of Robert Chapman and Robert Gribble, a large number of gatherings of the Lord’s children in the villages of North Devon. Many interesting accounts associated with those days have been left on record, of which the following is an instance worthy of recounting here. It is the story of how the assembly at the village of Chittlehamholt, eighteen miles distant from Barnstaple, came into being. Mrs. Crawford, a Barnstaple woman, whilst listening to Mr. Chapman’s preaching in the old Ebenezer Chapel, was convicted of sin and led to the Saviour. The husband of this woman was greatly opposed to the Gospel and threatened that should she go back to these services he would come and fetch her out of the chapel. He came, but could go no farther than the entrance, where he remained and listened while Mr. Chapman was preaching. Arrested by what he heard, the man went home deeply concerned about his soul. On the return of his wife from the meeting he demanded to know what she had been saying to Mr. Chapman about him. “About you!” was the surprised reply, “Why, I said nothing, of course.” “But you must have,” the husband insisted, “for I listened outside and Mr. Chapman was talking about me all the time.”
This ended in the man’s conversion to God. Soon afterwards, on hearing of Mr. Chapman’s desire to walk the eighteen miles to the village of Chittlehamholt to preach in the open-air, the new convert begged to accompany the preacher, so that Mr. Chapman might not be molested by those whom Crawford knew were bitterly opposed to the Gospel. Being well-known through his constant visits on business in his unconverted days, Crawford proved a living witness to the power of the Gospel in changing his life.
The outcome of this visit, with others that followed, was the conversion of a number of those men, who were eventually baptized by Mr. Chapman in the River Taw. Not long afterwards a hall was built and an assembly formed which continues to this day.
The story of Weston-super-Mare goes back to the early sixties, or perhaps earlier, when a few Christian believers gathered together on Scriptural lines in a small hall in Meadow Street. It was not, however, till the year 1866, following an evangelistic mission by Lord Radstock, that any real development took place. Earl Cavan was residing in the neighbourhood at this time, and it was on his invitation that Lord Radstock came to Weston. The meetings were held in the Assembly Room, and continued for several months, resulting in a remarkable work of grace such as had never before been experienced in Weston.
Almost from the start of the mission, people in considerable numbers flocked to hear the preaching nobleman, and many, including men belonging to the professional and educated class, were brought into the Kingdom. Among the converts was one who, in after years, was notably used in carrying the Gospel into almost inaccessible places in Eastern Europe as well as to isolated posts across the vast continent of Asia. His name was Frederick W. Baedeker. Through the influence of a Christian military officer, Dr. Baedeker was prevailed upon to attend the Gospel services. Alluding to that never-to-be-forgotten night of his conversion, the Doctor afterwards said: “I went in a proud German infidel, and I came out a humble, believing disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Baedeker made Weston-super-Mare his home, and except during the periods of his long and arduous excursions across the two continents he was to be found diligently sowing the seed and feeding the flock on the green pastures on the southern shore of the Bristol Channel, where he continued until his Home-call in 1906 at the ripe age of eighty-three.
In addition to the Earl of Cavan and Dr. Baedeker, brethren associated with the assembly who contributed to the spiritual development of the Church, were: Thomas Newberry, Colonel Minchen, General Rice, Judge Wylie, General Cookson, Douglas Russell, John Orr Ewing and others whose names, though unrecorded here, shall receive a worthier record more durable than the printed page.
The name of Thomas Newberry is remembered in association with his monumental work,
The Englishman’s Bible the result of many years’ diligent study and searching of the Scriptures in original Hebrew and Greek languages. Newberry’s Bible—as it is known—is highly prized by Bible students, and is regarded by some as an inestimable “help” for enabling the ordinary reader to discern the beauties of the original Scriptures.
In the history of Weston-super-Mare Assembly many notable men, prominent amongst people called Brethren, sojourned there, bequeathing to this treasure-house of God spiritual riches, the fragrance of which still lingers around the memory of those stalwarts of the faith.
An unbroken testimony, attended by the ingathering of many souls, has continued these seventy years, and at the present time the assembly, now gathering in the Gospel Hall, Waterloo Street, has a membership of one hundred and thirty believers.