It was a twenty-four hour journey from London to Barnstaple in 1832. As Chapman neared his journey’s end he could see the town stretched out beneath him on a bend of the River Taw. It was practically flat, for it had been built on a marsh within a basin of hills. The steeple of the parish church rose above the jumble of crooked roofs which made up the old town. He could tell by the ships’ masts where were the Great and Little Quays, Castle Quay, and Mill End Quay. The enclosing hills were fresh and green, for it was April, but many of the little streets and alleys were dirty and unhealthy.
His first task on arriving in the town was to obtain lodgings. He walked down the pot-holed High Street, looking for some likely side street. There were hotels and boarding-houses, but nothing simple enough for his wants. At last, when he was approaching the far end of High Street, he saw a tiny alley on the left-hand side. It was called Gammon Lane and here he found clean, cheap quarters in a tiny cottage, right in the shadow of the old workhouse.
The following Sunday he preached at “Ebenezer.” It was a new building standing in a small burial ground in Vicarage Street. The site is now occupied by a workshop and three red-brick cottages, and the burial ground has been taken into an adjoining garden. In the nine years since the erection of the chapel no fewer than four ministers had come and gone, so that Chapman had undertaken no desirable task. There were obviously some people there who always made it uncomfortable for a pastor after the novelty of his ministry had worn off.
If Chapman presented no remarkable figure in the pulpit at the beginning of his ministry in Barnstaple, he certainly made an impact upon the hearts of the townsfolk by his tireless visitation and personal work. Day after day he worked up and down the narrow streets of the town. Whenever occasion offered he would be down at the workhouse, holding a service, or talking to the inmates about the things of God. And what a need there was for Gospel work in the town—especially in the district of “Derby” where his chapel lay. This network of miserable little streets had sprung up by a lace factory at the other end of Vicarage Street. The lace industry had come to Barnstaple at the end of the previous century. A Mr. Boden from Derby had opened the factory, and this was why the district had been nicknamed “Derby.” The lace manufactured here was much admired, and in later years obtained a very wide sale. But like many other beautiful products of the time, it was made by people who lived under appalling conditions. As Chapman moved in and out of their poor dwellings his heart bled for these miserable, thriftless wretches who dragged out a weary existence in the dismal streets of “Derby.”
Day after day he witnessed drunken brawls, for drink was the great evil of the place. Over eighty fully licensed houses existed in this small town of seven thousand inhabitants. Everywhere he found “Tiddlywink shops,” or beer-houses, which required no magistrate’s licence. In fact in some streets he noted that almost every other house sold beer. Conditions were aggravated by the fact that licensed houses were allowed to keep open all night, whilst there was only one policeman, backed up occasionally by two overburdened beadles, to keep an eye on the whole town. Such conditions provided a stirring challenge to the faith of the young pastor. He pressed on, and saw conversions.
One Sunday a tall, well-built, open-faced young fellow of twenty was in the congregation. His name was William Bowden, and the Spirit of God spoke very definitely to his soul. He saw that Christ had died for his sins and he accepted the Divine offer of mercy. Chapman was wonderfully cheered to witness a genuine change in his life.
Eliza Gilbert, the girl who had been converted in the Almshouses at Pilton during Chapman’s holiday visit, was one of the most faithful attendants at “Ebenezer.” She came to Chapman one day and told him that she wished to be baptized. “But my mother declares that when I go out of the house to the service it will be to leave home for the last time,” she explained. Despite this threat the service was arranged.
When the day arrived there was great rejoicing at “Ebenezer” at the faithfulness of the young woman. As the congregation broke up, many eyes followed her as she walked home. They saw her turn into Rackfield House and wondered what would be her reception. In a few moments she was out again. The sight of her wet hair had infuriated her mother who now stood on the threshold barring her entrance, and cried, “Go away. Never come back. I’ll have no dissenters in this house.”
Friends at the chapel promptly received the young woman into their own home. But she found it hard to be cut off from her mother’s love. Months passed and she became very ill, and the doctors thought she would die. Under these circumstances her mother gave instructions that she was to be brought back to her old home and given the best of attention, but she added: “I do not wish to see her.” So for three years an amazing situation existed in which Eliza lay in her bedroom without once being visited by her mother. Once a week, on Friday mornings, Mr. Chapman was allowed to visit her. At these times her mother went out to avoid meeting him, leaving someone else in charge of the house. The front door was left ajar as a sign to him that the coast was clear, and he walked straight in. Though he could not call more often than once a week he was permitted to write. Here is an extract of one of his letters to Eliza:
“My Dear Sister—Grace and peace be unto you. God has given you suffering in the body, but your pain and weakness are blessed, for Christ is yours and you are His. How great the blessing—redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of the grace of God. Let us but keep this in view, this perfect eternal redemption, and all is well. Then has patience her perfect work, and we submit to the hand of God, not because we cannot resist, but because God is love and is our Heavenly Father… He can now succour us by His power, grace and compassion. He knoweth how to do this. There is none like Him to feel with us, and it is our cordial to think upon this. Christ not only binds up our wounds, but makes our wounds His own. Then shall we not say, Show Thyself our Kinsman, our Priest, and do with us, Lord, as Thou wilt?
Your affectionate brother and servant in the Gospel,
Robt. C. Chapman.”
Eventually, however, Eliza made a remarkable recovery. Other members of her family were saved under Mr. Chapman’s ministry. But her mother continued to hate him. “I hope the chapel will fall on his head!” she would exclaim. Yet, such is the longsuffering of the Lord, even she herself was converted through the witness of him whom she regarded as her enemy, but not until she was past eighty.
A considerable number of young people were added to the church in the opening years of Chapman’s ministry. Among them was a young man named George Beer. He and William Bowden became fast friends and engaged together in Christian witness in the district. It must have been a great thrill to the young pastor to have in his congregation two such devoted enthusiasts. They eagerly drank in his expositions of Scripture and grew rapidly in grace. Separation from the world and practical holiness of living were constantly stressed by Chapman as being essentials of the Christian life. He gave due prominence to doctrine, but he kept coming back to the need for good works to accompany faith. He commonly exhorted his hearers to become “doers of the word and not hearers only.”
From the start Chapman urged believers to get out into the open-air with their message. And this sense of the value of outdoor witness remained with him to the end of his life. One of the very rare photographs of him shows him as an old man standing at an open-air meeting. Some thoughtful brother (or was it a sister?) had brought along a mat for him to stand on, for it had been raining. Nothing except the clear Will of God could keep him away from such a meeting. When in those early days at Barnstaple he discovered that people would not come in to hear the Gospel, he took it out to them, and refused to heed those who suggested that if he preached the Word in the chapel on a Sunday his responsibility was at an end.
It was a special joy to him to see Bowden and Beer giving themselves wholeheartedly to this open-air work. They soon proved themselves efficient speakers who could hold the attention of their audiences. They preached in the streets of “Derby,” exposing themselves to ridicule and sometimes to physical violence. Often they would walk out to the villages in the neighbourhood and declare boldly the good tidings of the grace of God. In one or two of these villages there were Strict Baptist causes which were favourable to the movement of the Spirit which was evident at Ebenezer Chapel. In others there was no real Gospel witness at all, and here cottage meetings began to spring up. In this way were laid the foundations of that considerable circuit of village causes which centres upon Barnstaple, and which is so closely linked with Mr. Chapman’s name.