Chapter Six Encouragements and difficulties

Mr. Pugsley, Chapman’s relative, was so impressed by Chapman’s example that not long after he was converted he had given up his profession and had settled in the country outside Barnstaple, in a district where he felt there was a crying need for the Gospel. He, however, did not feel it necessary to give away his private fortune as Chapman had done, but devoted it to the Lord’s work, and lived himself as simply as possible. The work which he carried on was closely linked with “Ebenezer” and with Mr. Chapman’s name. It covered a number of tiny hamlets which were then spiritually dark. Three chapels had sprung up in the neighbourhood, at Eastacombe, Hiscott and Lovacott. At that time they had Baptist connections, but today they are Brethren assemblies. It is noteworthy that Mr. Charles Shepherd, who took a considerable share in the work of the chapels after Pugsley’s death, eventually left the district to succeed James Harrington Evans at John Street where Chapman had been converted. One of the places in Pugsley’s neighbourhood was called Tawstock. Here the Wreys, a distinguished family with an ancient baronetcy, have a beautiful estate. The antique church, nestling beneath Tawstock Court, is full of well-preserved monuments to the ancestors of the Wreys. Sometimes members of the family have been rectors of the parish. It therefore caused widespread comment when one of the members of this family—a daughter of the rector himself—was baptized by Mr. Chapman. This happened within twelve months of his arrival in Barnstaple. His culture and gracious bearing commended him to people of all classes. He never sought the patronage of the wealthy or influential, but he did seek to bring them to a knowledge of salvation. With Pugsley living in the neighbourhood of the Wrey estate, contact with the family had been made possible, and Miss Wrey had seen her position as a sinner before God. Trusting Christ in simple faith for salvation, she had experienced the new birth and, in consequence, though she knew that her decision would set tongues wagging and make her father’s position difficult, she had felt bound to ask for baptism.

It was a remarkable scene that was enacted on the day of her baptism. She stood on the banks of the river, side by side with a farmer’s son who was to be baptized on the same occasion. As she stood there she could look up over the woods and pastures of the Wrey estate, and she was conscious of the curious eyes on either bank, for many had come to see the rector’s daughter baptized. When the simple service was over, Chapman went back to Barnstaple convinced that the work of God in Mr. Pugsley’s neighbourhood had been helped forward by the events of that day. And undoubtedly they were, for Miss Wrey’s conversion made many think seriously, whilst the farmer’s son—George Lovering—carried on Christian work for over thirty years in North Devon, founding chapels at Swim-bridge, Atherington, and Little Hill.

Another man who came under the influence of Chapman was Henry Heath. He was probably affected by Miss Wrey’s example, for he was the young schoolmaster at Tawstock school. This school is one of the most delightful features of Tawstock, being thatched and whitewashed. It is situated by a stream beneath a wooded slope, between the village and old rectory. Henry Heath was twenty-four when he first came into contact with Chapman in 1839, and his talents seemed to demand something better than a village schoolmastership. The school was associated with Tawstock Church, and he was studying for Holy Orders. Chapman invited him to attend the weekly Bible readings held in New Buildings. Each week he walked into the town, his mind filled with the truths he had heard the previous week. His eyes opened rapidly to the true importance of the Bible. He had previously regarded it as a theological work to be studied simply in an academic way. But now it became a living Book to his soul—the very Word of God. An intimate friendship sprang up between the two young men. For some years Henry Heath worked readily with Pugsley and Chapman. Then in 1848 he removed to Hackney. There he was enabled to accomplish a great work for the Lord. He was in fact one of the richest prizes Chapman won for Christ, for his after-life showed him to be a gifted and consecrated teacher and pastor.

One of Chapman’s greatest friends-had settled near the neighbouring town of Bideford. William Hake was a cultured man and a friend of Anthony Norris Groves and George Müller. He came from Exeter. Chapman and he had met for the first time at Barnstaple in the year before Chapman’s settling at “Ebenezer.” So when Chapman came to Barnstaple he wrote and urged Hake to come and share the ministry there with him. This Hake felt unable to do, but they were both delighted when Hake moved to Bideford and carried on a school at a house called “Tus-culum” (now “Wellesbourne”) in Limer’s Lane. Chapman loved to take the ten-mile walk to his friend’s house, for they were both lovers of Scripture, each desiring to do all the Lord’s will.

The keenness of Chapman to have a gifted colleague in the work at “Ebenezer” is easy to understand when we realize that he was anxious to move away from the conventional “one-man” ministry. He felt that if there were two men of gift from the start, the position would be more clearly understood by everyone, and the Lord would raise up others to minister with them. It was in this spirit that Müller and Craik went jointly to Bristol. But this was not the Lord’s will at Barnstaple at that time, and Chapman had the difficult task of waiting for the gifts to appear, and then encouraging their exercise. And it was a difficult task; for mere speaking, and speaking to edify, are different things. Whereas the gifted were sometimes slow to exercise their gifts, the ungifted were by no means so reticent. Yet prayer, patience and loving dealing carried the church through such difficulties, and the pattern of local ministry emerged. It is true that whenever a specially gifted man appeared he almost invariably was called to full-time work elsewhere. This happened, as we have seen, to Henry Heath. It also happened to William Bowden and George Beer. But the Spirit of God did not leave the assembly. Yet a dark shadow fell on that little company at “Ebenezer.”

A few discontented Strict Baptists who had withdrawn from Mr. Chapman’s ministry and attempted unsuccessfully to set up a work in opposition, were bent on causing trouble. They declared that the chapel was built for the use of Strict Baptists, and that, since the original principles had been departed from, Mr. Chapman and the others had no legal right to continue to worship there.

With his legal training Chapman could soon clarify the position. He obtained the Trust Deed and examined it clause by clause. Strange to say it did not enforce the old Strict rule, and nothing in it prevented the practice of what are now known as Brethren principles. He could therefore have carried on in “Ebenezer” for the rest of his life, and the Barnstaple Brethren might then have continued to meet there until the present day. None the less, he determined not to allow this difficult position, which was so liable to misconstruction, to remain unaltered. It should never be said, though unjustly, that he had obtained possession of the chapel by cunning. The difficulty was to find a suitable site on which a new chapel could be built.

At that time the tan-yard at the end of New Buildings was for sale, together with a field adjoining. This seemed an ideal site. One end opened on to a main street of the town, and the other end was a few yards from Mr. Chapman’s door in “Derby.” A chapel built on this plot would easily be accessible from either direction. Accordingly, Mr. Chapman entered into negotiations with the owner of the ground and, an agreement having been reached, the deposit was paid.

But the Established Church had a plan for incorporating the “Derby” district into a new parish, and building a church in a central position. The church authorities had had an eye on this site, which was ideal for their purpose, but they had failed to act. When it was known that Mr. Chapman had secured a legal right to the ground they regretted their tardiness. Hearing of this, Mr. Chapman laid the whole position before the Lord. He was led in his reading to Philippians 4, 5, which, literally translated, reads: “Let your yieldingness be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” Believing this to be a message from God, he gave up his right to the ground and the church authorities were able to proceed with their plan. The Church of St. Mary Magdalene, which was built on this site, was later the scene of some good evangelical work, including that of the Rev. Cunningham Geikie, author of “The Life and Words of Christ.”

It seems that the assembly left “Ebenezer” before they had any alternative permanent accommodation. It is likely that they met for a time in some public hall in the town. But the evidence concerning this period seems to be lost. Certainly it was no easy matter to find a site for the projected chapel in a suitable part of the town, but the question was not one which troubled Mr. Chapman and his friends greatly. They were convinced that God was with them, and would lead them to the right place eventually. And their faith was justified by the event.