The founding of North Bradley Baptist Church

Nov. 5th 1775

It is usually on the first Sunday in November that the Church celebrates its anniversary, and looking back it appears that the first Sunday of November 1775, the year the Church began, was the 5th of November. This was likely the occasion of this Church’s first public meeting as a newly incorporated body. What a day that must have been for them all.

Of course November 5th held, as it does today, the other significance of being the celebration of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, perpetrated by Guy Fawkes and Co. Back in 1775, Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, was called Gunpowder Treason Day, or to Colonialists in British America, Pope Day, because of the burning of his effigy.

Soon after the plot was uncovered in 1605, the British Parliament had the day made a public Day of Thanksgiving. Church attendance was made compulsory on November 5th, and special services were written into the Book of Common Prayer for the observance of the holiday. Following is the introduction to the Parliamentary Bill, which you will note is infused with Christian language and Protestant zeal, so as to be hardly comparable to anything one would hear or say in Parliament today. It also gives us some insight into the kind of themes the sermons contained when preached on Gunpowder Treason Day thereafter.

Forasmuch as almighty God hath in all ages showed his power and mercy in the miraculous and gracious deliverance of his church, and in the protection of religious kings and states, and that no nation of the earth hath been blessed with greater benefit than this kingdom now enjoyeth, having the same true and free profession of the gospel under our most gracious sovereign lord King James, the most great learned and religious king that ever reigned therein, enriched with a most helpful and plentiful progeny proceeding out of his royal loins promising continuance of this happiness and profession to all posterity: the which many malignant and devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests much envying and fearing, conspired most horribly, when the king’s most excellent majesty, the queen, the prince, and the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, should have been assembled in the upper house of Parliament upon the fifth day of November in the year of our lord 1605 suddenly to have blown up the said house with gunpowder, an invention so inhuman, barbarous and cruel, as the like was never before heard of.

So, the day was to be a day to celebrate the Lord’s protection over this Island’s Protestant Monarchy, and to decry the machinations of the Papacy. However, by 1775 it was no longer celebrated as it had been in the seventeenth century when it had been the predominant English state celebration. Those days saw vast expenditure on lavish preparations. There were fireworks of course, signifying evil spirits released against England by her enemies, and tonnes of gunpowder were exploded in re-enactments to emphasise the potential enormity of the disaster had not God intervened, plus cunningly made effigies of the devil himself and his agents to be burnt on fires as if they were hell. One such effigy was filled with live cats to add grotesque sound effects!

By the eighteenth century, the social, political, and spiritual climate had changed and the day had become just one of many public holidays. It had been reduced to a day of polite entertainment for gentle folk, and rioting, binge drinking, and setting off firecrackers for the rougher sorts, which at that time were numerous due to the great social upheavals of that century. Only perhaps among the devoutly religious might there have been more zealous connections. In the year 1775, the 5th falling on a Sunday I suspect sabbatarian views would have ruled out absolutely anything other than gathering for worship for those first members, on their first Sunday as separatists. No fireworks, no fires, but I have no doubt a sermon would have been preached, and preached with passion.

 1775 you will remember, was well within the boundaries of perhaps the greatest era of preaching in this country as exemplified by those towering Church of England Methodists – Whitfield, Wesley, Harris and so on, all of whom had been active in this area of the country. This was a season of great revival and spiritual awakening. Evangelist Thomas Olivers, author of the hymn ‘The God of Abraham praise’, at that time was living in Bradford on Avon only a few miles from North Bradley. He was Wesley’s assistant, editing his Arminian magazine. The Countess of Huntingdon, that great sponsor of the evangelical faith, spent much time at nearby Bath, Whitfield was particularly active in Bristol though he died in 1770 before this Church was founded, and Wesley’s first open air sermon had been preached to the colliers at Kingswood only a few miles away.

I do find myself wondering if those first members deliberately chose November 5th as the date of commencement in order to appropriate some of the significance of that day to their own new venture. To identify themselves as defenders of the true and free profession of the gospel which those seventeenth century parliamentarians had so espoused. Of course, it may have been pure coincidence, down to the length of time lawyers had taken to draw up deeds etc. But even so, the date could not have been lost on them.

However, in 1775, those first Members who attended Church here, did not come to hear the Prayer Book read. Though the occasion of Guy Fawkes night had inbuilt into it a celebration of Protestant monarchy, they came out that day to begin a congregation without Prayer Book, or Lord’s Spiritual presiding, nor with their King, King George III, as its supreme governor. They did this at a time when their King was facing the greatest challenge of his reign since in July of that year his American colonies with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves. America was in arms fighting towards a republican and democratic future, and in their own small way, the Baptists of North Bradley were also severing their ties with the crown, at least as far as their Churchmanship went. Their new constitution was decidedly democratic.

This was no small step, since only days before that first service, on October 26th 1775, at the opening of Parliament, George III declared the American revolutionaries to be traitors. Treason of course being the same crime that Guy Fawkes had been accused of and found guilty. George III called for all America prisoners of war to be transported to England to face trial, and if found guilty to face the same punishment which Fawkes a hundred and seventy years before had suffered – hanging (though Fawkes was also drawn and quartered.) Once again Britain was facing treason. So by November 5th 1775 there were strong political reasons to celebrate a patriotic occasion with renewed zeal, as the print of Guy Fawkes Night celebrated at Windsor Castle in 1776 by Paul Sandby shows from the following year (the image at the top of this page), yet the first members here at North Bradley, chose on this day to leave the King’s Church.

While they sat there in their pews to worship, in the Tower of London was a man named Stephen Sayre, languishing at the King’s pleasure. Sayre was an American, a prominent member of the American community in London, a friend of the Lord Mayor, and a distinguished man about town. He had been arrested on Oct. 23rd to great public outcry, and accused of plotting to kidnap George III three days later when he went to open the Parliament. The charge was that he intended to take advantage of pro-American sympathies among the London mob, tired of Georgian tyranny, and hopeful of more enlightened government. He was then to ply them with arms, and spirit the King firstly into the Tower of London, and then send him back in exile to Hanover where his family had originally come from. Sayre was afterwards freed, as the whole matter it seemed, turned out to be some kind of elaborate hoax, but on 5th November 1775, a traitor in the likeness of Fawkes, was actually being held in the Tower!

It is true that the Americans had many sympathisers who were determined to re-establish the Republic here in Britain. Rome after all had been a republic and flourished. A state without King, ruled by democracy, where all men were equal, and common sense prevailed, and virtue was the public ideal. These ideas it was widely believed, were promoted in Scripture, and should be practiced in Church, and State – the position many dissenters, including Baptists had been espousing for nearly two centuries. England you will remember had already toyed with republican government between 1649 – 1660 when the Cromwells ruled as Protectors after the execution of Charles I. This was the kind of state many of the Non-conformist Pilgrim’s fathers went to build in America as they fled persecution in 1620 feeling it was impossible in Britain. Most importantly in 1775, this was the kind of state many English Christians were sympathetic to the notion of after half a century of repression of the vast Methodist movement by the Crown via the Bishops of the Church of England.

Perhaps to try and prevent these feelings becoming overly aroused John Wesley, in his calm address to our American Colonies published late in Sept. 1775, went out of his way to declare loyalty to King George III, and appeal for American compliance. Wesley admitted British failings, but argued these did not excuse American susceptibility to radical thinking. The Address was published and distributed across the country without charge, at the expense of the public purse. Welsey was offered a public pension by way of thanks, which he declined, making over the sum to the benefit of the widows and orphans of soldiers killed by the Americans. Never the less, people were angry with Wesley, and around this time those who started North Bradley’s Baptist Church broke with the Weslyans who up until that time had been the principal movers in the vigour of their group. In fact North Bradley Baptist Church was looking far more likely to have become North Bradley Weslyian Methodist Chapel, until a turn of events caused the group to seek guidance from Robert Marshman, Baptist Pastor of Westbury Leigh. Had the group remained Weslyain in inclination, they would have retained their identity as members of St. Nicholas’ Church of England under the governorship of George III (The Methodists did not leave to form a separate denomination until into the next century). Effectively they would have become what we might call today Evangelical Anglicans, but it was not to be.

The truth was though that this first group under farmer George Batchelor’s leadership, meeting in his barn at Lower Common, almost certainly owed their spiritual awakening to the Methodists rather than to the Baptists. That said, the Baptists in the North Bradley area, had been a robust presence for some time. Although on the wane around 1775, they had in the mid seventeenth century been the overwhelming majority in the area. This was a most unusual situation, and no doubt was very much a matter all were conscious of. Dissenting separatism was what one could say, in the DNA of the local people, and it didn’t take much to reignite these instincts. Perhaps Wesley just went too far for their sensibilities, and Marshman was right there to catch the baby. Many people scandalised by the merciless repression of the Americans found a reply in separatism. The war in America was against British citizens and tax payers, fellow Christians, and in the main religiously lively ones. Whitefield, and Wesley had been widely welcomed there, Whitefield in fact had preached his farewell sermon in London in 1769 when he left for his seventh tour of America where he was to die in 1770. The sense of outrage at British troops being sent to burn American farms, and put their sons to the bayonet was hard to swallow. In fact George III found it hard to recruit troops for the task, instead having to rely on Prussian mercenaries, and Native Americans to prosecute much of his campaign. Not just on the levels of principal were there objections either, the sheer logistics and financial risk of the war were viewed as fundamentally unsound.

Although not written until 1776, the sentiments of the American Declaration of Independence were already very much alive, and not just on the other side of the Atlantic. Here in Britain, the mood of change was in the air.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

This, under the guidance of Robert Marshman, Baptist minister of Westbury Leigh, those first members of North Bradley Baptist Church did. Their reasons could not have been light, and the history of state sponsored, and Church endorsed repressions the Baptists had suffered in the previous century, and the treatment of the Methodists in their own, gave them ample cause to feel their future and loyalty was not with the Church of England.

Add to these issue the arrival in 1774 of the new incumbent at the Parish Church, St. Nicholas, Charles Daubney. The living he was taking up was  poor and the parish neglected. Soon after his arrival Daubney married, and until his vicarage could be made habitable, which involved the pulling down of local cottages to enlarge the vicarage ground, they lived at Clifton, Bristol. He set about restoring his church, and supplemented the Sunday morning service by others in the evening and during the week, and started a Sunday school but was unpopular with his parishioners, both on account of his orthodoxy (most of the inhabitants being dissenters whom he viewed as schismatics), and the cottages. Daubney’s services majored on liturgy, and the authority of the Anglican Church, and while an intelligent man, by the late 1780’s was drawn out into delivering polemical lectures against the Non-Conformists as they advanced. Daubney then also built an almshouse, perhaps to placate those offended by his earlier acts.

In the days prior to Nov. 5th 1775, as Batchelor and Co. were embarking on their new undertaking, George Washington, newly appointed political leader of the freshly declared United States of America, and Commander in Chief of it’s recently formed Continental Army decreed:

As Commander in Chief I have been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—I cannot help expressing my surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defense of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

What thoughts must have gone through the minds of those readying to burn their guys, and set off their fireworks that year in England, when they learned that in America the bonfires were being banned by Republicans as a token to peace towards the Catholics – the very people who had tried to destroy King and Parliament in 1605? What signals did those meeting for their first service of worship as an independent chapel send, when we assume, they lit no fires themselves except such as the preacher was able to kindle in his hearers hearts? Clearly this group was deliberately or otherwise appearing to join an alliance against the Church of England and State of George III at a time when all the military gains of the seven years war which had ended some twelve years earlier, were looking likely to be lost. George III was a pious man, but as Whitefield in his parting address mentioned before, stated openly that

‘Some people think, if the great men were on our side, if we had King, Lords, and Commons on our side, I mean if they were all true believers, O if we had all the Kings of the earth on our side! Suppose you had: alas! Alas! Do you think the Church would go on better? Why if it were fashionable to be a Methodist at Court, if it were fashionable to be a Methodist abroad, they would go with a Bible or a hymn book, instead of a novel; but religion never thrives under too much Sun-shine’.

Clearly, the King was not seen by Whitefield as a true believer, not born again, not yet part of God’s Kingdom. If people were to worship as God intended, how could the oversight of the Church be given one to whom the Kingdom of God was still a dark mystery? ‘God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise‘, George Batchelor, Farmer, would do for a founder for North Bradley’s corner of the Lord’s vineyard.

The lives of men like Batchelor up and down the country were undergoing great changes. Formerly farmers like him may have subsisted on strip farms, with grazing rights on common land that owed their organisation to the feudal system of William the Conqueror. Wealth funneled effortlessly from the land by way of tithes and taxes to the gentry, and ultimately to the King at Court, and Pope. Now, in the 18th century, enclosure laws made land private, and since the glorious revolution under William of Orange in 1689, men like Batchelor had no fear of kings imprisoning, taxing, or confiscating property at will, they had rights, defendable in court. For those who managed to obtain financially viable farms, as opposed to those who didn’t and ended up as farm labourors, a new period of prosperity had dawned. For the labourors, poor laws hounded them to work houses, and to the factories, and mills of the new urban landscapes if they lost their work on the land to the newly mechanised world of Seed Drills, Threshing Machines, and the Iron Plough. By 1775 horses and a handful of men did the work that whole villages had formerly performed. Crop rotation, selective breeding, and general advances in engineering was making the land more productive than ever. Food stores increased, populations swelled, as did markets, and a farmer could become a man of independent means, with a community dependant on his generosity. Combine this with British success in the Seven Years war securing colonies in India, America, and the Caribbean, and as a result new wealth, and goods coming to these shores from these far flung places where the slaves groaned under the plantation owners whips, Batchelor had access to new ways of expressing his independence from the Old Order.

Politically, he and his kind had representation in Parliament since apart from five years between 1710-15, the Whig party – or Country Party, the nearest equivalent to what we might call Liberals today ruled Britain between 1707-1774. This was the time when the Labour party had not come into existence, and the only other party, the Tory’s – or Court Party, today’s Conservatives, did not finally came to power under Lord North until the year before North Bradley Baptist Church came into being. The Tory’s would remain in power after that until 1826 apart from one year, marking a new era for everyone concerned.

In his Dictionary published to great critical acclaim in April 1755, Samuel Johnson, that arch Tory of his day, defined the word Tory as “one who adheres to the ancient Constitution of the state and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England, opposed to a Whig.” He linked 18th-century Whiggism with 17th-century revolutionary Puritanism, arguing that the Whigs of his day were similarly inimical to the established order of church and state. Johnson recommended that strict uniformity in religious externals was the best antidote to the negative religious traits that he linked to Whiggism. From this you can sense the disdain that the new ruling elite held for the countries former political masters – radicals, revolutionaries, anti-Church, anti-crown. The saying went among Tories that the ‘The Devil was the first Whig.’

The Whigs had their base in those favouring constitutional monarchy, non-conformity in religion, and the championing of the emerging middle classes. As the 18th Century wore on the party increasingly gravitated towards the enlightenment ideals of general emancipation, and the supremacy of Parliament over the monarchy. These were the original architects of our own modern capitalist, tolerant, societies.

Lord North became the first Tory Prime Minister since 1715 as Britain was being plunged into the American War in 1774. He met the crisis with a number of Coercive Acts of Parliament aimed at punishing the rebellion; these became known as the Intolerable Acts in America which only served to galvinise the uprising. The Whigs in America became the main stay of the pro-Independence movement. All these things were in the ferment of North Bradley Baptist Church’s own declaration of Independence, as Nations like America, and small groups like ours felt their way towards what we all now so take for granted but then was novel, radical, and possibly even dangerous.

Finally, it is worth mentioning one last dimension. Augustus Toplady who was curate near here in Farleigh Hungerford between 1765-6, just a few years before the founding of the Church, had begun a vigorous public controversy with one Fletcher in the year 1770. This controversy raged through the Church, Nation, and abroad at that time, and for some years to come. The controversy was by no means restricted to these two exponents, but Toplady, a vocal Methodist in the Church of England, authored in 1774, the year before the founding, his seminal tract on the subject The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England. This addressed yet another great divide in the Britain of the 18th Century – the Arminian/Calvinist debate. Welsey being Arminian, and the followers of Whitefield Calvinists, these two great figures of the age were locked in theological disagreement, which granted, Whitefield tried to diffuse, but which Welsey from the 1740’s pursued very publically. Though much of the heat had gone out of it all by 1770, it reignited with a vengeance.

It maybe true as well that with probable Whig and republican sympathies, both of which were anathema to the Wesleys, the group here at North Bradley, were further disaffected by the Weslyian Arminainism which represented an offence even to those elements within the Church of England which they may have had sympathies with. The Church of England had produced the Marian Martyrs, the Puritans, some of the Westminster Divines, the King James Bible, and the Methodist who had first preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ fully to them. These elements might still have prevailed upon them to stay within it’s fold, but Arminianism with it’s associations with the Laudian repressions of the Restoration period may have been the final straw. North Bradley, when it finally begun, was Baptist, independent and self-governing, congregational in government, i.e. democratic, but it was also Particular in it’s convictions on Redemption, i.e. Calvinist. They made up their minds on the issues of the day – parted with Wesley, the Tories, and the King and began their own celebration of November the 5th which remains here an important date on more than one level.

Now clearly, and in conclusion, two hundred and thirty six years later as I write this the World has changed and so I am sure has North Bradley Baptist Church. Strangely the very name North Bradley Baptist Church might conjure up in some minds a staid body of traditionalists. What I have tried to set out is the very real spirit of dissent that began it’s life at a time when it’s dogmas were anything but reactionary. The real question we face, is whether we, under God are able to discern the future through the lens of principle as they did, and stay the course. How can we, without being radical for radical’s sake, pioneer, decide, and make our progress that will comfortably sit in step with those taken on that first wintery Guy Fawkes night long ago, and set our own fireworks ablaze into the night sky, and defy the fires of hell with holy zeal as they did?