History

A Short History of
High Road Baptist Church

(formerly Soho Baptist Church)

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PDF – HRBC History Booklet

October 2017 will mark 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. Many consider this moment of protest against some of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church the catalyst for the Reformation which birthed many of the Christian denominations we have today. In England, the most aggressive Reformers were often called Puritans (for their desire to purify the Church of England from its Roman Catholic theology and practices) and sometimes Separatists (if they felt that the Church of England was beyond purifying and that they needed to separate from the Church of England to practice their faith Biblically). The decision whether to reform the Church of England or separate was made for most by the Act of Uniformity in 1662. Soon after the restoration of the monarchy, James I attempted to consolidate the Church of England under his leadership and required that all clergy use the Book of Common Prayer. Most Puritans could not use the ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer in good conscience and thus chose to leave the Church of England at that time—over 2,000 clergymen left in an event now called ‘The Great Ejection’. These ‘dissenters’ or ‘nonconformists’ often paid a high price for their choice to minister outside the established church—for the next 150 years any nonconformist would be denied entry into university and be barred from holding public office. The churches these nonconformists formed and ministered in—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists—flourished and many are still alive today. In the eighteenth century many of these churches received an influx of new believers due to a spiritual revival sweeping the nation. George Whitefield, John Wesley, and a band of lay preachers following them had taken to the fields of England to preach to enormous crowds of the industrial working-class.

Burnham_RichardIt was during these days, in 1770, that a young man, Richard Burnham, began listening to a preacher in High Wycombe and described his heart as ‘sweetly broken by divine power’.[1] Within a few years he was asked to preach and felt assured through prayer and the encouragement of those in his church that God had called him to do so. He pastored for a couple years in Staines-upon-Thames in Surrey,[2] then moved to London around 1780 where he pastored in Green-walk near Blackfriars Bridge before forming a new congregation named Eben-ezer Chapel which began meeting near Lincoln’s Inn Fields before 1787. In 1791, Burnham left the congregation at Lincoln’s Inn Fields[3] and moved to Edward Street in Soho, renaming the new formation as Salem Chapel.[4] In 1795 another Baptist church on Grafton Street in Soho decided to relocate and Burnham and his congregation[5] took lease of this property. Mr. Burnham was to minister at this location for another fifteen years until his death in 1810. Soho in those days was one of the poorest and most densely-populated areas in London—Mr. Burnham was known for being zealous in the pulpit and very warmhearted in person and the church grew quickly. It was during his time there that the church’s next minister was baptised and called to preach.

John Stevens was originally from Northamptonshire, the son of a shoemaker whose family was active in a parish church presided over by an evangelical rector who was friendly with George Whitefield, one of the renowned evangelists of the day. Describing himself at the age fifteen, Stevens said that ‘private prayer was my chief medium of enjoyment and satisfaction: to this I usually attended repeatedly in the day, by the hedges in the fields, or any place where I had the opportunity. I was much encouraged by musing on certain hymns, that I used to repeat while at my work’.[6] At sixteen, Stevens moved to London to find more business as a shoemaker and there came into contact with some nonconformist Christians. In an attempt to disprove their theological positions, Stevens began to diligently study the Scriptures but found himself soon convinced of their Scriptural correctness. He was then re-baptised in believers’ baptism by Richard Burnham while the church met at Edward Street and then moved with them to the new building on Grafton Street. Soon Stevens began to feel compelled by the Lord to preach and was encouraged in this direction by Burnham. It is said that on the first occasion which he was scheduled to preach he was overcome and found himself unable to speak at all—he retired to the vestry but was soon followed by Burnham who simply said ‘Never mind, John; try again’.  He did and was soon called upon to preach every Wednesday, quickly being recognised as a gifted speaker. Within a couple years it was agreed that he should seek a church of his own to pastor—for reasons that are unclear Burnham is said to have both praised Steven’s abilities and refused him continued preaching ministry in the church there. Consequently, in 1795 Stevens returned to Northamptonshire and began preaching in his grandfather’s home. It is said that people would come for miles to hear him speak and that even his old Rector would stand outside the window to sneak a listen. During this time the Rector offered to help Stevens gain entrance into university if he would relinquish his Baptist beliefs but he refused. From 1797-1799, Stevens founded a new church in the village of Oundle, then moved to St. Neots and formed the town’s first Baptist church there which grew to seventy-three in membership during the five years he spent there. Also during this time Stevens wrote and published a leaflet against the moderate Calvinist theology of Andrew Fuller which he disagreed with. In 1805 Stevens moved on to pastor a small church in Boston, Lincolnshire where he stayed for six years—he was very busy during these years, at times riding over 100 miles on horseback to preach and also writing and publishing more leaflets. Stevens’ family, however, was also growing and the church in Boston, although very appreciative of his ministry, could not afford to support him sufficiently. As Stevens was deliberating on his next avenue of ministry, Richard Burnham passed away and the church at Grafton Street quickly wrote to Stevens asking him to consider returning to the church, which now numbered over 200 members. Stevens replied accepting the invitation: ‘And now, my dear friends, my desire is, that we may be of one heart and one way, and that our united aim may be to promote the Redeemer’s glory, in the spread and establishment of his spiritual kingdom. I request an interest in your fervent petitions to the King of grace and glory, that I may be an able minister of the New Testament, and that I may be filled with wisdom, with the Holy Ghost, and with power: in a word, that I may be upright, courageous, prudent, laborious and useful’.[7]

StevensIn July 1811 Stevens preached his first sermon at Grafton Street and by 1812 they had added one hundred new members to the church. Stevens was a celebrated preacher but also known as an articulate and passionate defender of reformed theology. He continued writing pamphlets arguing against theological errors within the Baptist denomination and also wrote numerous hymns which he compiled (alongside others the church used) into a hymnal. Outside of his own church, Stevens’ precise and idiosyncratic positions (especially his view on the pre-existent humanity of Christ) were sometimes debated and denounced, but the church itself continued to grow. It was said that people were lining up at the door before services to get a seat and sometimes hundreds were turned away after the seats were filled—clearly, a new building was needed. The congregation moved slightly west within the soho area to a chapel constructed for Catholic services behind the Spanish ambassadors house at no. 8 St. James Square, York Street (now Duke of York St.).[8] The congregation first met here on 10 October 1813, and immediately filled this larger space completely and continued to grow. The year 1818 ushered in a difficult time both for the church and personally for Steven as his wife passed away and there was heated debate concerning some of his writings, inducing a good number to leave the congregation. The church split into two factions, with Stevens soon constructing a new purpose-built chapel at Meards’ Court behind nos. 8-10 of Wardour St. which was named ‘Salem Chapel’. In 1847 Stevens preached his last sermon at that location and passed away in October of that year—he was much mourned by the congregation who buried him in Highgate cemetery. The Salem Chapel continued to operate until the 1870s (under pastors J. E. Bloomfield and J. T. Briscoe) when it was sold to Bloomsbury Baptist Mission and then demolished in 1907.[9]Combs

The faction disagreeing with Stevens’ Christology rejoined the Soho Chapel congregation that Burnham had originally founded at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and called George Comb as pastor.[10] Comb was originally from Edinburgh and came to London to pursue a life on the stage. A concerned friend gave him a Christian magazine and it stirred enough interest in him that he visited a church service and was soon converted. He was convinced to pursue baptism upon hearing a sermon by Richard Burnham and went on to pastor a church in the village of Horsel, Guildford. Soho Chapel wrote to Comb in 1823 to consider pastoring their congregation on Lisle Street and he was accepted as pastor in January 1824.[11] Mr. Comb was known to have a solemn and consistent character: “Dear brother Comb was uniform and unflinching in his testimony for God and truth”, said one friend. Even during the time of his wife’s death in 1833, Comb did not take a break from his regular pulpit schedule. The church moved to Oxford Street in 1825 and constructeda new building there in 1835. Comb grew increasingly weak and passed away in 1841.

Wyard adn Pells

He was succeeded by pastors George Wyard (1842-1856), John Pells (1858-1864) and Joseph Wilkins (1866-1873). In 1871, during the time of Joseph Wilkins, 23 churches met at Soho Chapel on Oxford Street to form the Metropolitan Association of Strict Baptist Churches (now the Association of Grace Baptist Churches South East). Throughout its history and even in recent times, the church has enjoyed a warm and supportive relationship with the Association, which the Lord has often used to guide and support his work amongst us.

Box

John Box was called as pastor in 1875 and during his long service at the church wrote up their Articles of Faith and also oversaw the church’s construction of new facilities on Shaftesbury Ave.[12] The church was forced to relocate from their Oxford St. location in 1885 when the freeholder wished to purchase the church’s lease to build business premises. The church reluctantly accepted the offer of £4,600 and temporarily met in the Albert Rooms, Whitfield Street, Tottenham Court Rd. while the new chapel was being built. After much prayer and searching in the area a new site was purchased from the Metropolitan Water Board in June 1886. This site was on the new road from Piccadilly

Circus to Bloomsbury, known as Shaftesbury Avenue, ‘a broad thoroughfare cut through a horrible and densely populated district’. Plans were drawn up to build a new chapel to seat 500 persons, with copious school accommodation at a cost of £5,600.

FullSizeRenderIn May 1887, when this building was partly erected, three memorial stones were laid and some 600 people were present at the service. This number was swelled by many hundreds of people living in the neighbourhood who watched from windows and roofs of the high tenement buildings and who regarded the event as a gala occasion. It was said that their verbal contributions were ‘somewhat irrelevant to the purpose of the service’. In February 1888, a service of dedication took place and the church of nearly 200 members moved to their new premises. After a faithful ministry of 26 years, Pastor Box passed away in 1901. The church continued for several years without a pastor until Mr. T.L. Sapey was called in 1904. It seems that, perhaps through falling numbers, there was some difficulty with the Pastor’s stipend and with his removal expenses. In 1906 Pastor Sapey resigned to become co-pastor with M.C. Cornwall at Brixton Tabernacle.

IMG_3815Owing to families moving from the area, the membership decreased and during the First World War it was recognised that many of the congregation travelled from the Finchley area. In 1915 it was decided to sell the property to the Gower Street Chapel, who themselves were being forced to move. The figure of £4,000 was well below what the church had in mind but it was accepted in order to keep the building and site for the glory of the Lord in the preaching of the gospel. The closing service at Soho was held in March 1917, and in the same year the site in Finchley was purchased and the church renamed ‘Soho Memorial Chapel’. In 1918, owing to the restriction of building towards the end of the war, a small building was erected for £500. This had been so badly constructed that in a few years it was in danger of collapse. It was essential that a new chapel be erected and that the original building be strengthened. The present building was opened with a service on 1 June 1925. In June 1935, Mr. C. L. Silverwood-Brown became the first pastor in Finchley and served the church until being called to the pastorate in Newquay, Cornwall, in 1938. The church then continued for manBillBrown&wifey years without a pastor and also changed their name to ‘High Road Baptist Church’. Throughout this time and during more recent gaps in pastoral leadership, the Lord has provided capable and faithful servants to maintain his work and their leadership has proven invaluable. In April 1983, Mr. W. A. Brown was called as pastor served until retiring in October 1987. The ministry of Pastor Brown was remembered as a prosperous time and he was noted for the clarity of his Bible teaching. During this time it became possible for the church to purchase a nearby house as a manse and to extend the facilities of the church by adding a vestry, schoolroom, kitchen and modern toilets, all of which was done for £100,000. In 1991 the church called Mr. John Kilpatrick to pastor the church. Mr. JKilpatrickKilpatrick had left a teaching position in Liverpool to come to London and study at London Theological Seminary (now London Seminary) and developed a relationship with the church while studying in seminary. The Kilpatricks used their gifts and connections with schools to build and maintain a vibrant children’s and youth ministry in the church. Mr. Kilpatrick served faithfully as pastor for sixteen years before he sensed the Lord was moving him and his family back to Liverpool. Before Kilpatrick’s final service the church called Robin Dowling as pastor and so within weeks of Mr. Kilpatrick’s departure in 2007, Mr. Robin Dowling moved from Bristol to pastor the RobinDowlingchurch. Robin and his wife, Clara, had previously ministered in Colombia and regularly visited there to work as well as lecturing at the nearby theological college, Oak Hill College. In 2014 Mr. Dowling retired and returned to Bristol and the church began to search for another pastor. The Lord’s provision was evident during this process in the helpful guidance from the Association along with the sustaining work of High Road’s committed members. In September 2015 the Lord directed the church to call David Wilson, formerly an evangelist at Newtown Evangelical Baptist Church in Chesham, to be pastor and he was imageformally inducted as pastor in February 2016. As the church looks forward to the future, it has been wonderfully and generously equipped by gifts from former members to proclaim and minister the gospel of Christ to a new generation.

Behind 226 years of names, places and dates stands a providential Lord who has sustained and enormously blessed his people. At numerous moments, the vulnerability of this church to change, circumstance and even its own sin is fully evident and yet it has persevered: in gathering together, in the preaching of the gospel, in prayer and in ‘promoting the Redeemer’s glory’ as one of its pastors hoped for so long ago. “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry we do not lose heart… For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ’” (2 Corinthians 4).

—–References—–

Previous History that was written for the 200th church anniversary in May 1991 – PDF – High Road Baptist Church History

[1] Burnham, Richard. ‘The Triumphs of Free Grace; with Letters Upon Important Subjects’, London (W. Smith: 1784).

[2] Hinton, John Howard, ‘A Review of the Congregational System’ accessed 29.4.2017: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WS1cAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA11&dq=richard+burnham+baptist+church&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1rdzr1srTAhXsAsAKHatbBA4Q6AEIMzAC#v=onepage&q=richard%20burnham%20baptist%20church&f=false

[3] Burnham admits that this ‘unhappy separation’ was due to his own impropriety which some considered severe enough to have him removed as pastor. He says the majority of the congregation did not agree with this decision and considered his repentance sufficient for him to remain as pastor. Burnham, Triumphs, pp. 111-114.  Wilson, in The History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches, vol 4, pp.27-28 concurs that the separation was due to Burnham’s misconduct and further insinuates that ‘Of the preacher’s private character we shall say nothing, because we do not choose to make our work a vehicle for scandal.”

[4] A minority section of the church known as Soho Chapel remained at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, soon retaining William Garnish as their minister (1793) and soon thereafter relocated to Chapel Street (1794). There is not much recorded of their history for the next 33 years except a list of the following pastors and locations: a move to Great Castle Street in 1798, Edward Street in 1811, then to Oxford St. in 1818. Pastors were W. Garnish (1793), T. Simmonds (?), Evan Herbert (1822), then Comb (1824) which will reappear later in the document. See ‘Burnham’s Group of Churches’ in Baptist Quarterly, Vol 3, issue 7, 1927. Accessed online at: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/03-7_327.pdf. Also referenced by William Whitley Thomas, A Baptist Bibliography, Vol 1 (Hildesheim, Verlag: 1984), p. 251.

[5] Wilson, Walter, The History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches and Meeting Houses in London, Vol 4. (London: 1808), pp.24-29. Accessed 29.4.2017 online: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=kSgwAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA29&dq=richard+burnham+baptist+church&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1rdzr1srTAhXsAsAKHatbBA4Q6AEIPTAE#v=onepage&q=richard%20burnham%20baptist%20church&f=false

[6] Memoirs of John Stevens, anon., access 1.5.2017 online: https://archive.org/stream/memoirsmrjohnst00unkngoog/memoirsmrjohnst00unkngoog_djvu.txt

[7] Memoirs of John Stevens, p.28.

[8] See information related to footnote 25 at: tohttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols31-2/pt2/pp167-173

[9]  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp238-246

[10] https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/03-7_327.pdf

[11] Pastoral Remains of the late Mr. George Comb, accessed 8 May 2017: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=7ltgAAAAcAAJ&pg=PR34&lpg=PR34&dq=george+comb+soho+baptist+chapel&source=bl&ots=Estp2Skiwo&sig=d2HpMHAWuDg1usbhV7jKBPrZ5TQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiW9eKznuDTAhWFAcAKHbSKDoIQ6AEIIzAA#v=onepage&q=george%20comb%20soho%20baptist%20chapel&f=false

[12] It was also during Box’s time of service that the first SBM (now GBM) missionary to India (Ernest Booth) was sent as a result of a special day of prayer held at Soho Baptist Chapel in 1894. Upon Booth’s death, a service was held at Soho Memorial Chapel, then in Finchley (1939). Accessed online: http://homerton.church/past-missionaries.htm

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