From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 16
January - February 1982
Baptists and Lenton
As Lenton's new Baptist church is begun you can still see the old
church in the background in 1967.
The Thomas Helwys Baptist Church, on appropriately enough Church Street, must be amongst the most recently constructed buildings in New Lenton. The Church's modern exterior may easily deceive you into thinking that the Baptists are a recent addition to the Lenton scene, but most older Lentonians will know otherwise, for there has been Baptist witness here in Lenton for over a hundred and fifty years. The Thomas Helwys Church, however, is the outcome of a local experiment to bridge the denominational gaps. Formed by the uniting of two Nottingham Baptist Churches, the name for this 'united' church had to be something new. Thomas Helwys was chosen to commemorate a local Nottinghamshire man and the role he played in the founding of the Baptist movement over three hundred and seventy years ago.
The Baptist Church emerged from the attempts of Puritans to reform and 'purify' the Church of England of those beliefs and practices retained from Roman Catholicism, which they felt, were contrary to the teachings of the New Testament. When their efforts to reform the English Church showed no signs of success, groups of 'Separatist' worshippers began to form in secret. It was one such group centred at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, which Thomas Helwys joined in about 1606.
In 1595, five years after his father's death, Helwys, now a trained lawyer, had returned to the family home at Broxtowe Hall in nearby Bilborough, to take over as head of a family of some property and position in the county. (Older readers may still remember the Hall, as it was only pulled down in 1937.) He proceeded to keep 'open house' for any clergymen with puritan leanings and became particularly friendly with one John Smyth, who had been City Preacher at Lincoln until he had lost the post because of his Puritan ideas. It was Smyth who became pastor of this splinter group at Gainsborough. It must be remembered that to join the group itself was an act of some bravery as many separatists were imprisoned and some even hanged for their beliefs.
The Gainsborough group soon decided to flee the country and seek freedom of worship in Holland. In 1608, they left Gainsborough, sailed along the Trent into the Humber, and then crossed the North Sea to Amsterdam. Thomas Helwys was amongst them, leaving his wife and seven children behind at Broxtowe Hall. Once in Amsterdam they were free of persecution and could follow their religious belief. Through their own studies and through the influence of a company of Mennonites in Amsterdam, these English refugees came to reject infant baptism as contrary to the Scriptures. A true Church, they became convinced, should be a church of baptised believers. So declaring their separatist church fellowship dissolved, Smyth first baptised himself, Helwys next and then the rest of the group. And so began the first Baptist Church in 1609. However the two leaders, Smyth and Helwys, soon became divided in their view. About forty of those who had come out to Amsterdam followed Smyth in moving to the Mennonite Church. About a dozen shared the views held by Helwys and in 1612 these returned to this country and settled in the Spitalfields area of London to form the first Baptist Church on English soil. While in Holland, Helwys had begun to write a number of books and essays. Among these was one he called 'The Mistery of Iniquity' in which he made a plea that everyone should have complete freedom of religion ‘be they heretics, Turcks (Moslems), Jewes or whatsoever'. Back in London, Helwys sent a copy of this book to the King. But James I in his role of Defender of the Faith showed no such toleration and Helwys was arrested soon afterwards. He was taken to the grim prison of Newgate where he was to die shortly afterwards. The spread of this new church, however, could not be prevented, even though its leaders were continually persecuted. By 1626 there were Baptist Churches as far apart as Salisbury, Tiverton, Coventry and Lincoln.
There developed two main strands in Baptist thought. The movement founded by Thomas Helwys followed the teachings of the Dutch theologian Arminius. He held that the sacrifice of Christ had ensured Salvation for everyone, and could be freely offered to and accepted by any person responding in faith. It was a 'general' salvation and the Baptists of this movement were therefore called 'General Baptists'. Other Baptist churches adopted Calvinistic theology that no-one deserved Salvation but that God, in His mercy, had decided some should be saved and that only He knew who they were. Only those selected would be saved and they would become believers, come what may. Salvation was 'particular' to those whom God had chosen; Baptists holding these views were therefore called 'Particular Baptists'.
Lenton's Baptist Church in the mid 1960s.
It is difficult to say precisely when followers of the Baptist Church first began to appear in the Nottingham area. Mention had certainly been found of the presence of certain Baptist communities in the town by the mid-1600s, though it is unclear which type of Baptist beliefs they held. Whatever persuasion, they would have had to remain small fairly secretive groups as open hostility to the Baptists and other independent churches ceased only when William and Mary of the Dutch House of Orange came to the throne in 1689. With the passing of the Tolerance Act, Baptists could openly register rooms in houses or even inns to be used as places of worship. By 1724 the Particular Baptists in Nottingham must have had quite a strong congregation, for in that year they purchased a site on which they built the Friar Lane Chapel. By the late 1770s the General Baptists had gained a thriving congregation and in 1779 they in turn built a large chapel on Stoney Street. In the nineteenth century, Nottingham along with many other towns in England experienced a dramatic increase in population; and Nottingham's Baptist churches themselves experienced a period of unprecedented expansion. Some of the new Baptist congregation joined the Particular Baptists, but most were attracted to the Stoney Street chapel.
By 1845 Stoney Street had over 1,000 members and ranked as the largest Baptist Church in the country. Nottingham's growing population spread out into the surrounding villages which were in due course incorporated into Nottingham's boundaries. General Baptist communities in these suburban areas were largely fostered by the Stoney Street Church, which provided preachers and money to help the emerging congregations. In 1817, a group of the congregation seceded from Stoney Street and opened an alternative General Baptist's chapel in Broad Street in 1819. Both chapels continued to prosper in the first half of the nineteenth century. But gradually the decline in the city centre population and the success of the suburban churches affected both those chapels. Stoney Street finally closed in 1887 and the building converted into commercial premises. The Broad Street Chapel continued on until 1901 when it was decided to unite with the Baptist Church on Mansfield Road. The Broad Street premises were then sold off for redevelopment. In 1815 the Particular Baptists moved from their chapel on Friar Lane into a new building on George Street. This chapel remained in use until the 1940s, when it was finally closed and many of the congregation transferred to the Derby Road Church. In 1946 the Co-operative Society bought the building and converted it into the Co-operative Arts Theatre.
As was the case with Nottingham, the story of the early days of Baptist life here in Lenton is not easy to piece together. By the 1790s Baptists had established a 'circuit' of preaching stations in Notting ham and several surrounding villages, including Lenton. This was probably the first serious attempt to generate a Baptist congregation locally. In 1793 Thomas Bayley left his native Cheshire and moved to Lenton to assist his brother Isaac in the leather factory he owned in Leengate (this was the leatherworks, the buildings of which presently house Bell-Fruit) .He was a member of the Scotch Baptist Church. Members of this Church held an extreme form of Particular Baptism. Finding no Baptist church in which he felt at home, Thomas Bayley founded a Scotch Baptist Society in a room in 'Mole Court' here in Lenton. These Scotch Baptists disappeared from the Lenton scene in about 1806, moving their base into the centre of the town and finally purchasing the Friar Lane Chapel from the Particular Baptists when they moved to George Street in 1815.
Derby Road Church was opened in 1850 after a portion of the George Street
congregation seceded in 1847. It became the largest Particular Baptist Church
in the county. When it was closed in 1967, the site was sold to Hooley's Ltd.,
who in turn sold it off for redevelopment. In 1971 the office block known as
College House was built on the site.
There appears to have been a Baptist chapel established in Lenton in the late 1820s as White's Directory for 1832 recorded that a Baptist chapel had been built in Churchill Close 'during the, past five years'. However no further reference has been found to this chapel. It seems quite probable that this was a mission chapel founded by Particular Baptists from the George Street Chapel. But as later Baptist church work in Lenton was under the leadership of the General Baptists, it would seem likely that these Particular Baptists closed down their work and surrendered Lenton to the General Baptists, for there was never any question of establishing both churches near to each other in the suburbs. When one group became well established, the other would withdraw, thus avoiding the problems and expenses of two competing chapels. It seems fairly clear that General Baptists were active around this time for in 1886 Lenton's General Baptists held a 'jubilee tea' at which references were made to the people who had founded the community, fifty years ago'. Certainly by 1841 these General Baptists were strong enough to raise the money to have a chapel erected in Park Street. And when in 1852 portions of the congregations seceded from the Stoney Street and Broad Street Chapels, the Lenton church was thought strong enough to be recognised as a separate branch of the General Baptists. In fact with this enlarged congregation, the Park Street Chapel was considered too small and plans were made for a new building. By July 1853 they had purchased a plot of land in Church Street, by June 1856 laid the foundation stone and on Christmas Day of that year formally opened the building for worship. Their old chapel on Park Street was subsequently sold to the Reformed Methodist in 1859 and this building remained standing until 1963 when it was demolished in the Willoughby Street clearance scheme.
The General Baptist Chapel New Lenton was a red brick building with cement dressings. The internal arrangement was quite typical for the times, with its downstairs and gallery which seated about 480 people and a schoolroom beneath. The Chapel was situated on part of the site now occupied by the Edna G. Olds Primary School. It remained in use until the Thomas Helwys Baptist Church was built alongside and officially opened on July 4th 1968. The Chapel was then demolished shortly afterwards. The new church was largely the brainchild of the Rev. John Tucker who had become minister at the Lenton Baptist Chapel in 1961. It became possible when the Derby Road Particular Church agreed to unite with the General Baptists of Lenton in 1967. The money that was made available from the sale of the Derby Road Church enabled this joint church to build Thomas Helwys.
The interior of Thomas Helwys Baptist Church.
The Thomas Helwys comprises a church which holds about 250 people, a large hall for meetings or for sports activities such as badminton and five smaller meeting rooms. As the Church is trying to trim its heating bill, activities are concentrated on three days each week. Each Tuesday afternoon a women's devotional meeting is held. On Thursdays, Thomas Helwys becomes Lenton Care Group's Day Centre, where the elderly or infirm can spend the day in company and receive a properly cooked mid-day meal. Church members provide the bulk of the volunteers who run this day, and are currently looking for others to help. Guide and Brownie packs used to meet here every week, but since their disbandment last Whitsun, the After-Six Club has taken their place. Anyone between 7 and 13 years of age is eligible to join and participate in such activities as model making, handicrafts, cooking and games. Every other Thursday following the After-Six Club, there is a general interest evening for 'wives and business women'. It's an evening of relaxation and/or edification and the future programme includes talks on such topic as Heraldry, Life in Malaysia, Dental Health, a theatre trip, and a Spring visit to see the Derbyshire Well Dressings. Alternating with this women's interest meeting is a general fellowship evening at which church members of all ages are welcome to enjoy a variety of leisure pursuits. Then of course there is Sunday. About 150 people make up the Sunday Morning congregation, and about 50 venture out for the Evening service. The Church's expenses of about £200 a week are largely met out of the collection plate at Sunday's services. The Church does receive the occasional donation for use of the hall by outside organisations. Apart from meet in the upkeep and heating and lighting of the Church, the congregation must also find the salary of their minister. Currently this position is held by the Rev. Raymond Burnish, who moved to Lenton from Slough in October 1967 and took over from the Rev. J. Grenfell who left Lenton in 1975 for Angola to work for the Missionary Society. The Rev. Tucker had left Lenton in 1971 to minister to the needs of Hartlepool, his dreams of a new church at Lenton finally achieved.