362 Years and counting…
Imagine stealing through the back streets of your home town, anxious, vigilant, your eyes ever watchful -afraid but maybe a little excited, apprehensive yet hopeful, conscious of what you are doing is against the law, and if caught you would be persecuted for not conforming to accepted norms – persecuted for being different – for not conforming to the governance of the Church of England – for being a Baptist
That is the likely background of our fore-fathers and I am extremely grateful that they pursued their beliefs and started our journey which has taken us through a rich tapestry of people, events, and ministry.
It is highly probable that Yeovil Baptists were meeting and forming a church on or before 1655 which means that this year we celebrate our 362nd anniversary – 362 years of sharing God’s love and providing outreach to our local community and beyond.
Slightly in front of our current site, our first recorded meeting house was Mr Carry’s barn in 1668 – do not get this confused with the foundation stone seen within our current building which indicates 1688, the year when Baptists and some other free churches were officially allowed their own place of worship.
Over the years the building has gone through several new builds, changes, and additions to bring us up to our current form – a mixture of an old listed exterior, circa 1830, and a modern interior which was completed in 2003.
Our first Ministers were brothers Thomas Miller (1656 – 1694) and John Miller (1694 – 1721). John is reputed to have served with Cromwell and then as a Captain in ‘Monmouth’s’ ill-fated army. Nearly 30 recorded Ministers, Assistants and Deaconesses have led us through the ensuing years with such names as Thomas Price (reputed to be a Privateer), Samuel Newnam (Newnam Hall), AW Gummer Butt, Frank Buffard, Sister Connie Lockwood (Lockwood Court), Carew Mitchell and Will Thompson to name a few. Today under the guidance of our Moderator Derek Hills we are now on the cusp of looking for a new Minister to take the church into the future.
Various church members have provided inspiration and taken our love of Jesus to other corners of the globe, been involved in debate and movements that have helped shaped the world we are honoured to share. John Rowe the first Baptist Missionary to Jamaica, Mr John Chapman working with a delegation supporting William Wilberforce calling for the abolition of slavery, members involved in the suffragist movement that possibly led to women being Deacons, and the daughter of Mr Gummer Butt, Phyllis, marrying the Rev. Veysey Thompson who went out to work as missionaries in the Belgium Congo –their son William Veysey Thompson was to become our Minister in 1979.
It would be remiss as we go into this weekend not to mention those members of our Church who gave their lives during the Great War (40) and World War II (5) – these current years reflecting on the 100th anniversary of Great War and the unimaginable loss of life on all sides – they shall not grow old and we will remember them
We hope that this provides a tantalising view of our rich history – a great foundation to help us take our love of God and ministry into the future.
A Short History of
South Street Baptist Church
Yeovil 1656 – 2013
Compiled by Tony Overd
Over the last few years I have had the pleasure of looking after the archives for South Street Baptist Church in Yeovil and I have come across many a document, article or book that puts together the History of our Church, the most recent being the 2002 publication ‘Baptists in Yeovil, History of the Yeovil Baptist Church’ by Leslie Brooke.
I do not pretend to know any more than my esteemed colleagues, however with the Church now entering another stage in its history with Revd Ian Green now following his calling and taking up a new position with Amersham. It was thought prudent that all these were brought together in a succinct and up to date version.
This brief history recognises the wider Baptist community, specifically within Yeovil and South Somerset, however concentrates on the specific history of South Street Baptist Church.
Having spent many an hour reading and labouring over this piece my admiration and thanks go out to all those who have recorded the history of this church. God Bless.
|1793||1794||Thomas Price||Supply Minister|
|1824||1841||JOHN MILLER CHAPMAN|
|1905||1924||A W GUMMER BUTT (ATS)|
|1914||1916||Arthur S. Martin||Assistant|
|1916||1920||Sister Alice Redfern||Deaconess|
|1921||1924||J.E. Lancelot Logan (MA)||Assistant|
|1924||1931||ERNEST C. ASKEW (BA)|
|1932||1946||FRANK BUFFARD (BA,BD)|
|1935||1939||Leslie J. Moon (BA,BD)||Assistant|
|1940||1944||Alex D. Fraser||Assistant|
|1945||1950||Arthur B. Alnwick (BA,BD)||Assistant|
|1947||1959||GEORGE W. BYRT|
|1951||–||David S. Baker||Assistant|
|1951||–||Sister Connie Lockwood||Deaconess|
|1962||1964||E H ROBERTSON (MA, BSc)|
|1964||1979||CAREW MITCHELL (MA, BD)|
|1979||2005||WILL THOMPSON (BA)|
|2007||2012||IAN GREEN (BA, MTh)|
Baptists, both the General and the Particular (or Calvinistic), have been recorded since the early 17th century and it is highly probable that Baptists met and worshiped within the South Somerset area soon after, and prior to the first known recordings in our Church.
The history notes produced for the “Celebration of the Organ and Building Scheme” in 1956 indicates that the first known recording of the Baptist Church at Yeovil, as stated by Mr Douglas Chapman in his book ‘Baptists of the West Country’, was within the minutes of the meeting of the Western Association in Wells on the 12th February 1656. This indicates that at this time there was a united Church between Yeovil (Euell) and South Perrot.
Presuming that the church was established prior to the meeting in Wells leads several of the historical notations to indicate that Thomas Miller, the first recorded Minister, to have led the Baptists from circa 1655.
The first meeting house started as a barn which was built by Mr Cary in 1668 in what was probably called Back Street at the time, now known as South Street. Interestingly the founding stone which can be found within the current entrance foyer states the foundation of the church was in 1688. This seems to suggest that there was some development of the barn at this time.
These were turbulent times with Baptists up to 1662, along with other Christian groups such as the Presbyterians and Quakers being considered Non-Conformists, that is, not conforming to the Church of England and therefore meetings were held in secret for fear of persecution.
The date 1688 was also significant, and almost certainly related to the openness being seen as it saw King William III of Orange and Mary II come to the throne of England. Certainly by 1689 there was a greater tolerance given to Non-Conformists and within the same year the Baptists held their first assembly in London.
A letter to the Rev. J M Chapman from Mr Geard in 1827 recounting events from his family stated:
“After the Prince of Orange was settled on the throne as King William the 3rd having heard of Mr. Miller who had been a Captain in Monmouth’s Army, he sent for him to London, and asked him who made him a minister, having learned that he sometimes Preached, Mr. Miller responded “he that led captivity captive, and received gifts for men.” The King told him if he would conform to the Church of England he would take care to provide a living for him. Mr. Miller answered that he could not conscientiously do this, but that if his Majesty would give him leave to go on in his own way, he should be much obliged to him. To which the King replied that he should have full liberty to go on in his own way”.
From this the Baptists in Yeovil fully established themselves within the community and after nearly 360 years can be found worshiping from the same site today.
Mr John Miller, brother of Thomas Miller, appears prior to his ministry, to have served with Cromwell and then as a Captain in Monmouth’s ill-fated army. He was our Minister until 10th October 1721 when Mr James Kiddle was chosen as Pastor. Mr John Miller bought and converted the original barn and the adjoining house and shop during the early 1700’s, possibly in 1717 and over the ensuing few years. He is reputed to have been given permission to collect the funds, from churches in London, to acquire the accompanying buildings and convert the barn into a meeting house in which the church worshipped until 1810.
The records also show that John Miller also gave the church a plot of land known as “Five Ashes” as a burial ground which was consequently extended on a few occasions.
Mr Kiddle was our Minister for 30 years until his death in July 1751. It is Mr Kiddle who compiled our first list of members in a small leather-bound book, which is still held, dated from 1721. Mr Kiddle was replaced by Mr Peter Evans, aged 28, in 1753 and was paid a stipend of £30 per annum – possibly our first paid minister.
After Mr Evans death in 1771, aged 46, a series of supply ministers ensued until Mr Gillard became Pastor. Mr Gillard provided ministry until his death in 1793. Church history notes indicate that for the latter couple of years of Mr Gillard’s ministry there was a series of supply ministers, one of which was Mr J T Price. On his ordination in 1793 Mr Price became our minister, taking us through into the 19th century.
The records show that during this period membership decreased from 90 in the early 1720s to approximately 55 at the turn of the century.
Mr Price, reputed to have had an adventurous past as a ‘privateer’, had transferred his membership into our church from Bristol 12 months prior to his ordination. This allowed him to take up the calling and consequently then served the church for nearly 23 years.
It was within his tenure that the original meeting house was demolished and a new church erected on the same site in 1810.
It was also during this period that John Rowe, baptised and a member of our church, was recommended and attended what is now known as Bristol Baptist College under the tutorage of John Ryland. Ryland who with others within the college had a desire to see slavery abolished wrote to William Wilberforce to ascertain his views on sending a missionary to Jamaica – John Rowe was later to be the first Baptist Missionary in Jamaica, arriving in 1814. He was unable to get a licence to preach in Jamaica, however “he managed to perform an effective pastoral role”. Unfortunately John Rowe died in 1816.
After the death of Mr Price in 1817, the Rev Thomas Claypole became our minister. During the next few years membership declined leading Mr Claypole to offer his resignation in 1823.
Prior to the ordination of the Rev John Miller Chapman in October 1825, after ministering our church on occasions from 1824, several members were dismissed from our church to form Montacute Baptists. The 19th century sees an expansion of Baptist Churches within the South Somerset and North Dorset area. Some of these our Church was responsible in providing funding.
Mr Chapman’s ministry and leadership provided the basis of prosperity and growth within the church. With membership growing the building became inadequate. Options to expand the church were explored however because of serious damp a more radical approach was taken and a new church was built directly behind, opening in January 1828. This building which is between the current frontage onto South Street and the tower and entrance we now use, is part of our church today.
In the 1830’s Mr Chapman was part of the delegation supporting William Wilberforce in the presentation of a petition to the Prime Minister calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. This led to the slavery being abolished in most of the British Empire under the ‘Slavery Abolition Act in 1833’.
I837 sees the introduction of the new marriage act and the first marriage of “dissenters” under this act on 16th August 1837 between Thomas Lye and Rebecca Mumford was held. It is my understanding that prior to this any marriages had to be performed within the Parish Church.
The Rev Richard James, a former minister of the church in Princes Street, Yeovil, became our minister in 1842 until his resignation due to ill health in 1883: 41 notable years marked by a presentation from the Church and community of 400 gold sovereigns.
During Mr James’ ministry there was a large concentration on providing Sunday Schooling, initially within the church, then in the community, and in 1868 our first Sunday school building was built.
The Rev Samuel Newnam was recognised as Mr Jame’s successor at the final presentation with these words from Mr E Pittard, as recorded by the Western Gazette:
“Mr E Pittard was deputed to welcome the Rev S Newnam on behalf of the Baptist Church in that town. In the course of a neat speech, he assured Mr Newnam that the church had not lost any of the Christian loyalty of the past. They were a united people. Mr Newnam must not expect them to be perfect. They are not that. They were conscious of shortcomings, but they had warm hearts, and they held fast those Christian truths and principles which were held by their forefathers, and for which they made great sacrifices. Mr Newnam was not welcomed amongst them by a portion of the congregation only; not by an ‘overwhelming majority’; but he was welcomed, as far as they knew without a dissentient voice.”
Under his leadership a further period of prosperity and growth was witnessed
The Rev. Samuel Newnam resigned in 1899 with the Rev Hugo Heynes remaining as minister until 1902 when he took a post in a Nottingham Church.
The Early part of this century sees the Rev Elias George succeed Rev. Heynes until 1905 when the Rev A W Gummer Butt started his ministry. 26 May 1907 sees the death of the former and popular Minister Rev. Samuel Newnam, who was interred in Yeovil Cemetery.
Three years later the seeds were sown for new school rooms and hall. Newnam Memorial Hall was opened on 21st October 1912. The date was significant and chosen to be as near to the 1st November as possible to coincide with the Church anniversary. October 2012 celebrated Newnam Memorial Halls 100th anniversary. (Notes from the Church minutes on Newnam Memorial Hall, September 1910 to 1912, are available on the website).
“Perhaps as a result of the Women’s Suffrage Movement or the start of a more liberal attitude towards women” writes Leslie Brooke, and a paper read by Mrs S Burt that the possibility of women being considered as Deacons was considered.
The Great War, World War I, started in 1914 and by 1915 the Newnam Memorial Hall was being used as a hospital by the Red Cross. Records show that 1,200 people were treated within the hospital until its closure in 1918. A memorial tablet recording the names of the church congregation, 41 in total, who lost their lives during this war was commissioned and is still present in the sanctuary today. (A separate paper provides some details of these members).
Although this account looks at Yeovil Baptist Church in particular it is worth noting that the first Deaconess of the Church, Sister Alice (Redfern) was called to work at Huish Baptist Church, Yeovil during this period.
Mr Gummer Butt resigned in 1924, having been appointed as one of the General Superintendents of the Baptist Union and was succeeded by the Rev Earnest Askew. During Mr Askew’s tenure (1924 – 1931) the Church went through some repairs and redecoration meaning that elements he introduced, including evening service had to be held at the ‘Picture Palace’(Demolished 1928).
Mr Askew was also responsible for introducing the Junior Church Council and Junior Fellowship.
April 1927 sees the daughter of Mr Gummer Butt, Phyllis, marrying the Rev Veysey Thompson who in 1945 gave birth to William Veysey Thompson in the Belgian Congo where they were working as missionaries. Will Thompson was to become our minister in 1979.
October 1938 sees the 250th anniversary of the Church, celebrated with a week of special services.
Also in 1938 Mr Gummer Butt with his work, returned to live in Yeovil and became re-involved with the Church by running a Sunday school from his home. This was closed down on the outbreak of the war.
World War 2 started during the ministry of the Rev Frank Buffard. Prior to the war he was responsible for the Chapel and School that was built at Westfield in 1937. Mr Buffard “gave himself unsparingly” during this war period: this looks to have taken a great deal of his energy and unfortunately he was “compelled to resign in 1946”.
Five members of the Church congregation are recorded as having died during World War 2 and a commemorative plaque was commissioned. (This was lost during the rebuild of Yeovil Church and is due to be re-instated).
Mr George W Byrt started his ministry in 1947. During his ministry the ‘Organ and Vestry’ scheme, which was started during the war, was completed in 1956. In1959 Mr Byrt accepted a call to Surrey. Also during this period Sister Connie Lockwood, a Baptist Deaconess, accepted an invitation to work at Westfield and on the resignation of Mr Byrt provided some cover to the church on South Street until 1961.
Mr E H Robertson took up the ministry in 1962 although he had met with the church members of Huish in 1961. His ministry was split between the churches. In 1964 he was succeeded by the Rev Carew Mitchell after announcing that he had accepting an Executive Director post for the World Association of Christian Broadcasting.
Mr Mitchell served the church until his retirement in November 1979. It is within the latter stages of his ministry that the Westfield congregation split from the Yeovil and Huish.
The Rev William Voysey Thompson, son of the Rev Veysey Thompson and Mrs Phyllis Thompson, Grandson of the Rev A.W. Gummer Butt accepted the invitation to minister at Yeovil. Through Mr Thompson’s ministry his passion for his church, Yeovil and wider community was there for all to see.
During this time there were major decisions to be made and enacted; Westfield Church was replaced with flats for the elderly known as ‘Lockwood Court’; dry rot in Yeovil was reported in 1985 and further investigation led to the discovery of wet rot and woodworm indicating that the premises were becoming unsafe. Estimates suggested that repairs would cost circa £200,000 with no guarantee of non-reoccurrence. The other proposal placed was to demolish and re-build.
South Street 21 Committee was formed to investigate ways forward. Unfortunately the site continued to deteriorate and in November 1989, the 334th Anniversary, a final service was held. There followed 14 years of hard and frustrating work, schemes and funding options were explored (including lottery funding), until finally Pegasus Retirement Homes provided the solution.
The committee chaired by Joe Arnold and Graham Voizey, and Trevor Slade, the architect “worked tirelessly” during this period with the church reopening in the spring of 2003. To coincide with the opening of the re-furbished church Leslie Brooke, a local historian, was commissioned to write a history on the Baptists in Yeovil which was published in 2003. This provides a far more detailed coverage of the church history.
Unfortunately within a few years of the celebration on moving back into the premises our beloved Minister Rev. William Thompson unexpectedly died in May 2005. He is still missed. Miles one of his sons provides a loving overview of Will’s life which can be found at www.retreatsineverydaylife.org/aboutAuthor.html
The Rev Elsie Howell from Wellington was appointed moderator and guided our church until the Rev Ian Green became our Minister in 2007. He, his Wife Rachel, and their boys Matthew and Jonathan moved into the newly purchased Manse on the North West side of Yeovil.
Ian served the church well; sadly for Yeovil Baptists in November 2012 he has followed his calling and taken a position in Amersham. (Details of his ministry within Yeovil will be added shortly). The Rev Jez Brown, Regional Minister from the South West Baptist Association, has been appointed moderator and will guide and support the church through this pastoral vacancy.