OUR HERITAGE, OUR FUTURE”
A record of some of the people and incidents that make up the history of Rochford Congregational Church.
© Rev. David Saunders, M.A., B.Ed.
In its own simple yet profound way Scripture explicitly depicts the Church of Jesus Christ as a Body, a Bride and a Building …a building made up of living stones. Hence our title – as we look back the story we tell will be of real people changed by the grace of God. Our future is only secure in terms of a continuing work of God in the lives of men and women like us.
The Struggle to Begin
H.W.Dale, in his book History of English Congregationalism shows how Congregational Churches had existed in England before Browne and Barrowe formally developed Congregational Polity. Essex had several “gathered congregations” and Rochford appears to be amongst them. Situated on the “south-end” edge of the Thames, some forty miles from London as you leave the town square, a simple plaque on the wall tells of John Simpson burnt at the stake in the square because of his convictions in 1551.
An entry in the privy list of expenses for Henry VIII dated 2nd May 1532 relates to “my Lady Anne of Rochford.” Certainly a lot of attention was being paid to the Rochford Hundred: timber was cut in the woods for shipbuilding and deer stocks at Greenwich and the adjacent parks were replenished from the woods at Rochford. Henry would, in the course of time, declare his marriage to Katherine of Aragon null and void in order to avow his love for the lovely Anne Boleyn of Rochford Hall. 1533 was to be the year of their marriage and Anne would urge the king to read a copy, which she possessed, of Tyndale’s translation of the Gospels (Copy currently on view at National British Museum). In due course Ann Boleyn gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth 1.
By 1553 Lord Richard Rich (Ryche) would be in possession of the manor at Rochford. His history shows him to be a real time-server and deceitful character in both his religious and political life. Robert Rich took his place in entertaining Queen Elizabeth at Rochford in 1579 prior to his death in 1580. All this is to show the background to the significant events which took place in the following year 1581 when the then Lord Rich invited Robert Wright of Antwerp to be his domestic chaplain at Rochford.
Wright had been tutor to the Earl of Essex, Rich’s brother-in-law, and “having scruples about ordination in the Church of England had gone to Antwerp and was ordained according to the views of his co-religionists.” (T. W.Davids, Annals of Evangelical Nonconformity in Essex 1380- 1662)
Keen to fill the pastoral office, Wright expressed the view to Lord Rich that the election of ministers ought to be by the flock or congregation. This is of course a basic tenet of Congregational polity and practise. Lord Rich agreed to the formal establishing of a Church at Rochford Hall and that Wright should take the oversight on the call of the Church. At this stage the group did not withdraw themselves from the worship of the Parish Church, which stands opposite and a hundred yards away from the Hall.
They held their meetings in the Hall, usually at eight o’clock in the evening. Such was the blessing and growth that they must have experienced that in no time at all John Greenwood came from his living in Norfolk to be assistant pastor. A contemporary of Robert Browne at Cambridge, Greenwood was ordained in the Church of England but later became a Congregationalist as a consequence of studying the New Testament.
The measure of blessing experienced in the congregation is witnessed to in a letter the mother of Francis, afterwards Lord, Bacon sent to Lord Burleigh: “and I also confess, as one that hath found mercy, that I have profited more in the inward hearing of God’s holy will – by such sincere and sound opening of the Scriptures – than I did by hearing occasional services at (St) Pauls well nigh twenty years together.”
To avoid pressures from the ecclesiastical authorities, an unsuccessful attempt was made to obtain a preaching license so that Wright would be able to preach without conforming. Bishop Aylmer’s refusal to grant the license was to instigate a fist fight. Bishop Aylmer had “a fiery, ungovernable temper” and the argument developed to such a pitch that Lord Rich’s uncle took the Bishop by the collar and “gave him a thrashing”! Aylmer’s own description were that: “he did hereupon so shake him up, that – he was never so abused at any man’s hands since he was born.”
When the Queen heard that “disorders were practised in Essex and particularly in the house of Lord Rich” she commanded Bishop Aylmer to bring the abuses to an abrupt end. Wright and Rich were both arrested and Wright was sent to the Fleet prison and Rich to the Marchalsea. A commission was then sent to Rochford and with the help of various witnesses, these included some six local Rectors and Vicars, they set out the accusations being made against the accused :-
“that he calleth the preachers that followed the Book of Common
Prayer dumb dogs
that the people were driven away from a sermon at the Church
at Rochford by the tolling of a bell
(that) in a sermon preached by him (Wright) at the Hall,
that he found fault with the law ecclesiastical, and depraved (sharply criticised) the ministry,
that preachers were openly examined and rebuked for their sermons in a great audience in the Hall of the Lord Rich by procurement of Wright.”
Wright was removed from the Fleet prison to the Gatehouse and stayed there until a joint petition secured the release of Wright and Lord Rich on September 1 lth 1582. Greenwood had meanwhile left Rochford to set up a secret London congregation which met at the house of Henry Martin, at St. Andrews-in-the-Wardrobe near St. Pauls. Henry Barrowe was soon to belong to that same congregation and, when Greenwood was arrested shortly afterwards, Barrowe was arrested and placed in the Gatehouse when visiting him in 1586. In the following year, 1587, they were both transferred to the Fleet prison and after savage ill treatment, being exposed to hunger, cold and nakedness, they were eventually brought to trial and executed at Tyburn on April 6th 1593.
The Church at Rochford went through a bitter stormy period in its history and was driven underground. Their experience of persecution was very similar to that of the Eastern European Church in our own times. Some fled the country and an iron ring reputedly still exists on the steps at Leigh-on-Sea marking where the boat which took some of the Church members to join the Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620 was moored.
Following the Act of Uniformity in 1662 and the “Great Ejectment”, of ministers who would not conform to the 1662 Prayer book, events saw some one hundred and fourteen ejections taking place in Essex alone. Groups of believers continued to join with the ejected pastors and met in private houses, barns, or whatever accommodation they could obtain.
Relief came to these dissenting congregations through the Act of Toleration in 1689, which followed the accession of William and Mary to the throne. It was to be a welcome respite and brought four major benefits to the congregations.
Firstly: Dissenting meeting places for public worship could be freely built.
Secondly: It was safe to meet and so it was safe to sing. This is why Isaac Watts “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” was published in 1707.
Thirdly: The dissenting congregations could now work out in a practical way the doctrine of the Church. Fourthly: They were free to make preaching, rather than liturgy, the central and most important factor in their worship.
Surveying the available evidence, it appears that the Church at Rochford opened their first building in 1690 on the site, or in the area of the site, where Ernest Doe and Sons the Agricultural Merchants are now situated in Weirpond Road. A bricked-up arch (doorway) in the old wall surrounding their car park is believed to have been the entrance to the church vestry.
The present building was opened in 1741 and was built to roughly half the size of the building now occupied. Tudur Jones states that the characteristic of an eighteenth century Meeting place is that it will be “plain, simple and dignified.” An observer looking around the building today will appreciate those characteristics are present. However the significance of the building being erected in 1741 is not simply the style that it was built in.
Three great issues had been creating conflict for the Church and believers during the first part of the 18th Century. They were rationalism, empiricism and deism and their influence had swept the land. The Divine inspiration of Scripture was rejected, the miraculous was ridiculed and, as society degenerated, moral standards were falling, social unrest multiplying and crime increasing. God’s answer was revival and the peak of that great spiritual awakening is considered to have been between 1738 and 1742 with the key figures being Whitefield and Wesley in England and Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands in Wales. A direct consequence of this great movement of the Holy Spirit was the increase in congregation and the subsequent need for a new building in Rochford.
The Church’s contact with the revival came largely through the Dissenting Academy in Northampton which is associated with the name of Philip Doddridge. The Academy’s students came regularly to preach at Rochford and in 1741 one of them, John Tailor, was ordained as the minister at Rochford. Later that year they opened their new building. One of Doddridge’s hymns, which was sung at that time by the members at Rochford, contains the following words:
“Revive thy dying churches Lord,
And bid our drooping graces live;
And more, that energy afford
A Saviour’s love alone can give.”
God graciously answered that request for that generation of Christians and we petition Him to do the same for us today.
Insights from the Records
A 1748 Account book tells of a Mr William Wallman building and presenting to the church a Manse. The Trustees were to include at least six of the “present preachers of the Tuesday Lecture at Pinner’s Hall in Broad Street, London.” The Pinner’s Hall lectures had been established in 1672 with John Owen and Richard Baxter among the first preachers. In 1759 the Church wanted to invite a pastor but the London Ministers feared that they were in too much of a hurry the wording used was “too precipitant.” The congregation had not heard the man preach more than sixteen times!
The many different entries give an insight into the life of the congregation at that time. A license for the Meeting House obtained at the Quarter Sessions cost lls:0d: and Dr Watts’ “Hymns and Psalms” for the Clerk 4s:0d. In the 18th Century the Rochford Hundred was not a particularly desirable place to live as the whole area was “subject to malaria, mildew and stinking fogs.” Ague was said to hang on every bush. An open sewer ran in front of the Church so a payment was made in 1748 “for a bridge to the Meeting House 16s:3d.” The water in Rochford was not really fit to drink and so the Minister had a Brewhouse so as to brew his own ale. These facilities are no longer provided for the present pastor!
What about this comment made on June 22nd 1768?
‘ ‘By order and desire of the Church and principal subscribers paid – Mr Thos. Linnett for account of himself and the Rev. Mr Field £11:11:00. The former for Roaring nine Sabbath days, the latter for preaching ditto. From ignorant enthusiastical and biggod lay-preacher Good Lord deliver us.”
We have details of payments for sand for the floor, whitewash for the walls but no heating costs; all of which give an impression of what it was like to worship at the Rochford Meeting House. Gifts to help the poor and needy: cloth to one, a pair of shoes to another, gifts to a stranger. Here is a short extract from the accounts for the year 1758:
“To white washing the inside of the meeting 17s:8d
To persons setting up with Mrs Boosey 2s:6d
To Mrs Boosey and bottle of wine 1 s: Od
To Mrs Boosey for wood 1 s: 2d
Paid for cloth for Jno Belgood 9s:0d
Jno Belgood for shoes 6s:0d
Given to a stranger 2s:6d”
We also find notes about the members which are of a more “spiritual” nature:
“June ye 1st (1776). Mr Wm. Conder departed this life in a most comfortable and Christian like manner that did real credit to his profession (of faith in Jesus Christ).”
We also have details of how the Church dealt with the perennially difficult question of calling a pastor. An entry in August 1803 tells of inviting Rev. M.Piper for seven weeks LONGER with a view to accepting a call to the pastorate. He accepted that call eventually and the service of dedication which followed there was much praise “with the lifting up of hands”!
In the September of 1835 Ebenezer Temple came to Rochford to consider taking up the pastoral oversight of the congregation. Physically he was not a strong man and the climate at Rochford was a considerable hazard to his health which contributed to bringing about his premature death. Temple was the man for the hour: preacher and fiery evangelist, a giant in faith and Christian zeal. From the first days there was such a bond between pastor and people that enabled them to face opposition and conflict as they established preaching stations and new causes far and wide. Distributing tracts, using rooms to preach the gospel in other towns, gaining permission to visit the inmates of the workhouse, an unusual privilege for a Dissenting Minister, all reveal the extent of his zeal for the gospel.
The Congregation helped Temple form a lending library and Temple himself made up his mind to give a copy of Watts’ Hymn Book free to all the poor in the district. The latter task proved to be beyond his means but he did buy seven hundred copies at 9d each and announced from the pulpit the following Sunday that the poor could buy copies for 6d each. Such was the blessing of God on the Church at this time that the original building was now far too small. The chapel was enlarged to nearly double the size for a cost of seven hundred pounds. Still the crowds continued to attend and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit was experienced in many lives.
We get a taste of the nature of his ministry from his wife’s description of a visit he made to preach at Donhead, near Birdbush, a place where he had formerly had a pastorate. When he arrived he found a crowd of people outside the chapel unable to get in for it was already full to overflowing. The service was held in an adjoining field, the congregation sitting on forms from the chapel and whatever they could borrow in seating from nearby houses. The preaching was so in the power of the Spirit that it caused many to follow him back to his lodgings, anxious for a word from him about their spiritual state before he returned to Rochford. The elderly folk, in particular, were fearful that they would not get another opportunity to see and hear him.
On his return to Rochford he threw himself into his work with renewed zeal. Facing opposition at Battlebridge, over the proposed building of a new chapel, Temple said: “If I consulted man I would stop; but if I consult God, I say go on.”
By November 1840 it was obvious that he was gravely ill yet he wrote: “I can truly say I only wish to live that I may more and more preach Christ, live to Him and be useful in his service.” He was buried in the Rochford Chapel graveyard on the 6th February 1841 and, despite the bad weather and the ground covered with thick snow, several hundred people gathered to say farewell to their beloved Pastor. On the day of his burial all the shops in the town were closed, such was the esteem in which he was held.
The Rev. Edward Bodley was to follow him in the pastorate and the Church records show that in the period between December 1841 and July 1846 ninety eight persons were received into membership. Many stated when giving an account of their spiritual experience that their “instrument of conversion” were sermons preached by the Pastor.
The Church was active in other areas of endeavour also and, as far back as 1750, the Church at Rochford had established a Dissenting School. When others were afraid of educating the children of the lower classes because they might prove a danger to the state, our forefathers at Rochford ensured that they had “a plain and useful education.” The church also had close links with some of the missionaries sent out by the London Missionary Society and this is particularly so in the case of Thomas Chalmers of New Guinea. The close link was forged because Chalmer’s stepson, the Rev. Harrison Chalmers, was Pastor at Rochford until 1914. The bond with the Church is shown in a letter Chalmers wrote to the Church in January 1901: “I am well, lonely and often have a terrible gnawing at the heart strings but HE is faithful who hath promised do keep very near to Christ, be saturated in His Spirit. May His love consume you altogether for Himself.”
After the ministry of the Rev. Harrison Chalmers the life and ministry of the Rochford Church has continued throughout the 20th Century through the instrumentality of men like Harry Bevan, Albert Fitton, Arthur Jones, Hector Watson, John Fennell, David Saunders and Andrew Leach.
The story of our Church at Rochford then and now is about the heartaches and tears, the fears and frustrations, joys and blessings of real people … living stones. Pastor and people together have known and continue to know the grace of the Living Lord Jesus Christ. So what of the future?
Our hope for the future is best expressed in the word of the letter to the Hebrews (chapter 12 vs.l and 2):
“Let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight…….. and let us run with patience the race that is set before us……… looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.”
© Rev. David Saunders, M.A., B.Ed.