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THE EARLY BAPTISTS IN CALDERDALE

By Ken Sutcliffe

 

The Church of England after the Restoration was never the force that it had been before its abolition. It had neither the power nor the self assurance to impose it's will upon a population who were now more interested in worshipping God in their own way than necessarily belonging to a national institution. It could no longer enforce those laws of the Elizabethan Settlement that insisted upon conformity to the Established Church. Despite persecution for non-attendance at the Church's Services or arguing against its power, small groups of people of Puritan values grew up everywhere to study their Bibles and to worship in their own ways. Others, such as Matthew Smith of Mixenden and Oliver Heywood of Halifax, tried to work from within the Church but were expelled as a result and suffered much in terms of fines and even imprisonment. Indeed some 2000 clergy were driven out of the Church of England by its refusal to broaden its Liturgy. As ever, in cases of oppression, these men met with sympathy and support from many in the general population, joined up with other dissenters and thus exercised considerable influence.

 

Educated men such as these were the exception however. It was the so-called "lay preachers" who led the early Baptist movement in the Calder Valley. They were fired with a desire to preach, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and became Ministers of small congregations by invitation, based on the strength of their ability to preach. Some never were attached to particular groups but followed their calling itinerantly.

 

WILLIAM MITCHELL, a native of Heptonstall, started out on such an itinerant path in 1684. He was in great danger meeting in private houses, which was illegal until 1689 when the Toleration Act was passed and such houses could be registered as meeting places for dissenting worship. During these early years before the Act he was arrested more than once and imprisoned at York.

He and his younger cousin, DAVID CROSSLEY, described as "The largest man in the County" were visiting 20 meeting places by 1691 in an area bounded by Barnoldswick, Bradford and Rossendale. Later there were many more such places. Locally, Mitchell was the more influential as he stayed in the North. Crossley was more ambitious and travelled more widely.

 

By 1692 the centre of their activities was Bacup and Cloughfold but all their scattered groups regarded themselves as part of one Church of dissenting Protestants, " The Church of Christ in Rossendale." About this time, because of the wanderings of Crossley, their ministry began the process of becoming "Baptist." Crossley met Baptists and was himself baptised in the Midlands at Bromsgrove in 1692 but it is only in 1705, thirteen years later, that a document at Cloughfold refers to them as "Anabaptists or Independents." However two years earlier in 1703 the first building in the Calder Valley was erected at Rodhill (now Rodwell) End, between Eastwood and Todmorden, "for the use of Protestant Dissenters known by the name of Baptists or Independents."

 

In 1711 the old barn at Robertshaw, at Stone Slack, Heptonstall, was converted for worship. It still exists, close to the site of Mount Zion and is the only remaining building of the Church of Christ in Rossendale, to which both of these Calder Valley Congregations considered themselves to be a part until 1717.

 

After 1717 this first Calder Valley Baptist Congregation survived until 1783, though the Slack building closed earlier. In 1739 members opened a Church of much importance in Huddersfield whilst in the Hebden Bridge end of the valley Wainsgate Chapel opened in 1750 and Birchcliffe in 1763. These members of the Rossendale Church now had their own buildings and Rodhill End closed but its influence was to continue into other Valley Chapels.

 

Roomfield Baptist Chapel

 

 

When the Rodwell End Chapel closed in 1783 members worshipped in other Chapels but re-formed in 1807, building themselves a new Chapel at Millwood the following year. This was a very small, one roomed affair but was very successful. So much so that in 1877 more spacious accommodation was opened at Roomfield, close to the heart of Todmorden. This in turn prospered and by 1908 there were 255 members and a large Sunday School of some 450. Numbers were much less after the 1914-18 war but nevertheless this congregation continued in the same building until the 1950s. Sadly, dry rot accounted for both chapel and schoolroom and both were demolished by 1959. By great money raising efforts a new small chapel was opened in March 1962 and later a Sunday School group was re-established.

In historical terms it is the direct descendant of the Rodwell End Church and thus has the longest lineage of all the Calder Valley Chapels. The longest serving Minister was Henry Briggs who served for 37 years between 1871-1908.

 

(photo of the chapel by kind permission of Roger Birch)

 

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