1Pe 1:7 That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:
This church was founded in 1640. The members met regularly for worship, whether they could obtain the services of a minister or not, the gifted brethren helping by prayer and exhortation. During 1642 John Tombes was preaching for the congregation, before being forced to flee to London.
The Broadmead congregation is typical of the many churches of Christ that appeared in the early 1640s across England. The traditional view is that the church of Helwys (London, Newgate) established many other congregations in a short period of time. But Helwys' congregation was severally persecuted and its members faced prison and property confiscated. Helwys himself died in prison, yet, it is assumed despite these severe, almost impossible conditions, Helwys was able with a few friends establish his denomination, the General Baptists (a name unknown to Helwys or anyone else in this period) and numerous more congregations throughout England, Wales and Ireland. The alternative view is that by 1640 it was becoming possible to practise religion openly that had separated from the established church of England.
Bristol had in the Middle Ages become a wealthy city with an independent middle class. It was from Bristol in 1497 John Cabot set out, under the patronage of King Henry VII, on one of the most remarkable voyages in the history of maritime discovery. The significance of the voyage of the 'Matthew' is that it took John Cabot to the mainland of North America and which eventually led to the migration of many English-speaking people to the countries of that continent.
In the late 1300s Bristol and the surrounding area had become known to the authorities as a centre for Lollardy or heretics. These heretics by the 1500s were in fellowship with others in Holland and throughout England.
John Purvey, who was the New Testament translator of the Wyclif Bible preached at Bristol, but was silenced in Aug., 1387, by the Bishop of Worcester. In 1390 he was in prison. In 1400 he recanted his Lollardy at St. Paul's Cross, London and then the archdeacon of Canterbury admitted him to the vicarage of West Hythe, Kent. Purvey resigned Oct. 8, 1403, and was again in prison in 1421 from where he possibly died.
During the 1460s, James Willis, a Bristol weaver by trade who was a well known preacher was prosecuted for attacking pilgrimages, the sacraments, worship of images, and the papacy. He moved to London to continue preaching there, where he was imprisoned.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Bristol again was known for the Lollards who became a source of trouble for the church and authorities. William Tyndale was a regular open air preacher in the city, on the college green.
Simon Simon Fish came from Bristol to London where he was a preacher with the Bow Lane church of Christ, he died 1531.
In 1577 John Northbrooke, “preacher of the Word of God” at Bristol, published one of England’s earliest condemnations of stage plays, interludes, “jugglings and false sleyghts,” and other pastimes. Our duty, he says, requires us to “apply al and euery of our doings to ye glory of God,” but instead “we kepe ioly cheare one with another in banquetting, surfeiting and dronkennesse; also we vse all the night long in ranging from town to town, and from house to house, with mummeries and maskes, diceplaying, carding and dauncing.” Thus, “we leaue Christ alone at the aultar, and feed our eyes with vaine and vnhonest sights.” Festival and holy days contribute to this spirit of dissipation, for by them “halfe the yeare, and more,” is “ouerpassed…in loytering and vaine pastimes…restrayning men from their handy labours and occupations.”
Northbrooke’s views represent a fundamental rejection of the cultural traditions that dominated English life until the sixteenth century. Nowhere had these traditions been better exemplified than in the town in which Northbrooke served his ministry, Bristol.
The background for the church at Bristol in one where some degree of religious tolerance had been allowed in the city. Now to John Canne. Canne is famous for his 'authenticated version' of the bible, which appeared in 1647 at Amsterdam, under the title, The Bible, with Marginal Notes, Shewing Scripture to be the Best Interpreter of Scripture. The work was often reprinted (9 editions, between 1662 and 1754). When he was baptised is uncertain, but it was before 1640. He was found in Bristol in 1640, preaching in "public places" and was declared to be a "baptized man," or an immersed man as that phrase was used.
Crosby says of Canne, the church at Southwark (London) "was constituted about the year 1621", then he says the first preacher was a "Mr. Hubbard, or Herbert" and that "he was succeeded by Mr. John Canne who, it appears from the records of the church in Broadmead, Bristol, was a "Baptist", and the first person who preached the doctrine of believers’ baptism in that city" (Bristol). At this time Calvinism was not present in the church of Christ, so, from the start the Broadmead Church would not have been Calvinist, though it is not denied it turned to Calvinism later, and from there, became Baptist as it is today. The term "Baptist" in the time of Crosby referred to a person opposed to infant baptism and not a sect.
The Broadmead records say "At this juncture of time the providence of God brought to this city one Mr. Canne, a baptized man; it was that Mr. Canne that made notes and references upon the Bible. He was a man very eminent in his day for godliness, and for reformation in religion, having great understanding in the way of the Lord."
Mrs. Hazzard, who was the wife of the parish priest, found him and fetched him to her home. Then the Records say: "He taught the way of the Lord more perfectly, and settled them in church order, and showed them the difference betwixt the church of Christ and anti-Christ, and left with them a printed book treating of the same; and divers printed papers to that purpose. So that by this instrument Mr. Canne, the Lord did confirm and settle them; showing them how they should join together, and take in members." So the congregation was established.
In 1645 the congregation agreed to the following, as they sought to establish a New Testament Church - "that they would in ye strength of Christ, keepe close to His Holy Scriptures, ye word of God,; and ye plaine truths and ordinances of ye Gospel, of Church Fellowship, breaking bread, and Prayers; And to Subject to one another, according to ye Discipline and admonition by ye Rules of Christ, in ye New Testament, or ye Scriptures."
In 1651, Mr. Ewins, who had been a minister in the Church of England, became their preacher. Under his ministry the church prospered. In addition to the Lord's-day exercise, they met on Thursday evenings in private houses for free conference on the Scriptures and mutual exhortation. These meetings were found very profitable.
In 1656 Denis Hollister through a pamphlet wrote to the church, titled "The Skirts of the Whore discovered, and the Mingled People in the midst of her, in a letter sent by D. Hollister to the Independent Baptiz'd People, who call themselves a Church of Christ in Bristol, but are found to be a Synagogue of Satan ... Together with another letter ... to J. Ewens".
A reply was made to Hollister in a tract by one of the elders, Robert Purnell (and others) in a tract titled "The Church of Christ in Bristol recovering her vail out of the hands of them that have smitten and wounded her, and taken it away. Being a ... vindication from a false ... imputation cast upon her by D. Hollister, formerly a Member of her but now an Apostate ... as appears by a late pamphlet put forth by him, called, The skirts of the Whore discovered ... Likewise a word by T. Ewen, unto what concerns him in the said pamphlet, and also to the later part of another Book, called, Satan enthroned, etc". At this time the church was under the protection of Oliver Cromwell but with the restoration of the monarchy things would change for the worse.
In 1661 their troubles began. On the 27th of July in that year, bro. Ewins was apprehended while preaching. He was released on the 25th of September following, and immediately recommenced his work. Next year he endured another short imprisonment. A heavier trial came upon them in 1663. Brother Ewins and several others were arrested on the 4th of October, and indicted at the quarter sessions for a riot. Various fines were imposed (Ewins was fined £50), and the parties were adjudged to lie in prison till the fines were paid. So the prison became the 'parsonage' till the following September, when a compromise was effected, and on payment of part of the money the prisoners were released. Brother Ewins had not been idle, however. The people were accustomed to gather around the prison, where he preached to them from the window of the room which he occupied, on the fourth storey. "The word of the Lord was precious in those days."
Hitherto they had met in a "chapel called the Friars" but now they were compelled for a time to worship in private houses. The constables frequently disturbed them, and many were imprisoned and fined. Sometimes, when they learnt that the officers were coming, they evaded them by taking refuge in a cellar, and sometimes by climbing into a garret. Still they resolutely kept up their assemblies. "In the year 1665," they say, "we had many disturbances, and divers imprisoned, but the Lord helped us through it." Their firmness was remarkably shown by a resolution passed to the effect, that those who absented themselves from worship through fear should be dealt with as disorderly members.
When the plague broke out in Bristol, in 1666, a stop was put to the persecution. There was peace for four years. In 1667 the Church obtained another "public meetingplace." It was "a large warehouse, up one pair of stairs." Brother Ewins died April 26th, 1670. In the following month the police made their appearance again, and took some members of the congregation to the magistrates, who fined them. This was repeated several Lord's-days; but they secured the preacher by breaking a hole in the wall, so that he could stand in a room of the adjoining house, and preach without being seen. Thus their enemies were baffled. The opposition becoming more violent, they adopted another course. They nailed up the doors of the meeting-house; and "we were fain," the record states, "to meet in the lanes and highways for several months."
Another interval of tranquility was enjoyed. They invited Brother Thomas Hardcastle, who had been preaching some time in London, to become their preacher. He was in prison when the invitation reached him. After his release he visited the Church, and subsequently accepted the charge, in 1671. In that year they procured "the meeting-house at the lower end of Broadmead, where the heretics called Quakers had formerly used to meet; it being four great rooms made into one square room, about sixteen yards long and fifteen yards broad." There bro. Hardcastle preached upwards of three years without any disturbance.
In 1671 the church had Thomas Hardcastle for preacher and three elders, Thomas Ellis, Edward Terrill and Richard White. Robert Simpson, William Dickason and Thomas Rieves were deacons.
But in 1674 there came a new Anglican bishop to Bristol, "one Guy Carleton" — "though aged and gray, a violent man against good people that separated from that which he called the Church." . . . "He resolved to destroy all our meetings, and said he would not leave a track of a meeting in Bristol; but would make us all come to Church, as he called it." With him was leagued George Hellier, a lawyer, who took up the trade of an informer, and found it more lucrative than his profession. He spent the Lord's-days in going from one meeting-house to another, in search of prey. His chief object was to seize the minister, partly in the hope of suppressing the meetings thereby, and partly for the sake of the heavy fine. Bro. Hardcastle was apprehended Feb. 4th, 1675, and committed to jail for six months. But the meetings were not discontinued, although arrests took place nearly every Lord's-day. In order to protect the preacher, a curtain was prepared, by which, when drawn, a portion of the room was separated. About fifty persons could sit behind the curtain, the preacher being placed among them, undistinguished. Care was taken that a number of "women and maids" should sit on the staircase, "so that the informers could not quickly run up." By this contrivance, whenever Hellier and his minions were approaching, notice was given, the curtain was drawn, the service ceased, and the whole congregation, according to a preconcerted arrangement, commenced singing a psalm. When the informers entered at such a time, they were utterly confused. It was impossible to tell who had been preaching; and singing psalms was no crime. But "justice had fallen in the streets," and they rarely failed to drag away some of the congregation to prison, and to procure the infliction of fines upon them.
Bro. Hardcastle was released from prison at the end of six months; but, on the second Lord's-day after his release, he was apprehended while preaching, and sent to jail again. During this second term of imprisonment he wrote a weekly letter to the Church, which was read at the Lord's-day meetings. These letters have been preserved. They are admirably adapted to the instruction and comfort of a people under such trying circumstances. And they were much needed. Towards the end of the year the meetings were "grown very poor and lean, through fines, imprisonments, and constant worrying of us every day." On one occasion the bishop himself was among the constables!
From the beginning of 1676 to the middle of 1680 there was a lull in the storm. bro. Hardcastle died in 1678, and was succeeded by George Fownes in September, 1679.
Interruption of their worship was resumed in July, 1680, and continued at times through that year and the next. In December, 1681, bro. Fownes and a large number of the brethren were seized and sent to prison. He preached to them there. Twenty-four of them were brought up at the quarter sessions, and obliged to give bail for their appearance when called on to answer an indictment for a breach of the peace, with which they were most unrighteously threatened. Bro. Fownes was detained, but the brethren were determined to test the legality of his imprisonment, and procured a writ of habeas corpus, by which means his cause was taken to the Court of King's Bench in London, and he was ultimately discharged, although he was still prevented by the operation of the Five Mile Act from preaching in public.
The years 1682 and 1683 were the darkest times to our brethren. They held their meetings in private houses, in the fields, or in the woods, wherever they could best escape the vigilance of the authorities. Mayor, aldermen, and constables could hardly have gone to Church at all in those years, for all their time was spent in hunting after Dissenters’ meetings! A few brief extracts from the records will show how our ancestors fared.
1682. Jan. 29. — The Church met at four different places. Many of them "went in the afternoon on Durdham Down, and got into a cave of a rock towards Clifton, where brother Thomas Whinnell preached to them."
March 12. — "Met in the fields by Barton Hundred, and brother Samuel Buttall of Plymouth preached in the fore-part of the day, and brother Whinnell in the evening. It was thought there were near a thousand persons in the morning."
March 19. — "Met in the lanes beyond Baptist Mills."
April 13. — "Met in the rain in a lane."
April 20. — "A day of prayer, from nine till five in the evening, at Mr. Jackson's, over the Down, in peace."
May 4. — "Information was brought to a petty session for Gloucestershire, against brother Jennings, for preaching in the lanes, and a warrant granted for levying five pounds, or else goods, or person."
June 11. — "Brother Fownes being come from London, but not daring to come into the city because of the Corporation Act, met with us, and preached in Kingswood, near Scruze Hole, under a tree, and endured the rain."
July 2. — "Brother Fownes preached in another place in the wood. Our friends took much pains in the rain, because many informers were ordered out to search ; and we were in peace, though there were near twenty men and boys in search."
July 16. — "Brother Fownes first, and Brother Whinnell after; preached under a tree, it being very rainy."
August 20. — "Met above Scruze Hole, in our old place, and heard brother Fownes preach twice in peace. Brother Terril had caused a workman to make banks on the side of the hill to sit down on, several of them like a gallery; and there we met also on the 27th, in peace. On both days we sang a psalm in the open woods."
"On the 7th of December we met for our lecture at bro. Shuter's, on Redcliffe Hill, in peace, taking a great deal of care in going and coming, the women wearing neither white aprons nor patterns."
1683. Jan. 21. — "We met at eight in the morning, and though there were seven on horseback and twenty on foot to seek after us, we escaped, having broken up at ten."
March — "This week about 150 Dissenters were convicted by our recorder, on the statute of 23rd Eliz., for £20 a month, for not coming to church."
March 25. — Brother Fownes, though "very ill, went to the meetings in the wood; but after three quarters of an hour we were surrounded by horse and foot, the former in ambush." Mr. Fownes was arrested, and sent to Gloucester jail for six months.
April 22. — "We went out at four in the morning, and were in peace."
November 14. — "A day of prayer, having some hours together in the wood, between London and Sodbury Road: the enemy came upon us unawares, and seized about eight persons; but the brethren escaped to admiration. The bushes were of great service to us." A number of the sisters were taken: "they got justice Fitz-Herbert to come, and upon examination he could get little out of them, and could not learn who was the preacher; so they were let go."
December 20. — "Watkins, the marshal, and others, went with warrants from Justice Herbert to brother John Morgan, in Temple Street, and took his yarn and what goods they could find, for seven pounds ten shillings. And the day before took away Margaret Seymour's trunk and clothes, with about thirty pounds, for seven pounds odd money, for being at our meeting in the fields."
December 30. — "Being a hard frost, and snow on the ground, we met in the wood, and though we stood in the snow the sun shone upon us, and we were in peace."
1684. March 4. — "We took our sad state into consideration; and brother Terrill signified, that our duty lay in three things: — 1st. To watch over one another, that none draw back to the world's worship. 2nd. That every one sanctify the Lord’s-day. 3rd. That we endeavour to edify one another as members, and also do what we can for others' souls. And, considering what is above, and that writs are daily expected to levy £20 a month, £240 per annum a man, upon us, for not coming to church, or imprison us if it be not be paid, there being thirteen brethren present, we agreed to have circular meetings at five places, where the brethren were to exercise their gifts, and twice in a day, at nine in the morning, and at one in the afternoon. These five places were. — 1st, brother Dickson, or Davis; 2nd, brother Clark or Robert Lewis; 3rd, brother Whinnell; 4th, brother Ellis or J. Coirnhs [Cornish]; 5th, brother Terrill. And also three places for prayer and repetition; viz. brother Gwilliam's, brother Bodenham's, brother Reeve's. And because some might be sick or otherwise detained, we appointed six or seven to a place, and the first four were to be taken in, and that those that were shut out were to go to the places of repetition. And none were to go to a place but once a day, and not to the same place every Lord's-day; but round, so they came to the same once in five weeks. And by this means near one hundred might hear every Lord's-day, and in a few weeks have the benefit of all the Church's gifts. And besides, brother Whinnell would repeat again at some house in the evening, and on week-days at other places. Thus we kept within the law, which allowed four besides the family. And on the ninth of March we began this circular meeting."
April 10. — "Brother Warren was fined £10 for a riot, being at a meeting near Roe Gate, and fees 47s., which he paid in the hall at Gloucester. But Lugg was forsworn in it, for he swore it was on the 27th, and it was on the 29th day that the meeting was. Old brother Cornish was bound to appear again next sessions, and several others. Some were fined 40s. and their fees, and released. Sister Fowles was put in prison at Gloucester. Some were fined five marks, as bro. Jos. Wey; some £5, as the justices pleased, and to lie in prison till paid. About this time Pug Read died miserably, being an informer about twenty years old: had his skull broke, as was said, by one of his companions; he was one that broke into bro. Terrill's house."
September 16. — "Several of our brethren, brother Hunt, William Dickason, & co., and many more, were summoned by the apparitor to the bishop's court, for not receiving the Lord's Supper."
October 7. — "Nearly twenty more friends were indicted for eleven months' not coming to church." . . . "And brother Fownes being brought into court, was by Powell, the chairman, called a ringleader, turbulent, seditious, and told he must find six hundred pounds' bail to appear next sessions at Bristol, and be of good behaviour, or lie in prison."
October 10. — "New mayor and sheriff being chosen, James Twyford, sheriff, threatens to find out our little meetings, and he would be like death, — spare none."
1685. January 13. — "At the quarter sessions, brother Fownes was treated as before, and Justice Powell, the chairman, told him, Sir Richard Hart, of Bristol, should say he was a dangerous man. So they still kept him there at Gloucester, prisoner."
"On the 29th of November, 1685, brother Fownes, died in Gloucester jail, having been kept there for two years and about nine months a prisoner, unjustly and maliciously, for the testimony of Jesus and preaching the Gospel." He was originally committed for six months, but they would not release him unless he would give bond for his good behaviour, which meant, that he would not preach again. This, of course, he would not do.
Thus the enemy prevailed, and the servants of God were brought low. Truly, they were "perilous times."
The church in time converted to Calvinism, the greatest enemy in the 1600s, and became in time part of the Baptist denomination.
Next page, Sir Isaac Newton, William Whiston and their involvement with the churches of Christ in the eighteenth century: