Fishergate Baptist Chapel

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

The “right thing” in regard to baptism is a recondite point; but we are not going to enter into any controversy about it. We shall say nothing as to the defects or merits of aspersion or sprinkling, immersion or dipping, affusion or pouring. Opinions vary respecting each system; and one may fairly say that the words uttered in explanation of the general theme come literally to us in the “voice of many waters.”, Jacob the patriarch was the first Baptist; the Jews kept up the rite moderately, but had more faith in its abstergent than spiritual influence; John turned it into an institution of Christianity; the Primitive Church carried on the business slowly, Turtullian kicking against and Cyprian lauding it; in the fifth century baptism became fully established amongst all Christian communities; then the Eastern and Western Churches quarrelled as to whether sprinkling or immersion constituted the proper ceremony; other small disputes concerning the modus operandi followed; and from that time to this the adherents of each scheme have spilled a great deal of water in piously working out their notions. There was once a time when nobody could undergo the ordinary process of baptism except at Easter or Whitsuntide; but children and upgrown people can now be put through the ceremony whenever it is considered necessary.

In Preston, as elsewhere, the majority of people think well of water when it is required by children for engulphing or baptismal purposes; but they care little for its use when the teens have been trotted through. It may be right enough for the physical and religious comfort of babes and sucklings; but its virtues recede in the ratio of development. There are, however, some sections of men and women in the town who, symbolically at least, have a high regard for water at any time after the years of sense and reason have been reached. These are the Baptists. There are four or five chapels set apart for their improvement in Preston, and the smartest of these is in Fishergate. In Leeming-street it was in the chrysalis state; in Fishergate the butterfly epoch has been reached. A dull, forlorn looking edifice, afterwards taken advantage of by the Episcopalian party, and now cleared off to make way for St. Saviour’s church, once formed the sacred asylum of a portion of the Baptists; but a desire for better accommodation, combined with a wish for more fashionable quarters, induced a change. The dove was repeatedly sent out, and dry land was finally found for the Baptists in Fishergate.

In 1858 a chapel was erected upon the spot, and thus far it has steadfastly maintained its position. It is a handsome building, creditable to both the architect and the congregation, and if its tower were less top heavy, it would, in its way, be quite superb. We never look at that solemn tower head without being reminded of some immense quadrangular pepper castor, fit for a place in the kitchen of the Titans. In every other respect the building is arranged smartly; if anything it is too ornamental, and in making a general survey one is nearly afraid of meeting with Panathenaic frieze work. On the principle that you can’t have the services of a good piper without paying proportionately dear for them, so you can’t obtain a handsome chapel except by confronting a long bill. The elysium of antipedobaptism in Fishergate cost the modest sum of £5,000, and of that amount about £800 remains to be paid. Considering the greatness of the original sum, the debt is not very large; but if it were less the congregation would be none the worse; and if it didn’t exist at all they would be somewhat nearer bliss in this general vale of tears.

Fishergate Baptist Chapel is the only Dissenting place of worship in the town possessing an exterior clock; and it is one of the most orderly articles in the town, for it never strikes and has not for many months shown itself after dark. It used to exhibit signs of activity after sunset; but it was, considered a “burning shame” by some economists to light it up with gas when the Town Hall clock was got into working order, and ever since then it has been nightly kept in the dark. Fishergate Baptist Chapel has an excellent interior, and it will accommodate about twice as many people as patronise it. Long stately side lights, neatly embellished with stained glass and opaque filigree work, give it a mild solemnity which is relieved by fine circular windows occupying the gables. The seats are arranged in the usual three-row style, and there is a touch of neat gentility about them indicative of good construction, whatever the parties they have been made for are like. Fashionably-conceived gas-stands shoot up and spread their branches at intervals down the chapel; and at the extreme end there is a broad gallery, set apart for the singers, who need be in no fear of breaking it down through either the weight of their melodious metal or the specific gravity of their physique. A new organ is much wanted, and if a few new singers were secured, or the old ones polished up slightly, the proceedings would be more lively and agreeable. Nearly three of the members of the choir are really good singers; the remainder are what may be termed only moderate.

What Lune-street is to the Wesleyans, so Fishergate seems to be to the Baptists – the centre of gravity of the more refined and fashionable worshippers. Very few poor people visit it, and it is thought that if they don’t come of their own accord they will never he seriously pressed on the subject. The free sittings are just within the door, on the left hand side, and we should fancy that not more than 25 really poor people use them. The higher order of Christians occupy the lower portion of the same range of seats, the central pews, and those on the right side thereof. The congregation consists almost entirely of middle-class persons – people who have either saved money in business or who are making a determined effort to do so. Good clothes, quiet demeanour, and numerical smallness are the striking characteristics. Nothing approaching fervour ever takes possession of the general body. Religion with them is not a termagant, revered for her sauciness and loved for her violent evolutions. It is a reticent, even spirited, calmly orthodox affair, whose forerunner fed on locusts and wild honey, and whose principles are to be digested quietly. There may be a few very boisterous sheep in the fold, who get on fire periodically in the warmth of speaking and praying; who will express their willingness, when the pressure is up, to do any mortal thing for the good of “the cause;” but who will have to be caught there and then if anything substantial has to follow. Like buckwheat cakes and rum gruel they are best whilst hot. At a night meeting they may be generously disposed and full of universal sympathy; but they can sleep out their burning thoughts in a few hours, and waken up next morning like larks, with no recollection of their gushing promises.

There is accommodation in the chapel for about 400 persons, but the average attendance is not more than 200; and there are only about 90 “members.” Not much difference between the morning and evening attendance is noticed. The baptismal Thermophylae is generally guarded by the sacred 90, and looked at by the fuller 200. The pew rents are very high; but this evil is compensated for by the comparative absence of those solemn gad flies which come in the shape of collections. At some places of worship contribution boxes and bags are seen floating about rapidly nearly every other Sunday, for either home expenses or perishing Indians; but at Fishergate Baptist Chapel incidental requirements are blended with the pew rents; and for other purposes about two collections annually suffice. That is all, and that ought to make attendance at such a place rather agreeable.

The primal government of the chapel is in the hands of four deacons; but they are not very officious like some pillars of the church: one of them is mild and obliging, the second is wise-looking and crotchety, the third is disposed to pious rampagiousness in his lucid intervals, and the fourth is a kindly sort of being, with a moderate respect for converted dancers and hallaleujah men. Some theological writers say that there are “evangelists” as well as deacons in connection with Baptist government. There may be some of this class at the Fishergate Chapel; but we have not yet seen their sacred personages. The place is highly favoured with clocks. Not only is there a specimen of horology outside, but there is one within, and it may be called a worldly-wise creature, for it never gets beyond No. I in its striking. Tradition hath it that once when there was no clock in the chapel, the preacher used to overshoot most uncomfortably the ordinary limits of time; that the congregation, whilst fond of sermons, did not like them stretched too violently; and that they resolved unanimously to purchase a clock. Probably this story is groundless; but it is a fact nevertheless that the clock is so situated as to be only fully and easily seen by the preacher. More than three-fourths of the people sit with their backs directly to it. And it is furthermore a fact that, whilst when there was no clock the usual time of deliverance was passed, the congregation are now released with scrupulous exactitude. They got into the open air one Sunday evening when we were there about 16 seconds before eight, and the preacher had abandoned the pulpit by the time the Town Hall clock gave its opinion on the question.

In winter there is a Sunday morning prayer meeting at the place; but in summer the members can’t stand such a gathering, either because too much light is thrown upon the subject, or because the attendance is too small, or because early prayers are not required at that season of the year. A prayer meeting is, however, held all the year round, on a Wednesday night, and it is favoured, on an average, with about 20 earnest individuals, who sometimes create what might, if not properly explained, be considered a rather solemn disturbance. These parties meet in the Sunday school, which is beneath the chapel. The average attendance of scholars at this school is not very large. When buns and coffee are astir it may be computed at 200; when ordinary religious instruction is simply placed before the juvenile mind the attendance may be set down at about 100.

In the chapel and immediately before the pulpit, there is a square hole, usually covered, which in denominational phraseology goes by the name of the “baptistery.” In the first ages of Christianity such places were made outside the church, and were either hexagonal or octagonal, then they became polygonal, then circular, and now they have got quadrangular. Two of the finest baptisteries in the world are at Florence and Pisa; that at the former, place being 100 feet in diameter, made of black and white marble, and surrounded with a gallery on granite columns; that at the latter being 116 feet wide, and beautifully ornamented. The biggest baptistery ever made is supposed to have been that at St. Sophia, in Constantinople, which, we are told, was so spacious as to have once served for the residence of the Emperor Basilicus. But there is no marble about the baptistery in Fishergate Chapel, and no one would ever think of transmuting it into a residence. It is used two or three times a year, and if outsiders happen to get a whisper of an intended dipping, curiosity leads them to the chapel, and they look upon the ceremony as a piece of sacred fun, right enough to look at, but far too wet for anything else. This dipping is, indeed, a quaint, cold piece of business. None except adults or youths who have, it is thought, come to sense and reason, are permitted to pass through the ordeal, and it is recognised by them as symbolic of their entrance into “the Church.” Sometimes as many as six or seven are immersed. They put on old or special garments suitable for the occasion, and the work of baptism is then carried on by the minister, who stands in the figurative Jordan. He quietly ducks them overhead; they submit to the process without a murmur; they neither bubble, nor scream, nor squirm; and the elders look on solemnly, though impressed with thoughts that, excellent as the ceremony may be, it is a rather shivering sort of business after all. After being baptised, the new members retire into an adjoining room, strip their saturated cloths, rub themselves briskly with towels, or get the deacons to do the work for them, then re-dress, comb their hair, and receive liberty to rejoice with the general Israel of the flock. Such baptism as that we have described seems a rather curious kind of rite; but it is honestly believed in, and as those who submit to it have to undergo the greatest punishment in the case – have to be put right overhead in cold Longridge water – other persons may keep tolerably cool on the subject. People have a right to use water any way so long as they don’t throw it unfairly upon others or drown themselves; and if three-fourths of the people who now laugh at adult baptism would undergo a dipping next Sunday, and then stick to water for the remainder of their lives, they would be better citizens, whatever might become of their theology.

The Rev. J. O’Dell is the pastor of Fishergate Baptist Chapel, and he is an exemplary man in his way, for be only receives a small salary and yet contrives to keep out of debt – a thing which a good deal of parsons, and which many of the ordinary children of grace, can’t accomplish. He is well liked by his congregation, and we have heard of no fighting over either his virtues or defects. He has quite a clerical look, and, if he hadn’t, his voice would give the cue to his profession. There is an earnest unctuous modulation about it, which, as a rule, is acquired after men have flung overboard the common idioms of secular life. The salary of Mr. O’Dell is about £160 a year, and although he would like more, he can make himself and Mrs. O’Dell, and the younger branches of the house of O’Dell, comfortable on that sum. Some pastors gnash their teeth if their purse strings are opened for less than £300 a year; Mr. O’Dell would purchase a pair of wings, and sing “‘Tis like a little heaven below,” if his stipend was raised to that figure.

There is nothing very extraordinary in the preaching style of Mr. O’Dell. It lacks the cunning of that rare old Baptist bird, who once went by the name of Birney, and it is devoid of that learned and masterly eloquence so finely worked by the last minister of the chapel, who used to read some of his sermons over to the deacons, before trying them upon the other sinners in the chapel; still it is sincere, straight-forward, and theologically sound. It never reaches a point of raving, is never loudly pretentious, or ferocious in tone. Mr. O’Dell will never be a brilliant man; but he is now what is often much better – a good working minister. He will never occupy the position of a commander, will never even be a lieutenant, but he will always be a good soldier in the ranks. He has neither a lofty imaginative capacity nor a dashing ratiocinative faculty, but he has a clear sense of the importance of his pastoral duties, he goes easily and earnestly to work, makes neither much fuss nor smoke, and if he does now and then seem to pull queer faces in his sermons – give odd twists to some of his muscles – that does not debar him from preaching fair even-sounding sermons, soothing to his general hearers and pleasing to those who have to pay him. There are a few people whom Mr. O’Dell’s sermons fail to keep awake; but as such parties are probably better asleep than in a full state of consciousness, no great harm is done. He has all sorts of folk to deal with – men who are pious, and smooth creatures quietly given to humbug; people who practice what they are taught, and a few so wonderfully good that if they called a meeting of their creditors they would begin the business by saying, “Let us pray;” individuals who follow their duties calmly, and make no show about their work; and respectable specimens of indifference, who go to chapel because it is fashionable to do so. But they seem all complacent, and the “happy family” element predominates. Mr. O’Dell suits them; they suit Mr. O’Dell; and if he had only a fuller chapel – a better salary, too, wouldn’t be despised by him – he could send up his orisons with more courage and preach to the sinners around him with the steam hammer force of a Gadsby.