Zoar Particular Baptist Chapel

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

Some good people are much concerned for the erection of new places of worship in our large towns, labour hard for long periods in maturing plans for them, and nearly exhaust their energies in securing that which is held to be the only potent agent in their construction – money. But this is an ancient and roundabout process, and may, as it sometimes has done, terminate in failure. A stiff quarrel is about the surest and quickest thing we are acquainted with for multiplying places of worship, for Dissenters, at any rate; and probably it would be found to work with efficacy, if tried, amongst other bodies. Local experience shows that disputes in congregations invariably end in the erection of new chapels. Show us a body of hard, fiercely-quarrelsome religious people, and although neither a prophet nor the son of one we dare predict that a new place of worship will be the upshot of their contentions. We know of four or five chapels in Preston which here been raised on this plan, and those requiring more need only keep the scheme warm. It is not essential that persons anxious for new sacred edifices should expend their forces in pecuniary solicitations; let them set a few congregations by the ears and the job will be done at once. Deucalion of Thessaly was told by the oracle of Themis that if he wished to renew mankind he must throw his mother’s bones behind his back. This was about as irreverent and illogical as telling people that if they want more religious accommodation they must commence fighting; and yet, whilst olden history gives some faint proof that the Grecian prince was successful, in stone if not in bone throwing, modern experience ratifies the notion that a smart quarrel is certain to be followed by a good chapel.

There was a small feud in 1849-50 at Vauxhall-road Particular Baptist Chapel, Preston, concerning a preacher; several liked him; some didn’t; a brisk contention followed; and, in the end, the dissatisfied ones – about 50 in number, including 29 members – finding that they had “got up a tree,” quietly retired. They hired a place in Cannon-street, which somehow has been the nursery of two or three stirring young bodies given to spiritual peculiarity. Here they worshipped earnestly, looking out in the meantime for a plot of land in some part of the town whereon they could build a chapel, and thus attend to their own business on their own premises. Singular to say they hit upon a site adjoining the most fashionable quarter of the town – hit upon and bought the only piece of land in the Belgravia of Preston whereon they or anybody else could build a place of worship. This was a little spot on the north-eastern side of Regent-street, abutting upon Winckley-square, and freed from the restrictions as to church and chapel building which operated in respect to every other vacant piece of land in the same highly-spiced neighbourhood. Upon this land they raised a small chapel, and dedicated it to Zoar. Whether they did this because Zoar means little, or because it was fancied that they had “escaped,” like Lot of old, from a very unsanctified place, we cannot tell.

The chapel was opened in 1853, at a cost of £500, one-fifth of which, apart from previous subscriptions, was raised during the inaugural services. As to the outward appearance of this chapel, not so much can be said. It is built of brick, with stone facings; at the front there is a gable pierced with a doorway, flanked with two long narrow windows, and surmounted by a small one; above, there is a stone tablet giving to the name of the chapel and the date of its opening; on the left, calmly nestling on the roof, there is a sheet iron pipe; and on the ground, at the same side, there are some good stables. These stables do not belong to the chapel, and never did. There is no bell at the chapel; but the name of Mr. Bell, who rents the stables, is fixed at one side of it; and in this circumstance some satisfaction may be found. The chapel has a microscopical, select, sincere appearance; has no architectural strength nor highly-finished beauty about it; is bashful, clean, unadorned; and looks like what it is – the cornered-up, decorous, tiny Bethel of a particular people. Its internal arrangements are equally sedate, condensed, and snug. A calm homeliness, a Quakerly simplicity runs all through it. Nothing glaring, shining, or artistically complex is visible; neither fresco panellings, nor chiaroscuro contrasts, nor statuary groups adorn its walls: if any of these things were seen the members would scream. All is simple, clean, modest. The walls, slightly relieved on each side by two imitation columns, are calmly coloured; the ceiling, containing a floriated centre piece, is plainly whitewashed; the gas stands have no pride in them; the pulpit is small, durable, unpretentious.

There are 22 deep long narrow pews in the chapel, and they will accommodate 200 persons. A small and rather forlorn-looking clock perches over the doorway, and keeps time, when going, moderately well. In the south-western corner of the building there is a mural tablet, in memory of the late Mrs. Caroline Walsh, who gave £50 towards the erection of the chapel. If she had given £100 probably two monuments would have been raised to her memory. Nearly all who visit the chapel are middle-class people. The average attendance ranges from 70 to 80. There are 34 members at the place. Half of those who originally joined it are dead. They did not die through attending the chapel, but through ordinary physical ailment. The congregation, numerically speaking, is stationary, at present. Those attending the chapel profess the very same principles as the Vauxhall-road Baptists, sing out of hymn books just like theirs, and drink in with equal rapture the Philpottian utterances of the Gospel Standard – the organ of the body. They have four collections a year, and the hat never goes round amongst them in vain. Their pulpit is specially reserved for men after their own heart. They will admit to it neither General Baptists, nor Methodists, nor Independents; and however good a thing any of the preachers of these bodies might have to say, they would have to burst before the Zoar Chapel brethren would find them rostrum accommodation for its expression. All classes, they fancy, ought to mind their own affairs; and preachers they consider should always keep to the pulpits of their own faith. Although touchy as to preachers they are somewhat liberal as to writers, and have a great fondness for several of the works of Church of England divines. They esteem considerably, we are informed, the writings of “Gill, Romaine, Hawker, Parkes, Hewlett, and others belonging that church.” There is a debt of £150 upon Zoar Chapel; and if any gentleman will give that sum to square up matters we can guarantee that good special sermons, eulogistic of all his virtues since birth, will be preached, and that a monument will be erected to him in the chapel when he dies.

The first minister the Zoar Chapel people had, after their secession, was Mr. D. Kent, a Liverpool gentleman who came over to Preston weekly, for seven years, and preached every Sunday. He got no salary, was content with having his railway fare paid and his Sunday meals provided, and he gave much satisfaction. In the end he had to retire through ill health. Mr. J. S. Wesson, who evaporated quietly from Preston some time ago, followed Mr. Kent, and preached for the Zoar folk six years. His successor was Mr. Edward Bates, of Darwen, who visited the chapel every Sunday for 12 months, and then withdrew. Since his departure there has been no regular minister at the Chapel; and whenever one does come he will have to be a “Mr.” and not a “Rev.” Particular Baptists don’t believe in “reverend” gentlemen – think none of them are really reverend, and that it is presumption in any man, however sublimated his virtue or learning may be, to sacredly oil up his name with any such prefix.

We have visited Zoar Chapel twice. It was exactly twenty minutes to seven one Sunday evening when we first entered it. The lights were burning, the blinds were drawn, and there were 23 people in the place. In a pew on the left-hand side a little old man was holding forth as to the “prodigal son.” It was the first time he had ever talked in the chapel, and he has never said a word since. He had a peculiarly free and easy style. Sometimes he leaned over the pew door, and beat time with one foot whilst talking; at other periods he would stand back a little, push his right arm up to the elbow in his breeches pocket, and scratch his leg quietly; then he would turn half round, and look up; then make to the pew door again; then leave it, and so on to the finish. He was an earnest, plain-spun sort of individual, but he got through his parabolical exposition very satisfactorily. We fancied he would afterwards ascend the pulpit, which was lighted up; but he kept out of it, and nobody ever went near it at all, except at the finish, when a man quietly walked up the steps and put the gas out. We could not exactly see the force of lighting the pulpit when nobody ever went into it; but others in the place might, for there are shrewd men amongst them, and they may have found out some virtue in lighting gas burners when they are not wanted. The music we heard was moderate; the praying which followed was mildly exhilarating.

When we turned into the chapel the second time – this was during a forenoon service – there were located in it an elderly, fatherly, farmerly man, who occupied the pulpit; eleven middle-aged men, with subdued countenances; six young men with their eyes and ears open to every move; nine blushing maidens with their back hair combed up stiffly and their mastoid processes bared all round; nine matured members of the fair sex with larger bonnets and more antique hair arrangements; five little girls; four small boys; and seven singers; making in the aggregate fifty-two. The person in the pulpit was, we learned, a Fylde farmer; but he must at some time have lived in the north, for he said “dowter” for daughter, “gert” for great, “nather” for neither, “natteral” for natural, and gave his “r’s” capital good exercise, turning them round well, throughout his entire discourse; and he cared very little for either singular or plural verbs. If he got the sense out he deemed it sufficient. He spoke in a conversational style, was more descriptive than argumentative, was homely, discreet, and neither too lachrymose nor too buoyant.

This preacher, we have been told, was Mr. James Fearclough, of Hardhorn, near Blackpool, who was the original organiser of the church. The singers, who collected themselves around a square, conical-headed table, in a shy-looking corner, gave vent to their feelings without music books. They had hymns before them, and these they held to be sufficient. Their performances were rather of a timid character; but this might be to some extent accounted for by the fact that the conductor was absent. When they started a tune they sighed, blushed, held their heads down, and looked up shyly into their eye lids; but when they had proceeded a little and got the congregation into a sympathetic humour, courage came to them, and they moved on more exactly and courageously. About a dozen preachers have been tried since the pulpit was vacated by the Darwen gentleman; but the exact man has not yet been found, and until his advent the congregation will have to solicit “supplies,” and be content with what they can get. None of the members can preach; nobody in the congregation can preach; and their only hope at present consists in the foreign import trade. The congregation has a homely, unpretentious, kindly-hearted, social appearance, and when in the midst of it you feel as if you were at home, and as if the tea things had only to be brought out to make matters complete. There are no loud talkers, no scandal-mongers, no sanguine souls who get into a state of incandescence during prayers or sermons here. A respectable, homely, smoothly-elegant serenity dominates in it. Two services are held in the chapel on Sundays, and on a Wednesday evening there is a prayer meeting. A Sunday school, opened in 1855, is held in the building, and is attended by about 50 children. At present, the general business of the chapel is rather dull; and there will be no perceptible improvement in it nor in the number attending it until a regular minister is appointed. Listening to stray sermons is like feeding upon wind – you may get filled with it, but will never get fat upon it. We hope the Zoarists will by and by be successful; that, having escaped to their present quarters, they will keep them, – an effort has been once or twice made to purchase the building for a public-house; and that they will never, like the party who first fled to Zoar, become troglodytes.