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Baptists in Kensworth

Volume 51 produced by Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, in 1972, was by H. G. Tibbutt and was called Some Early Nonconformist Church Books. The first of these to be discussed was that of Kensworth and the author wrote: “This cause began in the 1650s and in its early days had groups of members not only in Bedfordshire but also in north Hertfordshire [Kensworth was in Hertfordshire until 1897]. Among churches springing from the Kensworth one are those at Park Street, Luton and at Dagnall Street, Saint Albans [Hertfordshire]. The first (surviving) Church Book of Kensworth is in Saint Albans Public Library, but the photographic copy in the possession of the Saint Albans church was used for the transcript. Copies of the transcript are also with the Saint Albans Church, with Saint Albans Public Library and with the County Record Office, Bedford [Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service]”.

On 9th July 1675 Hugh Smyth of Wheathamstead [Hertfordshire] took the names of the Kensworth congregation. These included people from Studham, Houghton Regis, Chalgrave, Chalton, Sundon, Leighton Buzzard, Luton, Caddington, Dunstable, Eaton Bray, Totternhoe and Tilsworth as well as from the Buckinghamshire parishes of Brickhill (whether Bow, Little or Great is not mentioned) and Edlesborough and the Hertfordshire parishes of Saint Albans, Mimms (presumably North and South), Sandridge, Redbourn, Flamstead, Wheathamstead, Codicote, Preston, Kimpton, Walden (whether King’s or Saint Paul’s is not stated), Berkhamsted, Welwyn, Little Gaddesden, Harpenden and Shenley. Names of men from Kensworth itself are: Bunyan; Church; Dunham; Hill; Parkins; Ralins and Smyth. Names of women are: Adkins; Groome; Hill; Hogan; Nicolas; Rawlins; Robins; Slow; Ward and Watson.

In November 1688 it was recorded: “Imediatly after the desease of that laborious servant of Christ, Thomas Hayward, the whole church was asembled at Kinsworth to consider there scattered state, and there the church did elect Brother Finch, Brother Marsom and Brother Hardon jointly and equally to offitiate in the room of Brother Hayward in breaking bread, and other administeration of ordinances, and the church did at the same time agree to provide and mainetaine all, at there one charge, and did agree to give a sufitient mainetaineance to a preaching brother to serve the church and to goe from meeting to meeting, and to every place the church shall apoint him within this congregation”. In 1690 the Baptist meeting was registered at quarter sessions as being in the house of Thomas Hayward.

On 18th May 1694 it was recorded: “After the death of our dear Brother Finch, one of the elders of this our congregation of the church of Kinsworth, our dear brother Harding being onely left alone in the office of eldershead, he did desire some brother or brethren as the church should think fit, should bee chosen to asist him, because the largnes of the congregation and the great distance of meeting caused the work to ly heavy upon him. The church did take into consideration, and did apoint a general meeting for the whole church to come together at the house of Brother Warner at Market Street, and they did elect and charge Brother Britaine to asist Brother Harding in breaking of bread and in administration of ordenances in the church in any part of this congregation”.

In December that year there seems to have been a major disagreement resulting in a large number of the congregation leaving the church. It is recorded thus: “The names of all members of the church of Kinsworth who rent off with Brother Marsom and departed out of their places, and broke the peace of the church about the mater of desirance of Mr. Titmas” and sixty five names follow. They went and founded Park Street Baptist Church in Luton. A following entry sheds light on this event: “Upon pursuance of an agreement menconed in the book the church having agreed to provid a preaching brother to serve the church and to alow him a sufiant mentinance, one Brother Russell came from London upon trial. The church did not aprove of him; he returned to London again and no difrance was among us. After Brother Marsom provided Mr. Titmas to come upon tryall. One part of the church did like, the other did not aprove him, but by a joint consent hee was paid for his time and went away in the year 1690. Then brother Marson did declare against the said brethren that did not aprove of Mr. Titmas, and so toke the acation to draw away a certain number of members and made a rent in the church as it is recorded in this book”.

Volume 81 published by the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (2002) is devoted to returns made during episcopal visitations |to the county by the Bishop of Lincoln in the early 18th century, edited by former County Archivist Patricia Bell. It throws some interesting light on nonconformity in the parish. The returns for Kensworth, then in the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon, are as follows:

In 1706 the parish: “is about 8 miles in circumference, and has 60 families in it. Of these one halfe are Anabaptists and Quakers, but they have no Meeting house in the Parish”. In 1709 it was noted: “Families 71. Souls 340, of which 22 Anabaptists, 32 Quakers”. In 1712 it was noted: “Families 67. Among these are 10 persons Anabaptists, 26 Quakers. No Meeting”.

This suggests that the numbers of Baptists greatly declined at the beginning of the 18th century. The book quoted from above breaks off in 1694 and does not begin again until 1711 by which time it records the Saint Albans Baptist church. Perhaps the Kensworth church never recovered from the disagreement of 1694.

On Sunday 30th March 1851 a census of all churches, chapels and preaching-houses of every denomination was undertaken in England and Wales. The local results were published by Bedfordshire Historical Records Society in 1975 as Volume 54, edited by D. W. Bushby. The return for the Baptist Meeting was made by Thomas Matthews, occupier of the cottage in which the meetings were held. He recorded that there were seats for forty and the evening congregation had been twenty three. The census records Matthews’ house as being on Village Road, that is Common Road, seven houses away from entries for Lynch Hill, suggesting that he lived somewhere between Wick Hill and Sprats Lane. He was 51 years old, an agricultural labourer, and had been born in Kensworth, as had all his family – his wife Elizabeth, 51 and a straw plaiter and his children Charles, a 19 year old agricultural labourer and Naomi a 15 year old straw plaiter. Clearly the Baptist cause was dwindling in the village by this date and no Baptist chapel was ever built.