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Particular Baptists in Woburn

The Particular Baptist chapel on a map of 1882
The Particular Baptist chapel on a map of 1882

The first Particular Baptist chapel in Woburn was registered in 1835 by, rather unusually, a brewer - James Fowler [ABN1/2 and ABN2/307] who had a house at 1 Leighton Street with a brewery and malting behind. He had previously been a trustee of a Congregationalist church describing itself as “The Society of Protestant Dissenters of the Pedo Baptists denomination” [Z768/1] in 1823.

Fowler registered a room in his malthouse for meetings in 1840 [ABN1/2, ABN2/349] and another building in his occupation in 1841 [ABN1/2, ABN2/352] and 1852 [ABN1/2, ABN2/436]. The final registration by Fowler was of a building in his occupation in 1853.

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 Particular Baptist chapel was made by the minister Thomas Godwin. All the seats were free and attendance had been about 120 in the morning and 140 in the afternoon.

The last registration of a Baptist building in Woburn was of the Leighton Street building in 1867, when the person registering was one of the members, Eliza House of the High Street. The registration was cancelled in 1897 presumably when the chapel closed. The first edition 25 inches to the mile Ordnance Survey map of 1882 shows the location of the chapel near the brewery behind 1 Leighton Street. By the time of the second edition map of 1901 the chapel has gone.

The first mention of Baptists in Woburn predates the registration of the meeting by some years. The first Ridgmont Baptist Church Book [X347/1] notes that in 1801 the minister at Ridgmont would work with the minister in Woburn to preach at Husborne Crawley on Sunday evenings.

Sadly, Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service does not have any archives from the Baptist chapel itself. It does have a facsimile extracted from a book on the life and letters of one of the ministers, Thomas Godwin [CRT170/3/13]. He wrote that he was at Pewsey [Wiltshire] in 1840 when he taught himself to write. In April 1844 he received an invitation to go to Woburn to preach, which he accepted. He wrote: “After going to Woburn two or three times, the friends wished me to settle amongst them; which caused me much exercise of mind. But I could not see my way; but continued to supply for them as often as possible, and felt the power of the truth the Lord enabled me to deliver from time to time”.

He was also preaching at Manchester. He wrote: “As the Woburn people would not let me rest unless I would accept their call to become their settled pastor, I was greatly tried and exercised between the Manchester and the Woburn people. But I gave the Manchester friends a denial; and the leading gentleman at Woburn [James Fowler?] was continually pressing me until I would go and settle among them. He said he never heard any preacher like he heard me, and showed me great kindness; not that I received so much of his money; for after I had paid my travelling expenses from Pewsey to London and from London to Woburn and back home again, I had but a few shillings left; because I had a great many miles to travel by coach in those days. My salary at Woburn was to be thirty shillings a week. At last I consented to go to Woburn, and the time and day were fixed for our removal. But the Lord only knows what my soul went through until about one hour before we left Pewsey”.

Despite his wife being in ill health for such a long journey they arrived, with their son and servant, in Woburn on 18th December 1846. He received calls to preach in Leicester and this caused some trouble: “But I am sorry to say that my Woburn friend began to be a little jealous. But still, I took no notice of that. We still walked together in a friendly way and manner for about five years and two months, until, after a church meeting, on the following morning, we got a little crooked, because I told him my own faults, and then told him his. And now began my troubles and deep-felt grief, because I could not endure to see the poor of the flock trodden upon. So then troubles came in upon me like a wide breaking in of waters; but the Lord stood by me and enabled me to come up into the pulpit Sabbath after Sabbath with a “This saith the Lord”, and with sword in hand. I had much enmity manifested against me; but I had a good conscience before God and man, and therefore the Lord stood by me. This went on for over twelve months. Before the year was over some of them wanted me to leave quietly; but I said the church brought me there, and the church should send me away … but no, they would not send me away; so I stood my ground”. Things were evidently bad as “some of the people said they would starve me out”.

It was unfortunate that “the house we lived in belonged to the party who had risen up against me” and, when Godwin was preaching away from home his wife was thrown out and took lodgings in the top rooms in a house in the market place, presumably one of those with three storeys. They stayed there for fifteen months before leasing “a house a little way out of town on the Leighton Road”. Despite this his wife’s health grew worse but he busied himself and “the Lord enabled us to do more to the inside of the chapel when the rich were gone than ever was done in their time. For we made a new baptistery in the chapel, and brought the gas in, which cost over £16”.

He inherited a farm in Nottinghamshire from a deceased friend in 1855 and determined to preach to the Woburn congregation for nothing as he now had a separate income. This only caused the congregation to mutter that the farm had obviously been left to them as much as to Godwin! His wife continued to ail with a form of insanity, she “became very violent and as strong as a lion. She took me by the throat and almost strangled me. Eventually she went to stay with his son, who was in business in Luton, and died there on 27th December 1856. He remarried a few years later and moved to Linslade near the station. His son died in 1859 and he left Woburn in 1861 to be pastor at Godmanchester [Huntingdonshire].