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Early Baptists in Leighton Buzzard

Lake Street Baptist Church around 1910
Lake Street Baptist Church around 1910 [Z50/72/167]

The earliest references to Baptists in Leighton Buzzard are in returns made out by the Vicar of All Saints for episcopal visitations. "Anabaptists" are mentioned in the returns for the visitations of 1706, 1709, 1717 and 1720. In 1706 forty anabaptists were recorded, with their own meeting house. In 1709 it was reported: "In Leighton an Anabaptist meeting once a fortnight. Their number seldom exceeds 40". The rather sneering report in 1717 reads: "about 15 [families of] dissenters called Anabaptists…There is a private house, the dwelling of William Fenner, Licensed for such a separate congregation. The teacher's name is John Rouse senior preparing, 'tis said, to be succeeded by his son John Rouse, both of them very indifferently skilled in the handycraft trade of Shoemaking". Finally, in 1720 the vicar reported: "There are two houses where the Anabaptists meet, but I do not know that either of them is Licens'd"

More substantial, though later, references occur in a small book by Thomas Brittain entitled The Theological Remembrancer sub-titled: A Succinct Intelligence of all the Sermons that have been (by me) Preached and Heard; From the Beginning of November 1732 to this Time [1765] published in 1900. Brittain was connected with the Baptist chapel at Sundon and preached in Leighton Buzzard. It is not stated where the meeting house was in Leighton Buzzard; but in The Baptists of Leighton Buzzard published in 1963 H.G.Tibbutt notes that the Lake Street meeting dated to 1775 and may have been at the old General Baptist meeting.

On 4th February 1722 a meeting at the "newly erected residence" of John Edge, locksmith in Lake Street was registered [QSR1721/17]. Registration bought the benefit of exemption from parish poor rates, exemption from control by the Charity Commission and the right to be licensed to carry out marriages. This may, or may not have been a Baptist meeting, but the location in Lake Street leads to speculation that it was the beginning of Lake Street Baptist Church.

The first entry in The Theological Remembrancer to mention Leighton concerns a sermon Brittain preached there at the funeral of Hannah Edge on 7th September 1727. He also preached at the funerals of Thomas Taylor on 22nd September that year, Peter Harding on 28th December 1729, Joanna Tayler on 14th January 1732, Sarah Axtell on 23rd November 1735, Mary Fenner on 17th November 1737 and John Edge on 15th April 1738. He also notes a sermon preached there by Richard Butler on 10th August  1734, with good reason, as it was: "At the funeral of my dear Wife Mary the daughter of Richard and Joan Thompson of Shillington Whom God in great pitty to her was pleased to give a discharge unto from the fatigues of a Tedious and Sorrowful Life on Thursday August the 8th day 1734 in the 34th year of her Age and now she lies Sleeping in the dust, without either Sigh or groan, in the Baptist Meeting Yard at Leighton waiting for a bright and glorious Resurrection". If this meeting was on the site of the later Lake Street meeting Mary Brittain was buried somewhere beneath the modern houses in Old Chapel Mews.

Brittain gives some background to this in a section called Mortality Remembered. She "Was the Daughter, and Only Child of Richard Thompson late of Shidlington [sic], Unto Whom I was Nearly related in the Conjugal Bonds, as being the Wife of my Youth, and an agreeable Companion in an unkind World. A person of Piety and great Virtue, and of great Vivacity and deep penetration. And had it pleased the Divine Being to have blest her with health and that proper agility of Body, which she had of mind, I should have been as happy in the Matrimonial Station as most persons living. But that God whose Wisdom is inscrutable, and Judgements unsearchable laid his hand very heavy upon her by a distortion of joints, and Contraction of Nerves, Imbecillity of tendons and Stagnation of the Juices, as at last rendered her Decrepid, and unactive to the last degree, which attended with Various Concomitants and appendages thereunto belonging, Rendered her Case the most affecting and Melancholly She in this furnace of Affliction was often poured from Vessel to Vessel and had a large potion of Gall and Wormwood intermixt with those minute intervals of Comforts that a kind God imparted to her. She Struggled under these Insuperable difficulties for many years at last it pleased God to release her from that long train of Tribulation and Sorrow, by Calling her out of this World by Death and thereby discharging her from all her pain and grief Which was on Thursday August the Eighth, 1734, About 10 a Clock in the Evening and On Saturday August 10th She was laid to Sleep in her bed of Dust in the Baptist Meeting House-Yard at Leighton, at Which time and place her funeral Sermon was preached by Mr.Richard Butler, Elder of Berkhamsted and he being to Chuse a Test, He preacht from the Words Psalm 17.15 As for me I shall behold thy face in Righteousness I shall be Satisfyed when I awake in thy Likeness and a Very pertinant and Seasonable discourse it was indeed he (at my request) preached the Same Sermon from ye Text the next day at my House at Chalton for the Sake of those who had not the Opportunity to hear it at the time of her funeral. She dyed in the thirty fourth Year of her Age, being born in 1700 Having been Married Ten Years, Nine Months and Eighteen days, and was the Mother of five Children, Three of Whom are yet living. And for a further View of her Afflictive life and comfortable death I refer You to the History of my Own life, Volume II".

His next visit was on 25th December 1737: "On ye Day called Christmas Mr.Trustram came to ye Town of Leighton, and I asked him to Preach, which he performed with a great deal of Heat and Violence against poor John Calvin and all his Followers". This makes it clear that Brittain and the Leighton Buzzard meeting were the more moderate type of Baptist called a General Baptist as opposed to the Calvinistic Particular Baptists. They were in decline by the latter part of the 18th century, with members transferring to other movements, which is shown by the dwindling of the Leighton meeting.

On 16th September 1738 Brittain himself preached at Leighton "On a Solemn Feast on ye account of the declining State of religion, &c., and War with France. War was again the theme when he preached at Leighton on 22nd July 1739: "This was a Fast Sermon on the Account of our Nation being at War with our vile neighbours, the French and Spaniards". War again on 9th January 1740: "The Publick Solemn Feast by Royal Authority from King George upon the Account of the present War with proud Spain". On 4th February 1741 he preached at Leighton Buzzard "That Sermon was preached on ye Solemn Fast day, as appointed by Royal Authority Throughout our Land to beg Success upon his Majesties Arms in ye present war with Proud Spain". The war sermon he preached at Leighton on 25th November that year has a strange ring: "Preached on the day of the Solemn National Fast, yt was appointed by George our King to be Observed by all his Subjects being the third day of Humiliation since the War began with Spain". The Humiliation meant a public acknowledgement of sins rather than any specific reverse of arms. The war was to drag on until 1748 and was not one in which the British Army had much success. On 10th November 1742 Brittain again preached a sermon during a day of fasting and prayer about the war.

On 2nd October 1743 Brittain listened to a sermon by Robert Dorset at Leighton: "This Dorsett is a Shoemaker and preaches at Hadnam in Bucks, and once in a Month at Leighton a Sad and Blundering discourse it was with a Witness &c.". On 11th April 1744 Brittain once more preached on a day of fasting and prayer concerning the war, as he did on 9th January 1745 "as cold a day as I think ever come". Another war, the uprising by Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland was on Brittain's mind when he next preached at Leighton, on 9th November 1745: "Preacht on the fast day agreed on by ye Dissenting Body on the Account of ye grand Rebellion now on foot and in our Nation". The Baptists, of course, would not be happy at the thought of a Catholic monarch. On 18th December he preached another sermon at a public fast day called on account of the rebellion. By contrast his sermon on 9th October 1746 was: "on the General and National Thanksgiving day by Royal Authority for the Suppression of ye horrid Rebellion in our Land".

From now on Brittain's sermons at Leighton became much more sporadic because the meeting was beginning to peter out. His next sermon was on 25th April 1749 "The general Thanksgiving day for the Peace as it was appointed by Royal Authority", for the end of the War of the Austrian Succession by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. On 23rd February 1755 "I went to Leighton, and when I came there was no body to hear me, So I went home sorely disappointed". On 10th August that year some congregation did turn up and "Two discourses was preached upon Account of the Harvest that was Just Enterred upon as an Engagement to provide for a glorious Harvest after we have sown a Crop of good Works here". On 6th February 1756 he preached a sermon at Leighton on "the Solemn Fast Day, by publick Order, on Account of ye Dreadful Earthquakes at Lisbon" in which between 10,000 and 100,000 people were reckoned to have lost their lives. His sermon on 11th February 1757 was once more in time of war "that was then entered upon with our Sad Enemies the French" - the Seven Years War (1756-1763) which would see better success for British arms.

Brittain only preached one more sermon at Leighton. This was on 1st May  1758: "The funeral Sermon of Mary the Wife of my friend John Smith of Leighton".