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Baptists in Wootton

Wootton Baptist Church July 2007
Wootton Baptist Church July 2007

The earliest reference we have to Baptistsin Wootton is in 1720 when a questionnaire was sent around the county in advance of an episcopal visitation. The Vicar noted that there were six families of independents or anabaptists in the village. Independents and baptists (then commonly called anabaptists, at least by the Church of England) shared a number of beliefs and are often bracketed together. Independents are usually identified with those which became the Congregationalist church.

In 1807 the house of James Negus was registered for worship [ABN1/1] ]. He is probably the same James Negus who, in 1826, assisted in registering the house of William Early, schoolmaster, along with J. Kaves, Henry Hekks, J. Mays and J. Hull [ABN1/2, ABN2/224 and ABN3/3, 73]. The national education return of 1833 for Wootton notes that the Methodists and Baptists both ran schools in the village however, given that the Methodists already had a chapel in Wootton, it seems a reasonable guess that this was a Baptist meeting, a view strengthened by the fact that the first Baptist minister of Wootton was a William Early. He arrived in Wootton from Cranfield where he had assisted at the Baptist church [CRT130Wootton14].

The house occupied by Joseph Cave was registered in 1833 by Cave himself, Edward Thomlinson, William Kadman, and William Cave - this may be the J. Kaves of the 1826 registration, if so, it is likely that this was, again, a Baptist meeting [ABN1/2 and ABN2/279].

Three years later, in 1836, the newly built Baptist chapel was registered by William Early, Richard Early, James Negus, William Keech, John Lovell, Henry Hekks and William Ashley [ABN1/2 and ABN2/312]. It was licensed for marriages in 1855. It was built on 15 poles of Beard's Close purchased from John Berry, yeoman, for £18/15/- and its first trustees were William Early (the minister), John Lovell, mealman, Richard Early, grocer, Samuel Lovell, shopkeeper, Henry Hebbs, husbandman, Jonathan Lambert, husbandman, William Redman the younger, builder, Thomas Redman, farmer, William Whitehouse, baker, Joseph Whitehouse, farmer, William Harris the younger, farmer, William More, carpenter, William Vincent the elder, general dealer, James Farr, husbandman and Charles Summerfield, husbandman, all of Wootton [X834/2/2].

The Church Book, as quoted by A. A. Gilbert [CRT130Wootton14] has an interesting case of an old and infirm man , John Burr, who wished to receive baptism in 1839: "he consulted a Doctor who was of the opinion that it would be dangerous. He had for many years been convinced of Scriptural Baptism & an attendant on the means of Grace all his life, but the proposition was withdrawn".

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 Baptists in Wootton was made by the pastor, William Early, who wrote: "Country Congregations in Agricultural districts are always fluctuating. Much depends on the weather, the seasons of the year, the diversified state of respective families. Some can only attend at one part of the day others twice and some few on every public services. Therefore I give the same return here that I usually make in our denominational returns. The general number that attend my ministry is from one to two hundred".

A small burial ground was attached to the chapel and one of the first buried in it was the son of William Early who died of typhus [CRT130Wootton14]. The burial ground was closed in 1882. This information, oddly enough, comes from a notice sent to Stevington church on a different matter [P73/2/3/1]. Early's wife died in 1848 and he continued as minister for another four years; he retired to Luton and died there in 1853 [CRT130Wootton14].

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has two stray documents found on 17th June 1994 in a jar at the Manse, then being demolished. The jar was of stone and had been sealed with a piece of glass and buried in the foundations. It was shattered on discovery and lay in conjunction with a piece of wood with the date 1853 picked out in nails on one side and "TS", the minister's initials, on the other.

The first document reads: This House was Erected AD 1853 commenced March 1st And Intended for the use of the resident Minister of Calvinistic Baptist Sentiments. At least These are the Sentiments of the Church now under the present Ministry of Mr Thomas Smith Who hopes TRUTH will ever be maintained & Defended in This Place. The Following Persons have Subscribed Towards its Errection [sic]: J.Whitehouse £10, Mr.Payne £5, William Whitehouse £5, Mr.Iliffe £3, J.Whitehouse £2, John Whitehouse £1, William Redman £1, Charles Summerfield £1, George Berrige 10/-, John Allen 8/-, Henry Dennis 10/-, Mr.Oliver [amount unclear], William Redman, builder [amount unclear], Samuel Redman 5/-, James Lambert 5/-, James Allen 3/-, William Berrige 5/-, Sarah Berrige 3/-, Mrs.Wheatbread 5/-, Mr.Wheatbread 10/-, Ann Wheatbread 5/- [X834/1/1]

The other document reads: "I Thomas Smith…was in march 1852 directed by Providence to Labour in Wootton…who after 12 months labour Amongst Them Voluntarily Erected This Dwelling House in the Chapel ground, for his Comfort…" [X834/1/2]; it goes on to give some biographical information: he was born on 22 October 1822 in Leicester and joined York Street Baptist church there about 1844 or 1845; he was called to the ministry in 1847. He married Mary, who came from the island of Jersey and they had one son, aged 5 at the time of writing; also at the time of writing his parents were still alive.

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a list of Baptist ministers in the village compiled early in the 20th century [X834/2/1] giving the following details:

  • William Early September 1826 to March 1852;
  • G. Allen March 1860 to 1861;
  • J. Spooner 1861 to March 1865;
  • W. Inglis 1865 to February 1867;
  • T. Jones 1869 to May 1870;
  • J. H. Readman 1870 to November 1903;
  • W. B. Nichols 1907 to October 1910;
  • Isaac Watts 1911 to September 1912;
  • T. Varley 1913 "to the present time"

Wootton Baptist church and manse in the late 20th century [Z155/150]
Wootton Baptist church and manse in the late 20th century [Z155/150]