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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Nonconformity in Norwich

Nonconformity in Norwich

Prince's Street Chapel - Image courtesy of NMAS
Prince's Street Chapel

In 1194 King Richard I granted a charter which allowed for all assemblies and courts in the City of Norwich to be led by men of the citizen's own choosing.   (A facsimile can be seen in the foyer of St. Andrew's/Blackfriar's Halls). Over the years that followed Norwich developed the widest civic power base of any city in England, London included.    Being a commercial centre Norwich contained a large number of merchants and craftsmen which meant a high density of literate and numerate citizens.  Such men, accustomed to taking responsibility for their own civic and business affairs, are also liable to want to take responsibility for all other areas of their lives, including their religion.   So we can see seeds being sown which would, over the years, produce a radical, independent-spirited population.  It is interesting to notice that whilst   independency   in civic matters often results in religious nonconformity, there is also a reciprocal effect as nonconformity in turn can lead to a politically radical spirit.     Perhaps the biggest single contribution to the spread of democracy in England has been its Nonconformist tradition.

England broke with Rome in the 1530s and the Church of England came into being. More people now had access to the Bible in English, and as they discussed the doctrines and practices of this new Church many conflicting ideas emerged. Some clergy wanted to keep the rule of bishops and adherence to the Prayer Book (first drawn up by Archbishop Cranmer in 1549)  others wanted to have more congregational decision making, and yet others wanted to introduce the Presbyterian system from Geneva.

In the early years of Queen Elizabeth's reign certain rules regarding the beliefs and conduct of the Church were drawn up and became known as the Elizabethan Settlement.     The   Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker, withdrew the licences of all clergymen in England and Wales and issued new licences only to those men who were "conformable" to the settlement.  Those men who did not agree became known as Nonconformists (sometimes referred to as Dissenters).  Parker was a Norwich man and it is said that he was christened in St. Saviour's Church; his parent's tomb can still be seen in St. Clement's churchyard. 

John Pound gives a wealth of detail regarding the many different types of tradesmen and merchants to be found in the city, and their place in the civic order.

Robert Browne

Of all the Nonconformist  preachers in Tudor Norwich it is Browne whose name has found its way into countless books on church history and even into the writings of Shakespeare, although few people probably realise that he had any connection with our city and even fewer would have read his revolutionary book, 'Reformation without tarrying for any man'.

The Rev. Robert Browne was a very volatile character, born around 1550 into a wealthy landowning family in Rutland and related to William Cecil, Lord Burghley - Queen Elizabeth's chief minister.  He was educated at Cambridge where he became friendly with John Harrison, and early in 1580 when Harrison became master of the Great Hospital in Bishopgate, Browne arrived in Norwich.

The two men spent many hours together in the master's parlour, discussing the Reformation and especially church government.  Both men were of the opinion that a minister should consult his congregation about the running of a church and the forms of service.   Later that year they decided to implement their ideas at St. Helen's, the hospital chapel, and thus became one of the growing number of Separatist congregations around the land. Separatists were   Christians   who had unofficially opted out of the Anglican Church and formed clandestine congregations, hoping that the day would come when the Church would be changed to accommodate their ideas. They were now to all intents and purposes functioning quite independently from the national church, all matters of doctrine and practice being decided by Browne and Harrison in consultation with their congregation.  However, the big difference between Browne and all the other Separatists was that in one sense he had not separated, since he was functioning publicly, in a parish church setting.

Such a highly illegal situation could not last for long, and in 1581   Browne was arrested whilst attempting to establish a Separatist congregation in Great Yarmouth.  This was to be the first of 32 periods of imprisonment over the next 50 years. Harrison then led their congregation across the sea to Middleburg, and Browne joined them on his release.    Whilst in Holland  Browne published 'Reformation without tarrying for any man', the contents of which must have been formulated during his time in Norwich.

In this book Browne presents the case for church independency.  The essence of his case was that if men in government, or holding office as magistrates, are Christians then they should be members of churches and hence under the authority of the church leadership, so how can they have authority over their church leaders to impose doctrine and conduct on them.  If such men are not Christians then they should not be in the churches nor have any authority over them. This was very radical stuff, since Browne was suggesting that some men in secular authority might not even be Christians   He stopped short of saying that the monarch should not exercise any authority over the Church, but the implication was surely there.

The book was widely read and discussed throughout English speaking circles at home and abroad, and there were incidents of Browne's followers being executed for distributing it.  Browne's ideas found a ready response in the hearts of many men and women, with various secret attempts to set up churches according to these principles, but most of those who sympathised with Browne were rather more cautious and tried to function more discreetly.

This Brownist movement   developed into the Independent or Congregational Church, now merged with the Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church, although we still find independent Congregational churches today such as the Old Meeting   in Colegate.  The movement further developed to produce the Baptists and all the various Free Churches, House Churches and Christian Fellowships world wide.  Such forms of church structure take us back through the confusion of Christendom to the simplicity of the early church, with its separation from the machinery of the state, allowing every citizen to follow their own conscience and make their own response to God.  Browne and Harrison were heretics in their own time but today possibly as many as half of all the Christians throughout the world function within some such framework, and it constitutes a rapidly expanding section of the world wide Christian community.

Having said this we must not get silly about Browne and see him as a super hero. The sad truth is that he was a quite unpleasant character, falling out with everyone including Harrison, and trying to control every situation in spite of his seemingly democratic approach.  After a few years spent as a schoolmaster he went back into the Anglican ministry, but was subsequently fined for non- attendance, so presumably he had become a Separatist once again. 

The last heard of him was in the Bedford area around 1630 when he was arrested after a drunken brawl with a watchman and died in prison soon afterwards.  Harrison remained in Holland, dying there in 1585. 

We might wonder how a man involved in such revolutionary activities could have survived.    As  mentioned above, Browne was related to Lord Burghley,   and it was Burghley who rescued him on more than one occasion.  

Browne's influence was obviously very strong in our region and in 1584 a group of Norfolk clergymen wrote to the government asking for help in countering it.     Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was pressing them to tone down their Puritanism and they were concerned in case a less reformist stance would result in members of their congregations moving off to other more strongly Puritan churches.  "We have struggled to keep our church members from Brownism with great difficulty" they wrote.  So widespread was Browne's influence that these early Congregationalists or Dissenters were referred to as Brownists.  We read of some ministers with independent leanings objecting to being labelled in this way, saying   "We are followers of the Bible not Browne".  Generally speaking this was an underground or fringe movement, facing persecution from the established church and government, and not emerging as a major player in religious matters for another half century.

An interesting sidelight is found in Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, Act III Scene II, where Sir Andrew Aguecheek, having been told that he will need to adopt either valour or politics to win his lady love, replies that he will have to use valour because he hates politics.  "I'd had as lief be a Brownist as a polititian", he says.  The play was written within twenty years of Browne setting up the church in Norwich and yet the playwright could be confident that his audience for a popular theatre production would know what a Brownist was.  They might not have known of any connection with Norwich, Shakespeare himself might not have known that, but they were all able to share the joke.

A visit to St. Helen's church in Bishopgate is an interesting experience.  It is one of only two medieval churches in Norwich not to have been modernised during the Victorian age.  A significant feature is the pulpit, which is placed centrally, thus becoming the focal point, with the communion table being placed in a side aisle. This is an arrangement that one would normally expect to find only in a Nonconformist chapel and is symbolic of the Puritan principle that preaching   takes precedence over the administration of the sacraments.  There is also a very early copy of the King James Bible chained in a cabinet.

William Bridge

William Bridge was curate at St. George, Colegate until 1637 when, along with some 50 other ministers throughout the diocese, he was suspended by Bishop Wren for refusing to read the Book of Sports to his congregation.  This book   encouraged the playing of games and dancing after the public services on Sundays with the aim of distracting the general public from following the intense Sabbath observance being advocated by Puritan ministers.  The Puritans were   members of the Church of England who wanted to see it "purified" according to their understanding of the Bible, hence the term, which originally had nothing to do with moral scruples.   Strictly speaking Quakers and Baptists, such as John Bunyan, should never be referred to as Puritans since they had no wish to see the Anglican Church purifed, they simply ignored it and went their own way.   In fairness to the authors, the Book of Sports did point out that men worked hard for six full days each week  and Sunday offered the only practical opportunity for healthy sporting activity.  They argued that the Puritan restrictions would have a detrimental effect on the health of the nation.

Bridge fled to Rotterdam where he led an Independent English congregation until returning to Norwich in 1640 to embark upon a joint ministry at St. Peter Hungate and Yarmouth Parish Church.  His adherence to the congregational system, allowing the members to have a say in the running of their churches, was illegal and raised the possibility of arrest.  In Yarmouth one could always find a vessel about to make the crossing to Holland, a move which soon became necessary for Bridge.  Archbishop Laud was apparently very pleased when he heard that Bridge had left the country but his pleasure was short lived.   When the Civil War commenced in 1642 Bridge   returned   to   St. Peter, Hungate and, in conjunction with Timothy Armitage of St. Michael, Coslany, undertook to supervise a number of Independent churches that had sprung up in Norfolk and Suffolk.

In 1643 William Bridge and Henry Hall were the two Norwich delegates to the Westminster Assembly, a body of ministers convened by the government to   draw up a national statement of faith and church order.   The assembly held many sessions during the following months and drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document that is to this day a benchmark of Christian orthodoxy for many conservative evangelicals throughout the English speaking world.  Although the Confession was subsequently incorporated by act of Parliament to become the Statement of Faith for the Church of Scotland, it never gained any legal standing south of the border.

In 1643 an Independent congregation started to meet in the old grain store at the back of Blackfriars Hall.  This congregation would eventually become "the Old Meeting " which  in 1693   moved into its new building in Colegate  where it remains  to this day.   In the 1650s St. George Tombland was functioning as an Independent congregation.  By the nineteenth century there were   several large Congregational Churches in Norwich, although today only the Old Meeting remains, the others having merged with the Presbyterians in 1972 to form the United Reformed Church.

The year 1662 saw the publication of the revised Book of Common Prayer still in use in some Norwich churches.  With it came the Act of Uniformity by which all ministers who did not fully consent to everything in the Book were to be dismissed from their posts.  This also applied to heads of colleges and school masters.  The deadline for this event, known as the Great Ejection, was August 14th, and on that infamous day around eighteen hundred men had to abandon their congregations.  Amongst the Norwich men were William Bridge and John Collins at St. Stephens

The Conventicle Act of 1664, levied severe penalties for attending any service not conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer and forbade small groups meeting in private for prayer, preaching or Bible study.   The Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade any Nonconformist minister from living or even visiting within five miles of his previous church.  Penalties for breaching these laws were heavy, with increasing fines and eventually imprisonment. In some instances banishment from the realm was ordered.  All over the land men were now being imprisoned, sometimes to spend many years there and sometimes to die.  When some clergy fled for safety as the plague swept through London, other men, previously ejected, had returned to minister to people in their sufferings, but even these men were arrested and cast into prison.

Whilst they were forbidden to engage in pulpit and pastoral ministry many ministers used the time to write, often doing so in prison.  The most famous product of these circumstances was The Pilgrim's Progress, written whilst Bunyan was in Bedford jail.  The total money paid out in fines over the next few years was enormous.  It was said, for instance, that Yarmouth's civic finances were largely derived from fines levied on Nonconformists.

As if this was not enough, the government passed the Test and Corporation Act in 1673 whereby any man not conforming to the Church of England was barred from holding any Government office, such as being a member of parliament, ambassador, agent or a surveyor, could not hold a commission in the army or navy, and could not attend, or send his son to, a university. The Act of Uniformity, the Conventicle Act and the Test and Corporation Act all remained in force until 1828.

Bridge suffered a lot of opposition in his day and was probably tempted to become quite downcast at times.  Perhaps it was these circumstances and his experience in overcoming them that led to him writing a book, 'A lifting up for the downcast', which was widely read in its day.  It was republished by the Banner of Truth Trust in the 1960s and copies occasionally surface in second hand bookshops.

Stephen's Church and its contribution to Nonconformity in Norwich

St. Stephen's is once again brought into prominence as shoppers pass through its grounds on their way to the Chapelfield shopping centre.  In past years a number of men connected in various ways to this church have played major roles in Norwich's nonconformist history.  Four names spring to mind; John Collins, Thomas Grantham, Robert Govett and Rev. Dundas Harford -Battersby.   Each man deserves to be remembered and will be briefly mentioned here.

John Colins

John Collins (or Collinge) was the vicar of St. Stephen's in the mid-seventeenth century and also served for a time as Chaplain to the Hobart family, who lived in what is now the Assembly Rooms.  At that time many men in both church and parliament were demanding that the Church of England should abolish its structure of dioceses ruled by bishops and divided into parishes, and adopt the Presbyterian system, as in Scotland.  Collins was the leader of Norwich's Presbyterians. 

In Presbyterianism each church is governed by a body of elders, usually prominent citizens, who appoint the minister.  Churches are grouped into presbyteries, and synods.  At regular intervals national assemblies are convened.  With Presbyterianism the government has no say in religious matters but is simply expected to impose upon the nation whatever the church decides.

During the civil war period the Presbyterian party had a   slight majority in parliament but were defeated because a small group of Independent (Congregationalist) sympathisers, which included Cromwell, held the balance of power.  These men disliked Presbyterianism even more than they disliked the Episcopal (bishops) system.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 there was a strong expectation that a compromise could be reached.  The King convened a conference to discuss these matters at the Savoy Palace in London and Collins,  along with the Bishop of Norwich, Edward Fox, represented Norwich.  However, a parliamentary election was held and because the parliament which was returned had an overwhelming majority of traditional Anglican members, violently opposed to any change, the conference was abandoned.  Soon afterwards the infamous Act of Uniformity was passed and Collins was one of the Norwich men to be ejected from his church. 

He gathered a group of committed followers and they proceeded to function as best they could as a Presbyterian church, in conjunction with similar groups in other towns. By 1672 they were using the old granary at the back of Blackfriars Hall and in 1687 they erected a building in Colegate. (The Old Granary is in the courtyard behind Blackfriars Hall and can be approached from St. George's Street).  It has been used over the years as a sanctuary for Independents, early 1643; Presbyterians, 1672; Roman Catholics, 1686; and Baptists, 1689. The memorial tablet only mentions the Baptists. In 1754, many years after Collin's death, the Colegate building was replaced by the elegant Octagon Chapel, still standing today.

In addition to his ministerial duties Collins ran what is said to have been Norwich's first   lending library, housed over the porch of the Blackfriar's Hall.

Although the Church of Scotland was, and still is, a Presbyterian Church, the English have never been keen on the concept.  The ever present elders and minister were thought to be more oppressive than the distant Bishop and frequently absentee vicar.  "A Pope in every parish" was the verdict frequently expressed by English parishoners!

Thomas Grantham

Thomas Grantham was a Baptist Messenger (an evangelist or church planter) who arrived in Norwich in 1686 to start a Baptist church in an old chapel on the White Friars site in the parish of St. James.  He had a great desire to bring all the Nonconformists together.  He approached Collins, now about to lead his Presbyterians into their new premises in Colegate, but seems to have been rebuffed.  Likewise, he made no progress in his relations with the Congregationalists nor the other Baptists.  He did however enjoy a good relationship with John Connauld, Collin's successor at St. Stephen's. 

In spite of his pacific nature, Grantham stirred up violent opposition in the city simply because he was a Baptist.   When he died it was rumoured that there would be a riot at his funeral and in order to prevent this Connauld, a respected member of the establishment,  conducted the funeral himself, laying  Grantham's mortal remains to rest inside of the West Door of St. Stephen's.  Whether they are still there seems uncertain. There is no indication of a grave and there is no monument.

Robert Govett

Robert Govett was a member of a family which could claim to have several members holding prominent positions in the Church of England.  After attaining high honours at Oxford he entered the Anglican ministry himself and eventually arrived   as Curate of St. Stephen's in 1841. His ministry attracted much praise and it was thought that he had a good career ahead   but in 1844 he resigned, saying that he could no longer administer infant baptism with a clear conscience. 

He obviously had a large and loyal following in the city because he immediately   started to hold services in the Bazaar.  Situated in St. Andrew's  Street, somewhere between St. Andrew's Church and present day  Exchange Street, the Bazaar was a sort of high class indoor market and exhibition rooms.   Very soon the Bazaar Chapel, as it became known, had one of the largest congregations in the city.  In fact, so great was the attendance that it soon became necessary to find larger premises.  In 1854 the church was relocated to a brand new building, Ebenezer Chapel, in Surrey Street.  Almost inevitably it   became known as Surrey Chapel, and has remained as  one of Norwich's the best known  Nonconformist churches ever since.

Although originally calling itself a nondenominational chapel, it became a founder member of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) in 1922.  In 1985 Surrey Chapel was relocated to its present home on the inner ring road, next to Anglia Square.  Chapel Loke still exists, running northwards from Surrey Street; the old chapel was situated to the south east of the loke, close to the junction with Ber Street.

Dundas Harford-Battersby

Dundas Harford-Battersby was the vicar of St. Stephen's in the opening years of the twentieth century. Although he was never a Nonconformist he does deserve a mention here because of the role he played in bringing together Anglicans and Nonconformists. 

His father had been the vicar of Keswick in the Lake District and in 1875,  along with Robert Wilson, a Quaker businessman from Cockermouth,   had founded the Keswick Convention.  Although not the first of the so-called "Holiness" conventions, Keswick became by far the most famous and longest lasting.  By its policy of playing down doctrinal differences and majoring on spiritual experiences, it attracted people from all the various Protestant denominations.

We might wonder who were the first people from Norwich to attend a Keswick Convention?  In the 1870s Norwich was one of England's poorer cities and only a comparatively few people could afford the time and money to spend a week in the Lake District.  However, in his parish magazine for 1906 Harford-Battersby wrote that he hoped to meet a good number of his congregation at Keswick that summer.   Since that time Keswick has been a red-letter date on the calendars of many Norwich folk, and churches in the city have provided conference speakers and soloists. 

Keswick can be look on as the forerunner of today's high profile summer venues, Spring Harvest, New Wine, Easter People, Greenbelt, etc.  These various modern conventions have inevitably dented Keswick's popularity but it does still attract a loyal following from all around Britain, including Norwich, each summer. 

The Baptists in Norwich

The really distinctive thing about Baptists is what they believe about the Church.   Their practice of only baptising self-confessed believers, not babies, arises from this understanding.  

Until the Reformation everyone in England was told that they were   Christians and irrespective of   beliefs or lifestyle they had to be baptised at birth and  attend church.  If a person openly declared that they didn't believe the Christian religion or if they lived a flagrantly wicked lifestyle, they would be put out of the Church, and often suffer execution.   Martin Luther and many other leading reformers kept to these same principles, and all the mainstream Protestant Churches, including the Church of England, continued to impose the Christian religion upon their respective nations.  This mainstream reformation is referred to as the Magisterial Reformation, because of its requirement for civilian magistrates to uphold the laws of the Church. 


In parallel with the Magisterial Reformation was another movement known as    the Radical Reformation.    Instead of saying that everyone was a Christian,    with some people   needing to be   put out of the Church, these early Baptists believed that no-one started life as a Christian and that everyone needed to be called into the Church by the preaching of the Gospel.  They came to the conclusion that no-one should be baptised until they had made their own personal response to the Christian message.  The first believer's baptisms took place in Switzerland in 1523 and   because all the people being baptised had already been baptised as babies they   were called anabaptists, meaning rebaptisers.  They were fiercely persecuted by Catholics and mainstream Protestants alike, and many were executed, but the movement gradually spread. 

We don't know when this movement first reached England, but there are records from the Tudor period of men from the Dutch or German immigrant communities in London being burned because of their anabaptist beliefs.  

The first known English Baptist Church was founded in 1612 by Thomas Helwys.  Because of the fierce   persecution to which they were subjected Baptists usually met in secret, and their skill at avoiding detection, whilst necessary for them, has made it difficult for historians to trace their development.  

The first Baptists administered baptism by sprinkling, but from 1640 onwards, influenced by the teaching and example of Robert Blount, they started to practise total immersion.  Immersionists became known as "new men" or "dippers", as opposed to the "old men" or "sprinklers".  Within a few years total immersion became the norm and has remained so ever since.

There is no record of where or when Baptists first appeared in Norwich, although we know that in 1645 the city council was debating the possible need to take action against them.  In 1686 Thomas Grantham arrived from Lincolnshire and established a Baptist congregation in an old chapel on the Whitefriars site, near to the present day Law Courts.  Because it was in the parish of St. James it was known as the St. James' Baptist Church.  Baptist churches   usually took the name of the parish in which they were situated.  This church continued until well into the nineteenth century.  Its beautiful old communion table is now used in Silver Road Baptist Church, which came into being in 1911. 

Joseph Kinghorn

A Baptist Church started to meet in the old granary at the back of Blackfriar's Hall in1689.   A memorial tablet can still be seen on one of the walls. The church found a permanent home on St. Mary's Plain early in the next century and, as St. Mary's Baptist Church, became one of England's most important Baptist Churches.  In 1789 Joseph Kinghorn became the pastor, remaining until his death 43 years later and    is   regarded as one of the great figures of the Baptist movement.  A heritage plaque marks his home at the Grapes Hill end of Pottergate.  Baptists   were subject to all the laws against nonconformity and tended to be politically radical.  Kinghorn was a great supporter of the American Colonies in their struggle for independence and also, at least in the early years, of the French Revolution.   

Kinghorn died in 1832 and was succeeded by William Brock, another radical figure.  Brock lived in the parish of St. George Colegate and in 1844 caused a stir   by   leading a protest against the Parish Church when it levied a rate on all residents in the parish to meet the cost of repairs to the church.  More than half of the residents were Nonconformists and, whilst willing to make a voluntary payment towards the repairs, they objected to the law which empowered the Church of England to impose the rate.  The Nonconformists claimed that the local newspapers gave unfair coverage to their side of the argument and so decided to start a new journal based on freedom of trade, religion and politics.  Their weekly paper became, in 1870, the Eastern Daily Press. 

Brock was an energetic campaigner for the dis-establishment of the Anglican Church, an issue which has always been dear to the hearts of Nonconformists and   which is still outstanding.

Brock's successor, George Gould, vigorously denounced the bribery which was so prevalent at all elections, even publishing a book outlining the Christian's duty at an election.  Under his guidance, Jeremiah James Coleman, a member of St. Mary's Baptist Church, formed a vigilante group, said to have been more than one hundred strong, to monitor the conduct of electoral proceedings.  At the start of the twenty-first century St. Mary's Baptist Church was merged with Dereham Road Baptist Church to become Norwich Central Baptist Church. 

Mark Wilks

Another prominent Baptist radical minister was Mark Wilks.  Wilks was also a farmer and the proprietor of a bathing station on the Wensum at Heigham. His church was originally in St. Paul's parish but a larger one was eventually built in St. Clements.  Its site is marked by a plaque on a wall in Friar's Quay. The 1851 Census of Religion mentions eight Baptist Churches in the city:- St. Mary's; St. Clement; St. James; New Catton; Cherry Lane; Orford Hill; St. Margaret's, somewhere in the vicinity of St. Benedict's;  and St. Michael (at-Thorn) Baptist Church, situated at Black Thorn Yard, off Ber Street.

The Orford Hill Chapel held morning and evening services attended by some 300-400 people, and an afternoon service attended by 150 worshippers described as servants or invalids.   The chapel built in 1832 still exists with a plaque recording its original use.  There was a small Baptist Chapel in Pottergate at the junction with Three King Lane which had a small burial ground in front of it and existed from 1841 for at least a century and which seems to have been left out of the census, and others outside of the city at Costessey and Sprowston.   Baptist churches have since appeared at Silver Road and Witard Road and one has come and gone at Mile Cross.

In 1812 the Baptist Union was formed to provide a support structure for   Baptist churches, but many   chose not to join, preferring to remain independent or to form other associations. 

Since most people assume that only those churches with the word "Baptist" in their name are Baptist Churches it will probably come as a great surprise to be told that, next to the Church of England and possibly the Catholic Church, Baptists are now the largest and probably fastest growing section of the Christian community in England today.  If, however, we  take into account   what a Baptist Church really is, - an  independent, self regulating and self financing group of Christians,  meeting in the simplicity of the New Testament and baptising only those people who can give a credible account of their faith, then we can see that although in the early days there was only    Helwys and a few other radicals,  since the nineteenth century they have been joined by hundreds of   Nondenominational Chapels, Pentecostal Churches,  Missions, Christian Fellowships, Community Churches, and so forth, all functioning in much the same way.

Norwich today has perhaps as many as twenty churches which function in similar ways to a Baptist Church, although only four use that name and are in membership with the Baptist Union.

James Wheatley and the Tabernacle

Methodism was originally a revival movement within the Church of England but eventually many participants formed a separate denomination because they couldn't fit within the Anglican structure and traditions. The revival was pioneered in the 1730s by two young Welshmen, Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, and three Englishmen, George Whitfield, and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles.  All five were Anglican   clergymen. 

The first Methodist preacher to arrive in Norwich was James Wheatly, a Welsh cobbler whom John Wesley had refused to recognise as one of his followers in 1751.  He had been exercising a very effective ministry of evangelism in the West Country until an accusation was made against him, resulting in his dismissal.  Undeterred, he arrived in Norwich later   that year and commenced open air preaching in Tombland and near to the Castle, with dramatic results.  It is said that crowds of many thousands would flock to hear him and very quickly some 2,200 people had responded to his invitations.  Bearing in mind that Norwich had a population of 36,000 living in 7,000 households, this was an amazing response.  Wheatley's open air preaching is commemorated by a plaque on the wall at the bottom of Prince's Street, facing across to the Cathedral, and usually obscured by a large pot plant

Wheatley's ministry quickly stirred up opposition from various quarters.  Local clergy considered him to be an illiterate babbler, and the local tavern owners claimed that trade was adversely affected by the apparent reformation in morals that initially appeared.  The young dandies of the local Hell Fire Club, which met in the nearby Bell Hotel, took great delight in gathering bands of roughs, filling them up with strong drink and setting them onto the preacher and his hearers.  For many weeks during 1751 there was daily rioting on the city streets and again in the spring and summer of 1752, Wheatley being beaten insensible on more than one occasion.  Shops were looted, passers by were robbed and women were sexually assaulted in broad daylight.  Very rarely did the magistrates take any action to prevent this violence, and then only in response to the persistent protests of various prominent citizens such as Henry Gurney.  Eventually a company of Dragoons had to be called in to restore order.  This period of extreme social unrest lasted for about nine months. In spite of this Wheatley persisted and many people still showed a willingness to meet together, resulting in the erection of a wooden tabernacle in Orford Place.

The Tabernacle

This tabernacle was, however, soon wrecked by the mob, and in 1752 Wheatley's congregation obtained a site in Bishopgate adjacent to the present day Magistrate's Court for a new chapel.  This 1,000 seat building was designed by Thomas Ivory, formerly the carpenter to the Great Hospital who was later to build the Octagon Chapel and the Assembly Rooms.  Work on building this new Methodist chapel, known as the Tabernacle, began in 1753 and it was officially opened in 1755.   George Whitfield   came to Norwich at the invitation of the Countess of Huntingdon to open the Tabernacle and it continued as an important place of worship in the city for many years, eventually being demolished in its two hundredth year, 1953.

The Countess of Huntingdon was a wealthy woman who built a number of chapels around the country, usually in areas where the growth in population meant that new towns had sprung up faster than the Church of England was able or willing to organise new parishes.  It was agreed by the Church hierarchy that if wealthy patrons were willing to erect new buildings and finance the ministry, then the local bishops would licence them as parish churches.  These chapels were known as Proprietry Chapels, and Lady Huntingdon was a prominent patron of such chapels.  She also founded a college at Trevecca in Wales, where men could receive ministerial training.

During the next few years a stream of preachers visited the Tabernacle for varying periods of ministry, some of whom we remember today for their hymns,  - Augustus Toplady, Rock of Ages; Thomas Olivers, The God of Abraham Praise; and  Robert Robinson, Come Thou Fount of every blessing, and  Mighty God while angels bless Thee.  Robinson was originally a hairdresser from Swaffham.  He had trained at the Trevecca College and came to the Tabernacle on Lady Huntingdon's recommendation.  In 1759 he was baptised at Great Ellingham and went on to minister as a Baptist in Cambridge.

John Wesley also preached in the Tabernacle on many occasions. The Wesley brothers first visited Norwich in 1754.  For John this was the first of some 17 visits over the next four decades, the last being in 1790 when he was 87 years old.  

Another young man who came to preach there many years later (1817) was John Alexander.  His visit resulted in the founding of the large Independent Chapel in Prince's Street, now the URC church.

In 1757 Wheatley was accused of improper conduct towards another member's wife, and left Norwich for ever.  He always protested his innocence and there was some suggestion that the accuser was malevolent and unreliable.  Whatever the truth, one has to acknowledge Wheatley's total commitment in the face of horrendous opposition, and the effectiveness of his preaching.

Anyone wishing to visit the site of this historic building should walk from Whitefriar's Road down Bishopgate as far as the entrance to the Adam and Eve Public House on the first sharp bend.  On the left is an entrance into a small park area and immediately inside this gateway, set into the wall on the left and often obscured by bushes, is a large memorial stone recording the existence of this once vibrant chapel. 

The Pilgrim Fathers and Norwich

The Pilgrim Fathers were a group of some 60 Nonconformists (the name Pilgrim Fathers originated many years later) who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620.

For centuries there had been Christians who believed that the Church was moving away from its New Testament roots. They saw it as a power structure, existing by pomp and elaborate liturgy, and imposing itself upon the common people.  Anyone who made their own decisions regarding religion was called a heretic. (a Greek word meaning "chooser").  The reformation brought about some changes in the teaching about salvation, but the Reformed Churches were now imposing their doctrines and practices by force, instead of those of Roman Catholicism.

At that time Norwich was one of England's biggest and wealthiest towns, home to a large number of skilled, literate, independent minded merchants and craftsmen.  Such men wanted to take responsibility for their religious beliefs and practices.    Many of them objected to the rule of bishops and to having the Prayer Book forced upon them, and wanted more congregational decision making.  They often organised their own services and became known as Separatists or Puritans.   Some were fined, imprisoned or executed and others fled abroad.  In 1581 members of the congregation of St. Helen's at the Great Hospital, Bishopgate had fled to Holland for refuge.   Various other people from around the region were fleeing to different venues on the Continent.  (See article on "Robert Browne")

St. Andrew's was one of Norwich's most prominent churches and in 1604 John Robinson (1575-1625) became a member of its clergy, but within a year was forced to leave Norwich. He led a Separatist church in the Trent Valley until 1609 when he was again forced to flee, this time taking his congregation to Leiden in Holland where they were free to worship according to their conscience.

Although the Netherlands offered freedom to all, problems did eventually arise and they decided to emigrate to North America. The Virginia Company held the right to authorise settlements along the coast up to latitude forty-one north.  Robinson sent two men to London to negotiate with the Virginia Company, to ask King James to grant them a charter for a new colony, and to raise a company of share holders to back their venture.

Only 50 of Robinson's church opted to make the first crossing so he decided to stay with the others and go later.  They sailed from Delftshaven in the Speedwell, on July 31st 1620.  At Southampton they joined up with Mayflower, carrying another 20 Separatists and about 50 other passengers.  Problems developed with Speedwell and it became necessary to return, first to Dartmouth and then to Plymouth for repairs, the result being that they disposed of Speedwell and crowded onto Mayflower, although some pilgrims had to stay behind.

Their final departure date from Plymouth was 16th September and because of an error they arrived at Plymouth Bay, far north of latitude forty-one, on 16th November. To the Pilgrims this was a happy co-incidence and they retained the name Plymouth which had been given by John Smith a few years earlier. The Separatists and the other emigrants stayed together although tensions were to arise.  Five of the original party had died on the crossing and forty five  others died during the first six months.  More settlers from Leiden arrived over the next few years, one of Robinson's sons amongst them, but Robinson himself died in Leiden in 1625.  His church there eventually dispersed and integrated with the Dutch community.   The Mayflower returned to England in 1621 and was scrapped a couple of years later. Many buildings in England claim to incorporate timber from her, but there is little evidence to support these claims.

Norwich people involved    Desire Minter from Norwich had gone to Leiden and worked for the Carver family.  Desire was a young woman of about twenty at the time of the crossing (the average age was thirty-two) and she returned to England (Norwich?) in 1625.   William Holbeck was employed in some capacity by William White and went over with him, whether from Leiden or directly from Norwich is not known.  Edward and Ann Fuller were members of the Leiden Church and originated from Redenhall in Norfolk.  Their young son, Samuel, had been born in Leiden.   Thomas Williams had gone to Leiden from Great Yarmouth.   Edward and Elizabeth Winslow were from Chattisham in Norfolk.

Did the Pilgrim Fathers plant democracy in America?    No, they were not democratic and never claimed to be.   They believed that they had been chosen by God and that they had to preserve a particular way of life at all costs. If anyone didn't fit in, they were driven out of the settlement.   If the honour of establishing democracy should go to any one individual, Roger Williams is probably the man.   Williams is rarely mentioned in church history books but a short biographical note and extracts from his writings can usually be found in any comprehensive anthology of American literature.

The churches formed by the Pilgrim Fathers were usually self-governed by the members of the congregation and hence became known as Congregational Churches.  There were many such churches on both sides of the Atlantic, and although they have mostly merged with Presbyterian churches to become the United Reformed Church  (URC), Norwich's oldest Congregational Church, The Old Meeting in Colegate, still remains as a separate congregation.  American visitors who tour Europe on the "Pilgrim Trail" probably look on the Old Meeting, rather than St. Andrew's,  as their closest link to Norwich.

Further Reading:

  •       The Baptists in Norfolk, Charles Boardman Jewson, Carey Kingsgate Press, 1957
  •        Norwich the Jacobin City, Charles Boardman Jewson, Blackie, 1975
  •        Through Cloud and Sunshine, Ed. Norma Virgo/Albert Ward, Norma Virgoe, 2002 - a history of the Norwich Methodist circuits, churches and chapels
  •       The Dissenters, Michael R Watts, Clarendon, 1985
  •        Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, David Bebbington, Unwin/Hyman, 1989
  •       Radical Christian Writings, Ed. Bradstock & Rowland, Blackwell, 2002
  •      Norwich in the Nineteenth Century, Edited Christopher Barringer, Gliddon Books, 1984.
  •       The writings of Harrison and Browne, ed. Peel & Carlson, pub. Allen & Unwin 1953.
  •       Tudor and Stuart Norwich, John Pound, Phillimore, 1988
  •        150 Years at Surrey Chapel 1854 - 2004, Dr Rosamunde Codling, Surrey Chapel

This article about Nonconformist history have been contributed by Ted Doe, who has lived in Norfolk since 1986. Ted brings to the subject the unusual combination of a theological training, a historical understanding, and many years of personal involvement in a wide variety of Christian churches, both Anglican and nonconformist. He is in the process of completing a book on the history of Christianity in Norwich from Saxon/Danish times up to the present day, and hopes to find a publisher soon.  He is married to Penny who has an MA in Local and Regional History from UEA.

Ted Doe

November 2008


Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS).