The early days of Baptist life in Britain are very closely associated with
the East Midlands, especially with Nottinghamshire and the Lincolnshire Fenlands. The
communities which came into being in South-East Lincolnshire over three hundred years ago,
were not quite the first Baptist churches in Britain but they were very nearly the first.
For the most part the members were obscure and humble people yet they were among those who
stood firmly for freedom of worship and liberty of conscience in the days when both
secular and spiritual authorities demanded that in these matters ordinary people should do
as they were told. These people, not always knowing quite how important and far-reaching
their actions were, stood for principles in matters of religion and consequently for the
same principles in all spheres of life. We think of them with respect and honour their
memory as we seek to maintain the principles for which they stood.
The Fenland Baptists
Lucy Hutchinson, the wife of Colonel John Hutchinson, Parliamentary
Governor of Nottingham Castle during the Civil War, in her "Memoirs of the Life of
Colonel Hutchinson", records how she and her husband came to adopt Baptist views
after reading literature confiscated from Baptist soldiers in the Castle. She speaks of
the Presbyterian ministers being unable to defend the baptism of infants "for any
satisfactory reason but the tradition of the church ... which Tombes and Denne has so
excellently overthrown". It is to this Henry Denne, that the Baptist cause in
South-East Lincolnshire is, to a large extent, indebted for its establishment.
In 1646 Denne preached several times in Spalding in the house of a merchant, John Makernesse. As a result four people were converted. Their names were, Anne Stennet and Anne Croft, who were servants of Makernesse, and Godfrey Root and John Sowter. It was arranged that these four should be baptised at Little Croft a few days later, the baptism to take place at midnight to avoid interference by the authorities. One of the women unwisely told a friend about the baptism who passed on the information to the magistrate. As a result Denne was arrested and, according to the Baptist historian Crosby, was committed to Lincoln goal.
The same magistrate was incidentally responsible also for the imprisonment of several other Baptists. Nevertheless, in due course Spalding became one of the more important Baptist churches in the area. For many years Denne held the office of "Messenger" among these Fenland General Baptist churches. The word "Messenger" was a literal translation of the New Testament word "Apostle" and the duties of a Messenger were: the care of a number of churches, the strengthening and encouragement of elders and churches, the spread of the gospel, and the defence of doctrine. They were also, but not exclusively, involved in the ordination of other Messengers and of Elders. An Elder was a preacher with the pastoral care of a church. He might be supported by the church but, more often in the early days, he had to support himself. Deacons were almoners and lay leaders of the church.
The South Marsh Church
In the district known as South Marsh, probably about the year 1644, a
church came into existence, drawing its members from a wide area. At first infant baptism
was practised, though the use of sponsors at christening was spurned. Its members rejected
the use of the cross and the rites and ceremonies of the "old religion". Like
other similar communities, it was trying to recover the doctrines and practices of the
Uniformity of views did not always result under these circumstances and, about 1651, there was a division of opinion on the subject of baptism. Four members separated to form a new society, baptising by immersion on profession of faith. Through this church the foundations of Baptist work were laid in that part of Lincolnshire. Documents have been discovered which link members of Monksthorpe and the South Marsh Churches in such a way as to suggest very strongly that the two are the same.
One of the best known members of the South Marsh Church was Thomas Grantham. Grantham was one of an ancient Lincolnshire family, born at Halton-Holgate, near Spilsby, in 1634. (Halton-Holegate is within a mile of Monksthorpe) He was converted at the age of fourteen or fifteen and joined the General Baptist church at Alford, being baptised at the age of nineteen. He was ordained pastor of the little church at Halton in 1656. Even during the Protectorate when official religious persecution was suspended, Grantham was ill-treated, and from time to time was brought before the magistrates.
Between the appearance of the first Baptist church on English soil in 1612 and the beginning of the the Protectorate in 1653, the dissenting churches had known no period free from persecution. Now, like other Separatists, the Baptists in South-East Lincolnshire would be able to share in a brief respite. During this period, churches which had hitherto met secretly came out into the open, new churches were founded, and other developments also took place, including the formation of the General Assembly of General Baptists in 1654.
With the Restoration of Charles II, fears among the Baptists were renewed, old slanders against them were revived and many who had held high office under the Commonwealth fled. With the accession of the king, oaths of allegiance were required and many felt unable to take any kind of oath for conscience sake. It was not usually understood by the authorities that their objection was to taking oaths and it did not imply disloyalty. On the other hand, a small number of extremists were actually prepared to foment rebellion and there were arrests and executions. Persecution Renewed and Increased
Nevertheless Dissenters, with Baptists well to the fore, now faced another period of severe oppression. It was in this period of renewed and more severe persecution that the General Baptist church of Monksthorpe came into existence.
After the accession of Charles, a Cavalier Parliament was elected which came under strong Episcopalian influence and which proceeded to introduce what is known as the "Clarendon Code". This was so called after Charles' chief minister, Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon, who was called upon to put it into operation.
Five Acts were passed under this code which have been called "the five-stringed whip" and were as follows:
The Corporation Act, 1661, prohibiting any Nonconformist from holding office in any municipal corporation.
The Act of Uniformity, 1662, requiring all ministers to be re-ordained if not already ordained by a bishop, and to declare their "unfeigned assent" to the Book of Common Prayer. It resulted in the ejection of a fifth of all the ministers of the Established church, often those of the best education and those of the strongest convictions.
The Conventicle Act, 1664, the renewal of an Act passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth which forbade the assembling for religious worship of more than five persons above the age of sixteen (apart from the family) except in accordance with the usage of the Established Church. The penalty ranged from a fine of 5/- (Five Shillings), then a very large sum - to transportation to a colonial plantation.
The Five Mile Act, 1665 forbade all preachers and teachers who refused the oaths required of them to come within five miles of any corporate town or any place in which they had previously exercised a ministry, 'unless only in passing on the road' or to act as preachers or teachers.
The Test Act, 1673 prohibited Nonconformists from holding any post, civil, naval or military, under government unless they had taken communion in the parish church.
The date accepted for the foundation of the Monksthorpe Church is 1669. This means that it was founded a few years after the Restoration, at a time when persecution was reaching its height. The old Conventicle Act had recently been re-enacted and, although it no longer carried a death penalty as had the Elizabethan Act, it had been reinforced in other respects. It was no time for the faint hearted. It was still dangerous to be a Dissenter. The danger may not have been that of capital punishment - but there was certainly danger to liberty, home and and livelihood - and indirectly to health and life.
Those who opposed the state religion were no longer hanged or burnt alive, but Archbishop Laud and the authorities had no compunction about torturing them for the good of their soul or about putting them in prison for an indefinite period, confiscating their goods and leaving their dependents to fend for themselves.
Many churches in those days adopted ingenious stratagems for evading the laws of the Clarendon Code. Monksthorpe provided a hatch high in the rear wall of the chapel out of which the preacher might escape. A ladder was kept ready for him inside the chapel and another propped conveniently against the wall on the outside.
The Five Mile Act had driven worshippers to meet secretly in remote places in hovels and cellars and out in the country and to disguise the real purpose of their buildings. From the earliest days the Baptist communities of Burgh-le-Marsh and Monksthorpe had been linked together as one church, with a meeting house in the town of Burgh and another four miles away at Monksthorpe. The latter stands in over an acre of ground out in the open country. It is surrounded by a grove of trees and is approached by a tree-lined avenue leading from a minor country road. The avenue is winding and the building is invisible from the road.
The assumption is that it was deliberately placed there to make it difficult to find. The deeds of the Monksthorpe property indicate that the chapel was built in 1701 but there is abundant evidence to show that the worshipping community bearing the name "Burgh and Monksthorpe" had already been in existence a considerable time. Part of the ground on which the chapel now stands was in use in the 17th century as a burial ground and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was among the places where secret worship took place.
The chapel was erected in 1701, the land being the gift of an attorney
at Law, Hugh Ayscough (his tombstone is underneath the pulpit!) John Dowse, minister of
the church in the 1880s and again in the early years of the 1900's, records in his
"History" of the church written in 1910, traditions which had been handed down.
One of these is that services were held under a tree near Monksthorpe which was still known as the "preaching tree" and the occupier of the field concerned at that time declared that the field was still called the "preaching croft".
Another tradition is that during the services a boy was placed high up in one of the trees to keep watch and give warning in case of the approach of officers of the law. The ground is flat for miles round and such a look-out would be able to give ample warning. From its external appearance the building itself resembles a great barn and the similarity would have originally been greater as it then had a thatched roof.
Dowse quotes from William White's "History and Directory of Lincolnshire" of 1856 that, in the parish of Croft (one of the places from which Monksthorpe drew its members) he found the following record: "Mr. Robert Shalder of Croft, a Baptist, was imprisoned for Nonconformity in the time of Charles II and died soon after his release. On the day that he was interred, so vindictive was the persecuting spirit of the Conformists that it is said they took his body from the grave and dragged it upon a sledge to his own gates".
Dowse also draws attention to the petition, "Narrative and Complaint", dated July 26th 1660, which was presented to Charles II by Thomas Grantham (Messenger) and Joseph Wright on behalf of the Lincolnshire Baptists and which sets out the sufferings inflicted on them. The signature of Robert Shalder together with those of eight others of the Parish of Burgh and the adjoining parish of Croft, appear thereon. There can be no room for doubt but that they were members of the Burgh/Monksthorpe Church.
The Chapel at Monksthorpe
The Monksthorpe Chapel was built in 1701 and was evidently erected as soon
as possible after the Toleration Act of 1689, no doubt as soon as funds could be raised.
Under the Five Mile Act of 1665 a Nonconformist preacher or teacher could not preach or
teach within five miles of a corporate town. Although its penalties were removed by the
Toleration Act, this Act had not been repealed. It was a delicate situation. A chapel
could legally be built within the five mile limit though it must be registered with the
bishop or magistrate and its doors must be kept unlocked during services.
It was, however, illegal for a Nonconformist preacher to preach there. Nevertheless, if he did, he would not be arrested! Concessions indeed had been made to Dissenters, but they were minimal and they did not apply to Catholic Dissenters or to Unitarians. Who knew whether or not they might be withdrawn at any time and persecution re-commenced? It had happened before and it could happen again at a turn of the political wheel. Better play safe and put your building where it would not be noticed! Also plan it so that, if it were actually noticed, no-one would recognise it as a chapel, but would think it was a barn or a row of cottages or something!
Furthermore prejudice was strong against Dissenters and prejudices die hard. Hitherto informers had been bribed with a third part of any fine levied and informers had been plentiful. Now they had lost this source of gain. Furthermore it was, and indeed remained so for a century or more, a popular sport to carry out acts of violence against Dissenters, to throw stones or filth at them, break their windows, damage or steal their goods, hold their heads under the water in a pond or river until they were nearly drowned. So Monksthorpe chapel was built in this out-of-the way place where its members had long been accustomed to worship in the open air, the look-out was posted and the escape hatch and ladders provided for the preacher. The escape hatch is still there!
A list of members dated April 28, 1782 in the church book which gives their places of residence, shows that the ninety-nine members at that time came from at least twenty-four different villages and hamlets. (later there were twenty-seven). If this list is examined with the help of a large scale map it will be seen from what a wide area the members of the church were drawn. It can also be justly assumed that there would be a significant number in the congregation who were not on the membership roll.
It does not require much imagination to picture these men and women and their children tramping miles across the fens, some few perhaps on horses, following the paths they knew so well, to reach this distant place of worship. No doubt on the dark Winter nights they carried lanthorns to avoid the water courses and swamps. One reason for its situation was so that it could be be in a position to serve this wide area, and its congregation was willing to walk however far it was. There is a brick-lined open air baptistry in the grounds of the chapel about sixty yards from the entrance. It has three sides and the water becomes gradually shallower as the floor shelves upwards on the fourth side. It looks slightly like a village duck pond whether this was intended, as it might well have been, or not!
The Burgh and Monksthorpe Church
The chapel at Monksthorpe, still the original one, is a building which
the Lincolnshire Baptist fathers would have known. It is an attractive old building, and
except for its roof, which is no longer thatched, it is much as it was when used by them,
though in need of considerable repair. Regular monthly services were held there until
twenty years or so ago.
The membership of the combined Burgh/Monksthorpe remained quite high for a country church, reaching 134 in the first half of the 19th century though it declined to about half that number during the latter half of the century and sank to less than ten by the beginning of the 20th century. After this, under the enthusiastic ministry of John Dowse, who had been minister in the 1880s, membership began to rise again, though not to the level it had once been. The weight of membership of the church, which had formerly been at Monksthorpe, moved to Burgh where there was a fair population on which to draw. During the 1840s the cause was reasonably prosperous and the chapel was restored, but later, decline set in.
During the first decade of the 20th century, during the ministry of John Dowse a determined effort was made to restore the buildings and the cause at Monksthorpe. John Dowse was a local man who had prospered in business in Birmingham and his ministry was an honorary one. He himself made generous financial contributions to the restoration and provided endowments for the Burgh/Monksthorpe work. The Skegness Baptist Church also took a keen interest in the project, providing contributions and encouragement. This historic chapel is an important part of our Baptist heritage. It recalls not just 'old, far off unhappy things and battles long ago' but faith, determination and courage.
Pastor of Monksthorpe - writer of History of the Church,
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The chapel has now had a new foundation installed and other work is completed making it secure and safe. The 'Friends of Monksthorpe' have had a water supply connected for the first time in its history; and sit is now owned by the National Trust with a joint management group to ensure that worship still happens at this historic Baptist Chapel. We look to the future with confidence and hope that others will catch the vision we have for putting this old and well-loved chapel back into commission for our Lord!
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