In search of a city: a history of Lee Mount Baptist Church, Halifax 1846–1977

Miss J M Crabtree BA and Rev. M V Jackson BA

3 The Church — its first stumbling steps

The earliest surviving record we have of the Church, as opposed to the Sunday School, is the minute book of 1853–1876. Europe was in a state of revolution, Marx and Engels were publishing their ‘Communist Manifesto,’ the Crimean war was being fought and the British Raj in India was barely born. The American Civil War had not yet taken place, Darwin had not yet published his earthshaking Origin of species and William Booth was still a Methodist!

The minute book described is of the ‘Ovenden General Baptist Church.’ This means that our forefathers were Arminian doctrinally, believing that Christ had died for all men. The other strand were ‘Particular Baptists,’ ‘Calvinists’ in doctrine, believing that Christ died only for some, ‘the Elect.’ Jacob Moore and Henry Cockroft, secretary and treasurer, are the first names recorded and they, with George Hellewell and Zachariah Greenwood, formed the diaconate. The membership was 44.

There were already three Baptist Churches in Halifax at this time, but it seems certain (from Church Annual Report of 1887) that our Church originated in 1846 from the influx of hand-loom weavers into the town from strong centres of Baptist life in the Calder Valley. Hebden Bridge and area has, in fact, been referred to as the ‘Mecca of Yorkshire Baptists’ for its association with such influential figures as Dan Taylor and Dr John Fawcett. This theory of origin is supported by members who are recorded as entering the Church from Heptonstall Slack.

Not having a building of its own, the Church first met in Sod House Green, in two cottages. But this was unsatisfactory and it was agreed in June 1854 to move to ‘a more commodious room situated in Nursery Lane, Ovenden.’ This more commodious room was the Temperance Hall, now demolished, which cost the sum of £12 2s. 6½d. to ‘fit up’ for worship. The Church remained here until February 1856 when it moved to Jeremiah Stead’s school at Moorside. The rent here was one shilling a week but ‘everyone objects to the Temperance Hall.’ Interestingly, there is an early minute (1853) which refers to help being sought from the Conference of the Churches ‘in the Connection.’ This shows that the Church belonged to the ‘New Connection of Baptist Churches,’ which had its own Association separate from the Particular Baptists. The two streams of Baptist life united in 1891.

In these early days both the secretary and the treasurer were regarded as ‘ministers’ and were on the preaching plan. ‘Experience Meetings’ were held where Christians were encouraged, in homes, to talk about their faith. However, by March 1856, we learn that all except Jacob Moore had withdrawn their preaching services, and although ‘it was agreed to employ him as our regular minister,’ the death of the church was near. In May of that year ‘it was considered very desirous to begin a prayer meeting or experience meeting’ and that is the last minute of the first church. It had died.

For the next nine years the Church did not exist, though the Sunday School flourished. It appears that between 1851 and 1862 North Parade Baptist Church supplied the pulpit for occasional preaching services, also some of the officers and teachers in the Sunday School. However, in 1862, this assistance was withdrawn and the cause in Ovenden was left ‘an orphan.’ Not until September 1865 do the minutes of the ‘Church’ recommence when we find visitation in progress to encourage interest in the Christian faith and in attendance at worship. That the resurrected ‘Church’ was still very dependent on North Parade is clear from the fact that it referred to North Parade on whether to hold Communion Services, etc. It did not, in fact, even have deacons as such, a committee acted in their place. Clearly it was not a fully constituted church as we understand it, more a mission dependent on North Parade.

1866 was, however, an important year in the history of the church for, in that year, at a meeting of teachers and senior scholars, it was resolved to negotiate with North Parade in order to become a recognised branch and to appoint a building committee. Within six years a new chapel had been built at Lee Mount. Meanwhile support was both received and given to North Parade and the Ovenden Baptists would ‘sit at the Lord’s Table’ with the North Parade church. There is an interesting reference in 1871 to the church being given a book on Baptism by a ‘Dr Ingham.’ This was the notable Richard Ingham who while at Vale in Todmorden, published his ‘Handbook on Christian Baptism’ which became a standard work on the subject.

‘The Service was conducted at our old preaching room at Moorside on this day for the last time and we are to open our new chapel at Lee Mount on Good Friday, March 29th.’ This minute is dated March 24th 1872. And so the thing was done. The Rev. T. Goodby of Derby preached on the day of opening and the celebrations occupied four days. The Chapel cost £1,008 16s.9d. to build and was an unadorned modest building. It is claimed that, in fact, the Chapel gave its name to the district which was previously known as ‘Broad Tree.’

At the time of the Opening the membership of the church was only 25. Services were held in the afternoon and evening, allowing the Sunday School to operate in the morning. There were no pews, rather reversible forms and pew rents varied from 1/- to 2/- depending upon their position. Within a month a baptismal service was held. Such services were conducted by Rev. lsaac Preston and his successor at North Parade. Within two years the membership had more than doubled; experience meetings, enquirers’ meetings and prayer meetings were all central to the church’s life. A new harmonium was purchased for £24 and there was a choir. One is impressed in reading these earliest minutes of the Church by the simplicity of the life they reflect. Church Meetings consisted almost entirely of discussion of new members, baptisms, or matters of directly spiritual relevance. They also seemed to have been short! By contrast, church minutes today reflect a far more complicated and bureaucratic way of life. Perhaps this is inevitable though, in some ways, regrettable.