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

4 Years of revival and growth

Queen Victoria was nearing her Golden Jubilee. The first electric light had just been invented. The Zulu War was in full swing and, in Germany, the first motor car had been produced. In Halifax, the Town Hall, North Bridge and Wainhouse Tower were all sparkling new. All this as the last quarter of the nineteenth century dawned. We are now nearing the high point of Free Church strength in the country. Lee Mount was still a branch church of North Parade but was busy organising its life so as to become, one day, a Church in its own right. To this end the deacons were responsible for the pastoral oversight of members, in districts, and evangelistic campaigns were regularly held. These resulted in ‘very large numbers of converts for the Sunday School and congregation.’ A minute of the time speaks of ‘a quickening of the spiritual life of our brothers and sisters, as perhaps never before.’ In 1882, for example, 36 new members were added to the church, of whom 24 were from the Sunday School. Membership then stood at 126. Its income in 1877 was £168!

Church discipline, so rare in our day, was a feature last century. For example, members who were absent from the the Lord’s Supper for six consecutive occasions were suspended from the privilege of Church membership for three months. ‘And in the case of improper conduct before marriage, the case is to be investigated in a spirit of firmness and tenderness.’

Financially the Church was still labouring under the debt incurred in building the chapel, and the effort to remove this at the expense of ‘spiritual work’ was bemoaned. Not until 1889 was the slate wiped clean, seventeen years after the building opened, so freeing the Church ‘to do the task our Master has given us to do.’ This period also saw the introduction of pew rents which, with weekly offerings, formed the financial basis of the Church. The building of the Infants’ School in 1876 is referred to in detail in Appendix A Building of the infants school.

At this stage, 1877, the ‘Bazaar’ Committee was formed. A bazaar was to be held that year and others in later years, as one method of reducing the debt on the new chapel; sewing meetings prepared for this. Charges made at special teas also provided profits towards the Building Fund. The North Parade Church, when asked for help with this debt, had to decline as they too were hard-pressed financially. In 1884 Lee Mount Baptist members were asked for gifts to clear the debt.

The Church was active in other ways: prayer meetings had been spasmodic. A minute of 1880 records a call to people to pray in prayer meetings, but following the evangelistic campaigns these meetings were more enthusiastic. ‘The Holy Spirit is bringing new life and unanimity of feeling.’ Prayer Meetings were held on Sunday Mornings and also in homes. A ‘Tract Society’ was in operation at this point and for many years to come. Tracts were bought and distributed regularly to the homes of the area, with prayerful hope that someone would find understanding. A ‘Mothers’ Meeting’ catered for mothers in the area, not just members of the Church and congregation. At the mid-week meeting, leading members of the Church, after much thought and study, gave ‘papers,’ often on deep philosophical or theological subjects; for example, Henry Townsend read his paper on ‘The Humanity of Christ.’

In 1871 was founded the ‘Young Men’s Association’ or ‘Mutual Improvement Society’; this still existed in 1922, having had a somewhat spasmodic life. The aim, as presented in the records, was that ‘young men may be better prepared to overcome the battle of life more intelligently and successfully than they would otherwise have done.’ It arose in a day of minimal State education, to meet the thirst for knowledge among the working class. So we find a religious basis, supplemented by lectures, essays, debates and discussions on a wide variety of subjects, some political, topical, scientific, etc. For example: ‘Is it time to abolish the House of Lords?’ ‘Digestion,’ ‘Christian Evidences,’ ‘Why I am a Liberal,’ etc. Members would also be expected to speak at random on a subject pulled out of a hat, and sometimes met with the St George’s Association. All of this helped towards a liberal education and gave a measure of self-confidence to those who felt the lack of education.

It is a common criticism of past church life that it was very insular, each church or chapel living its life independently and selfishly of all others. Our records show that, at Lee Mount, this was not the case. A nascent form of ecumenism was strong, even in 1880. For example, at the evangelical campaigns, the Rev. Israel Parkinson, the first Vicar of St George’s, was a regular preacher and, because of the ‘trade depression and severe weather,’ a local relief fund was formed between the two churches which raised £13 9s 8d. In addition, efforts were being made to commence a course of special united ‘Fellowship Meetings’ of all local churches, to be held at 6.30 on Sunday mornings. Denominationally Lee Mount met with the other Baptist Churches in the town for an annual Communion Service. The report of 1886, speaking of the recent ecumenical endeavours, hopes that ‘the time may speedily come when every barrier and obstacle which hinders our oneness, and prevents us presenting a bold and united front, may be entirely and completely swept away, to be heard of no more for ever.’ Hardly the voice of Victorian denominational exclusiveness!

The growth in the membership described above must be related to the changing conditions in the locality. When the first chapel was built in 1872, Lee Mount and Ovenden were sparsely inhabited. But the move was strategically right for, by 1886, we find mention of ‘this thriving and growing locality.’ The last years of the century saw the intensive development of Lee Mount and, much later, in the 1920s and 30s, the great housing estates of Bracewell and Ovenden.

In terms of personalities, 1884 saw the retirement of Henry Townsend after 25 years as choirmaster. He was presented with ‘a very handsome marble timepiece.’ Two years later the Rev. Watson Dyson, minister of North Parade and a person of note in the town, resigned. He and other ministers of the mother church would preach regularly at Lee Mount and conduct baptismal services. Interestingly, baptismal services were often held during the week.

Two surviving records of the period help us to feel its pulse. One is a public lecture, chaired by Councillor W. Oswin, an early deacon, at which Mr W. Pearson lectured on ‘Deeds of Might, Done Without Strong Drink,’ on behalf of the Church’s Band of Hope. The other is an insurance receipt for ‘Chapel, Infant School and Chapel Helper’s House,’ together insured for £1,300. The premium was £1 6s. 0d!! In 1889 the teachers and scholars in the thriving Sunday School numbered over 400.

The last decade of the old century and the first decade of the new were to see momentous changes for our Church at Lee Mount. In 1890 a ‘Minister’s Fund’ was opened, the first suggested contributions being a penny a week! This reflected the desire of the members to have their own pastor to lead and strengthen them. In December of the following year, the Secretary received a letter from North Parade which made suggestions as to how the branch at Lee Mount might move towards independence and exist as a church in its own right. These suggestions reported to the Church Meeting:–

The reasons for this course of action were as follows:–

  1. The unanimous feeling of the Church that the present is the most opportune time.
  2. Because with the present year our Conference and Association as General Baptists virtually end in consequence of the amalgamation of Baptist Churches.
  3. The opportunity of becoming affiliated with the other churches connected with the Yorkshire Association.
  4. Because of the kindly feelings existing between ourselves and North Parade and of the confidence they have in our being able to manage our own affairs, as shown in the proposals set forth in the foregoing resolution.

So, as Marconi was perfecting his wireless, Rontgen his X-ray device, Freud, his method of psychoanalysis, here at Lee Mount our predecessors were achieving independence — Good Friday, April 15th, 1892 saw special services to form a separate church. The deacons were Henry Townsend, John Henry Hooson (Secy), William Wilson, James Naylor (Treas.), Charles Jacobs, John Henry Holroyd. The membership was 134. Auxiliary organisations were the Band of Hope, the Young Men’s Association, and, of course, the Sunday School. Later in the year we joined the Yorkshire Association, and the Halifax Nonconformist Council and an ‘address’ was sent to the North Parade Church, presumably expressing thanks for and appreciation of the support throughout the years. By the end of the year the diaconate numbered eight, including a new secretary, William Bradley, a position he was to hold until 1921. His summing up of the life of the church, as those of Mr Hooson, were perceptive and expressed in masterly phrase, often encouraging but always frank. For the ‘Year of Independence’ Mr Hooson expressed concern for the spiritual life of the church, now free of debt, with adequate premises — but with no baptismal candidates that year, low attendance at morning worship (a visiting preacher had remarked ‘Where is your congregation?’), only older people attending prayer meetings. ‘Organisation is not vitality’ he said, and exhorted the members to greater concern for others and more faithful attendance.

The second milestone of this period was the invitation to the Rev. J.H. Robinson in 1893 to the Pastorate at a salary of £100 per annum. His five year ministry saw 44 baptisms, the introduction of a magazine nationally produced, ‘The Home Messenger,’ and of the Minister’s ‘Sunday Afternoon Lectures for Men,’ designed to interest men outside the Church, and thus, perhaps, draw them eventually into the services and fellowship. A Young People’s Christian Endeavour was formed to bridge the gap between Sunday School and Church. We were looking further afield too, supporting financially the Home Work Fund and Baptist Building Fund, taking part in District and Association Meetings and joining a Baptist Union of Local Churches. Within the District Thursday evening lectures were held: ‘Our Nonconformist Heritage,’ ‘Why I am a Nonconformist and a Baptist,’ ‘Martin Luther and the Reformation’ (Rev. Robinson). A letter of sympathy was sent to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, destroyed by fire in 1898, in which year Rev. Robinson resigned to move to Lindley, Huddersfield, but before that 1897 saw two notable events: one, the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, when the Queen attended a service on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, and Lee Mount people a service in the grounds of St George’s Church; two, the church began a building fund for a new chapel, the buildings being inadequate.