Alfred Place Baptist Church

Carr’s Lane, Birmingham, and a visit to the Flavel Chapel in Devon: May 2008

May is a time for church anniversaries and conferences. The summer vacation period of late June until the end of August forbids local church special meetings, but in May the winter has ended and it is a merry month for coming together. This year for the first time there came a cluster of conferences in different parts of England such as I had never taken before and probably will not take again.

First, I spoke the Birmingham Convention the first week of May and it was held in the famous Carr’s Lane Meeting House in that city. I had never imagined I would preach there. John Angel James became the minister in 1804 preaching from the pulpit of a church which had been erected there in 1747. The Banner of Truth has reprinted his book on An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times. He said, “We live in an earnest age, and nothing but an earnest ministry can succeed in it.” He called for single-minded devotion to one supreme task and that was the conversion of people to Christ. He was troubled in seeing spiritual decline amongst Christians with their increasing worldliness, while many ministers were becoming self-indulgent and effeminate. He also saw the rise of error in the churches. He judged it ‘delusive and fatal’ to be restating the doctrines of the faith according to modern thought. Five years before his death he was joined by his assistant and successor R.W.Dale who took an increasingly opposite position, being much too enamoured with new ideas. He rejected Calvinism, accepted a fallible Bible, and denied the judgment of hell, concerning which his evangelical critics pointed out that the Lord Jesus saw the future of all men as either blessed or cursed. The thinking of Dale, that unbelievers would be annihilated, never crossed Jesus’ mind. Dale also thought evangelicalism was neglecting its social responsibilities. So that was his legacy to Congregationalism for 36 years until 1895. Then he was followed by J.H.Jowett who stuttered on for sixteen years. He transformed the Carr’s Lane Meeting House into an institutional church, a lecture hall, cinema, café, billiard and pool hall and much else. Many churches followed that example. In 1911 he moved to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, having tea with the King and Queen before he left. He stayed in the USA for five years before returning to England having accepted a call to Westminster Chapel, London, though President Woodrow Wilson was one of the signers of the petition asking him to remain in the USA. Think of it! He was minister for six years in Westminster Chapel where he pleaded with evangelicals not to be negative or afraid of liberal thinking, but when he died something unusual happened; he was succeeded by the conservative Campbell Morgan.

So the Birmingham Convention, backed by the City Mission, hired Carr’s Lane for its Convention where I spoke on four occasions on the book of Ruth to 200-300 people. In the foyer of the church there was a large statue of the bearded R.W.Dale sitting in a chair pondering. What deep thinkers the modernists pride themselves in being. The present brick building was erected about forty years ago with modern facilities, right in the middle of down-town shopping-centred Birmingham. There are no homes around it at all. It has just a Sunday morning service, and one monthly afternoon service. In the Convention we met some grand Christian men and women some of whom regularly listen to my sermons on sermonaudio.com

Iola and I stayed in Bournville, a community built by the Christian businessman Cadbury as a pretty village with decent homes for his employees who worked in his chocolate factory. We went around Cadbury’s World one morning. You understand that over the years I have strongly supported with my purchases that factory . . . It was fun for us to see where my bars of chocolate came from. The Cadbury’s World presents a fun history of the discovery of the cocoa bean and the invention of chocolate. We got there an hour before hoards of little children and came away after a couple of hours with some free samples.

We spent two nights with daughter Catrin and Ian on our way to the West Country, and I sought to bond with my new grandson Osian who got less suspicious of me as the Friday passed. He is now half a year old and delightful.

My next engagement was in Flavel Chapel near Paignton in ‘glorious’ Devon, two and a half hours’ drive from Catrin’s. How encouraging to think that there is a church which loves John Flavel’s Saviour and believes the doctrines that he believed meeting where he had preached from 1656 for 35 years. He had begun as pastor across the estuary in Dartmouth where one of his congregation said, “a person must have a very soft head or a very hard heart or both that they could sit under his ministry unaffected.” He was ejected from that pulpit in 1662 and three years later the Five Mile Act was passed which meant that he could not preach within five miles of his old pulpit and so he moved to the area where Flavel Chapel is today. But in 1688 at the Glorious Revolution evangelical ministers were permitted to return to their communities and he crossed the estuary back to Dartmouth for the last time where a large church was built for the crowds who came to hear him as a ‘veteran soldier almost worn out’ – that is how he described himself. He died three years later aged 63. You have heard of the famous incident concerning one Luke Short, a fifteen year old boy, who heard Flavel preach and then emigrated to America. Eighty-five years later he remembered the text Flavel had preached on, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema maranatha.” He was 100 years of age and then turned in repentance to God.

Flavel Chapel today is the only church building in the middle of a pretty village of middle-class homes where there is little interest in the gospel. Under twenty people gather there, but its leaders are great in faith. They have renovated the church schoolroom which is 200 yards from the Flavel Chapel. It is spick and span and just the right size for their Sunday congregations, and used by the village for other functions, but on Saturday afternoon the anniversary service was held in the old Flavel chapel itself. Friends came from across Devon and up from Cornwall to show their appreciation of this work (which is affiliated to the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches). I preached on the Lord’s Day at the schoolroom. It was a happy day.

The final cluster of meetings were the annual Kent Sovereign Grace Union meetings held in three different Reformed Baptist churches there, south-east of London. Kent is called the ‘garden of England’ and it looked magnificent, such a pretty county, its fields fully cultivated. Its proximity to the continent meant it was the first area with Londond where the truths of Luther and Calvin were brought to England and preached to the people. What a warm response they received, and what martyrs were to come from Kent. I hope I honoured those Reformers by my three messages on the theme of Imputation. The first place I preached was to 50 people in Ashford many of those in the congregation were under 25 years of age. There a certain John Brown was once arrested and tortured to force him to recant, his feet being held onto a fire. For twenty-four hours he was put in the stocks and his wife came and sat with him seeking to cheer him to keep trusting in the Lord. He was burnt alive in May 1517 exhorting his wife to bring up their children to fear God. Then the second evening I preached in Tonbridge and was reminded of the two godly women, Margery Polley and Joan Beach who were both burned at the stake. A fine granite drinking fountain with a trough for cattle and horses and a smaller one for dogs has been erected by evangelicals in the memory of Margery Polley while carved at the side in large letters are t
he words, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, Romans 5:8.” Finally I preached on the Thursday night in Tenterden in a modern church building. In that village alone as many as nine Christians were martyred. John Waddon was one; he had been a Roman priest who came to believe that God alone can forgive sins. Agnes Grebil became a Christian and her husband and sons informed the authorities about her new faith. She was dragged through the streets and burned to death. Matthew Bradbridge and Nicholas Final were burnt to death supported by their wives’ encouragements, and then their wives were arrested and also burnt to death. At what terrible price our freedom has been purchased. There is a fine granite memorial to all the 41 Kentish martyrs in Caterbury near the cathedral.

So that was my ten days of preaching around in England, a delightful and varied experience of fellowship with some contemporary gospel Protestants. I met up again with a 20 year old converted Moslem whom I had met and heard speak at the Reformation and Revival Conference last November. He is working now with the Birmingham City Mission preaching on the streets of England’s ‘second city’ to the thousands of Moslems, Hindus and English pleasure worshippers who live work there.

GEOFF THOMAS