A brief history of Spicer Street church, St Albans
A Fresh Start...
Faithful unto death
An Independent Church in St Albans
Two thousand ejected
The Cotton mill and a Sunday School
A new building
A low ebb
A new start
'Spicer Street' today
Just after the Second World War The Independent Chapel, or ' Spicer Street ' as it is popularly known, was at a very low ebb and there was even talk of the church having to close down. A prayer meeting was started and this marked a turning point in the life of the church. A new minister, Fred Harding, was called in 1948 and since then the gospel has been preached faithfully and clearly. From 1971 until his retirement in 2003 the church was pastored by Peter Seccombe and then Greg Strain, who was the associate pastor, took over as the senior minister. Under God's good hand the church has grown over the decades. In 1987 a service was started in Marshalswick and this is now an independent church in its own right ( Ridgeway Church ). In 2004 a second morning congregation was started at Spicer Street . We are grateful to God for the his blessings over the last fifty years or so but our history goes back much further than 1948...
The church is in fact, over 350 years old. The chapel in Spicer Street in which the present congregation meets was only erected in 1812. However, the 350 years since an independent congregational church commenced in St Albans cover a very interesting period, reflecting many of the Christian events and 'ups and downs' of those three and a half centuries.
But of course, the history of the Christian church in St Albans goes back a long way before 1650. How did the Christian message first reach the shores of Britain and, in particular, the city of St Albans? Was it through the Roman army of occupation, such as the soldiery based in Verulamium? This is possible, but it is thought much more likely, that the gospel was first brought to Britain by traders and merchants. Towards the end of the third century AD savage persecution of Christians led to the death of the first British Christian martyr, Alban of Verulamium, after whom St Albans is named. (The date of his death is alternatively placed earlier, in 208AD.) According to tradition, for hiding a Christian priest, he was executed on the hill where the Abbey now stands.
Jumping the centuries to 1381, we learn of the Lollard, John Balle, an itinerant preacher who was hanged in St Albans. The Lollards were the forerunners of the Protestant Reformers. They believed in the centrality of the Bible, and that it should be preached and made freely available to everyone to read in their own language. Balle was not alone in St Albans in suffering for his faith. In 1555, during the reign of 'bloody Mary', George Tankerfield was brought from London and burnt at the stake in Romeland because of his refusal to accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, or the Real Presence. In 1573 Robert Johnson was imprisoned for his failure to conform to the Prayer Book, eventually dying in prison. He had earlier been chaplain to Sir Nicholas and Lady Anne Bacon of nearby Gorhambury, themselves great supporters of the Puritans. Another executed for his convictions was John Penry, one of the earliest Congregationalists, put to death in 1593. His local sponsor had been John Clarke, Mayor of St Albans in 1592, who himself was charged by the authorities for entertaining Penry and inviting him to preach.
In 1642 the Civil War broke out and St Albans came out strongly for the Parliament. Up until this point anyone who attempted to separate from the Established Church was liable to pay a great price, even torture and death. The Puritans continued to suffer until the setting up of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.
Now we are getting close to what is regarded as the founding date of the Independent Chapel; so what were the events that led up to it?
By 1644 the citizens of St Albans had taken steps to install ministers of Puritan persuasion in St Michael's, St Peter's, St Stephen's and the Abbey Church. At the Abbey (which had been a parish church since the dissolution of the monastries) the minister was George Newton. He was followed in 1646 by John Geree and after his death Job Tookey was appointed in 1650, selected by the local citizens. (see note 1) Tookey is described as 'an able, godly minister', a man of compassion and piety and sufficiently learned as to write a concordance to the Hebrew Bible, though unpublished. He was also a Congregationalist and believed in the independence of the local 'gathered' (see note 2) church and thus the Abbey Church became an independent congregational church. 1650 became the year of the foundation of the Independent Chapel!
In 1662 following the restoration of the monarchy and the accession of Charles II, the Act of Uniformity was passed. This required ministers of the Church of England to conform to the Prayer Book. Over two thousand ministers throughout the country refused and were ejected (the so-called Great Ejection), including the then minister of the Abbey Church, Nathaniel Partridge. A large number of the congregation left with their minister and so an independent congregation, outside the Abbey, was formed in St Albans, meeting in various homes and locations.
There then followed a period of repression and the church assembled in secret. We learn that the house of a William Aleward had been reported to the authorities for being a Dissenting Meeting House. (How easily today we take for granted our right to 'freedom of assembly'!) In 1672, however, the King issued a 'Declaration of Indulgence' which allowed nonconformists to open meeting houses, so Robert Pemberton of St Peter's parish secured a preaching licence for his house as a 'Congregational Meeting'.
The passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 secured even greater freedom for Dissenters. From 1692 to 1836 records show that no fewer than five hundred nonconformist meeting houses were opened throughout Hertfordshire alone, including among them a meeting house in what is now Lower Dagnall Street. (This building, erected in 1697, just around the corner from the present premises in Spicer Street, is still standing, now used as offices.) During this period the hymn writers Philip Doddridge (see note 3) and William Cowper (see note 4) were members of the church and the famous Bible commentator Matthew Henry preached at the induction of one of the ministers.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the work of the independent congregation went into decline. Sadly, in common with many other independent churches at that time, the Dagnall Lane Chapel was greatly influenced by Unitarian doctrines, at the heart of which was the denial of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1794, as it emerged that the minister had become affected by these views, those members who held to the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ withdrew.
After meeting for a while with the Baptists, those who had withdrawn formed their own congregation and for the first few months met in a cotton mill in what is now Cottonmill Lane. The first service was held on 7th September 1794 and a Sunday School was commenced with about twenty children. (This was just fourteen years after Robert Raikes, regarded as the founder of Sunday schools, started such a school in Gloucester.) 1994 saw the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of this 'Independent' Sunday School. It is one of the oldest in the country! (Since 1960 the Independent Chapel has had two Sunday Schools: one held on the chapel premises and the other at Sandringham School in The Ridgeway, Marshalswick.) A few months later, in 1795, the independent congregation acquired a small 'barn-place' in Long Butt Lane, somewhere off Sweet Briar Lane (now Victoria Street), fitting up their new meeting place for about £88.
It was not long before the barn was no longer adequate and so a new chapel was erected in Spicer Street (traditionally on the site of a former Baptist chapel) at a cost of £1,500. An appeal was issued for help in building the new premises, as the church and congregation did not exceed 150, and support came from elsewhere in the county and from London. It was opened on June 10th 1812 and three years later the membership consisted of fifteen men and fourteen women.
We must not, however, think of the Spicer Street premises as they are today! First, in 1817, the gallery was put in place to accommodate the large numbers attending. Then the burial ground behind the chapel was purchased in 1838. In 1863 a Sunday School hall was added (the 250 children and 25 teachers were very cramped before that) and, as yet more space was needed, this was considerably enlarged in 1888. (Walking along Spicer Street towards Dagnall Street, the foundation stone set into the wall may be seen. The silver key used by the city's mayor at the official opening on 30th January 1889 is still in the church's possession.) The organ was also added later and there have been other alterations over the succeeding years.
Back in 1832 the congregation meeting in Spicer Street joined with similar Independents to form an association which called itself The Congregational Union of England and Wales. During these mid and later nineteenth century years the church was blessed with many godly and able ministers. In particular, mention should be made of the Rev John Harris, minister from 1825 to 1861, and the Rev William Urwick, minister from 1880 to 1895. (Marble mural tablets inside the chapel commemorate these two ministers.) John Harris, for one, did not pull his punches! A sermon of his in 1829 upset not a few and even caused some to leave as he alleged they could be causing others to break the Sabbath: they might be in the chapel but at home or in their business they had left others to work on their behalf! During Mr Urwick's (see note 5) ministry there was an emphasis on outreach and a new work was commenced at Bricket Wood, as well as there being concern for the poor and needy.
The year 1859 and that mid nineteenth century period is very significant in the history of the church in our land for God visited many parts of the British Isles with a revival of true Christian faith. Special meetings were held in St Albans, both in the open air and indoors. Indeed, a field adjacent to College Street was nicknamed 'Revival Meadow' by the St Albans Times, but we do not know how much the congregation at the chapel in Spicer Street was affected by these events.
In 1896 a new, larger church building was proposed and three years later land was purchased on the corner of Victoria Street and Beaconsfield Road, then a newly developed part of the city. The new church, Trinity Congregational Church, was opened in 1903. The original intention was to have one membership with both congregations under the same management, 'Spicer Street' continuing as a mission church. However, in 1925 the two churches became completely separate.
One of the trustees of the new church was Mr Samuel Ryder, the founder of Ryder's Seeds. He had started his seed business in the old Dagnall Street Chapel and when he later built his premises in Holywell Hill, the old chapel became a warehouse. He joined the Spicer Street church soon after 1895 and quickly threw his weight behind the project of a new church building. Described as 'a man of strong and outstanding principles', he was active in the town on behalf of various issues. He is also famous, of course, as the donor of the 'Ryder Cup' for golf, having been introduced to that game by the then minister, the Rev Frank Wheeler, because of his need for open-air exercise. Sam Ryder died in April 1936 but his widow was a frequent worshipper at 'Spicer Street' until her death in 1955 at the age of ninety-one.
The early years of the twentieth century were not easy ones for Christian churches. Liberal theology was starting to make inroads into confidence in the Bible; an emphasis on 'the Social Gospel' struck at the heart of true gospel preaching and underrated great Bible truths; and two world wars took their toll, plus the economic struggles and depression of the inter-war years. (In 1914-18 twenty-seven men from 'Trinity' and 'Spicer Street' gave their lives, commemorated on a wall plaque in the chapel in Spicer Street. During the Second World War boys of Hastings Grammar School were evacuated to St Albans and occupied part of the Spicer Street Chapel premises - the headmaster used to hang his cane on the back of the vestry door!)
By 1944 a low ebb had been reached, described as 'the lowest point in the church's life within living memory'. Humanly speaking, things were kept going by a deacon, Mr Ernest Hickling, and two ladies, Miss Connie Catton, the church secretary, and Miss Alice Ironmonger, the treasurer. (The Ironmonger family had been associated with the Chapel since 1817. Mr Isaac Ironmonger was the virtual leader of the Spicer Street congregation from 1920 to 1923. In 1929, to the great delight of the local church, he was elected Mayor of St Albans with his daughter, Alice, acting as Lady Mayoress.) Then in 1945 a turning point came with the start of a mid-week meeting for prayer and Bible study.
About this time Mr Fred Harding started coming to the Chapel and from time to time spoke at the new weekly meeting. Three years later, on February 19th 1948, he was inducted as the new pastor. Under Mr Harding the church started to grow again and showed many evidences of new life. In 1967 the Rev Hon Roland Lamb became associate minister and then, on the retirement of Fred Harding, minister in charge and moderator.
On December 4th 1971 the church welcomed a new pastor, the Rev Peter Seccombe, who retired after 30 years service on 30th September 2003. Under God these were years of growth and expansion through a Christ-centred, biblical ministry with emphasis on the expository preaching of God's Word. Several other developments also marked this period: the start in 1973 of a regular church holiday; the repair and renovation of the church hall - financially, a step of faith that brought great encouragement as it was honoured; in 1980 the setting up of 'area fellowship groups' in different parts of the City, and the expansion of the work in the Marshalswick area.
These years also saw the realisation of a long cherished prayer that God would call some from among the membership to serve him overseas in a long-term, cross-cultural ministry, and since 1981 thirteen have responded to that call. In addition the first 'pastor's assistant' was appointed in 1982, the forerunner of the pastoral team, and a number of men have also taken up pastoral charge in other parts of the country.
The current pastor is the Rev Greg Strain who served as an associate pastor under Peter Seccombe and succeeded him when he retired. And so a new chapter has begun.
Spicer Street has come a long way since 1650 yet the core beliefs and practices remain the same. There is now a membership of over 250 with many others who, while not members, would consider it 'their' church. The church now has a pastoral team of three "full timers".
The church considers itself ultimately under God as its Head, but, humanly speaking is completely independent in running its own affairs, being led in spiritual matters by able men who act as elders. Final decisions regarding the church's life are taken by the members in the 'church meeting' which at present takes place about every six weeks. Whilst being an independent church, the church also greatly values interdependency and so it is affiliated to two larger national bodies: The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and An Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches. It is also a member church of Affinity (previously the British Evangelical Council).
Although details of church life may have changed, the Independent Chapel definitely considers itself in true succession to its 1650 founders. It stands where they stood! This is especially true in matters of belief and doctrine, what is often called the gospel, which may be summarised as follows:
The Bible in its entirety is the infallible Word of God and as such it is the only authority for all our faith and practice. Salvation is by the grace of God alone and through faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ, who bore the penalty for our sins by dying in our place. Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ there is no other Saviour and without him, men and women are guilty, lost and bound for hell. But for those who come to him in repentance and faith, he gives forgiveness of sins, life with him and the assurance of Heaven.
Because the members of the church believe the gospel and that it is vital not only for this life but for the life to come, they want to make it known to others! That is the aim of all its services, meetings and other activities. It is also the motivation behind the church's whole-hearted support of its members who are serving Christ overseas in a missionary capacity: a woman in Uganda and a couple in Ethiopia, plus others with whom, although not members, it has close ties.
Today, perhaps as it was in 1650, 1662, 1794 and 1812, the congregation which meets at the rather small, and certainly not modern, chapel in Spicer Street is very much a family. It represents a good cross-section of people, united together by a common love for the Lord Jesus Christ and a desire to please him, their Saviour and Lord.
To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations for ever and ever! Amen.
The townspeople had bought the Abbey building for £400 in 1553 under a charter granted by Edward VI, (later, in 1684, also redeeming the annual farm rent for £200) and they converted it, a part into their parish church, and a part (the Lady Chapel) into their grammar school. This purchase also gave them the right of patronage.
Hymn singing was still in its infancy at the beginning of the eighteenth century when Isaac Watts, preceding Doddridge, published his first hymns. Among Doddridge's best known hymns are: "Hark the glad sound! the Saviour comes"; "O God of Bethel by whose hand"; "O happy day, that fixed my choice!"
The Rev William Urwick was the author of "Nonconformity in Herts", a very comprehensive work, now out of print, showing the rise and development of nonconformity in St Albans and 'in all the parishes of Hertford'.
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