Church History

Cirencester Baptist Church is one of the oldest Baptist Churches in England, tracing its origins back to the English Civil War. 2001 marked the official 350th Anniversary. The Church has always met in Coxwell Street and the current premises date from 1858.

Each year the church has hundreds of enquiries about its history. To help researchers and students, we have included a few pages that should answer most questions.

How did the Baptist denomination begin?

Baptist Christians first started to worship in groups in the early 17th Century in Holland and England.

They were influenced by the Reformation in Europe, and in particular by the teachings of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. They were looking for spiritual renewal in their own lives, and in the Church.

The Bible, particularly the Bible translated into English, was central to Baptist belief. These early Baptists studied the Bible and read that, in order to be a Christian, you had to have a personal faith in Jesus Christ. They concluded that churches should be groups of baptised believers. This was very different to the prevailing view in England at the time that anyone who lived in a parish should attend the parish church, irrespective of their beliefs.

Baptist thinking undermined the role of the Church of England. It was therefore unpopular with the authorities, who made it illegal.

  • 1609 – First English Baptist Church in Holland. Founded by John Smyth, an Anglican priest, and Thomas Helwys, a lawyer from Lincolnshire
  • c1612 – First English Baptist Church in England. Founded by Thomas Helwys, in Spitalfields, London
  • 1612 – Plea to James I for religious freedom
  • 1630s – Two groups of Baptists emerge. Both believe that only those who put their trust in Christ can be saved, but while the so-called General Baptists believe that anyone can have such faith, the Particular Baptists believe that the only people capable of having such faith are those few who have already been pre-chosen by God.
  • 1638 – First Particular Baptist Church
  • 1644 – Particular Baptist Churches in London publish a Confession of Faith
  • 1650s – Rapid growth of Baptist Churches while Oliver Cromwell governs the Country. Baptist preachers exercise a travelling ministry – Henry Jessey in the West and Midlands, John Myles in Wales, Thomas Tillam in the north of England
  • 1651 – Cirencester Baptist Church founded
  • 1656 – Henry Jessey visits Gloucestershire
  • 1660s – Persecution of dissenters – Baptists, Quakers, and Puritans
  • 1689 – Act of Toleration – legal recognition that people held strong beliefs and were worshipping in different ways. Churches had to be licensed but it was now legal to meet

For further information, see the Baptist Historical Society website

How did Cirencester Baptist Church begin?

The beginnings of the Church are hazy. The first definite information is in two documents listing names of baptised people; and births of children, both from 1651.

  • List of names of those baptised in the Church of Christ in Cirencester and those that were received into communion from other congregations since the year 1651
  • This is the record of the names of those children that were not sprinkled according to the custom of the nation and the day when they were born – whose parents are in fellowship in the baptised church of Christ in Cyrensister from the year 1651

It is probable that the church as a group of people began in the period of the Civil War. A document of 1659 agreed that they should meet ‘as formerely’ in Joan Peltraces’s house, and pay her 26/8 [£1.33] per year. The assumption is that this house was on the same site as our current church. The road was called Abbot Street then, later being renamed Coxwell Street.

It was illegal to worship anywhere except the established church, the Church of England, so the little group of Baptists would have had to meet in secret. In 1651 Oliver Cromwell, was governing the country, and the Baptist message was spreading. The Cirencester Baptists felt sufficiently strong and/or safe to covenant together and commit their church to paper.

How was the Church run in the early days?

Baptists believe that every person is equal before God, and has an equal ability to discern God’s will and make decisions. The Church Meeting, when the members come together to discuss and decide on matters to do with the Church is basic to the running of the Church.

The infamous 1659 document is the record of a church meeting:

The Church when mett together that day above written. Gave their consent to what was decided by our Country Brethren …

The following entry records the decision of another meeting:

Agreed upon by the Church aboute a meeting house and wee did then agree that as formerly wee had made an entrance with our Sister Pelltrace about her house: that if shee did continue in the same minde as bee foree wee did then conclude to bee there.

Applications for baptism and membership were dealt with at Church meetings, also decisions on finance and the property, the calling of a Pastor and matters to do with the ministry of the church.

Thursday 20 April 1820 we learn that:

In consequence of illness the baptizing was deferred till this day, when James Pinnock, groom, William Holyoak, carver and gilder, Maria H his wife, Sarah Coates, William Larner, stone mason, Moses White servant were publicly and solemnly baptized. Judith Hall was prevented by a violent opposition raised by her father and master.

The AGM for the year appears extremely short:

Mary Antill an aged member died June. State of the church at the close of 1820. Received by Baptism 6. Lost by death 1. Received from Witney R Moss 1

Church leaders were also chosen at Members Meetings. They were known as deacons, and met with the Pastor to determine church policy and pastoral care. In the gap between ministers, known as an interregnum or pastoral vacancy, the deacons would have to run the church and arrange people to take the services, and carry out baptisms and funerals. In the Victorian period the office of Secretary was introduced. This was a principal deacon who carried out all the organisational matters.

Instead of just deacons, we now have deacons and elders. The deacons primarily deal with practical matters, and the elders with pastoral.

Church Buildings

In 1659 we know the Cirencester Baptists met in the home of Joan Peltrace, a widow. This is believed to be the site of the current church.

Coxwell Street is first mentioned in the will of William Freeman, dated 25 April 1737. William was a grocer, and he left his son, Joseph Freeman, all the property he owned in a street called Coxwell Street. The property consisted of a piece of land, with a room called the Meeting House and wherein a congregation of people called Baptists (to which the said Testator belonged) from time to time for many years past, had met to celebrate divine service and exercise their religious worship. William asked his son and heirs to allow the Baptists to continue worshipping on the site. There was also a piece of land on the West side of the meeting house, extending from the brew house down to the brook. William Freeman intended this to be the Baptist Burial ground (See section on deaths).

In his turn, Joseph Freeman, left the property to Trustees, William Wilkins, John Gillman, William Overbury and Charles Hooke to hold the Tenement Meeting House and Premises for the use of the congregation of Protestant Dissenters of pafticular Baptists. The trustees were asked to let all the habitable parts of the property to good, honest and peaceable tenants on the best terms, and to use the rents and profits for the repairing, mending and keeping whole and dry the whole House and especially the Meeting House. Any additional money was to go to the support of the minister.

Little more appears until in August 1817 the decision was taken to remove the vestry, which was in a ruinous state and in its place build 2 school rooms, to accommodate a boys children’s ministry. The church was obviously growing as in 1824 the minutes record that congregations were in general large and attentive, and the applications for sittings more than could be conveniently accommodated so it was decided to alter the form of seating.

By the 1850s it was clear that the buildings were in no fit state to use, being in such a state of dilapidation it became very dangerous to worship therein. The church decided after repeated meetings to build a new chapel. An architect, Mr Dangerfield of Cheltenham, was commissioned to design the building, and adverts were put in the local newspapers inviting tenders for the work.

Prices given were much higher than anticipated so the work was postponed. The job was given to Thomas Bridges, but again there were delays, as it took a long time for the money to be raised. In March 1856 the deacons resolved that in consequence of the repeated non-attendance of various persons, whose cooperation in the carrying out of the contemplated project had been confidently relied upon that the project should be abandoned.

By the following month things were getting even more difficult. A church meeting was held in April 1856 to discuss the propriety of adopting steps to prevent accident by the falling in of some part of the roof of the chapel. Finally it was agreed to change the whole scheme and turn the old Chapel into schoolrooms and put up a new building over the back burying ground, from the north side of the present Chapel to the street. This is our current building. The foundation stone was laid in July 1856.

Various other alterations have been made over the year: new halls in the 1890s, a major refurbishment in the 1920s, the installation of gas, and later electricity, and most recently in 1997 a further rebuilding of the halls and entrance. The 1856 Chapel is now classified as a Grade II listed building.

Births

The earliest birth records for Cirencester Baptist Church date from 1652.

  • Thomas Watkins was born the 31st day of the 8th month commonly called October 1652*
  • Hannah Self 31st May 1653
  • Ann Watkins 3rd Jan 1653
  • Mary Willoughby 13th August 1655
  • Mary Self 14th October 1655
  • Alice Watkins 4th February 1656

Later, birth records were usually not written down, but a dedication service was provided for parents. We still hold dedication services today.

A dedication service is an occasion when the church gives thanks to God for the birth of child. The parents make promises, committing themselves to raising the child with love, and to giving it Christian teaching as it grows. The people in the church pray for the child and its parents and promise to keep on doing so, and to support and help them. Again, there are no formal records kept of these services, as there is no legal reason to, and it is a matter for the minister and church leaders rather than the church meeting.

There have been some periods when birth records were kept. Two cradle rolls are on show in this exhibition, one starting in 1953, and the other in 1990. Neither is complete. If you belonged to the church family during the period from 1953 and had a child or children whose names are not on either roll, please let a steward know, so that we can add their names.

Deaths

In the early days, Baptists would have been buried in the same graveyard as other Cirencester people. The Cirencester Parish Records vol 2 refer to Anabaptists, a common term for Baptists in the 17th Century

Records such as these exist:

  • June 5th 1654 Burial of a child of Robert Wilkins, Anabaptist
  • July 20 1654 John, son of Joan Pellteace, widow, buried
  • August 17th 1654 Burial of a child of Alexander Neale, Anabaptist
  • Sept 1st 1655 Burial of a son of Richard Burge, Anabaptist

They show the high death rate of babies and children in the 17th Century.

The Baptist church records hardly refer to death, unless in a members list, until 21 December 1737, when William Freeman, a minister died. He had been in the ministry at Cirencester for 30 years, and was aged 74. His wife died on 25 December 1736, and both were buried in the meeting yard of the chapel. William Freeman left this land to his son, providing that the Baptists might make use of the said piece … Of ground with a convenient passage to and from the same, for the burial of their dead in a decent manner. A new burial ground was begun in October 1752. This was located to the west of the Meeting House, where the current office/flowerbed is. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first recorded burial in the new yard – she died on 10 April 1754.

Some burials have taken place in the chapel itself, for example the remains of Mary, the wife of Solomon Ivin were interred in stone grave in the Baptist meeting house, March 11 1808. There also appear to be several vaults used in the 1820s, variously described as brick or stone lined. Mary Pauline Morier, and AnnViner were buried in vaults in 1826, and Harriet Morrier in 1832. Altogether 60 names are recorded as buried in the floor.

There is also a non-conformist burial ground down Watermoor Road, almost opposite The Avenue. This was used in the 19th Century and can still be walked around today.

The town cemetery at Chesterton opened in 1872 and since then Baptists have opted to be buried there or in Stratton cemetery. Funeral practices have changed and there is a choice of cremation or burial now.

Hymns and Music

Music, instruments and singing of hymns were not a feature of church life until the 18th Century. Prior to that Psalms were chanted or sung unaccompanied, and even that was controversial.

Isaac Watts, the famous 18th Century hymn writer, encouraged the singing of hymns in Baptist Churches, and once started, there was no stopping! Charles Wesley’s hymns were adopted with enthusiasm, and in 1769 the minister of Pershore, John Ash, and the principal of the Bristol Academy, Caleb Evans, published the first hymnbook A Collection of Hymns adapted to Public Worship. John Rippon, a pupil of Caleb Evans, published another selection in 1787, and this became the basis of the Psalms and hymns collection, The Baptist Hymn Book.

Cirencester produced its very own hymn writer, Mary Peters. Mary’s best known hymn is Through the love of God our Saviour, All will be well, but she also wrote 25 others, published in Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1842 and Hymns intended to help the Communion of Saints in 1847. Mary was born in Cirencester on 17 April 1813, the 6th of 7 children of Richard and Mary Bowly, and she married Revd John McWilliam Peters, the Rector of Quenington on 13 April 1852. Most of Mary’s hymns were written in Cirencester and presumably sung in Cirencester Baptist Church. There may have been more that never made it into print – unfortunately records do not tell us. After her marriage Mary moved to Bristol, where she died just 4 years later, and was buried in Anne’s Vale Cemetery.

A harmonium was used to accompany hymns in the latter half of the 19th Century, as we have the records of purchase. It is likely to have succeeded another similar instrument but there are no records surviving of this.

In the 20th Century the choice of hymns widened out. As well as the Baptist Hymn Book, Sankey’s hymns and C.S. S. M. choruses were used. Youth Praise heralded an explosion of Christian song writing. People were no longer just singing from Baptist Books. With the rise of Christian holiday events such as Spring Harvest songs became universal to Christian Churches of every denomination. Musical instruments have blossomed too. We now have 4 bands that play on a rota basis, and on family services children join the adult musicians.

17th Century Church Services and Worship

For much of the 17th Century, it was illegal for Baptists to meet together for worship. That did not stop them meeting, but their services would have been quiet and low-key affairs.

The people who went to what would eventually become Cirencester Baptist Church would probably have sat around Joan Peltrace’s downstairs room on simple wooden benches, or maybe on the floor.

The church leaders would have led the services, which would have included long Bible readings, with explanations, prayers and, possibly, singing. Books were uncommon and expensive, and few people could read, so instead of singing hymns from a hymnbook, those early Baptists would have chanted Psalms. The leader would announce the first line, and then everyone would join in to repeat it together. Some Baptists wondered if it was right to sing Psalms, and in some churches just one person would sing, on behalf of the rest. We do not know which view was favoured in Cirencester, but any singing would have been unaccompanied. Some people used a pitch pipe to set the note.

Reading the Bible was considered more important than singing, and this, together with two or three mini-sermons, would have taken up the greatest part of the service. People would be encouraged to remember Bible verses, and live out the teaching given.

As well as the Sunday service, there would probably have been a more informal mid-week meeting, in which all members could take part in prayer and a free discussion on a passage from the Bible.

In Broadmead Baptist Church, Bristol, (which has very full records from this period) communion services took place once a month, with a day’s preparation beforehand. The service was known as the Lord’s Supper, Only the pastor could lead it and only baptised members could take part.

In the 1670s, when persecution was at its height, the members discussed whether it would be all right to hold the service on a weekday instead of a Sunday. They decided it was.

Cirencester was likely to have followed a similar pattern, but the remaining records give little information on services. According to a note from 1657, “they layed oute upon Boules for the use of the Church 3s 7d” (they laid out upon bowls for the use of the church 3 shillings and 7 pence (equivalent to 18p). As this was a considerable sum for the time, it is likely that the dishes were used for communion. A money offering was given after a communion service.

Cirencester Baptist Church and the Second World War

The church, along with Cirencester and the nations, was initially in shock. On 6 Sept 1939 the women’s meeting annual committee records that they met in exceptional circumstances, England having declared war on Germany because of her treatment of Poland.

Evacuees from Barking commandeered the schoolroom and halls for use. Gloucestershire Education Committee looked after the renting arrangements for Russell School. The Women’s meeting and other groups that met midweek had to use the church sanctuary.

Blackouts were needed throughout the church, first the skylights, and windows in the halls were provided with plywood frames and curtain rails, and then fabric was purchased. French & Sons, of West Market place supplied this for £5.

The church had to provide fire wardens in case of air raids, also equipment to put out fires. An entry in the deacon’s minutes of 27 January 1941 states that a stirrup pump at £1 be obtained from UDC [Urban District Council]. Sand bags and buckets were also purchased.

Practical aid was needed, as the church joined in with the rest of the country in the war effort. 10% of the regular weekly offering was devoted to the fund to assist distressed churches in the denomination. The Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance asked for help to relieve air raid distress and the loose cash in the offerings was several times devoted to this appeal. In 1941 the County Council asked for hospitality for the raid shocked people of Bristol, asking for food and lodging for mother and child for one or two weeks. In pauper cases the cost can be met from the Lord Mayor’s fund.

Some church members were called up. Men were sent to the war front and women to work in the support services, such as the Women’s Land Army, or in factories. The church supported them in prayer, and by writing letters and sending Christmas cards. Those that returned were welcomed back. Some were conscientious objectors, men who could not equate killing with the Bible’s teaching. These joined the Non-Combat Corps, known as the N Cs. Wherever they were sent the church tried to link its members with churches in the area.

Towards the end of the war, there was a large American Hospital in Cirencester Park, to look after casualties of war. Cirencester Baptist Church worked with a team from the Free Churches to bring practical and spiritual help to the soldiers and staff.

Historical Records

The records of Cirencester Baptist Church are held in several locations:

  • Microfilming of 1651 – mid 19thC – baptisms (adults by profession of faith not babies) – Somerset House, London. (Public record office)
  • 17thC – 18thC records of Baptist Assemblies / early history of the denomination which includes references to Cirencester – Angus Library, Regents Park College, Oxford.
  • At Cirencester Baptist Church.  Appointments can be made to view (contact the Church Office)
  • Non conformist records of births etc have been compiled by the Gloucestershire Family History Society and are available to buy from their website.
  • The Baptist Historical Society can help with Baptist history, tracking a relative or chapel or denomination history.