Wisbech Baptist Church

A Brief History



Accounts of Non-conformists in Wisbech go back to the 1500s, with Baptists appearing on the scene in the following century.  The story of our spiritual forefathers teaches us about:-

Courage - as when two local men were taken and burnt at the stake at Ely because of their Protestant beliefs

Commitment - as when local Baptists were host to a nationally reputed Baptist Training College in Wisbech

Communion - as when in modern times two long-separate Baptist communities came together to create a new Baptist church

We trust you will enjoy our brief account of the history of our church.  For you it may be merely history; for us it is the story of how God has been at work - building His Church

Not a leading centre for Christian thought - nor a notable source of missionary workers - the town of Wisbech has nonetheless maintained a steady Christian witness from the times of the early settlers in the Fens. Christians established an important regional presence in nearby Ely in the 7th century and Wisbech’s own parish church is proud to trace its roots back to the 12th century.

The history of Christianity in Wisbech mirrors that of many other towns.  Non-conformists initially struggled to gain acceptance here, despite the nearby presence of a notable dissenter, Oliver Cromwell.  Also in common with many towns, Wisbech experienced increased wealth and and an upsurge in interest in religion during the 18th and 19th centuries.  This led to the building of many new churches, several of which still stand today.

The modern era, however, has been marked by a decline in religious life and Wisbech has witnessed the closure or redevelopment of many of its religious buildings. But Christians continue to bear faithful witness in the town, whether separately in their own communities, or together in the various joint ventures which take place.

Wisbech has been home to many religious dissenters over the years.  As far back as 1555, two Wisbech men, William Wolsey and Robert Pygott were burnt at the stake at Ely for their Protestant beliefs.  The Church of the day insisted that Christ was bodily present in the communion bread and wine.  These men, having read the New Testament, begged to differ and were taken from Wisbech to Ely Cathedral, where they paid the ultimate price for their “heresy”.

But even after Henry VIII reformed the Church of England, there were many whose reading of the Bible led them to turn their backs on their local parish church.  In Wisbech, Quakers and Congregationalists (now URC) set up their own churches

The first non-conformist church in Wisbech was erected in 1692 by a group of Baptists - “those whose doctrine in religion is against Infant Baptism, and call themselves the Baptised Congregation, commonly known by the name of Anabaptists”.  Their minister, William Rix, attended the first Baptist General Assembly, held that year in London.

Very early in their history, however, Baptists separated into the “General” and the “Particular” Baptists.  General Baptists believed that salvation is available to all, but the Particular Baptist maintained that it is God’s will to save only the “elect”.  Both groups existed in Wisbech from the end of the 17th century.

The earliest record of Baptists in Wisbech is in 1655, when elders from the General Baptist church in nearby Fenstanton visited the town and set up a Baptist Church in that year.  Their numbers were increased by amalgamating with another church in 1697, when they erected their first chapel. Numbers increased towards the end of the 18th century and the church took the decision to join the “New Connexion of General Baptists” in 1785.

This “Connexion” had set up an “Academy” (or college) for training Baptist ministers in 1798.  Originally in London, it moved to Wisbech in 1814 to be under the tutorship of Rev William Jarrom, whose ministry in the town had been particularly successful and whose scholarship was greatly admired.  Re-named the “Midland Baptist College”, it continued its work first in Wisbech then in Nottingham through until World War I.

Meanwhile the General Baptist church flourished in the 19th century, enjoying large numbers in its Sunday Schools, and sending various missionaries out with the General Baptist Missionary Society.  

The first permanent chapel erected by the General Baptists was off Falcon Lane, on land belonging to Henry Place.  (Portions of this building, including the graveyard, were in existence until the Church Mews development took place in 1987/88.)

In 1803 the congregation moved to a new chapel in Ely Place.  The building was replaced in 1873 by a more spacious and imposing building, in the Victorian Romanesque style.  It was noted for the very delicate cast iron columns and tracery in the nave. This chapel was an extremely imaginative and competent solution to placing a comparatively large building on a very restricted site.

With diminishing numbers in the mid-20th century, the congregation took the decision to amalgamate with the Baptists in Hill Street, thus creating the new Wisbech Baptist Church.

The Ely Place Chapel was eventually demolished and in 1975 the County Library was built on its site.

The exact origins of the Particular Baptists are unclear.  There is evidence to show that a congregation existed in the middle of the the seventeenth century.  However a congregation is known of in 1689, which was pastored by William Rix.  His name appears as a representative at the General Assembly of Particular Baptists, held in London that year.

Under William Rix, they erected their first permanent place of worship in Deadman’s Lane (now Alexandra Road) in 1692.  This road was probably so named as it was the route taken by the undertakers between the parish church and the cemetery.

After Rix’s death in 1728, the congregation underwent many changes of fortune, existing for long periods without a minister, and suffering declining numbers. At the end of the 1700’s their pastor, William Wright, began to teach a form of Unitarianism (opposing the traditional Christian belief that God is a Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit), which split the church.  

Those who did not share Wright’s Unitarian beliefs moved to Ship Lane (now Hill Street) opening a new chapel under their pastor, Samuel Fisher, in 1793. The new church flourished and Fisher was even commended by the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, for one of his published sermons

Assisting the cause of education was important for this congregation.  In addition to a successful Sunday School, they established a Morning School and Afternoon School in the mid-1800’s.

The church was also active in the wider community, running missions from several locations in town.  Various of its members were also involved in civic life - Thomas and George Dawbarn served as Mayors of Wisbech in the 1800’s and Alfred Southwell served in this capacity three times in the early 1900’s.

In 1859 the present building was erected in the place of the old chapel at a cost of some £4000.  Built from stone quarried locally and from the remains of the old town bridge, the new building could seat 600.  Music was an important feature of church life, with much use being made of the organ and high standards of choral performances.

These two churches - the General Baptists in Ely Place and the Particular Baptists in neighbouring Hill Street - co-existed for over 200 years.  Relationships between themselves - and with the Zion Baptist Church which was established in 1956 - were not always close and there were times when each church saw the other as a rival in the cause of the Gospel. Their traditions remained separate and for many of their members it was unthinkable that they would ever join forces.

However in 1960 the two churches conducted a joint mission, assisted by Christian students from Cambridge University.  At the end of the mission, the leader of the students’ group, John Briggs challenged the churches to give fresh consideration to amalgamating into one church.

This time both churches were prepared to put aside their differences and the decision was taken to join together as “Wisbech Baptist Church” as of January 1961. They would meet at Hill Street, and the Ely Place chapel would be demolished. The two serving ministers would become joint pastors and a new membership list would be drawn up.

It was in the 1980s that Wisbech took the decision to modernise its town centre.  Several old houses and old shops would be pulled down and a new shopping centre - the Horsefair Shopping Centre - would be erected. One of the buildings the town planners wanted to pull down was a mission hall belonging to the church. The church negotiated with the developers and were able to secure a deal; the adjoining building would be released to the developers provided that the builders undertook extensive refurbishment work to the interior of the Baptist Church.

The existing church building was converted with an upper floor for use as a church, and lower floor for the Sunday School.  New toilet and kitchen facilities were installed with a Minister’s vestry and classrooms.  The redeveloped church premises came into use in 1988. Now the lower hall hosts our Open Doors Cafe on a Monday and Wisbech Foodbank on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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