You must be aware by now of our concern about the future of Charlesworth Particular Baptist Chapel. In recent issues of the bulletin we’ve sketched out the past history of the chapel. At times the work there has flourished. According to the National Church Census held in 1851, the morning congregation was around 100, the afternoon around 200. Two hundred children regularly attended the Sunday-school. But in the present day, the work has sunk very low. Apart from any visiting preacher, the congregation often amounts to only three worshippers, of whom only one is officially a member.
Humanly speaking, the work cannot be far from closure. Yet we know of other situations which have seemed just as hopeless, where the Lord has revived the work. Perhaps the story which stands out in my mind is that of the Particular Baptist Chapel in Hebden Bridge.
By 1963 the work in Hebden Bridge – like that in Charlesworth today – was reduced to a single member, the sixty-six year old Florrie Walton. For several years before that, she had been the only regular worshipper, the one other member being too unwell to attend. Many people tried to persuade her that the time had come for the chapel to be closed. She for her part, argued that God had enabled his people to build the chapel in 1881 – it was not for her to close it without some clear indication that this was God’s will.
In 1963, Florrie turned to Michael Wright and his wife Pat for counsel. Michael was deacon at Hall Green Strict Baptist Church, Haworth (he is now chairman of the Charlesworth trustees). Michael and his fellow-deacon at Haworth, Tom Reynolds, decided to travel to Hebden Bridge on Sunday afternoons, whenever they were able, to join with Florrie for worship. Sometimes they brought a preacher with them; sometimes Michael himself preached. Meanwhile, Florrie went to the chapel each Sunday morning, opened the doors, read her Bible, prayed and sometimes sang hymns!
This was the pattern for several years. There was no sign that God was planning to change the situation. Yet Florrie became not less but more convinced that God was planning to revive the work in Hebden Bridge. And she began to take steps to prepare. The interior of the chapel was in poor condition. Florrie reasoned that if God was going to fill the chapel with worshippers, the building would need to be ready. So she arranged to have the chapel decorated. Largely this was financed from her own pocket. The bank required the signatures of two members for any transaction – Florrie, the sole remaining church member could not access the chapel’s bank account!
One Sunday morning, sitting in the chapel she read Haggai ch 1 vs 4: “Is it time for you to dwell in your panelled houses, and this house (the temple) lies waste?”. The words struck home to Florrie’s heart. In Haggai’s day, God’s people had poured resources and energy into decorating their own homes – but had failed to rebuild the ruined temple. Florrie saw the words as applying to herself. Not long before, she had installed electricity in her own home – but the chapel was still lit by gas! The very next day, she made arrangements for an electricity supply to the chapel, and for lights to be installed.
But above all, Florrie prayed that God would send a man who would be willing to work as a pastor and evangelist to revive the work. In 1968, she was visited by a young man called Dick Eccles who had recently trained at the Irish Baptist College. His wife, Rosemary, was a GP. Dick obviously felt drawn to the situation in Hebden Bridge and came back to visit and take services several times. In September 1968, she asked him to come to Zion as pastor.
Dick took several months to consider the invitation. He realised that the situation required a man who would devote all his time to the work. Clearly, one elderly lady could not be expected to support a full-time minister. He approached various trust-funds to see if any help was forthcoming. Finally a grant was promised, provided by the Strict and Particular Baptist Trust Corporation (now the Grace Baptist Trust Corporation). Dick and Rosemary decided that with that grant and Rosemary’s part-time earnings, they could accept the call to Hebden Bridge. Dick in later years used to tell the story of the way his Northern Ireland friends reacted when he told them of his call to a church with one member. “That’s one way of getting a unanimous call”, one said; and then added, “But if you split that church, you’ll be had up for manslaughter!”
Dick and Rosemary moved to Hebden Bridge in January 1969 and immediately threw themselves into a programme of aggressive outreach. The Sunday-school was restarted. Twice, a team of young people came from a church in Southampton, spent the days exploring the Yorkshire moors, but used their evenings to do door to door work around the town.
For several years, there was little obvious fruit. Then, in 1975, after one of the visits of the Southampton team, a woman was converted, followed shortly after by her husband. Other conversions followed, while other folk joined the church when their employment brought them into the area. Florrie lived to see the church re-established, dying in 1980 at the age of eighty-three. In all, between 1969 and 1982, twenty-seven people joined the membership. In particular, 1981 was a year of rich blessing, when eight new members were added, five of them converted through the outreach of the church. Many of those converted were tough working-class men from the mining communities of West Yorkshire.
And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the tide of blessing seemed to turn. For several years the church saw few if any conversions. And then, very suddenly, in 1987, Dick Eccles died and the church was left heart-broken.
And yet the years following Dick’s death were again years of remarkable blessing, when the church saw many conversions and the membership climbed towards the fifty mark. Dick’s fellow elder Martin Howell followed him as pastor. A Bible-study begun in the neighbouring town of Halifax flourished, and again a stream of conversions began in that town.
Well, since then, the story of the church in Hebden Bridge has seen many strange twists and turns, ups and downs. Perhaps, strangest of all, is the fact that in 2002, the chapel building Florrie fought to keep open was finally closed as a place of worship. The number of church-members living in Halifax was now greater than the number based in Hebden Bridge. So sadly, the church decided that the time had come to sell the building in Hebden Bridge and seek a site in Halifax. The light that Florrie had kept alive was still burning – but was now to burn in a different location.
Before his death, Dick had become a valued friend of our fellowship here in Stockport. Indeed, before he had died, he had agreed to serve as a trustee of our own work. It was then that Walter Johnston, who loved and honoured Dick, agreed to serve in his place.
The Hebden Bridge story is extraordinary, isn’t it? It’s the story of a woman who refused to accept defeat. She believed that God is able. It’s the story of a couple, Dick and Rosemary, who believed that it was worth investing their lives, long or short, for the sake of the gospel. Above all, it’s the story of the God who gives life to the dead and calls the things that are not as if they were.
Who knows what God may yet do in Charlesworth? I doubt if he will work in exactly the same way as in Hebden Bridge. He rarely does the same thing twice. But let’s pray that he’ll do something which will bring him even greater glory, and ourselves even greater joy.