Evangelical Heritage

Mellor ChurchI’m hoping that during these weeks while I’m freed up from preaching, we’ll manage some family outings. Some time back I drew up a list of places around Manchester and the North-West that have some special historical interest for us as evangelical Christians. Some of them I’ve been to already, others I hope we’ll have the opportunity to visit either during my ‘paternity leave’ or later in the summer.

Let me tell you about one place that I know well, and then some others that I’d like to find out more about. Some I’ve visited already, others would be first-time visits.

1. Mellor Church, near Marple.

Yes, I’ve been there lots of times already. But it’s always worth another visit. The location is magnificent, set high on a hill above Mellor. The view across the Cheshire Plain is awesome. But it’s the sense of history that draws me back there time and again. The oldest parts of the church building are 15th century. In the churchyard stands the remains of a stone cross, far older than that. But the most fascinating memorial to the past is a table set into the wall of the chancel.

It’s a moving tribute to a former minister who preached the gospel in that building for forty-two years. His hearers, mostly workers in the cotton mills, clearly came to love him for his ‘plain, faithful, zealous, spiritual, discriminating and devout’ ministry. They declared, ‘he being dead, yet speaketh to his bereaved flock’. And he still speaks to me too. I can’t read the words of the inscription without being rebuked and challenged to follow in his footsteps.

A contemporary writer, Charles Hulbert tells us that ‘Mr O was a pious, energetic Minister, had a most thundering voice and zealous manner, which seldom failed deeply to impress the less godly part of his hearers…’ He also tells us that Olerenrenshaw faced fierce opposition in the earlier years of his ministry. ‘In his early years his great plainness of speech and boldness in denouncing the fate of incorrigible sinners, drew upon him the anger and persecution of some individuals under his pastoral charge. His perseverance conquered all opposition, and his Divine Master gave him many seals to his ministry…’ – a way of saying that many folk were saved through his preaching. Many of those folk lie in the graveyard now and you can read their testimonies on the gravestones. This is my favourite:

Weep not for me, thou too must die,
But flee from sin, on Christ rely.
Life is uncertain, death is sure:
Sin is the wound, Christ is the cure.

Hulbert visited Mellor Church after Olerenshaw’s death. While there he was shown ‘a new stone coffin placed against the outside wall of the Church, in which the proprietor, occasionally, I believe, weekly, extended himself, with the pious design to keep alive in his remembrance that he must soon die, and to stimulate him to a constant preparation for that solemn event.’ Evidently Olerenshaw had taught his hearers to keep reminding themselves often of the certainty of death.

Sadly there is no evangelical ministry at Mellor Church today. When I was last there, you could see the ‘reserved sacrament’ in its tabernacle. One wonders what Olerenshaw would have said of such Romanist innovations in the building where he preached the gospel for so long.

For evangelical Christians there are other landmarks of interest around Mellor. From the church, it’s an easy stroll to Cobden Edge. Here you’ll see a large wooden cross standing just short of the brow of the hill. The cross was erected in 1969 to mark the spot where John Wesley is supposed to have preached while staying at Bongs (on modern maps Banks). He wrote in his diary on Sunday 28th April 1745: ‘At nine I preached near Stockport, to a large congregation; thence we rode to Bongs in Derbyshire, a lone house on the side of a high, steep mountain, whither abundance of people were got before us. I preached God’s justifying the ungodly; and his word was as dew upon the tender herb…’ Wesley returned to Bongs on 12th June 1747 and ‘explained to a serious people the parable of the Prodigal Son’.

It’s said that Wesley stayed overnight at the ‘lone house’ on the mountain. Standing at the door next morning he declared that the view was like a paradise whereupon the house was renamed in his honour Paradise Cottage.

A Methodist church grew out of Wesley’s visits to the Mellor area. As far I know, it no longer exists. But maybe we’ll manage to locate Paradise Cottage…

2. Moravian Settlement, Droylsden

The Moravian Church was born out of the preaching of John Hus the great Czech Reformer before the Reformation. Hus was burned at the stake in 1415 for his evangelical faith but his message lived on among the ‘Bohemian Brethren’. The Brethren suffered much persecution in the years that followed, were driven underground and scattered across Europe. But in 1722 a group fleeing from Moravia (part of the present Czech republic) found refuge on the estate of a German nobleman, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. The Moravians, under Zinzendorf’s leadership became a powerful renewal movement with a huge vision for missionary work. Moravian missionaries had a profound influence on John Wesley, pointing him to Christ alone as the way of salvation. Later he was to have severe doubts about some aspects of Moravian teaching and practice, but he never denied the debt he owed to Zinzendorf and his followers.

During the 18th century, some Moravian congregations organised themselves as ‘settlements’: self-contained villages where Moravian Christians could dwell together as a community. One of these settlements was established in Fairfield, Droyslden in 1785. According to the website, “the village was self-contained and self-governed, with its inn, shop, bakery, farm, laundry, fire-engine, night-watchman, inspector of weights and measures, an overseer of roads, and even it’s own physician. There were community houses for sisters and brethren, who applied themselves to the varied work of the settlement…”

The settlement no longer exists as an independent village, cut off from the neighbourhood around. But the 18th century buildings still exist and there is a Moravian church at the centre. The website claims that “the Settlement of Fairfield is of unique importance nationally being the largest settlement of its kind in Britain, and still retaining sufficient character to illustrate the qualities inherent in an 18th century Moravian community development…” Sounds well worth a look, doesn’t it? Guided tours are offered.

3. John Rylands Library, Deansgate

Not perhaps an outing for families with young children, but certainly a centre of vast significance for Christians. The library hosts an extraordinary collection of historic books and manuscripts. Examples of the Dead Sea Scrolls; illuminated gospels hand-lettered by mediaeval monks; John and Charles Wesley’s papers and journals; an archive of never published material by early Plymouth Brethren leaders; it’s all here. And of course, most awesome of all, the ‘Rylands fragment’ – the earliest known fragment of the New Testament. A tiny piece of papyrus found in the sands of Egypt, it contains half a dozen verses from John’s gospel ch 18. Scholars date it around 120 AD.

4. The Pier Head and the Maritime Museum, Liverpool

Again, this won’t be a first-time trip. I’ve stood at the pier head many times. And every time I’ve been there, I’ve found myself deeply moved at the thought of thousands of men and women who left these shores to serve as missionaries all over the world. How many tears were shed at this place as families said farewell, knowing that they should not expect to meet again in this world. This is Hudson Taylor remembering his departure on 19th November 1853:

‘My beloved, now sainted mother had come over to Liverpool to see me off. Never shall I forget that day, nor how she went with me into the cabin that was to be my home for nearly six long months. With a mother’s loving hand she smoothed the little bed. She sat by my side and joined in the last hymn we should sing together before parting. We knelt down and she prayed-the last mother’s prayer I was to hear before leaving for China. Then notice was given that we must separate, and we had to say good-bye, never expecting to meet on earth again.

For my sake she restrained her feelings as much as possible. We parted, and she went ashore giving me her blessing. I stood alone on deck, and she followed the ship as we moved toward the dockgates. As we passed through the gates and the separation really commenced, never shall I forget the cry of anguish wrung from that mother’s heart. It went through me like a knife. I never knew so fully, until then, what “God so loved the world” meant. And I am quite sure my precious mother learned more of the love of God for the perishing in that one hour than in all her life before…’

And just to add some extra interest to the trip, remember that John Newton worked for several years as tide surveyor to the port of Liverpool. Does the building where he was based still stand? I don’t know but I’d like to find out.

5. Toxteth Chapel Liverpool

Still in Liverpool, the ‘Ancient Chapel of Toxteth’ is a wonderfully preserved building. The chapel was built around 1615 as a Puritan meeting-house. In part the building was rebuilt in the 18th century but other parts are just as they were when the building was opened. The first pastor Richard Mather was expelled from the Anglican ministry for his Puritan views and emigrated from Liverpool to America in 1635. His son Increase Mather and his grandson Cotton Mather were two of the most gifted and remarkable Puritan preachers of New England.

Sadly, the Toxteth Chapel is now used by Unitarians. But thank God the gospel that Mather preached can still be heard in Toxteth through the work of churches like Belvidere Rd. The candlestick has been moved but the candle has not been put out.

6. Mellor’s Gardens, Rainow

Here’s a real curiosity! James Mellor was an eccentric Victorian gentleman who lived at Hough Hole House in Rainow, three miles from Macclesfield. He laid out his gardens (which extend to nearly three acres) in an elaborate reconstruction of Pilgrim’s Progress. Here you can climb Hill Difficulty, walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and come at last to the Celestial City!

It’s difficult to be sure just what Mellor believed. He built the first Methodist Chapel in Rainow but later broke away from the Methodists and preached in his private chapel. He certainly had a deep interest in the (heretical) teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg but he never seems to have joined the Swedenborgian ‘New Jerusalem Church’. And he certainly loved Pilgrim’s Progress… that has to be a good sign.

7. Eyam Village, Derbyshire

Eyam (pronounced Eem) is best-known for the tragedy that came to the village in 1665, when the germs of bubonic plague were brought in a parcel of cloth from London. The villagers agreed that they would stay in the village, isolated from the world outside lest they spread the disease. They knew what the cost was likely to be yet they maintained their quarantine for fourteen months. During that time 260 out of a population of 800 died.

What gave these villagers the strength of purpose and the courage that they needed? Largely, the ministry of two men. Thomas Stanley had been the rector of Eyam but was ejected in 1662 for his Puritan views. His successor William Mompesson was an evangelical too, though willing to conform to the Anglican system. Together these men encouraged, preached and prayed the villagers through the nightmare that engulfed the village.

The Eyam Museum would be perhaps the best starting-point for a visit to the village. You’ll find too in the parish church a register of those who died in the plague. I enjoyed (if that’s the right word) Jill Paton Walsh’s children’s book about Eyam, A Parcel of Patterns. Yes, it’s fiction, and she doesn’t understand Puritanism, but it still conveys something of what it must have been like to live through those terrible fourteen months.

8. Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum of Primitive Methodism, Crewe

As Wesleyan Methodism became more respectable, many methodists longed for the movement to return to its roots in simple, direct gospel preaching. In 1811 a group of around 200 Methodists under the leadership of Hugh Bourne and William Clowes broke away from mainstream Methodism and became known as Primitive Methodists. The movement saw extraordinary growth: by 1842 membership had increased to nearly 80,000 with 500 travelling evangelists and more that 1,200 chapels. Membership continued to grow and by 1875 had reached 165,410.

There seem to have been some excesses and unbiblical emphases among the Primitive Methodists but their passion for the gospel and the boldness of their evangelism rebukes and challenges me.

The Englesea Brook Chapel was built in 1828 and has been largely unchanged since the end of the nineteenth century. The Museum brings together a collection of books and memorabilia including the first Primitive Methodist Pulpit – adapted from a chest-of-drawers. The pulpit was used by Bourne and Clowes in the kitchen of a house in Tunstall, where meetings were held before a chapel was built.

So there you are. Eight suggestions for those who want to explore our evangelical heritage. I’m sure there are many other sites within a radius of forty miles that would be well worth visiting (Roger tells me that he’s hoping to visit Hope Chapel, Rochdale where two remarkable particular baptist preachers laboured during the nineteenth century: John Warburton built the chapel in 1810; his successor John Kershaw preached there from 1817 to 1870). But these eight appeal to me.

The psalmist knew that history is important. ‘I will utter things hidden from of old – things we have heard and known, things our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy works of the LORD, his power and the wonders he has done for us…’ (Psalm 78: 2-5). We – and our children – need to know about the works that God has done in history. We need to know where we are coming from. We need to learn from the mistakes of our forefathers; to be spurred by their example; to be encouraged by their victories and sobered by their sufferings. We need to understand our heritage and give thanks for God’s goodness over the years. And sure, we learn these things from books. But we also can benefit from looking at these monuments of the past.

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