History of the Old Baptist Chapel
The Origins of the Old Baptist Church
It has not been possible to establish any direct link between the nonconformists in Amsterdam and the church which has become known as the Old Baptist Church. What is clear is that there is a longstanding tradition of religious dissent in the town and neighbourhood.
In the middle years of the seventeenth century there was Baptist activity in West Wiltshire. Churches were formed in the district: Devizes dates from 1645, Southwick from 1655 and Westbury Leigh from 1662. These were Particular or Calvinistic Baptist churches which combined the Calvinistic teaching of the Reformation with the Baptist ideal of local churches composed of men and women who had confessed their personal faith in Christ in the waters of believers' baptism.
No evidence has been found of a separate work in Bradford at this early date. In his history of the Bradford church written in 1843, William Hawkins refers to a tradition that the Bradford church was an offshoot of the Southwick church, but he was not able to offer any firm evidence for this statement. He had no facts prior to 1689.
More recent research enables us to take the story back to an earlier date. In 1662 the churchwardens of Bradford reported the existence of an Anabaptist conventicle in Bradford on Avon. The long list of names included Jacob Silby, Richard Godby and Henry Shrapnell. In 1689 it was Jacob Silby and Richard Godby who were to lease land from Zachary Shrapnell as a site for the first meeting house.
For a time after 1662 the Baptists of Bradford appear to have covered their traces. In 1669 a return of conventicles was made to the Bishop of Salisbury. There were reported to be about 200 Presbyterians in Bradford, but no Baptists. The nearest Baptist conventicles were at Trowbridge were there were 140 or 150 mainly tradesmen and at Atworth where there were 20 or 30 'of meane quality'.
In the light of the absence of information in 1669 it is surprising to find considerable evidence of Baptist activity in Bradford three years later. For purely political reasons Charles II embarked on a short-lived experiment with toleration in 1672. On his own authority and without the consent of Parliament he issued a Declaration of Indulgence by which all penal laws against Nonconformists and Roman Catholics were suspended and Nonconformists were allowed to worship without penalty provided that they licensed their meeting places and ministers.
In Bradford the house of John Lydiard was licensed for Baptist worship on 22nd July and on the same day Henry Sharpwell [Shrapnell?] was licensed as a Baptist teacher or minister. On 30th September the 'barne of John Broome John of Bradford in Wilts' was licensed for Baptist worship.
It is not clear whether a second congregation had come into existence in two months or whether the house of John Lydiard proved inadequate. The Indulgence lasted only until March 1673 when it was cancelled by the King after protests from an angry Parliament.
For some years however persecution of Nonconformists was not so intense. It increased in ferocity throughout the country between 1680 and 1685 but we have no indication as to how the Baptists of Bradford fared. It is evident that the Baptist community was strong enough to organize itself when the time was ripe.
The Toleration Act became law in May 1689. In July 1689 John Morell, Richard Hedley and John Plurett, preacher, registered the dwelling house of the widow Miller for Baptist worship. Widow Miller's dwelling appears to have been only a temporary home for the church as by the end of the year its leaders were negotiating with Zachary Schrapnell for the lease of a piece of land, 'next unto the house of one Brownjohn on ye North end thereof'. Was this the site of John Broome John's barn which the Baptists had used in 1672? It is certainly a part of the site of the present chapel. It was here that the first meeting house was built at the expense of Jacob Silbey a maltster and Richard Godby a feltmonger. It was approached from St. Margaret's Hill, then known as Morgan's Hill. It seated about three hundred persons according to William Hawkins, some of whose church members would have worshipped in it.
On 22nd July 1689 a group of London ministers invited all known Particular Baptist churches to send representatives to a General Assembly to be held in London in September of that year. John Plurett represented the Bradford church in 1689 and also at an Assembly held in 1692.
It was the 1689 Assembly which approved and recommended to the churches a Confession of Faith which had been drawn up in 1677 but has since been known as the 1689 Confession. This Confession was a Baptist adaptation of the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians and the Savoy Declaration of the Independent Congregationalists. The Old Baptist Church at Bradford on Avon continues to adhere to the system of doctrine taught in the 1689 Confession.
Bradford also belonged to a more local association of churches in Somerset, Dorset, Wilts, Gloucestershire and Bristol. Comparatively little is known of the internal history of the church in the years immediately after the Toleration Act.
In 1700 the meeting house was placed in trust 'to the use and benefit of the congregation of Protestant Dissenters at Bradford aforesaid for the better support of their religion and piety and the exercise thereof'.
John Plurett seems to have continued as pastor until his death on 14th March 1712. He may well have carried on business as a wool merchant as an inventory attached to his will refers to wool to the value of £22.10.0d stored in the Meeting House garrett. He left books to the value of seven pounds and bequeathed five pounds to be distributed among the poor of the congregation.