1662 - 1712
Since 1662 there has been a Baptist church in Harlow. It has been conjectured, as we shall see, that Baptists existed in the neighbourhood prior to that date, but it is certain there was no organised church life among them until 1662.
From the earliest times, according to the evidence of our records, the communion services of the church have been open to all believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. We read nothing to contradict the assertion that the only form of baptism ever observed has been believers’ baptism, but it seems that at every stage in our history the membership included, not only Baptists, but paedobaptists as well. That is to say, those baptised in infancy. The implication of the records points to the fact that the church in all its history has insisted, as qualifications for membership, on two things; firstly, a saving experience of Jesus Christ, and, secondly, baptism of one form or another, although the church itself carried out only that form identified with Baptists.
The origin of our church is linked in a most interesting way with the political and religious history of the mid-seventeenth century. With the beheading of Charles I in 1649 our nation became a republic, or, as it is called in the history books, a commonwealth, with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. This state of affairs was to last until 1660, when Charles II was recalled to the throne and the monarchy restored. The English people were weary of the long years of civil war. Many in the Church, of course, rejoiced in the great battle that Cromwell had fought and won for religious and civil liberty, but they were now ready to forget all past injustices and to believe that the return of the monarchy would bring in a time of freedom from strife, when they would be able to rejoice in the liberty they had won.
They soon found, however, that their confidence in the king and in the promises he had made were ill-founded. For about two years they waited in suspense, hoping that wise counsels would prevail and wise measures be adopted. Then, in 1662, the blow suddenly fell which deprived them of the religious liberty for which they had fought and for which much blood had been shed. The Act of Uniformity was passed, requiring all ministers of religion to observe a perfect conformity to the Book of Common Prayer and the rites and ceremonies of the Established Church. Nearly 2,500 faithful ministers of the Gospel, who felt that they could not conform, were deprived of their livings and expelled from their churches.
Had they been allowed to continue to preach, and their congregations to listen, they would still have carried on their work. There is little doubt that public liberality would have supplied their material needs. But in 1664 and 1665 the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act were passed. The Conventicle Act made any adult attending a conventicle liable to an ascending scale of penalties ending in seven years’ transportation. A conventicle was defined as being a religious meeting not in accordance with the practice of the Church of England and at which more than four persons were present in addition to the household.
The sentence of transportation was a terrible one as it meant working like a slave, generally under the burning sun in the West Indies. The Conventicle Act was, however, largely evaded, and in order to make this evasion impossible the Five Mile Act was passed in 1665. This made it an offence for any of the ejected ministers to come within five miles of any borough, town or place where he had once held pastoral office, unless he would swear that he would never try to alter the government of Church and State.
Among the ministers who were ejected from their livings was William Woodward, the first pastor of our church. As a young man he had been a chaplain in the army of Oliver Cromwell. When that army was encamped on the commons of Nazeing and Parndon he formed many friendships with families in Harlow, Parndon and the surrounding villages. There are no records giving the date when he settled in Harlow as a minister, but tradition seems to have established certain interesting facts. When William Woodward was ejected from the Parish Church of Southwold, in Suffolk, he remembered he had friends at Parndon and Harlow. At once he came to reside in this area, probably first at Parndon, Tradition further suggests that these friends were mostly Baptists, and it would seem that he himself either embraced Baptist principles in due course or was already of Baptist persuasion.
During the years of persecution he ministered to his people by meeting them in gatherings held in the woods or in private houses in Parndon, Harlow, Nazeing or other villages. Several sequestered spots were still mentioned in the year 182O as places of their retreat, and details of the malice of their persecutors were spoken about.
After enduring these difficulties for twenty-five years, Mr Woodward and his flock had the satisfaction of seeing the liberties of their country established on a firm footing. The Prince of Orange was invited to the throne, and in 1688 the civil and religious liberties of the nation were established on a sure foundation by the passing of the Bill of Rights and the Act of Toleration.
From this time, Mr Woodward and his friends assembled regularly for worship both at Parndon and Harlow. The Parndon community was the forerunner of the Potter Street Baptist Church. In 1880 it was placed on record that a part of the building used for worship by Mr Woodward’s church in Harlow still remained. It had been discarded on the erection of a new church building in 1764.
It is supposed that Mr Woodward preached alternately at Parndon and Harlow, but as age and infirmity increased his labours were eventually confined entirely to the congregation at Harlow. After his death the two congregations went their separate ways, each with its own minister.
Mr. Woodward died in 1712 and was buried in a piece of ground at Foster Street which he had purchased with the intention of its becoming a burial ground for his family and congregation. In 1820 some relics of his tomb were still standing. The Rev. Thomas Finch, minister of our church from 1817 to the middle of that century, records that having seen the tomb falling into disrepair, and the inscription becoming almost indecipherable, he proposed that it be restored and a musical instrument placed in the Meeting House at Harlow, bearing the following inscription:
“Sacred to the memory of the Rev. William Woodward, fifty years pastor of the Protestant Dissenting Congregation, Harlow. Ejected from the Established Church by the Act of Uniformity, 1662. he pursued his ministry in this neighbourhood amidst many difficulties till the glorious Revolution in 1688; when, protected by the Bill of Rights and the Act of Toleration. he discharged his duties as a Christian pastor till his decease in 1712. His mortal remains were deposited in the Burial Ground, Foster Street, which he bequeathed to his congregation as a Burying Place for ever. ‘Mark the perfect man and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.’ ”
Whether this proposal was ever carried out we do not know, but if it was, all trace of these memorials has vanished.
To conclude this chapter it is not out of place to mention that our church was born in a century which was rich in its theological writings. It was the age of the Puritans, producing men like Alleine, Owen, Watson, Bunyan, Milton, Baxter and many others whose theological outlook was strongly in line with that of the Reformers; so much so that in the present day reference is often made to Puritan and Reformed theology as being one and the same thing. In that great and important theological age our church began to exist.