1794 – 1857
At this point in our history the church moved into difficult times. Happily they were to be short-lived. Isaac Gould was followed in the ministry by a Mr Sandys. As in the case of Mr Rist, we have no record of either his Christian name or initials. Mr Sandys, apparently, was an acceptable preacher, but for some unmentioned reason he did not please his congregation The outcome was that he stayed in Harlow only one year. Then came Benjamin Severn, who was pastor from 1795 to 1816. During his ministry the chapel was enlarged so as to accommodate about 600 persons. Two vestries and a schoolroom were also added. Mr Finch records in his booklet: "Since that time the Sunday School which these rooms were intended to accommodate has generally contained about a hundred scholars, taught by twenty gratuitous teachers and a committee of superintendents, 'The expenses are defrayed by an annual collection”.
The prosperity which the enlargements seemed to promise was in a few years followed by a series of adverse circumstances. From some things advanced by Mr Severn, in the pulpit and in conversation, it was generally thought a material change had taken place in his views respecting the leading doctrines of Christianity. In consequence of this persuasion, several meetings were held on the subject. Things went from bad to worse. Mr Severn was asked to resign by a majority of the members. He refused and was supported in his determination to continue by the other half of the church. In consequence, the greater part of the members withdrew and fitted up another place of worship, which was opened for that purpose on Sunday, May 20th, 1816,
In these very unhappy circumstances Mr Severn eventually resigned. Shortly afterwards the two separated congregations became reconciled, the newly-opened place of worship was closed down, and the two sides once again began to worship God as one united body. On the other hand suspicions still prevailed, and the whole situation far from satisfactory.
In the year 1817 Thomas Finch became the pastor. He arrived at a critical time, when the fellowship was in great danger of being divided on the doctrinal issues which had led to the resignation of Mr Secern. It was owing to Mr Finch’s gentle and peaceful disposition, to his careful an ' thoughtful discussion of Christian truth, that the two parties were helped to work together harmoniously. Mr Finch, was God’s gift to the Harlow church for such an hour By the end of his ministry all trace of the divisions had disappeared.
For forty years Mr Finch served the church faithfuly and lovingly. Impaired health and the infirmities of age made it necessary for him to resign the pastorate in September, 1857. On October 20th of that year a public farewell was taken of him as a minister. On that day a tea meeting was held in the Fawbert and Barnard School, followed by a public meeting Mr Charles Barnard presided. Also taking part were Mr Brown, of Loughton. Mr Charles Whittaker and the Rev. Frederic Edwards – the last-named being destined to be Mr Finch’s successor in the ministry.
Mr Finch died in 1860 and was buried in the burial ground at Potter Street Baptist Church. Twelve years later a memorial tablet was erected in our present church building, which can be seen and read by all It remains today as a memorial to a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
It was during Mr Finch’s ministry that the authoress of the hymn “Nearer, my God, to Thee”, Sarah Flower, and her parents were worshippers They lived in a house, now business premises, near the top of the High Street. She was the daughter of Benjamin Flower, a man who devoted his life to the cause of political and religious liberty, Sarah married William Bridges Adams, but retained her maiden name, becoming thus known as Sarah Flower Adams. She died on August 14th, 1848, at the age of 43, and was buried in the burial ground at Foster Street. By the time of the Second World War her tomb, which is also the family grave, had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. Through the generosity of some American Christians it was fully restored in 1948 to coincide with the centenary of her death.
The hymn “Nearer, my God, to Thee", has always occupied an honoured place in the hymn books of all denominations. The blessing it has afforded is impossible to assess, but one outstanding example was the comfort it gave to those aboard the British steamship "Titanic”, when having struck a sunken iceberg on April l4th. 1912, she sank on the following day, in spite of the claim that she was unsinkable Out of 2,200 lives on board only 700 survived. The him' was sung by a group of people during those dramatic moments and many must have entered Eternity with its words still echoing in their hearts.
It may appear surprising to some people that Mr Finch made no mention of the Flower family in his booklet, but obviously be was unaware that the hymn would become so famous over the years. There is also the possibility that the hymn was not even written when Mr Finch wrote his booklet, which was published in 1820.