On Tuesday, the HCT hosted the second of the new series of #ChapelTalks. The speaker, Dr Tim Grass, took listeneners on a journey through the Suffolk Landscape as he shared his personal memories and knowledge of the Strict Baptist Chapels that have become so much part of the cultural and built heritage of this beautiful county.
Dr Grass shared the story of how is Father’s favoutite hymn, a Baptist Pastor himself, was Isaac Watt’s paraphase of Psalm 122, and how that this had inspired the title of his book on ‘Suffolk and Norfolk Strict Baptist Chapels’, ‘There my Freinds and kindrid dwell’.
Listeners were first introduced to a chapel Dr Grass’s Father had preached at, Grunisburgh Chapel. Built in 1798, twice extended, the chapel, unlike so many chapels now, is still in use today as a place of active worship. Recounting his childhood experiences attending the Strict Baptist Chapels of Suffolk, Dr Grass descibed how his memories of the buildings resonate through all his senses, rangeing from the smells of the musty old buildings, to the four-part harmonies of the hymns that were sung, and to tangible features such as the tortoise stove, and architectural changes that featuered in many chapels and reflected the changes and use of the buildings overtime.
For those less familiar with the Baptist denomination, Dr Grass went on to describe the development of The Strict Baptists. With their routes in the older English Particualar Baptist tradition,Particular Baptists believed that the death of Christ was for all certain people in particular – the elect, those who had been chosen by God to receive salvation through Christ. Historically, they represented the majority of English Baptists.They also believed in election and predestination, but they were also committed to evangelism, and the first half of the 19th century was a time of rapid Baptist expansion. The importance of community and fellowship was reflected in the large gatherings such as those held from 1847 in large tents around the county each year. Such shared experiences of faith seemed to define the cultural identity of The Strict Baptists. Not only were these occasions an opportunity to reaffirm their common faith together, but it gave them the chance to share meals, conversations, and each others company.
We were then taken on a potted tour of the vernacular character of these Suffolk chapels; sitting in the local landscape, the architecture reflects the traditional buidings of the area by being built in local materials such as red brick, with pantile hipped roofs and sash windows. One exception Dr Grass explained, is the impressive Bethesda Chapel in Ipswitch. Opened in 1913, it stands out for its neo-classical speandour. Although large in structure, Bethesda Chapel is no excepetion, as whilst many Strict Baptist Chapels are understated in architectural form, some of them are sizable structures because of the large capacity of people they needed to accomodate.
One such example of a rural chapel built to accomodate large numbers, is the unique Fessingfield Chapel built in 1835, by a local man, George Spratt. The floor plan is described as an ‘elongated hexagon’, although locally we were told, it was known as the ‘coffin’. Below you can see the later addition of a new Sunday school building (1985), that echos the same hexagonal design as the chapel.
One of the most important part of a persons journey in the Baptist tradition is that of freely elected baptism. Unlike other Chrisitian denominations, such as in the Church of England when baptism is most likely to take place as a baby, Baptists believe that baptism should take place when a person can make the decison for themselves. This usually involves the administration of full immersion during baptisim. It was revealed during Dr Grass’s talk, that many chapels would either use a nearby river to perform the baptisms, or where possible, a pond was dug and lined with clay within the chapel grounds. Later, full immersion pools were created inside many chapels. Two of the Baptist chaples in the care of the HCT have full immersion pools,- Christ Church Baptist church at Umberslade in Hockley Heath, (see the photograph below), and Cote Baptist Chapel in Oxfordshire.
What made this talk especially wonderful, was that at the end of Dr Grass’s talk, we were witness to the warm sense of community that so clearly is important to Baptist’s sense of identity and belonging. A number of attendees had known Tim’s Father, and Tim when he was child, and were able to share stories of times spent together in these Suffolk Chapels.
The mention of music, in particular four -part harmony singing, stirred many memories, and much conversation insued. Tha,t together with stories of ‘camping services’, that still continue, and social occasions involving cake, tea and conversation ,brought a tangible feeling of what these buildings mean, not only to the landscape in which they sit, but also to the communties that used and contiue to use them.
If you missed Dr Tim Grass speaking,, you can listen to the full talk here.