|The Christian Heritage of Stoke-on-Trent|
|The Christian Heritage of Stoke-on-Trent|
Source: "Treasures in Jars of Clay"Copyright © 1994 Robert Mountford.
The booklet is available from City Vision Ministries
| Sheep without a Shepherd |
Early Christian History
The First Church
The first centre of Christian preaching and worship in the area was situated neither in the village of Penkhull nor in the town of Newcastle. From as early as the Seventh Century AD, it stood in the valley at the place where the infant River Trent met the even smaller Fowlea Brook. The name given to this ancient place of meeting and worship was "Stoke-upon-Trent.''
The name "Trent" was originally Celtic and meant "the trespasser" or "the flooding river." "Stoke" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "stoc," which meant in the first instance "a place," but carried the usual, secondary senses of "a religious place, a holy place, a church," and "a dependent settlement." Either of these secondary meanings could be applied to our "Stoke," since it was originally dependent upon Penkhull, and for centuries consisted of little more than the church and rectory.
So it is safe to say that the spiritual roots and present name of our city lie here in "THE HOLY PLACE ON THE RIVER TRENT."
The Church of St. Peter Ad Vincula
No detailed records of the first Christian preachers or worship remain for us now, but we do know that early building(s) were replaced by a stone church around 805 AD. This stone building was altered and enlarged many times, but stood for over one thousand years until 1826, when it was demolished to make way for the present Church of St. Peter Ad Vincula ("St. Peter in Chains").
Walking around St. Peter's church yard in Stoke today, one can still see the site of the altar of the ancient church close to a re-constructed archway. Of particular interest is a Saxon Cross dating from around 800 AD, on which the earliest examples of the "Staffordshire Knot" are clearly visible. A Saxon font is still used for the christenings which take place at the church.
The ancient Parish of Stoke-upon-Trent extended over a vast area of thirty square miles, covering what in those days was a number of small hamlets and a large amount of countryside, and what today is much of the City of Stoke-on-Trent (excluding Tunstall), Newcastle-under-Lyme and some of the villages to the east and west besides. This parish, one of the largest in the country, remained undivided until 1807.
It is of great interest and significance that two of the oldest boundaries in the area, those of the village of Penkhull and the parish of Stoke-upon-Trent, both linked together Stoke- on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme, which for so long have been separated, not by physical geography, but by legal documents and popular desire (at least on the part of the residents of Newcastle). Could it be that they belong together?
Trentham and Hulton Abbey
In addition to the strategically central church at Stoke, two other ancient places of Christian worship are worthy of note. Wulhere, the pagan ruler of the kingdom of Mercia in the Seventh Century AD, had a daughter named Werburgh, who founded a nunnery at Trentham. Unfortunately, its exact location is unknown, although a road called Werburgh Drive marks a possible location for the site. The Roman Catholic Church in Clayton, together with its Primary School, bear her name, along with an Anglican Church in Burslem.
Almost six centuries after the establishment of St. Werburgh's, in 1219 Henry de Audley founded the third and last of North Staffordshire's Cistercian Abbeys, the Abbey of Our Lady of Hulton. Although never a large or influential place, the Abbey and its monks remained there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1538. The ruins of the Abbey still lie on the edge of the large housing estate in Abbey Hulton. Excavation work on the site, although first begun over 100 years ago, continues today - Artifacts from these excavations can be seen in the City Museum.
The Methodist Revivals
Sheep without a Shepherd
As people flooded into the new towns of Burslem, Hanley and Lane End (now Longton), moral conditions were very poor indeed. Drunkenness was common, even among children; profanity and vulgarity were heard everywhere; gambling, bull-baiting and cock-fighting were normal pastimes; the annual holiday weeks (called "Wakes") proved to be occasions of every sort of immorality.
The whole area at this time was still served by the Parish Church of St. Peter Ad Vincula in Stoke, with just one or two other "chapels of rest" scattered elsewhere, such as at Hanley and Lane End, for the use of parishioners who lived some distance from the parish church. Marjorie Cruikshank, writing in the North Staffs. Journal of Field Studies, Volume 20, confirms, "in few areas had the Established Church so obviously failed to keep pace with the growth of population as in the Potteries.
Even assuming that the clergy were concerned with the spiritual welfare of their parishioners (and in many cases they weren't), they were totally unable to meet the needs of the masses. But help was at hand! As Marjorie Cruikshank continues, "it was Dissent in its various forms which appealed to the potters, colliers and iron workers. Foremost among all these Dissenting bodies were the Methodists, who were led by John Wesley.
John Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, the eleventh of 19 children born to Samuel and Susanna. John's father was the Rector of Epworth, a small town in Lincolnshire. He studied at Oxford, then spent some years as a chaplain in Georgia (America), before finding his own personal assurance of salvation by faith in Christ at a meeting in London on May 24, 1738. Thereafter, he spent the rest of his life travelling, preaching and writing throughout this and other countries.
John Wesley - His preaching in the Potteries
Wesley first preached in Newcastle-under-Lyme as early as 1738 (the year of his conversion), not visiting Burslem until March 8, 1760. By this time, the Society of Methodists in Burslem was already some 20 years old, having been established by a group of miners around the year 1740 following their return from some of Wesley's early meetings in Bristol. Thus, the "Swan Bank Methodist Church" can claim to be one of the oldest Methodist Societies in the world.
John Wesley visited the area now known as the City of Stoke-on-Trent a further 15 times between 1760 and 1790, preaching in Hanley Green (now Hanley), Lane End (now Longton) and Tunstall as well as Burslem. At first Progress was slow, but eventually strong churches were founded and built up amongst those Wesley called the "poor Potters." Indeed, towards the end of his life and ministry, genuine revival had come to the area. a 1843 account of Wesley's preaching
An Outpouring of the Spirit
On March 29, 1787, John Wesley, by then an old man of almost 84, visited Lane End, where he recorded in his Journal, ".....we entered into the country which seems to he all on fire - that which herders on Burslem on every side; preachers and people provoking one another to love and good works in such a manner as was never seen before."
In Burslem itself later that same day he enjoyed a powerful meeting with a large congregation and many instances of sinners being converted. He wrote, "indeed, there has been, for some time, such an outpouring of the Spirit here as has not been in any other part of the kingdom; particularly in the meeting for prayer. 15 or 20 have been justified in a day. Some of them had been the most notorious, abandoned sinners in all the country;....."
John Wesley died in 1791 at the age of 88. By God's grace, he was responsible, more than any other single person, for turning our nation back to God. His impact on this area was equally profound. Bill Morland, in his "Portrait of the Potteries," makes the astounding assertion that, "No other person has had so great an influence on the character of the Potteries as John Wesley. "
The Methodist New Connexion
Yet by 1797, only six years after Wesley's death, dissension and divisions were surfacing within the Methodist church. One group who broke away from the main Methodist body over questions of church government and discipline became known as the "Kilhamites" or "Methodist New Connexion." This group enjoyed some success in each of the Potteries towns, but particularly in the area around Hanley and Shelton.
This may have been due to the influence of Job Ridgway, a pottery manufacturer in Hanley, whom Henry Wedgwood called, "one of the most remarkable men Staffordshire ever gave birth to." Ridgway was one of the founding fathers and leading figures at Bethesda Chapel in Albion Street, Hanley, which became the central place of worship of the New Connexion. The chapel was rebuilt in 1820 to seat 3,000 people and became known as "The Cathedral of the Potteries," a name it has kept to this day.
Bourne, Clowes and "Mow Cop"
Around the same time as the rise of the Methodist New Connexion, another wave of revival swept into the new towns. Its leading figures were Hugh Bourne and William Clowes. Hugh Bourne, was born at Ford Hayes Farm, Bucknall, on April 3, 1772. He was a shy man who, until his conversion in 1799, lived with an intense fear of falling into hell. By the year 1800, he had moved to live in Harriseahead, a village to the north of the present city. Towering above Bourne's new home was Mow Cop, a "bald hill" rising to 1,091 feet above sea level, with commanding views over the Cheshire plain.
Bourne was shocked at the moral state of his new neighbourhood, saying, "There was not in England a neighbourhood that was more ungodly and profane. A stranger could hardly go over Harriseahead without insult and sometimes not without injury." Against this background, Bourne met for prayer and Bible study with other Methodists, and flames of revival broke out in 1801, spreading quickly through the northern towns of the Potteries and beyond.
William Clowes was born in Burslem on March 12, 1780, a relative of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother's side. William became a highly skilful master potter, as well as a notorious drinker, gambler, womaniser and fighter, but was remarkably converted at an evangelistic meeting in Congleton in 1804, following what Hugh Bourne described as yet another "extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit." Clowes was to become a powerful evangelist and a leader in the revival.
The Primitive Methodists
One of the main features of this new move of God was the "Camp-meeting," an all-day, open-air prayer and preaching meeting. The first one was held at Norton in 1807; thereafter they moved to Mow Cop, replete with its mock castle ruins, a folly built by Squire Randle Wilbraham of Rode Hall in 1754, just over fifty years prior to these events. Many were the sinners converted and miracles accomplished on these glorious occasions.
Unfortunately, these American-style meetings were viewed with great suspicion by the Methodist authorities and a ban on holding such gatherings was imposed. Having ignored this ruling, both Bourne and Clowes were eventually expelled from the Methodist Church (in 1808 and 1810 respectively). Despite this set-back, the new movement continued to grow, spreading throughout the Midlands and the North of England, following the line of the River Trent to Hull, where Clowes died and is buried.
The Wesleyan Methodists
The growth of the Methodist New Connexion and the Primitive Methodists did not, however, signal the end of the original or "Wesleyan Methodists." On the contrary, the early part of the Nineteenth Century was time of continuing revival for them, too. Henry Wedgwood, in his "Romance of Staffordshire," was able to say,
"indeed, never was such a revival known in the Potteries as took place in the year 1819. Thousands were gathered to the Methodist's cause; and Etruria, according to its population, was influenced more largely than any part of the district. There was not a home in the village that this wide-spread revival spirit did not enter. "
One result of this revival was the sending out of one of the members of Etruria Methodist Chapel as a missionary to India. Alfred Bourne left England in the autumn of 1826, returning nine years later with broken health but faithful heart, having accomplished many good things for the cause of Christ. He died in May, 1836, at the age of 37.
Another local man sent out to pioneer overseas was Rev. Samuel Leigh, of Milton Methodist Church. He became the first Methodist missionary in Australia in 1815, and after several years there moved on to become first Methodist missionary to New Zealand in 1822. His home church at Milton is named the Leigh Memorial Church in his memory.
on the Methodist divisions in the City
Another revival broke out in the Potteries, being centred in Hanley around a remarkable man, Gypsy Rodney Smith. He was a young Salvation Army evangelist aged 21, married, with a baby son. Smith had already experienced considerable success in places like Hull, and now arrived in Hanley on the last day of 1881, having asked General William Booth to send him, "...to the nearest place to the bottomless pit."
Gypsy Smith began his work with an open-air meeting in the market square in Hanley on New Year's Day, 1882. Initially progress was slow, but within six months the Gypsy had gained a considerable following in the area. Meetings were held at what was then called "Batty Circus," a large, wooden barn occupying the site of the present Webberley's Book Shop. Nine services took place between Saturday and Sunday evenings, and crowds of up to 8,000 people assembled to hear the gypsy preach.
After some problems, Gypsy Smith was dismissed from the Salvation Army but remained in Hanley for several years with great success. It was here that he was moulded into an evangelist who was to bring revival all over the world. The Gypsy remembered Hanley with great affection, naming his second son after the town. He often said, "To the end of my life, the name of that town will always arouse joy in my heart and an amazing revelation of what God hath wrought."
It should not be thought, however, that the revival he enjoyed did not spread to others in the area. The inter-denominational "Hanley Testimonial Committee" were able to write in 1888, "The work has spread, the churches have been quickened, and at the present time in most of the towns and villages in the district successful mission work is carried on."
The Twentieth Century
The Devil in the Potteries
The weekend of December 12-13, 1903, proved to be dramatic indeed. For, just before seven o'clock on the Saturday morning, the ground opened up suddenly outside Number 34, St. John Street, Hanley, just as Thomas Holland, aged 56, of Northwood, was passing by on his way to work. He was swallowed up and disappeared into the shaft, much to the amazement of other pedestrians also walking along St. John Street on that dark morning. This mysterious event remains part of Potteries folklore.
And the following day, though entirely unconnected with this untimely death, Reverend the Honourable Leonard Tyrwhitt, Vicar of Fenton, spoke to a packed Sunday evening service at Christ Church, Fenton, on the subject of "Then Cometh the Devil." He followed this sermon with three more on successive Sundays over Christmas, 1903, and New Year, 1904, entitled, "The Devil in the Potteries." In highlighting what he considered to be the evil prevalent in the six towns, he emphasised heavy drinking, foul language, rough conduct and corruption by foremen.
Emotions were stirred in the whole area and correspondence flowed in thick and fast to the Staffordshire Sentinel, with many supporting, and even more attacking, the Vicar's stance. The story reached the national press just as author Arnold Bennett returned home from France. His response was a letter to the Sentinel in which he severely criticised the Vicar.
A remarkable meeting took place just three years after these events. The Primitive Methodists had continued their expansion throughout the Nineteenth Century, which now culminated in a Centenary Camp-meeting at Mow Cop in 1907, a gathering which is said to have attracted an attendance of 100,000 people. A memorial stone marking the birth-place of the movement can still be found beneath the castle at Mow Cop.
Edward Jeffreys the Pentecostal Evangelist
In the early 1930's, Edward Jeffreys, a powerful evangelist in the then blossoming Pentecostal movement, held series of "Crusade" meetings in the Potteries, notably at the King's Hall, Stoke and the Victoria Hall, Hanley. People queued for hours to be in the services which were packed with the power of God. Many came to faith in Christ and many sick and disabled people were healed. It is said that lorry-loads of discarded medical equipment were returned to the City General Hospital, no longer required by those now cured.
As a direct result of those Crusades, several "Bethel" Churches were planted in the area:
in Milton (now the Abbey Hulton Bethel Christian Church), in Longton (now the Assembly of God Church in Dunrobin Street), in Hanley (the Hanley Bethel Evangelical Church) and in Silverdale (until recently the Assembly of God, now belonging to the Silverdale Methodist Church).
St. John's. Burslem - A turning point in "Renewal"
A significant move of the Spirit of God was taking place in our city at this time, though its occurrence is unknown to many, even in the Christian community. It began in June, 1959, in the grounds of Hanley High School. Warwick Shenton, a young man attending the Ball Green Assembly of God Church, laid hands on Ron Bailey, a school friend from St. John's Parish Church, Burslem, in order than Ron might receive "the baptism in the Holy Spirit."
Ron Bailey did indeed receive, and over the next few years, many at St. John's were also baptised in the Spirit, including the Rector and his wife, Philip and Norah Smith. Not only was the church in Burslem greatly blessed, but Rector Smith was to speak about his experience in Christian magazines and on Pentecostal platforms.
For an Anglican church to be involved in "things of the Spirit" in those days was unusual indeed. This led to contact with many other ministers who were also seeking the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Among those who "received" through the Rector of Burslem in the 1960's were Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists from all around the country, the most well- known being Michael Harper, who became a prominent leader of the "Renewal Movement." This is the name we would now give to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the more traditional churches, the roots of which can be traced back in part to this ancient church in Burslem.
As we survey the past, and the impact which the gospel of Jesus Christ has made through the churches in the city, we pause to thank God for the many glimpses of his glory in a very dark and often troubled place. At the same time, we acknowledge the weaknesses of the men and women God has used in his work. It seems that the Almighty is not offended by our humanness!
And in this respect, we Potters have an insight into the strange but wonderful reality of the joining of the human and the divine. For who like the potter knows the fragility of clay jars? Yet who like the potter knows the necessity of those same jars to carry the treasures of men and of God?
Parts of these details are from "Treasures in Jars of Clay"Copyright © 1994 Robert Mountford.
The booklet is available from City Vision Ministries
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