Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ten Years Ago, Sixty Years Ago & Eighty Years Ago

Our Oldest Church Magazine: August 1922

St Mary's Baptist Church (Now  called "Norwich Central Baptist Church") used to have a monthly church magazine called "The Messenger".  Copies of the magazine going back to 1922 exist in the church records and form a valuable historical resource. But The Messenger was axed at a church meeting circa 2005 after well over eighty years of distribution; the reasons for this were probably to do with a combination of a lack of interest, support and resources. 

The Messenger gave me an opportunity to contribute and so I wrote a few articles for it (four in all) entitled "Fifty Years Ago" (although one article was actually called "Sixty Years Ago"). In these articles I would quote text taken from a Messenger published fifty years previously but of the same month. I wrote these articles between 2004 and 2005, just before the magazine got axed. Below I reproduce an article I wrote for the April 2005 Messenger which harked back to April 1955. It tells us something very different about the state of the church and the youth work of that day: See if you can spot the difference.

From The Messenger of April 2005:
Fifty Years Ago

The Messenger of April 1955 records a membership at St Mary’s Baptist church of 513 and Sunday school with 319 “scholars” served by 63 teachers. And yet, twenty years before this date, the April 1935 Messenger reports a membership of 704, and a Sunday school in 1933 of nearly 700 “scholars” and 137 teachers. If by 1955 they were getting a little worried about decaying numbers they need not have done because the US cavalry were coming over the hill! The April 1955 takes up the story:

The telephones in the pressrooms are ringing impatiently, there is the whirr and click and flash of cameras. Hundreds of people have gathered at the quayside to give him a welcome. Eyes are goggly and mouths are agape. He is not from Hollywood, he is Dr. Billy Graham….. “Phenomenal” is the word for the way in which the secular Press have dealt with his return to this country …..
            …. In conjunction with the Dr Graham relays from Glasgow to Norwich, St. Mary’s is arranging for the training of counselors. The lectures will be available for all committed Christians and will continue on Thursday evenings at 7.30 in the Shakespeare room until 14th April.
            Now to prayer for all these ventures and a humble trust in God whose harvest we seek to reap.

A year later the tone of the May 1956 Messenger is upbeat. In an article headed “It Grows and Grows” we read:

One of the most encouraging sights on Sunday evening is to look up into the gallery of St. Mary’s to where the young people, the church of the future, are sitting. A few weeks back there was only one vacant seat.

It’s just as well we haven’t got these numbers in youth church – if we did then when the young people go to their classes on Sunday morning, all the teachers would have to go with them, leaving the Rev. James East looking out on ……. an empty church.


Church attendance on a national level rallied somewhat during the austere fifties. But the sixties were yet to come and that decade broke many intellectual and social molds, putting church attendance under pressure and helping to create an embattled marginalized community conducive to the growth of fundamentalist attitudes. However, it's probably true to say that many parents of the fifties and early sixties, although still respecting the church as an institution, sent their children to Sunday school just to get a bit of Sunday peace and did not attend church themselves. Hence, the inflated ratio of Sunday school numbers to church membership that we see above. But I don't think anyone was complaining; it was a nice problem to have!

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