Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Rise and Fall of the Baptist Aristocracy


The picture above is of George White; that is, Sir George White to you and I.  White takes his place with the names of other establishment grandees who were once part of Norwich Central Baptist Church (then known as St Mary’s Baptist Church). If you are local to Norwich you may recognise some of those names: e.g. The Coleman’s, The Jewson’s and, Sir Samuel Morton Peto. These men were the pillars of a protestant society: They were MPs, Sheriffs, Mayors, business magnates and - this is very ironic - knights and baronets. George White was an MP as well as director of the Norvic shoe factory which can still be seen on St. George's today. Norwich had lost its position in the textile business as textile production moved to the power rich north; it might also have lost out in the shoe trade were it not for White who introduced mass production to shoe making. In fact the St George's works was the largest shoe factory in Gt. Britain under one roof.

White attended St Mary's Baptist Church in Duke Street for many years and was a Deacon there for 29 of them. The church was a fashionable place of worship for prominent Liberal businessman and provided a forum for debate on the moral and political issues of the day under the ministration of George Gould and his successor J H Shakespeare.

How is it, then, that a small Anabaptist* sect of 1669 inclined to fanaticism (as are marginalised groups in general) and oppressed by government and state church should eventually become a major and respected player in politics and business? That, no doubt, is a long story; the result of the confluence of many causes lost in the mists of time: One factor may have been the increasing confidence of an industrial nation growing in power as it left behind the paranoid days of pervasive fear about plots against the state by malign conspirators.  Moreover, after the repeal of the Test Act in 1823 (an act barring non-conformists from civic office) the way was clear for non-conformists to take up public appointment. The progressive Whiggish ethos at NCBC favoured an involvement in liberal politics and business.

The English Baptists had their origins in 17th century republicanism and this was not conducive to them viewing the aristocracy and the concentration of power in a monarch with any great favour. Ironically, however, by the 20th century these Baptists had become gentlemen and they were starting to ape the aristocracy of a former era. They were building churches that looked suspiciously like the worship houses of their well-to-do state church brethren. Moreover, the ruling influential families of the church now had their own coats arms and these can still be seen today in the stained glass windows of the main worship space of Norwich Central Baptist Church.  Viz:

In the left window the coat of arms with pictorial references to whelks is an echo of the family name of “Wilkin”. A notable member was Simon Wilkin: Although he had rather mixed business fortunes he was successful as a publisher and literary scholar.

In the right window are the coat of arms of the Jewson family: A notable member was Percy Jewson whose memorial can be seen in the church. He served as a Lord Mayor of Norwich and a liberal MP. 

In the middle window we have the coat of arms of the Colman family of Coleman’s Mustard fame. Notably Jeremiah James Colman attended the church (See also here). He was another Baptist who was a scholar, businessmen and politician. He became Liberal MP for Norwich in 1871.

Of course, those days have long since gone and a Baptist community well connected to the establishment has waned to be replaced by a congregation who from the outset take it for granted they are not so well enfranchised with power and influence and must cope with that fact. The ego nourishing self-image of Baptists has changed from establishment movers and shakers to that of the holy heroic remnant. There are opportunities and dangers for both types of congregation. The Baptist “aristocracy” of the past had the opportunity to bring a Christian influence to the corridors of power but a sense of having arrived might tempt them to put down roots in this world and lose that restless pilgrim striving which should always be the lot of the Christian. On the other hand the socially marginalised congregations of today are spiritually honed by their more humble status as they identify with the common people, but they may succumb to alienation and be plagued by separatist and sectarian paranoia. However, the underlying spiritual challenges of both types of Christian community remain the same:

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God……..  (Philippians 2:3-6)

* Baptists of that time were called Anabaptist which means “Re-baptise”. This appellation would have had a subversive connotation as the state churches of the day endeavored to baptise all infants thus bringing them into the fold of state religion. Re-baptising was therefore likely to be read as a rejection of that religion.

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