Banbury Unitarians

"Faith is reason grown courageous." Sir Wilfred Grenfell

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A History of Unitarianism in Banbury

Mainly extracted from A History of Oxfordshire: Banbury Hundred

The original Unitarian congregation in Banbury has its roots in the seventeenth century. Rev. Samuel Wells was ejected by the State from his livelihood as Vicar of Banbury in 1662 for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer. The following history is extracted from A History of Oxfordshire: Banbury Hundred:

“The ‘Old Meeting’ grew out of the congregation which seceded from the parish church when the vicar Samuel Wells was ejected in 1662. Compelled to leave the town by the Five Mile Act of 1665, Wells retired to Deddington; he was welcomed by the vicar and from there wrote weekly letters to his former congregation. During 1669 he preached at conventicles at Adderbury, Bicester and elsewhere, but was back in Banbury by 1672 when he was licensed to preach in his own house and in three other private houses, of which one belonged to James Sutton, a licensed preacher, of Sheep Street, and one to Mrs. Hanna, a schoolmistress. … Wells remained on friendly relations with, and often attended, the parish church. … Moreover, the congregation probably had the support of Banbury’s MP, Sir John Holman, whose own house in Herefordshire was licensed as a meeting-house.

After Wells’ death in 1678 the congregation continued to flourish. The ordination of Stephen Davis in 1708 was attended by four prominent Presbyterian ministers. … In 1715 Davis’s congregation ‘made one church’ with Nathaniel Kinch’s Baptist congregations at Horley and at a number of Northamptonshire villages. This amalgamation may explain the large size of the congregation, estimated in 1715 as 600 hearers; in 1716 a larger meeting-house was acquired. In 1738 the vicar reckoned that the congregation consisted of about 50 Presbyterian families.

During the long ministry of George Hampton (1739 – 1796) … the Presbyterian interest remained considerable. The theological views of the congregation were beginning to move from Calvinism towards Unitarianism, though there was some reluctance to accept the extreme views of Priestley. By 1787, some years before Hampton’s death, the meeting was ‘already tainted with Arianism’, and the Cobb family were certainly moderate Unitarians by the turn of the century. Hampton himself was a learned man and held liberal views; he wrote two treatises on the doctrine of the Atonement, and in 1784 allowed John Wesley to preach in the meeting-house. … Hampton was on excellent terms with the parish church; together with other Presbyterians he was a trustee named in the act for rebuilding Banbury church; the meeting-house was used by the congregation of the parish church between 1790 and 1797 during the rebuilding.

From 1797 to 1814, Peter Usher was in charge of the congregation but since he was never ordained the sacraments were administered by Dr. Joseph Jevans, the Unitarian minister of Bloxham and Milton. The next minister, C.B. Hubbard, was ‘fixed in Arianism’ when he came to Banbury, but acknowledged his indebtedness to Jevans and other members of his new congregation for the progressive advance of his religious opinions. In 1824 he said that he shared the opinions expressed in Dr. Price’s sermons, and in the following year was described as ‘the Unitarian minister’.

Nevertheless in 1837 he described his congregation as ‘Protestant Dissenters, denominated English Presbyterians’ and it was not until 1845 that the description of the church in the local directory was changed from ‘Presbyterian’ to ‘Unitarian-English Presbyterian’. … In Banbury the change from Presbyterianism to Unitarianism came about rather through the conversion of the views of members of the congregation than through the imposition of new doctrines by ministers.

During the earlier 18th century leading members of the congregation came increasingly from the trading classes. … By 1835 the social status of the congregation had risen higher, for the trust then comprised two gentlemen, three bankers and four shopkeepers. Most of these men were connected with local government and three of them were members of the Cobb family, which seems to have been dominant in the affairs of the church in the mid 19th century. In 1851, on the day of the census, there were 124 adults and 79 children at the morning service, and 214 adults at the evening service.

Henry Hunt Piper, father-in-law of Edward Cobb, became minister in 1843; he had published among other works, Letters on Unitarianism (1839), a defence of Unitarian doctrines. His uncompromising Unitarianism is reflected in the titles of the sermons which he preached in Banbury in 1843-4, but he was also a lover of church music and liturgy and traditional church architecture. His most lasting achievement was the erection of Christ Church chapel, which was opened in 1850.

George Eyre Evans describes it thus: “The new place, known as Christ-Church, was opened … on Friday 16th August 1850. Thanks to the ground at the disposal of the society it stands some 80 yards back from the street – the Horsefair – and is approached by a carriage drive, through a well-wooded enclosure. The architect was Mr. H.J. Underwood, of Oxford, who succeeded in designing a structure, in early English style, and of singularly graceful proportions. It consists of nave and chancel, a south aisle and vestry. In the chancel, under the window of three lights, the centre one of which contains a ruby-coloured cross, is a reredos of seven arches, with stone mouldings and columns of a very graceful character. On the north wall of the chancel is placed the tablet to the memory of the Rev. George Hampton, M.A., removed from the Old Meeting House. The summit of the gable over the main entrance is surmounted with a stone cross.”

“Nevertheless, a sharp decline in the church’s fortunes followed almost immediately, and by 1884 … only one member of the trust was resident in Banbury, the rest living in London. The Early English design of the new church had deeply offended some of the congregation, but it was Piper’s introduction of a liturgy in 1852 which aroused most resentment. … Piper was eventually asked to leave before the end of 1853, and Edward Cobb and his wife left the town with him.

By Christmas 1865, however, … a new minister, C.C. Nutter, a skilled mechanic and amateur scientist, had taken up office; he was to stay until 1884 and so be the last minister to hold office for more than ten years. That the church survived was probably due to its endowments and to such wealthy supporters as the Cobbs, William Potts, and Sir Bernhard Samuelson.

Among Nutter’s many successors the most notable was the socialist, Grace Mewport (1925-32), who in the late 1920s attracted a number of local leaders of the General Strike. A Fellow of Manchester College Oxford was serving the church in 1969. The Unitarians, who probably ranked second among the dissenting groups in 1851, had less than 1 per cent of the nonconformist church attenders in 1965.

The meeting house in use from 1716 to 1850 was situated in a yard off Horse Fair between the present church and the street line. The original building was a converted barn, but was reconstructed before 1743 when new trusts were declared. It was a large austere building with a double roof, containing a gallery. There was no organ, but music was provided by an orchestra. Shortly before 1850 it was found to be dilapidated and was demolished.

Christ Church chapel was opened in 1850. The original organ, which had at first stood in the gallery, was replaced in 1951. The congregation ceased to use the chapel in 1969 and it was demolished in 1970.”

As soon as the church was closed, the congregation moved to the adjoining Friends’ Meeting House in the Horsefair, worshipping there on a Sunday afternoon, with services usually led by the then Principal of Manchester College, Oxford, Rev. Harry Lismer Short.

In the late 1970s, funds were obtained from Unitarian Headquarters in London to fund a 4-year ministry by Rev. Helen A. Campbell from Australia, who worked hard to increase the congregation and encouraged them to lease a former house/business premises in North Bar Street, which they converted into a ground-floor meeting room where they met regularly until the mid-1980s, when funds ran out and Helen Campbell returned to her native Australia.

The congregation then closed until Ruth Fowles of Bloxham and Rosemary Booth of Banbury decided to re-establish the congregation as the Unitarian Fellowship of Banbury, the first meeting of which was held on the last Sunday of October 1994, with Ruth Fowles as Lay Leader.

For several years, the group met at a social centre off the Market Square, and then moved to a primary school near the Library, in Marlborough Place. In 2000, the group moved to their current location in the Town Hall at Banbury. They have been greatly supported, particularly in their early years, by members of Northampton Unitarians, for which help they are most grateful.

Ruth’s deteriorating medical condition forced her to retire in 2001, and Malcolm Sadler (who had provided the music for services from the time of the move to the Quakers) was appointed Lay Leader of the group along with that of Warwick Chapel.

The Fellowship continues to meet on the last Sunday of each month (no meeting in August) except December, when the Christmas Service is held on the 3rd Sunday and a New Year service at the end of the month, or in early January. Services are at 11.00 am upstairs in the Committee Room in an informal style ‘in the round’, and coffee and biscuits are served afterwards.

Occasional Social Events are held, mainly in members’ homes, and details of these are included in the occasional newsletter.