Lessons from 19th-century church planting in England

By Winfield Bevins

A few years ago, Bishop Stephen Cottrell of Chelmsford had a conversation with a priest who boasted about his church’s 150th anniversary. “So you’re running a church plant?” Cottrell said. “Every church was planted at some point. Every church owed its existence to the dedicated ministry of a particular group of Christians at a particular time who were seeking to respond to the needs and challenges of their day by establishing some new expression of Christian life” (see Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition [Seabury Books, 2010], p. 56).

I had a similar realization on a recent visit to England. As I looked around London, where hundreds of historic churches were built throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, I began to think, “Isn’t it ironic that I am teaching on 21st-century church planting in church buildings that were planted only 100 years ago?” Surely, there is nothing new under the sun. After this trip, I began some research on English church planting in the 19th century. What I found was nothing short of inspiring.

The Victorian period ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity to England, as well as major cultural change and upheaval. Population growth skyrocketed in major cities like London as a result of migration and rising birth rates. Tremendous economic development resulted from the Industrial Revolution. Both trends contributed to increased poverty, pollution, and factories where children as young as six worked hard hours for little or no pay. As towns and cities grew rapidly around factories, problems such as urban crime, poverty, alcohol abuse, prostitution, and high infant mortality increased. For every 1,000 babies born each year, nearly 160 died before reaching their first birthday.

All of this led to national concern about the spiritual and moral welfare of England and its future. The Victorian church responded to the national changes by founding hundreds of schools, missions, and welfare organizations. Church planting, or church extension as it was commonly called, was but one solution the Church of England used to address the growing changes and challenges of the 19th-century context.

Let’s be honest. When you think of Victorian England, church planting is hardly the first thing that comes to mind, but a significant and well-documented movement swept across the country, resulting in thousands of new churches. Multiple Archbishops of Canterbury — including William Howley, Charles Longley, and Archibald Campbell Tait — supported and were active in church planting in the Church of England in the 1800s. In 1836, Bishop Charles James Blomfield of London issued “Proposals for the creation of a fund to be applied to the building and endowment of additional churches in the metropolis,” providing for new churches and schools to meet the needs of the city’s rapidly increasing population. Blomfield aimed to have a church for every 3,000 people and believed that once a church was built it would have a larger influence on the surrounding community. By the time of his retirement in 1856, the diocese had built 200 new churches.

On the national front, K.D.M. Snell’s social history of England offers a statistical analysis of new ecclesiastical parishes in the 19th century. Between 1835 and 1896 nearly 7,500 new ecclesiastical parishes were formed, with two boom years of 1844 (193 parishes) and 1866 (113 parishes). A fifth of all Anglican churches were built after 1801.

Snell estimates that from 1835 to 1875, new churches were being completed at a staggering rate of one every four days (see Snell’s Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950 [Cambridge, 2006], pp. 409-14). The number of churches and chapels increased from under 12,000 in 1831 to well over 16,000 in 1901, with a net increase of nearly 50 percent over 70 years. Alongside these entirely new churches, there was extensive rebuilding, extension, and restoration of existing structures.

This was not just a top-down phenomenon coming from bishops and other leaders in the Church of England, but included a grassroots movement. Along with the growing need for church planting, the national context of change and development produced young, energetic clergy who were mission-minded and open to the work of pioneering new churches. Many Victorian church planters went into “the highways and hedges” (Luke 14:23), where the church was absent, such as the East End slums of London. Stories abound of priests, both evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, who ministered to the poorest of the poor and those displaced in society.

Consider a few examples. The Rev. Thomas Gaster served with the Church Missionary Society in India and later planted All Saints, Peckham, in London in 1867. The church began with about 20 people meeting in the Gasters’ sitting room. In a few years the congregation grew to over 600 adults with a service for 800 children on Sunday afternoons.

The Rev. Richard Temple West planted St. Mary Magdalene, Paddington, in 1865. The first church service register from July 1866 shows three Sunday Masses and a daily Mass, with 75 to 100 Sunday communicants, increasing to about 150 in 1867. From the start, West and his parish worked with the local community. They eventually established a convalescent home for the poor on Weymouth Street, off Harrow Road. The church continued to grow under West’s leadership and by 1886 the congregation had grown to over 1,000.

A final example is the Rev. Arthur Osborne Montgomery Jay (1858-1945), whom the Bishop of London appointed as Vicar of Holy Trinity, Shoreditch, in late 1886, in order to reach the outcasts of the Old Nichol district, one of England’s notorious slums. Old Nichol was described by one person as “a district of almost solid poverty and low life, in which the houses were as broken down and deplorable as their unfortunate inhabitants.”

When Jay entered the parish, there was no church building and services were held in the loft of a stable that stank of manure. Jay’s first service on New Year’s Eve attracted 14 people. Within 10 years he had raised enough money to build a church, social club, lodging house, and gymnasium.

Jay became known for two things: being a high churchman and opening a boxing ring in which many pugilists got their start. By the late 1880s, Jay and others realized that one of the best ways to engage poor men was through boxing. To combat his critics, Jay once preached a sermon at Holy Trinity: “May a Christian Box?” Some of the boxers who started in Jay’s gym were Jack the Bender, Lord Dunfunkus, Old Squash, Tommy Irishman, the Scrapper, and the Donkey. Jay’s story shows us that that there is no place the church cannot go to reach people for Christ.

These are but a few great examples of Anglican church plants in the 19th century. They remind us that Anglicanism has a rich missionary heritage of church planting. Something within the very DNA of the Anglican tradition rooted in the sacraments compels believers to join in the mission of God. It could be argued that the history of Anglicanism is the history of missions and that mission and church planting are at the very heart of our Anglican heritage. What would it look like if there were another Anglican church planting movement in the 21st century?

The Rev. Winfield Bevins is director of church planting at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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