UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF HERCULES COLLINS.John Norcott was immediately succeeded by Hercules Collins, who conducted the Church through perilous times for over twenty-five years.
With his coming the Minutes begin. The first Minute Book, as already stated, commences March 23rd, 1676/7. On its title page, in the handwriting of Hercules Collins, it has the inscription:
Hercules Collins was Inaugurated or installed the office dqm e/piskopoj (Hebrew and Greek Font unavailable) Episcopus, viz an overseer or an elder … the 23rd of March 1676.”
Under the vigorous leadership of this strong-willed man of God, the Church, already large and influential, increased in numbers and prestige. Hercules Collins was much in demand for the purpose of officiating at ordination services of Baptist ministers in different parts of the country. After ten years’ ministry at Old Gravel Lane, a list dated April 23rd, 1686, and in the first Minute Book, shows the Church with an active membership of three hundred and eighty-seven men and women. There is a curious note at the foot of the second page of this list which reads as follows:
“December 20th 1692. about 290 person Removed from our church in the course of less than 18 years. about 216 by death the other Rent withdrawn from and Excommunicated.”
This note implies a bulky church roll over a period of some years. It is all the more interesting to observe therefore that in the year 1676 (when Collins became Pastor and Keach preached Norcott’s funeral sermon to such a crowded congregation) a well-informed spy, who made a survey of the neighbourhood, failed to notice the Church.
A very close and intimate fellowship was maintained with other Baptist Churches. When, for instance, there arose a small “matter in difference” between Wapping and the Horsley Down Church, the matter was referred to the arbitration of William Kiffin and others, William Kiffin having been for a generation the leader of a City Church.
Many preachers were sent out from the Church, and solemnly set apart for the work of the ministry. Such minutes as the following are found:
“April 21st 1679. It was Agreed yt Bro Bonham and Bro Benett do exercise their gifts ye next meeting on ye fast day at Bro Collins.”
“At a Church Meetting in Old Gravell ye 22nd of Augst 1682. It was then agreed yt Bro Chaplin shal exersis his gift on ye 24: of Spt following ye afternoon yt ye Church may have ther Aprobation.”
These were days of grave national perils and the Church entered into the national life with understanding and sympathy. For instance, 11th January, 1678 was a whole day of prayer and fasting. So again on 5th and 13th of November. On 11th April, 1679, another Day of Prayer was observed. Here is a specimen minute from the Church Book of the time:
“this 12th of ye 3 month or May 1680. At A Church meeting held at ould Gravell Lame it was Agreed that ye Ch. keep A Day of humiliation upon ye next fifth day com fortnight beginning at Six of ye Clock in ye morning and ending at six in ye afternoon.”
The Church believed in prayer both for the nation and for itself. With an almost monotonous regularity for a great many years, days of prayer and fasting appear.
These early pioneers built well. They saw to it that, so far as was in their power, the Church should be kept pure and free from those who observed false practices, or whose lives bore the slightest stain of immorality and wrong-doing. The Minutes of the early years are full of disciplines carried out against defaulting members, and the cases are numerous of those who were to “be considered as rent from us.” These pages are regrettable reading, but it must be remembered that the true church had great foes at this time. The country had witnessed the degradation of religion, not only through error and superstition, but also through laxity in life and conduct. It is no small wonder, therefore, that the leaders of the Church were severe in their treatment of all delinquents. It is surprising and painful to learn that swearing, theft, drunkenness and adultery were the occasions of such discipline. Any secession to Quakers (whose influence was strong at this period), Seventh Day Baptists or the Parish Churches was swiftly and severely dealt with. Feeling ran high against those who in a weak moment took their baby to be christened. Midwives were advised against holding the babies at sprinkling, and members were solemnly admonished for attendance at such christenings.
It must not be thought, however, that these early disciplinarians were hasty in their judgments. Although they were swift to take up a case of default, and although their actions seem somewhat stern in the light of these latter days, yet they showed wonderful patience. No one was summarily dismissed, but each was pleaded with and urged to true contrition and reformation. Similarly, great care was exercised with regard to those who wished to join the Church. Some cases came up again and again over a period of several years until at length the candidate for membership was considered eligible and fit to join.
Church Meetings at this period were most largely taken up with the work of receiving or admonishing members, the appointments of Days of Prayer and Fasting, and the solemn setting apart of brethren to the work of preaching the Gospel. The pages of the Minute Books are noticeably free from the mass of items of organisation and detail of administration which are so characteristic of the Minutes of later years.
The personal affairs of members sometimes came into the Church business. If considered carefully, some of them at least will be seen to be quite such matters upon which the New Testament says the Church should express itself. Here is an instance. In 1690 Bro. Minge was “admonished to maintain his mother and aunt that they be not chargeable to the Church.” Even loans of money made by one member to another were transacted in Church Meeting that the Church might be witness of the affair.
Here is a Minute.
“Feb: ye 10: 1679/80. It was then Agreed by ye Brethren of ye Congregation in old gravell Lane that we do Ingage to see Bro Hutching to be discharged for ye sum of Thirty Shillings which he lent to Sister Ruth Gill in her necessity and to bee paid again by her promiss by twelfe pence a week: Witness our hands:
JOHN HAYES.”SEVERE PERSECUTIONS.
If now a look is taken on the world outside it will be discovered that all was not going on so smoothly there as the domestic affairs of the Church Minutes would seem to imply.
Baptist assemblies were still illegal. Spies and informers were receiving large money for the discovery of such dissenting congregations. The hand of the law was against them. Those double-minded Kings, Charles II. and James II., were a constant source of danger. To indicate how matters stood it will be helpful to notice some of the laws which were passed between the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and the Act of Toleration permitting Baptists and other nonconformists in 1689.
In 1662 came the Act of Uniformity. It was, however, the Act of 1664, known as the Conventicle Act which in practice constituted the greatest danger to Baptists. The principal clause in this Act stated:
“That if any person above the age of sixteen shall be present at any meeting, under colour or pretence of any exercise of religion, in any other manner than is allowed by the liturgy or practice of the Church of England, where shall be five or more persons than the household, he shall for the first offence suffer three months’ imprisonment, upon record made upon oath, under the hand and seal of a Justice of Peace, or pay a sum not exceeding five pounds: for the second offence, six months’ imprisonment, or ten pounds: and for the third offence, the offendor to be banished to some of the American plantations for seven years, or pay one hundred pounds, excepting New England or Virginia; and in case they return, or make their escape, such persons are to be adjudged felons, and suffer death without benefit of clergy.”
There were one or two Declarations of Indulgence given and withdrawn which permitted nonconformist ministers to preach on special licence. But there were so many doubtful points about these Declarations of Indulgence that many nonconformists either feared them or were opposed to taking the advantage offered.
It was in the years from 1683 to 1687 that the storm broke in all its fury on nonconformists. Especially trying was the interval between the autumn of 1685 and the summer of 1686. Macaulay, the historian, says:
“Never, not even under the tyranny of Laud, had the condition of the Puritans been so deplorable as at that time. Never had spies been so actively employed in detecting congregations. Never had magistrates, grand juries, rectors, and churchwardens been so much on the alert. Many Dissenters were cited before the ecclesiastical courts. Others found it necessary to purchase the connivance of the agents of the Government by presents of hogsheads of wine, and of gloves stuffed with guineas. It was impossible for the sectaries to pray together without precautions such as are employed by coiners and receivers of stolen goods. The places of meeting were frequently changed. Worship was performed sometimes just before the break of day, and sometimes at the dead of night. Round the building where the little flock was gathering together, sentinels were posted, to give the alarm if a stranger drew near. The minister, in disguise, was introduced through the garden and backyard. In some houses there were trap-doors, through which, in case of danger, he might descend. Where nonconformists lived next door to each other, the walls were often broken open, and secret passages were made from dwelling to dwelling. No psalm was sung; and many contrivances were used to prevent the voice of the preacher, in his moments of fervour, from being heard beyond the walls. Yet, with all this care, it was often found impossible to elude the vigilance of informers. In the suburbs of London, especially, the law was enforced with the utmost rigour. Several opulent gentlemen were accused of holding conventicles. Their houses were strictly searched, and distresses were levied to the amount of many thousands of pounds.
Dissenting ministers, however blameless in life, however eminent for learning and abilities, could not venture to walk the streets for fear of outrages, which were not only not repressed, but encouraged by those whose duty it was to preserve the peace.”
It was during this period that the Wapping Church was compelled to abandon the Old Gravel Lane meeting place. For five years the members were under the necessity of meeting in private houses. In this connection the Minutes reveal the honourable names of Brother Roofe, Brother Edgeone, Brother King and Sister Hammon, in whose houses on different occasions the Church met during these perilous months. Under this outbreak of persecution and intolerance in the year 1684, Hercules Collins, the courageous Pastor of the flock, was committed to Newgate Prison and fined £100. There he was kept for some time, but the Church held on its way strengthened by letters from its Pastor in his imprisonment. John Avering and Brother Hutchings were the Church’s guides while the “shepherd was smitten.” In September, 1684, Hercules Collins obtained his release.
Happily the storm was not to last for ever. At length another Declaration of Indulgence came forth from the King, who by this time was in a panic. This was shortly followed by the abdication of James II. and the accession of William and Mary. In 1689 the Toleration Act legalised the assemblies of Baptists. Baptists were now free. This liberty was nearly wrested from them in the reign of Queen Anne, but her death saved the situation.THE CHURCH BUILDS A MEETING HOUSE.
To show how buoyant and irrepressible was the spirit of the Wapping Church it is only necessary to look at the Minute Books. These Books reveal that in the midst of all this danger there was a Roll of Members amounting to nearly four hundred. This, be it remembered, was before the Church had a legal right to exist at all.
What is more significant on this point, is that while the storm of fury was still raging they were snaking plans for building a chapel! As soon as :he Declaration of Indulgence of 1687 was issued he work was begun. They were so far advanced that there is a Minute of June 14th in this year which reads:
“that we raise £100 for the finishing of the new meeting house.~~
By the 26th July in this same year
“it was agreed at a Church Meeting that the Church break bread the 7th of August in the new meeting place.~~
What a moment for these brave souls this must have been! What a reward for their courage and perseverance!
This Meeting House is one of the first nonconformist chapels that were purposely built for this object, and therefore great interest attaches to it.
The Deeds setting out the lease of the land on which the Meeting House stood are still in the Church’s possession. They are of outstanding historical interest in that they were signed and sealed on the 26th February 1688/9. In view of the fact that prior to 1687 it was not legal for Baptist communities to hold any property whatsoever, these Deeds represent the very earliest of such documents in the country.
By the help of the old Minutes and these old leases a fairly accurate idea may be obtained of the spot on which the first Meeting House was built. This Meeting House is known in the legal documents as James Street, Wapping. The Deeds reveal, however, that James Street was not yet made. In their language, the “parcel of ground” was situated on
“the South Side of a certain new intended Streete called James Streete neare unto Old Gravillane in the aforesaid parish of Stepney.”
The Lease goes on to say that the ground was sixty feet wide from East to West, and one hundred and twenty-nine feet deep from North to South, and that on the East it was bounded by the “backyards” of several houses in Broad Street. An old map of London made by Joel Gascoyne in the year 1703 shows the position of Broad Street in relation to Old Gravel Lane. Whereas the first place where the members gathered was just off the east of Broad Street and between it and Old Gravel Lane, the new building was erected on the west side of Broad Street. All the land here belonged to a certain Captain Johnson by whom the Meeting House ground was leased to the Church. “Johnson Street” may be found in Gascoyne’s survey, and this gives very strong evidence as to the whereabouts of this very early Meeting House.
The building itself was no doubt very plain and homely. Having entered their new sanctuary in August, they soon found it to be too small. Hence comes a Minute in especially good, and perhaps justly proud, handwriting:
“September ye 29: 1687.
At a Church meetinge then agreed yt Eight Brethren bee ordered to vissit our frinds to see what they can gitt towards ye buildinge of Gallerys & a with drawinge roome.”
The Church worshipped in this sanctuary for forty-three years.
The ground around the Meeting House was made into a burial ground, and so was one of the very first grave-yards belonging to Dissenters. There is therefore some interest in a few particulars. For the interment in the burial ground of the Meeting House of any “not of the Congregation” it was necessary to pay something towards the poor of the Church. Church members were apparently buried free of charge, as far as a place in the burial ground was concerned. In 1699 it was agreed that the burial fee should be forty shillings (twenty shillings for a child) and to be paid to the Deacons for the poor. Ten shillings extra was charged to lay a stone at the head, and thirty shillings extra for a stone over the ground.LEASE OF LAND FOR JAMES STREET MEETING HOUSE, WAPPING. Dated February 26th, 1688-89. Shows signature of Hercules Collins.
With the new-found freedom through the Act of Toleration and the building of the Meeting House, the Church went ahead. Very numerous baptisms are recorded from 1687 to 1692. Still more preachers were solemnly sent out and commissioned to preach “in the country or to any other orderly congregation.” This was a very valuable contribution of the Church to Baptist life generally, for there were many little flocks gathering together and needing under-shepherds. The first mention of a Harvest Festival is in the year 1694.
It is sometimes thought that only in recent years attention has been paid to young men and women, but this is not true regarding the Wapping Church. On July 7th, 1700:
“It was then agreed that our young Brethren should have the Liberty of the Little Roome to meete in on a Lord’s Day in the morning from seven o’Clock to nine.”
Evidently the young men of those days could get up in the morning! Again, on April 10th, 1701, it was agreed that— “whereas this church bath for many years last past on the day called Easter tuesday preached up the Ordinances of Jesus Christ, That it be layed aside for this yeare And that in the roome thereof Br Collins should preach A Sermon to Youth on ye day called Whitsun tuesday.”
The Church of these early times was more “awake” than is sometimes believed.
The day at last came when the stalwart Hercules Collins should go to higher service. The calm grief and heroism of the deacons and members is very impressive as one reads the Minutes of the time. Hercules Collins died on October 4th, 1702, after many years of successful preaching. During his ministry the Church weathered the fierce storm of religious persecution, built its first Meeting House, and established itself as one of the leading churches of the Baptist Denomination.
In 1933, E.F. Kevan (then pastor of Church Hill Baptist Church, Walthamstow) wrote a history of his church titled London’s Oldest Baptist Church in which he outlines the church’s 300 year history (at that time, it was founded by John Spilsbury in 1633). Hercules Collins served as the third pastor of this historic congregation following only Spilsbury and a minister named John Norcott. On pages 38 – 50 of Kevan’s volume, the ministry of Hercules Collins is described. Special thanks to Ivan Stringer, the current pastor of Church Hill Baptist Church, for the scanned text from Kevan’s volume included below: