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Saturday, 15 February 2014


My 3x great grandfather William Brodie Gurney was a devout and active lay Baptist. All five of his daughters who survived to adulthood married into families like the Gurneys with a long history of non-conformity. Three of them married ministers (one of them married two!) and in 1832 one, Mary Ann, became the wife of William Kingsbury Jameson, the grandson of Rev William Jameson, a Baptist minister caught up in the internal spiritual politics of the rising nonconformist movement.

Mary Ann Jameson nee Gurney (1812-1871)
granddaughter in law to a minister with a sore head

The nonconformists are the big story of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the emerging radical alternative to the established Church of England. Coinciding with the industrial revolution, nonconformism was the engine for the biggest social change in British history, the creation of a middle class.

Within the nonconformists the big story was the rapid splintering into sects and subsects which followed the legalisation and acceptance of religious dissent. There were particular Baptists and general Baptists, Trinitarians and Unitarians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Calvinists and Socinians, all disagreeing violently about their own special form of dissent.

Rev William Jameson was a Calvinist Trinitarian: to oversimplify grotesquely, this meant a belief in the Holy Trinity of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the possibility of salvation from man’s natural state of sin through responding to God’s calling of those He chose. Jameson learned his theology at Homerton Academy soon after its opening; Homerton was a strictly Calvinist “dissenting academy” founded in 1768 by and for nonconformists, who were barred from an education at either of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

Homerton Academy moved to Cambridge in 1894 and became Homerton College, whose alumni include many important non-conformists and, more recently, the actors Julie Covington, Cherie Lunghi and Olivia Colman

Jameson served as the minister for a congregation in Warminster for ten years 1772-1781, before he was invited to audition for the congregation at the Old Meeting House in St John’s Lane, Wolverhampton. After eight trial sermons in March and April 1781 he was appointed there, with instructions to take up his post on 24th April. He duly resigned from Warminster and arrived on the appointed day with his family and possessions. Having become aware of theological divisions in the congregation during his trial period he was not entirely surprised to find the chapel door locked against him and another minister engaged to conduct services.

Poor Jameson had unwittingly walked into a hornet’s nest of nonconformist conflict, a congregation bitterly split between the Calvinist, Trinitarian majority and a growing Socinian, Unitarian minority. The latter had not forgiven the former for ousting their leader, William Jameson’s predecessor of some twenty-one years’ service, the Rev John Cole. Although for the sake of peace Cole had gone quietly and had even recommended Jameson as his successor, his supporters were not so forgiving. The Unitarians simply occupied the building.

The Old Meeting House, St John’s Lane, Wolverhampton (built in 1701, now demolished) - locked door also pictured

Jameson and the Trinitarians had no choice but to go elsewhere. They set up a makeshift chapel in a converted barn off Dudley Street; but when the homeless worshippers built a new church in Temple Street, then known as Grey Pea Walk, Jameson moved on. He accepted a post at John Street Meeting House, in Royston, Hertfordhsire, putting the Wolverhampton feud behind him.

Jameson’s obituary describes him as “eminently distinguished by humility and spiritual-mindedness.” But it must have hurt him in 1790, after nine years in Royston, to be accused by some in his now-divided congregation there of Socinianism, the very form of Unitarianism which his opponents in St John’s Lane professed. He retired “with a painful head condition” and lived out his days in the company and care of his daughter.

John Calvin (1509-1564) and Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604)
who lent their names to opposing theologies

Meanwhile in Wolverhampton things became violent over the next few years in the Old Meeting House. On several occasions riotous Trinitarian crowds forced entry to the chapel, disrupted worship there with hoots during services, and eventually brought lengthy legal proceedings (from 1817 to 1839) to recover their financial share in the chapel from which they had been driven. The case was widely reported as The Great Fight At Wolverhampton. It is not a dignified history, and one is tempted to ask the Trinitarians, if not the Unitarians, to ponder what in similar circumstances Jesus might have done.

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