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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story

 Non-conformism in Boston 

Patrick Corke

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, the Puritans wanted him to ‘purify’ the Church of England by appointing ‘godly’ ministers. However, James introduced measures to suppress the Puritans. Puritans were made up of three groups: the Presbyterians who wanted a church without bishops, as in Scotland; the Independents (Congregationalists) who wanted a church free of state control; and the Baptists who emphasised the early Christian practice of baptism.

image of Unitarian Chapel

Founded in 1802, the unitarians moved into the chapel into the chapel pictured here in 1819. Located in Spayne Road, it is still their chapel today.

image of the baptist Chapel in Boston

Boston's Generalist Baptist Chapel, 2019.

The suppression of the Puritans led directly to a group inspired by Rev John Cotton leaving Boston and founding Boston, Massachusetts. Those who remained became increasingly militant, gaining the town a reputation as ‘a hotbed of Independents’. One of their leaders, Mr Bankes Anderson, even became the Mayor’s Chaplain in 1651.

After the Civil War the monarchy was restored and the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662. This dashed any hope of religious freedom. Mr Anderson was banned from preaching and holding public office, whilst Thomas Graham, leader of the Baptists who had been meeting since 1653 in a private house in town, was imprisoned.

image of John Wesleys face (drawn)

John Wesley, founder of Methodism.

image of Former Congressional Chapel

This former chapel in Red Lion Street was used by the Congregationalists until they moved to a new and grander church building in 1850.

Although matters settled down in 1689 when the Toleration Act was passed, trouble was never far away. In 1757 Alexander Mather and Mr Alwood, two Methodist preachers, were chased out of town. Although John Wesley was better received in 1780, Methodist services were frequently disrupted until 1789 when the Mayor agreed to prosecute those responsible for the violence.

In the following decades the town reflected the national diversity as non-conformist groups fragmented. New chapels were built which over time often passed to other groups, such as a chapel that once existed in Main Ridge. In 1802 this was the Unitarian Chapel, then in 1804 passed to the Quakers (Society of Friends) before becoming the ‘Particular’ Baptist’s chapel and finally home to the Methodist Reformers around 1854.

A number of notable non-conformists have been associated with the town. William Bampton who, baptised as a teenager at the ‘General’ Baptist chapel in the High Street, became the first missionary to Eastern India, where he and his wife took to wearing native dress. They belonged to the General Foreign Baptists Missionary Society which had been formed during the Baptist New Connection Association meeting held in the Boston chapel which William Bampton had attended.

Another, Dr William Cooke, minister at Zion chapel in 1830, became the Methodist New Connexion’s thrice president and wrote a number of practical guides for Christians during the rise of Darwinism. Among those who attended his innovative training seminary was William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, who later modelled some of the training of Salvation Army officers on his methods.

The final persecution of nonconformists came with the arrival of The Salvation Army in the town in 1878. In 1881 Captain Rees became the last non-conformist to be imprisoned. Soon afterwards Boston Corporation voted to reject petitioning the Home Secretary for more powers to ban religious groups from its streets, deciding instead to leave such matters well alone.