New Church Worthies
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bayley
of Ringley Brow And the Society at Kearsley, near Bolton
IN the quarterly tea-meetings which were regularly held at Salford, Manchester, during the early years of Mr. Howarth's ministry, who became pastor in 1824, as successor to the Rev. Robt. Hindmarsh, friends from the country were often present and addressed the company assembled with great good feeling, and sometimes with much interest and intelligence.
One of the most constant and welcome of these was the good old man whose name heads this sketch. He was one of the small company that had met in a quiet way in a small back room on Ringley Brow to edify one another, and occasion ally to receive a missionary visit. Mr. Clowes used for many years to visit them, two or three times a year. I once preached for them, and found them very well informed in the doctrines, and excellent, spiritually-minded men; but not very pressing to give the truths they rejoiced in to mankind in general.
When old Thomas Gee spoke, his remarks were always urgently persuasive to a good life; and he was most careful never to forget the lady portion of his audience. "Oh, my dear friends," he would say, "we must become good men and good women, or we cannot be what the Lord wants us to be."
The old gentleman travelled much around Manchester with some little business he had, and was universally respected as a heavenly-minded man. But he, and the others of the Ringley Society, were so quiet that their own children were not attracted to continue to meet, and their grandchildren usually joined some other religious bodies who were more active, and to whose Sunday Schools their playmates and neighbours invited them. The grandchildren of old Thomas Gee, although their grandfather was so lovable and intelligent an old gentleman, had joined a Calvinistic body, and were most active and efficient as teachers in the Sunday School. The old gentleman became ill, of the failing health of very advanced age, and kept his bed in the weakness which terminated in death. This took place in 1831.
His grandson, John Gee, afterwards well-known in the Lancashire New Church as a most zealous and excellent Sunday School superintendent, was then an ardent Calvinist, full of the immense importance of salvation being impossible without a right belief in the atonement—a belief that all your sins, past, present, and future, were PAID FOR to God the Father, by the sufferings and death of God the Son.
The young man was intensely anxious to save his grandfather, by convincing him of this unscriptural modern doctrine of salvation by FAITH ALONE, IN THIS FALSITY. He visited him on the sickbed often. But he soon found that the old gentleman knew the Scriptures very much better than himself, and was shown that God is one and unchangeable, that God is Love, and that God manifest is the Lord Jesus Christ. He saves mankind by conjoining them to Himself, NOT by paying something to another co-equal God, or Divine Person. He showed him that Scripture always speaks of reconciling man to God, never of reconciling God to man.
The result was that the old gentleman converted the young one, and his sister, who afterwards became Mrs. Woodman; and when they saw the Truth, they resolved it should be hidden no longer. They would teach the ATONEMENT, as Paul taught—God in Christ reconciling the world unto HIMSELF (2 Cor. v., 19). They would at least begin a school. This they did in 1831.
I recollect, quite well, John Gee paying me a visit. I was scarcely older than himself, but he explained his plans, and entreated me to help him, so far as to preach for them and at least aid them with charity sermons.
"I'm quite tired," he said, "with these TWO-ARMED CHAIR FOLK, these LOVE AND CHARITY men, that talk and talk, and do nothing."
Of course I encouraged him, and the school was begun in a large upper room, and was quite successful. Many helpers joined in. The Gees, the Monks, the Greenwoods, and others gathered round, right and left, when there was something to do, and I preached their first charity sermons in their garret. The collections amounted to the then, to them, cheering sum of over £6. All were satisfied and delighted. The school prospered so much for several years, and the preaching too was attended in so encouraging a manner, that in 1836 they determined to venture on building a commodious place of worship in a locality most convenient for the largest number of the friends.
The two brothers, James and Roger Crompton, who had large paper works in the valley, and were known to be favourable to New Church principles, though still attending the Old Church, had intimated that they would cheerfully assist and attend if a satisfactory church could be erected.
This was done, and on the 30th of April, 1837, the opening took place. In a record at the time we read; "The chapel was consecrated and opened on the 30th of April last, when the Rev. D. Howarth performed the Consecration Service, after which he delivered a discourse most appropriate to the occasion. In the afternoon, when the place was extremely crowded, the Rev. J. H. Smithson endeavoured to lay the chief corner-stone of the Society, by proving the sole and supreme Divinity of Jesus Christ; and in the evening the Rev. J. Bayley preached an excellent sermon on the 'Descent of the New Jerusalem.' The whole has made a considerable impression on the public mind, and has excited much enquiry. . . . A Sunday School has since been commenced in the Church, which already consists of 100 children, and every Sabbath the number is much increased."
The increase and manifest success of the Society was not pleasant to a curate of the parish church, named Mansfield, and in a short time he felt his sectarian zeal so much annoyed that he gave a violent lecture against Swedenborg and the New Church. It was so bitter that respectable people of the Established Church very much disapproved of it, and of him.
The Society had not then secured the services of a regular minister. A course of lectures was given in reply, and the present writer was requested to give the last, and their next charity sermons. For the first time, I stayed at my friends the Cromptons, and heard through them that the general sentiment was strongly against the assailant. The replies were given with a kindly feeling, which was respectful, yet as convincing as it could be made, and were largely regarded with favour. The Church was much helped by the result. The largest land-owner in the neighbourhood, a generous but somewhat original gentleman, was very loud in his denunciation of the clergyman's attack, though himself ordinarily an attendant at the Establishment.
This gentleman, whose name was Seddon, had "Dictum—Factum" as the armorial phrase painted on his carriage— "Said—Done." Hence, he was commonly called in the neighbourhood Dictum Factum.
Dictum-Factum called at the Cromptons, and was vigorous in his reprobation of Mr. Mansfield, whose scientific and literary attainments were generally regarded as not very profound. "Just think of the two men," he exclaimed, "Swedenborg a man in the very first rank of science, honoured by all the learned societies of Europe, assessor over all the mines of Sweden for years and years, ennobled by his King, made a Baron1—Baron Swedenborg. Then," he said, "there's this shallow curate. Who's he? What scientific society does he belong to? Who knows anything of his great attainments? What great learning has he shown? Oh, but he is barren too—barren Mansfield. Where's he barren?" And, slapping his hand on his head, added, "He's barren enough—barren there."
The controversy, and the evident capacity of the Society for growth, made the friends eager for a minister; and Mr. Woodman, who had been a teacher at the Woodford School commenced by Wm. Malins, brother of the late Vice-Chancellor Malins, to be a New Church High School for boarders, but was on the cessation of the Woodford establishment made minister at Brightlingsea, and at the request of the people there ordained by the Rev. M. Sibley, on the 7th of January, 1838. In the latter part of the same year he was invited to Kearsley. He commenced an extremely active and useful career. His zeal, his musical ability, his power as an extemporaneous speaker, his industry, and his fearlessness soon produced good fruits at Kearsley. The number of members reported in 1837 was 53, the Sunday Scholars 100, and teachers 30. In 1840 the number of members is reported to be 90, the Sunday Scholars 210, and there has been continued progression at Kearsley from that time to the present.
The Rev. W. Woodman continued in that field of labour thirty-four years, and passed away on the 15th of November, 1872, respected both in the church and out of it, as a sterling Christian and a laborious minister. The church over which our brethren rejoiced in 1837 had long been insufficient for them, and in 1879 they opened a New Church capable of accommodating 750 persons, and costing, with the noble day school, the most commodious possessed by the church, £8,400. The members reported last year were 200, the Sunday scholars 272, and the day scholars 461. The day school was commenced in 1867.
Had the good old friends continued in their quiet way on Ringley Brow, they would simply have died out, and made no sign, and left no mark. By the noble activity of John Gee, and the memory of his grandfather's loving wisdom, the quickening impulse was given which, followed by the effective and continued labours of Mr. Woodman and those who followed him, have enabled us to rejoice over the Society as a "burning and a shining light."
1 Swedenborg, though elevated to the House of Nobles, was not a Baron strictly speaking, though long called so in England.