New Church Worthies
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bayley
of Preston, The Meek and Benevolent Christian
ABOUT 1839, in carrying out a devout desire I had that every town within a few miles around Accrington should have a New Church Society, I had delivered lectures at Haslingden, and Blackburn, Burnley, and Clithero, with good results; but Preston, quite a large, intellectual, and important town, stood invitingly near, and no effort had been made there.
Two or three persons had been heard of who were favourable to the New Church, but nothing more. There was only the theatre to be had for my lectures, which was but little used for histrionic displays, but was coming into service for temperance objects, so the first New Church discourses in Preston were delivered on the stage.
Mr. Becconsall was heard of, Mr. Parkinson (the father of Mr. John Parkinson of Preston) came to the front, but Mr. Stones, afterwards well known, and Mr. Edleston (a young man in Mr. Stone's employ—afterwards the Rev. Richd. Edleston), were the chief helpers on the occasion of these lectures. Mr. Edleston was full of life, zeal, and helpfulness.
The result of these and succeeding efforts was that a number of those interested resolved to have New Church worship in Preston. Some half-dozen earnest young men in Accrington had been reading the Works of Swedenborg diligently and practising at the weekly public meetings of the Society until they could address an audience with effect; (they have almost all gone now); these undertook to supply the young Societies for a time, including that of Preston.
A modest room up a passage was taken, not very commodious or attractive, but one where many a delightful meeting was held during two or three years.
Then I heard of old Mr. Nuttall, who had for many years had worship by himself on a Sunday in Longridge Fells, reading the service and the sermon, and singing the hymns accompanied by himself on the violoncello, with as much exactitude as if he had been accompanied by a congregation of a thousand people. Also of Mr. Becconsall, who heads this article, who had been long in Preston as a grocer on a large scale, but retired to Ashton several years before. Both these gentlemen intimated that if there were a proper place of worship erected, and a congregation formed with a suitable pastor, they would come and join. The Becconsalls had frequently attended at the room, but felt that something more was wanted.
Finding the other friends delighted at the prospect, Mr. Becconsall further intimated that he would build the church, and the house for the minister, if agreeable to the other brethren.
There were only entire satisfaction and gratitude expressed by the friends generally, that Lord had raised up such a helper; so the work was soon begun, and went briskly on. The foundation stone of the church was laid on May the 18th, 1843, and on March the 7th, 1844, it was opened for divine service by the Rev. E. D. Rendell.
I had now become acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. Becconsall, and learned their previous history. Mr. Becconsall was a man of very composed and upright character, extremely meek and staid in his manner, but very decisive also.
His reception of the doctrines shows what great results may come from apparently insignificant beginnings. A person with tracts to sell called at his shop about the year 1807, and he was struck with the title of one—The Greatest Truth ever published, Jesus Christ the Only God. It was a Birmingham tract, price 6d. Mr. Becconsall read it, and was much impressed by it. He showed it to his brother Edward, who was also led to approve. They then lent it to a young lawyer, whom they expected to be equally pleased, but he returned it with the endorsement, "THE GREATEST LIE EVER PUBLISHED:"—so much depends upon the previous state of the mind to which the Truth is presented. The greatest truth to one is the greatest lie to another. "Open mine eyes, O Lord, that I may see," should be the prayer of every one to Him who has promised, "I will bring the blind by a way that they know not; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them" (Isa. xlii. 16).
Not at all dismayed by his young lawyer friend's decisive and unfavourable judgment, Mr. Becconsall had noticed in the tract that there was a minister named Proud with a New Church place of worship in London; and his youngest brother then residing in London, he desired him to visit the place and report. The brother did so, and sent a very favourable account, with a list of the works then published, including The Apocalypse Revealed, two volumes.
Mr. Becconsall had long conceived a desire to understand more perfectly the Book of Revelation, and on reading this work he was fully convinced as he said that the truths it contained were the real truths of the Word of God, and the most pure and unadulterated that were ever published by man. From time to time he obtained the Arcana Caelestia, the True Christian Religion, and others, which he partly enjoyed, but after awhile somewhat flagged in his spiritual appetite and suffered himself to be greatly absorbed in business, and then fell into many severe trials, temptations, and troubles.
These he regarded afterwards as divine means of spiritualising his character, and needed for his highest good. "By their results," he says, "I was at length brought out of the land of Egypt."
When the New Church truths had been publicly opened in Preston, Mr. Becconsall had long been weary of hearing preaching that taught the sacrifice of one God called God the Son, to make atonement to and satisfy the justice of another God called God the Father, but "I now saw," he says, "that this was one of the mysteries of Babylon; and so I came out of the house of bondage."
He was joined in his spiritual progress by his wife, and they both considered it a desirable thing to concur in the new movement, and promote it by the means Divine Providence had placed in their power.
They removed to Preston again from Ashton, and not only resolved to build the church, but TO SUPPORT A SUITABLE MINISTER ALSO, as long as it might be needed. He writes, as we read in a brief sketch handed to the Rev. E. D. Rendell, "As we had thought of doing something for the establishment of the church at some future time, we determined to begin at once, so that we might have an opportunity of seeing something of its progress, and hearing some of the hidden things of the Word. We set about the work, and built the church in Avenham Road at our own expense, the foundation stone of which was laid on the 18th of May, 1843, and it was opened for divine service on the 7th of March following, by the Rev. E. D. Rendell preaching on the descent of the New Jerusalem."
The orderly, upright, patient and benevolent life of Mr. Becconsall was a constant and impressive illustration and recommendation of the principles of his religion, through the twenty years from the erection of the church in Preston to the time of his removal into the eternal world in the 90th year of his age. His end was gentle and peaceful, like that of the old men of the Most Ancient Church. "No man," says Mr. Rendell, "could have a stronger conviction of the goodness and mercy of the Lord, in Whose hands he was, nor of the reality of the world to which he was being removed. He passed away in peace, to which I was witness."
It was on Tuesday, February 2nd, 1864, when Mr. Becconsall passed from the natural into the spiritual world.
On the WILL of Mr. Becconsall becoming known, it was found that in his own quiet way he had left a number of bequests, of £500 each, to many of the younger preachers of the Church, including some who had recently joined from other religious bodies. No doubt he had concluded that such a welcome would encourage these comparatively young men to labour heartily for the spread of the great truth he devotedly loved.
The pleasure excited by this little shower of legacies was somewhat moderated, on its being learned that the payment would only take place on the death of Mrs. Becconsall.
Besides these he left very considerable aids to some of the Societies in which he felt special interest. To his own Society—Preston—he left nearly £1,000 to Blackburn £800, and to Accrington £1,200, in round numbers.
To Southport, the sea-side resort in Lancashire which has been called the Montpellier of England and where New Church visitants are very often found, he left, under the safeguard and direction of Conference, Water Works Stock to the amount of £1,733 6s. 8d., to be used for the support of a minister for the Southport Society, when one should be formed with a minister, which has happily been accomplished now for many years.
In 1873, a few earnest and generous New Church friends, who had for some time met as a small congregation in a room, determined to take steps to obtain a more suitable position and a minister, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge of Mr. Becconsall's bequest.
In December of that year, the year of Mrs. Becconsall's departure, the foundation was laid, on a suitable site in Duke-street, and on July the 11th, 1875, the beautiful and comfortable chapel the friends now enjoy was opened by myself. Under the affectionate and earnest ministry of the Rev. Mr. Ashby, that Society is now a comfort and a blessing, both to the inhabitants and to the frequent New Church visitors.
Mrs. Becconsall survived her worthy husband nine years, in which she carried out the same help to the Preston Society which he had afforded during his life, and an equally kindly disposition to aid the Church in general. By her Will she bequeathed £1,000 to the Preston Infirmary, £100 to the Preston Blind Asylum, and to the New Church Society in Preston she added to what her husband had done £1,000 for the support of the minister.
She left for the New Church College £1,000, and to various other charitable uses in the Church £1,800, making in the whole from her bequests the handsome sum of £3,800.
Such were the worthy friends who mainly contributed to the establishment of two New Church Societies, and a great number of pious and excellent uses, and who deserve to be lastingly held in remembrance as at once meek and truly benevolent Christians.