Early History of the New Church in Birmingham

Including an Account of the First "New Jerusalem Temple" Erected in the World

Rev. E. J. E. Schreck
Minister of the Birmingham Society of the New Church

New-Church Press Limited, 1, Bloomsbury Street, London, 1916


First Public New-Church Worship in Birmingham
The Rev. Joseph Proud
The First New-Church Hymnal
Preparations for the Birmingham Temple
The Birmingham Temple
Consecration of the Temple
Priestley and His "Letters"
Attempts to Destroy the Temple
Subsequent Events
Dark Days
The Conference of 1793
Promise of a New Dawn

Rev. Joseph Proud

The Rev. Joseph Proud (From Copper-plate Engraving, published in 1799) [original plate I]. Click on image for a larger version.


On Sunday and Monday, June 18th and 19th, 1916, the two notable events referred to (see Consecration of the Temple) were appropriately commemorated by the Birmingham Society of the New Church, in the Wretham Road Church and Sunday-school buildings.

Special services had been prepared for Sunday. The sermon in the morning consisted principally of extracts from the morning discourse delivered by the Rev. Joseph Proud at the opening of the temple 125 years ago. The evening sermon was on the same text, but expounded the internal sense, and showed its application to the Lord's Divine Providence in the history of the New Church in Birmingham during that long period.

On Monday evening, at a numerously attended social meeting, the greater part of the Early History of the New Church in Birmingham was read, and illustrated by lantern slides and also by an exhibit of books and of pictures and photographs. A few of the pictures and objects are shown in this volume.

A more detailed description of the commemorative meetings has appeared in the New-Church Magazine for July, 1916 (pp. 333, 334); in the New-Church Weekly for July 8th (pp. 279, 280); and in the Wretham Road Church Manual for July.

A number of friends kindly contributed material bearing upon the history of the Birmingham Society. For special features of the specific period reviewed in this little volume the author is indebted to the Church Committee of the Birmingham Society of the New Church; to the Library Committee of the General Conference of the New Church; to Messrs. Charles B. Bragg, J.P., Charles T. Barlow, and Henry Crabtree, of the Birmingham Society; to Mr. Charles Higham, of London; to Mr. Howard S. Pearson, late teacher of English History and English Literature of the Midland Institute; to Mr. Walter Powell, the Birmingham City Librarian; to Odhner's Annals of the New Church; and to other persons and sources especially mentioned in the following pages.

It is owing to the generosity of Mr. Arthur J. Rabone, J.P., father of Captain A. Brian Rabone (see The Birmingham Temple), that this history, which appeared in instalments in the New-Church Magazine, was furnished with illustrations, and is now published in book form, with additional plates.

Preliminary top

Swedenborg began publishing the theological works of the New Church in London in the year 1749, and continued publishing them in that city and in Amsterdam until 1771, making many journeys for the purpose from his home in Stockholm. He died in London in the year 1772, in the house of Shearsmith, a perruque maker, where he had lodgings.

During his life-time only four Englishmen are known to have become interested in the Doctrines thus published by him. The first one was Stephen Penny, an accountant, who was attracted by the unique title of the book, Arcana Coelestia, i.e., Heavenly Secrets, advertised by the London publisher. He is believed to have interested the second man, Mr. William Cookworthy, a Quaker, who became famous in the manufacture of chinaware. Cookworthy, in turn, interested his friend the Rev. Thomas Hartley, rector of Winwick, Northamptonshire. Dr. Messiter, an eminent physician, who attended Swedenborg in his last illness, likewise became a convert to the new doctrines.

These men must have read the works in Latin, for only a very few of them were translated into English during Swedenborg's life-time.

But there were probably others likewise interested, for we learn that about a year after Swedenborg's death, Mr. Richard Houghton, of Liverpool, induced the Rev. John Clowes, a Church of England clergyman in Manchester, to read The True Christian Religion. Mr. Clowes became a thorough-going convert, preached the Doctrines of the New Jerusalem from his pulpit, and by his preaching and his writings led many to accept the Doctrines of the New Church.

By the year 1782 he and his friends had organised the Manchester New-Church Printing Society, for the publication of Swedenborg's and other New-Church works. That Society exists to-day.

In the meantime, about 1780 or 1781, Robert Hindmarsh, a young man then twenty or twenty-one years of age, a printer, and son of a Methodist minister, James Hindmarsh, began to read the Doctrines, and, becoming convinced that they were what they claimed, began to look for others of a like conviction. They advertised a public meeting, which was held at a tavern by five of them on the 5th of December, 1783. This was followed by other meetings. Their numbers grew. They organised a Society for promoting and printing the New-Church Doctrines.

In other places in the kingdom meetings began to be held for reading and studying Swedenborg's theological works.

In a few years, namely in 1787, a number of the London friends came to the deliberate conclusion that they ought to meet together for public worship in accordance with the doctrines they professed, the services in all the existing churches obtruding the false idea of three Divine Persons in the Deity and other equally obnoxious tenets of faith.

The Rev. John Clowes, hearing of their intention, came especially from Manchester to London, to dissuade them. But, though they listened to him with respect and attention, they remained convinced that their purpose was based upon true principles, as revealed in the Word. Indeed, Mr. Clowes's own converts in Lancashire soon followed in the wake of those in London.

Those of the London brethren who recognised the necessity for separate and distinctive New-Church worship, without dissociating themselves from the reading meetings hitherto held, began a new Society on May 7th, 1787. At this meeting, fifteen men, living in the provinces or upon the continent, who were honorary members of the former Society, were formally considered members of the new Society; and among these provincial members was Samuel Hands, of Derby, who was to play an important part in the beginnings of the New Church in Birmingham.

At the second meeting of the new Society, which was held on July 2nd, another man who was to figure in the Birmingham history appears as a member of the London Society, namely, Mr. Robert Brant.

Feeling their way most earnestly and carefully, considering every step in the light of the Word as laid open in the Writings of the New Church, the London Society finally began external worship at a meeting held on July 31st, 1787, by partaking of the Holy Supper, and by the baptism of five of their number after full profession of faith in the doctrines. Among the communicants on this occasion was Robert Brant. Among those baptised were Robert Hindmarsh and Samuel Hands. James Hindmarsh acted as priest.

Thus far they had not succeeded in renting a chapel, but before the year was out they found one that suited their purpose, in Great East Cheap; Mr. James Hindmarsh, father of Robert, becoming their minister. The chapel was opened on January 27th, 1788, with a very crowded audience, Mr. James Hindmarsh preaching in the morning, and Mr. Robert Brant in the afternoon. This, then, was the first chapel ever used for public New-Church worship—but it had not been erected by New-Church people. It was rented by them.

We shall not follow the movement in London further, except as it bears upon the beginnings of the New Church in Birmingham.

The minute book of the Great East Cheap Society records, under date of February 4th, 1788, that:

Mr. Brant, having signified his intention to remove from London to settle in Birmingham, requested the favour of the Society giving him a Letter of Recommendation, or a Certificate that he is a Member of the New Jerusalem Church meeting in Great Eastcheap, near the Monument, London. In compliance, therefore, with ye above request, and judging it may be attended with salutary effects in promoting a more strict Union and Communion with the other Members of the New Church, in various Parts of these Kingdoms, the Society ordered their Secretary, R. Hindmarsh, to draw up a Certificate to the above Purport—against the next monthly meeting.
In the May meeting following, the Society took the important step of adopting the designation, "The New Church, signified by the New Jerusalem in the Revelation." At the same meeting,
Mr. Brant's request entered into this Book ye eleventh day of February, was this day complied with, and the following Certificate sent to him, "This is to certify that Mr. Robert Brant, now of Birmingham, is a Member of the New Jerusalem Church, meeting in Great Eastcheap, near the Monument, London. Signed by Order of the New Church (this 5th day of May, 1788) Rob't Hindmarsh, Secretary."

The desire for a letter of recommendation implies that there were, at the time, readers of the Doctrines in Birmingham. In fact, three young men who had removed from Birmingham to London had soon after become acquainted there with some of the recipients and with the Writings of the New Church. "They were among the few who, at that day, had the courage to renounce antiquated errors, and at every risk to accept the truth." One of them, there is reason to believe, was Samuel Bucknall. They induced John Swaine, an intimate friend whom they had left in Birmingham, to join them. He went to London, embraced the Doctrines, and became a life-long earnest Newchurchman. He returned a few years later to Birmingham, and became a member of the Church there, dying in 1841. We cannot doubt that the Birmingham young men resident in London also wrote back to their respective families, acquainting them with their newly-found treasures and joy, for we read the names of Edward Bucknall, senior and junior, in the early records of the Birmingham New Church.

But to return to the year 1788. An event of the utmost importance in the history of the New Church took place in the Great Eastcheap chapel on June 1st. The New-Church ministry was then and there inaugurated.

At a full meeting of the members held . . . after the morning service, it was agreed to ordain James Hindmarsh and Samuel Smith, as Ministers and Priests in the New Church, in the manner following, viz. Twelve men to be chosen by Lot out of the Society, as Representatives of the New Church at large, and these to lay their right hands on the person ordained, agreeable to the form of Ordination.

Among those who drew lots and who were thus chosen, were our two Birmingham young friends, Samuel Bucknall and John Swaine. The twelve unanimously appointed Robert Hindmarsh to read the service. (Full and interesting particulars are given by Hindmarsh in his Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church, edited by the Rev. Edward Madeley, of Birmingham).

This solemn event completed the distinctive establishment of the New Church as an external organisation. Due respect for their fellow-believers and all other men impelled them to give their reasons for taking a step fraught with such momentous consequences, and so, on December 7th of that year, 1788, they issued "Reasons for separating from the Old Church. In answer to a Letter from the friends at Manchester . . . by the Members of the New Jerusalem Church, who assemble in Great East-Cheap, London." This document, which was subsequently printed, was signed by seventy-seven persons, among them being Robert Brant, Samuel Hands, Samuel Bucknall, and also Ralph Mather, of whom we shall learn directly.

The December meeting also issued a call for the first General Conference of all the readers of the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. The circular was signed by a committee of nine men, among them Thomas Wright, president; Robert Hindmarsh, treasurer and secretary; and James Hindmarsh. The Conference was duly held in the Great East Cheap Chapel from the 14th to the 17th of April of the following year, 1789. The business seems to have consisted solely in hearing the lengthy circular convening the Conference and adopting a series of thirty-two resolutions, setting forth the principles that distinguish the New Church. The signatories to the minutes of this Conference were five from London, one from Rotherham, one from Kensington, one from Salisbury, one from Derby (namely, Samuel Hands), one from Jamaica, one from America, and two from Sweden. Truly an international Conference, only seventeen years after Swedenborg's death!

First Public New-Church Worship in Birmingham top

The year of the first General Conference witnessed the first assembling, in Birmingham, of receivers of the Heavenly Doctrines "for the celebration of worship and for spiritual improvement, in a room in Great Charles Street. Mr. (afterward the Rev.) Robert Brant became the leader; but the period at which the meeting commenced is unknown." So writes the Rev. Edward Madeley in 1844. (See Appendix to his Rules for the Government of the Society of the Lord's New Church in Birmingham). From there they removed to a large room in Temple Row, at the top of Needless Alley.

The Rev. Joseph Proud top

I have mentioned the name of Ralph Mather. He had at one time been a Methodist, then became a Quaker, but later found the New Church to offer him the true religion, and remained a Newchurchman to the end of his life. He soon became associated with another convert to the New Church, Joseph Whittingham Salmon, who had been one of Wesley's preachers; and the two went forth like the apostles of old, preaching the new gospel in Moorfields, London, then in Salisbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich, and many other towns and villages in the kingdom, meeting with marked success.

In the city of Norwich, where they preached in 1789, a Baptist chapel was repeatedly placed at their disposal by the owner, Mr. Hunt, who had built it more especially for an extremely popular Baptist minister, named Joseph Proud; Mr. Proud and Mr. Hunt being, in fact, co-preachers.

Mr. Hunt was disposed favourably to the truths they preached, but was, at first, vehemently opposed by Mr. Proud, who denounced the two New-Church evangelists, in public and in private, as the dupes of an artful and visionary enthusiast. But he was eventually induced to read some of Swedenborg's works himself, and to promise to peruse them candidly and seriously.

Accounts of Mr. Proud's conversion are to be found in a lengthy obituary published in the Intellectual Repository for 1826, page 347-351, and in the sermon by the Rev. Edward Madeley on the occasion of Mr. Proud's decease. See also Madeley's Memoir of Proud, prefixed to the second edition (1854) of Proud's, The Aged Minister's Last Legacy to the New-Church. Mr. Proud's own account, written by him thirty years later in his Memoirs, the unpublished manuscript of which is in the Conference Library, is as follows:

I continued a minister in [the Baptist] connection about four and twenty years. . . . The last five years I resided in the City of Norwich where I had a large Congregation, not less than from six to eight hundred hearers. About two years after I had been in Norwich a Physician of the City recommended to me the Writings of E. Swedenborg, and sent me one of the volumes, as near as I can recollect it was that on Heaven and Hell. I perused it, but was in no state of reception. I returned it, under the idea of its being mere enthusiasm, the wild reveries of a fertile imagination.

But about a year after, Divine Providence directed J. W. Salmon, Esqr., to take a journey from London to Norwich, not knowing any person there or what might be the result of his journey. However he came to my residence, as I believe he had heard of my name in London. We received him as a religious friend; and after a few minutes had expired, he introduced the Doctrines of E. S.—particularly the doctrine of the LORD as the only God in his Divine Humanity.—I could very well agree to the LORD being the only God, but when he mentioned a Divine Humanity, I warmly opposed him and replied, "What is Divine cannot be human, nor what is human, be Divine."

However, although I at first warmly opposed, Mr. Salmon was meek and humble, and our conversation proceeded in Christian temper and friendship.

He staid with us three weeks, preached for me several times. His preaching was generally approved, and the people were much pleased with his mild, humble manner and spiritual conversation. Everyone who had an opportunity of being in his company admired and loved the man. What he said made a considerable impression upon my mind, and before he left us, I told him, if he would send me a volume of E. Swedenborg's works, I would certainly read it with seriousness and attention.

So soon as he returned to London, he sent me the Universal Theology. On the morning after receiving it, I rose early, went to my study in the garden and before I attempted to open the book, I reasoned with myself as follows: "Here is a work presented to me as a peculiar message and Mercy from Heaven. I am a public character. It therefore appears necessary that I should seriously examine it. If it appears to be what it announced, it will be my duty and interest to receive it, and also to make it known; if it be not such a message, but the very contrary, it will be my duty to guard others against receiving it, that they may escape the snare laid to deceive their souls, and lead them into dangerous error."

After reasoning thus with myself, I took the Bible, laid it before me on the chair, kneeled down and fervently prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ, that He would be pleased to direct and influence my mind, on the present important occasion, and in some way consistent with His infinite Wisdom and Goodness, shew me how to proceed—whether what was presented to me, was from Heaven, or not, and so enlighten my understanding that I might receive it, if it were Truth, or reject it, if it were false. I did not ask for any extraordinary communication, but that I might be directed by His own Divine Word.

Having thus prayed to the Lord, still on my knees, I opened the sacred volume of Divine Revelation without the least idea where it would open, and I immediately cast my eyes upon these blessed words, viz., "Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously; for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you; therefore the Law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth; for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth" (Habakkuk i. 5 and 4 verses, for so I was directed to read them).

These words were to me an Answer from Heaven. I was convinced that I was one of "those who would not believe though it were told me," and that now it was my indispensable duty to read and judge for myself looking up to the LORD alone to be illuminated and directed aright. . . .

Convinced of their Truth and importance, as I proceeded, I immediately began to preach them to the people. The Doctrine of the LORD as the only God in a Divine Human Form, in whom dwelt the holy Trinity, was cordially received by many of the members; and they seemed prepared and preparing to receive the rest. Some of the members (as may be supposed) were not so receptive; but no violent opposition took place.

However, in a little time after this I had occasion to visit London, and while there I was introduced to several persons of the New Church who were well pleased that I had, so far, received the Writings of E. S. The friends met one evening a week at a gentleman's house, to spend two or three hours in conversation upon the heavenly doctrines and truths of the New Church. To this meeting I was invited. . . .

Full of wonder and admiration I returned to Norwich ; read the Universal Theology, and some other of the Writings I brought home with me; and thus continued to furnish my mind with the doctrines and truths they contain.

The First New-Church Hymnal top

In a few months after this visit to London, the friends there, understanding that I had a turn for poetry, particularly requested that I would take upon me to compose a volume of hymns for the use of the New Church. I complied with their request, and in about three months, as near as I can recollect, I presented them a volume of better than three hundred hymns.

This astonishing production of the first New-Church hymnal is referred to in the minutes of the second General Conference of the New Church held in the Great East Cheap Chapel, London, in April, 1790, which Mr. Proud attended, and which he opened with prayer. Mr. Samuel Hands, now reported as "of Birmingham," was chosen president, and Mr. Francis Leicester, a minister of the Church of England, who had embraced the Doctrines, was chosen secretary. One of the minutes reads:

Mr. Proud, from Norwich, informed the Conference that, agreeable to the Request of many of his brethren, he had composed a Number of Hymns for the particular Use of the New Church; and that he hoped, in a short time, to have then ready for the Press.

This Intelligence gave much satisfaction. . . .

The hymn book was published the same year in an edition of five hundred copies, which was soon sold out. In all at least six editions have been published. While not of great literary merit, they are earnest and devotional, and ring true. Many of them are still in use both in Great Britain and in America.

Among other business transacted, the Conference of 1790 also revised "the service of the New Church as used in London, Birmingham, and other places, in order to make such alterations and Amendments as might appear necessary."

Preparations for the Birmingham Temple top

This Conference, as stated, was held in April. Mr. Hands's removal to Birmingham had greatly strengthened the New-Church believers there; and it was probably due to his influence that the larger room in Temple Row was rented. And now, at this London Conference, we imagine him telling the friends there assembled, of the progress which was being made, and that in the previous month he had leased a plot of land on New Hall Street, near Lionel Street, on which he proposed to erect a New-Church house of worship. A subsequent deed now in the Birmingham City Library acquaints us with the fact that he was then engaged in Birmingham in the business of "Button and Bucklemaker Dealer and Chapman," and that the lot which was on New Hall Street near Lionel Street had a frontage on the south west line of twenty-one yards and nine inches, a rear width of eighteen yards and three inches, a depth in the southeast of forty-three yards and a half, and in the northwest of forty-two yards, two feet and nine inches, and that the lease was for one-hundred and two years, the ground rent being £14 6s. 8d. annually.

The meeting of Proud and Hands at the London Conference was to have important results. We return to Mr. Proud's Memoirs:

Some little time after I had composed the hymns, certain circumstances occurred which gave me reason to conclude I should not be much longer in Norwich. The Chapel was given to the General Baptist Denomination, and to that only; although, by the deed, the chapel, house, land, etc., were all my own for life. But being now a New Church man with other doctrines and sentiments, I conceived that though I could hold the premises, yet not so justly and consistent with the deed of gift, as before. Nevertheless at this juncture I had no prospect of any other situation.

However, in a very few weeks I received a pressing invitation to Birmingham, by a person who was building a new temple for the use of the New Church, and he wished me to come over and spend a week or two, that I might see what was doing, and that terms might, be agreed to for me to be the minister. From this period I date my full separation from the Old Church, and my entrance into the New.

In a few days I engaged a single horse chaise and set off for Birmingham [a distance of about 130 miles as the crow flies.—S.].

We staid about a fortnight, and everything was amicably settled for my being the minister of the temple then erecting. Mr. Samuel Hands was the gentleman we visited and with whom, in conjunction with Mr. Thomas Wright of London, the agreement was made, Mr. Wright being then in Birmingham with Mr. Hands. [This was in June, 1790. See Madeley.—S.].

We returned to Norwich, and as the Temple would be a considerable time before it was finished, and I had several things to settle in Norwich with a freehold house to dispose of, which I had lately purchased, etc., we did not return to Birmingham until the beginning of 1791.

We remained with our servant and two children at the house of Mr. Hands until a very handsome house, joining the Temple, and built for me to reside in, was finished.

This residence of Mr. Proud's seems to have been on the upper side of the temple, or toward Great Charles Street.

And here a word about the use of the term "temple," which seems strange when applied to a structure which was very much like a dissenting chapel of the period. "Templum " is the Latin word which Swedenborg used for such a building as we, in modern times, call a "church." Our translators use the English form of the same word, and it would seem, in this way, to have become the distinctive term among Newchurchmen of that early period for a house of worship dedicated to the Lord Jesus Christ and for the promulgation of the Doctrines of the New Jerusalem. We may see in this one of many illustrations of the great anxiety of those pioneers of the New Church to be utterly loyal to the Doctrines.

That they carefully weighed every purpose, and seriously considered the rightness and orderly procedure of every step, is seen in the minutes of the next or third General Conference held in the Great East Cheap chapel in April of the year 1791, attended, among others, by Proud, Hands, and Thomas Wright (as treasurer), and Joseph Gumersall, one of the Birmingham friends.

As we can now see, from investigating the movement in Birmingham, much of the business transacted had a direct bearing on the growing Church in this town. For instance, it was a Birmingham representative, Mr. Gumersall, who asked the Conference that some general rules might be drawn up, for the government of the New Church at large, to be recommended to the various societies at home and abroad. It was agreed that such rules should be reported to the next annual Conference by the Committee.

Mr. Hands, another Birmingham representative, and the one who had begun erecting the temple in Birmingham during the year 1790,

submitted to the Conference the following Question, for their Opinion: Whether Temples in the New Church ought or ought not to be consecrated, prior to the actual Celebration of Divine Worship therein. This was seconded by Mr. Leicester [who, as we shall see, was chosen to dedicate the Birmingham temple.—S.].

After considering the Question with some Attention, in which all present appeared to be fully agreed, the following Passage from Emanuel Swedenborg's True Christian Religion, n. 126, was read in Confirmation of their sentiments: "A Temple (says he) must first be built, and that with the Hands of Men, and afterwards consecrated, and lastly sanctified by Prayer, that God would make it the Abode of His Presence, and unite Himself with His People assembled therein."

The Committee were then instructed to prepare a Form of Consecration, and lay the same before the Conference.

Mr. Hands likewise proposed the following Question, Whether the Ministers of the New Church should not wear, while officiating in Divine Service, Garments corresponding with their Office, without any Respect to what has been used in the Old Churches? Seconded by Mr. Wright.

In deliberating upon the above Question, many rational and scriptural Arguments were advanced in Favour of the Propriety of Ministers wearing correspondent Garments, which were confirmed by the Testimony of Emanuel Swedenborg, who in numerous Parts of his Writings declares and proves, that it is by Correspondences that the spiritual and natural Worlds are united; and consequently that by genuine Correspondences, particularly those in the holy Word, Angels are conjoined to Men; and that the Approximation of the spiritual and celestial World to Men on Earth, is even according to the Things within them and without them which correspond to the State of Angels as to Good and Truth. On this subject the following Passage from E. Swedenborg's True Christian Religion, n. 846 had its full weight . . .

It was then unanimously Resolved, That it is the Opinion of this Conference, that the Ministers of the New Church, after Ordination, ought to wear, while in the Discharge of their Office, an inner Purple Silken Vest, and also an outer Garment of fine White Linen, having a golden Girdle around the Breast (see Rev. i. 13; and Dan. x. 5).—Minutes of Conference, 1791.

That Mr. Proud wore such vestments is evident from the picture of him which was published in London, in 1799 [see above].

The Conference of 1791, "finding that Mr. Proud's hymns have been universally approved of by the different Societies and individual Members of the New Church in Great Britain, recommended to Mr. Proud to bring out a second edition of them as speedily as possible."

We are not yet done with the preparations at the 1791 Conference for the consecration, a few months later, of the Birmingham Church.

Mr. Hands moved, that the Conference do recommend to the Society in Great East Cheap to form themselves into a regular Body, in Imitation of the present Conference, and appoint proper officers to have the Management of all temporal Concerns relating to their particular Society. This Motion he brought forward with a View to the general Organisation of the New Church at large; conceiving that, as the Country Societies regarded that in London as the Center, they would naturally follow the Example of the Society in Great East Cheap; and thus the New Church would gradually become an organised Body.

The Motion was seconded by Mr. Hunt, and unanimously approved of.

The Members of the East Cheap Society, who were present, accordingly withdrew for that Purpose. On their Return, they communicated to the Conference the Result of their Proceedings; and it was judged proper that the same be inserted and published in the Transactions of the present Conference, for the Use and Benefit of all the Societies of the New Jerusalem both in Great Britain and in Foreign Countries.

The London Society stated, that they had formed a Register of all their Members, by signing their respective Names to the following Preamble; viz.,

"We, the Undersigned, wishing Peace to all Men, and all spiritual and temporal Blessings to our lawful King, George the Third, his Royal Family, and all concerned in the Government of his Dominions, where, by the Mercy of the Lord, we are favoured with the Protection of the Laws, justly administered, to secure to us the Enjoyment of all our religious and civil Liberties, hereby acknowledge ourselves Members of the New Church in Great East Cheap, London" (Then follow the Names of the Members of that Society).

The very earliest record of any proceedings in connection with the New Church in Birmingham is just such a statement, being the first entry in the "Church Book," dated September 18th, 1791=35, and signed by twenty-seven persons. See the facsimile of the pages, and note the signatures of Hands, Proud, Brant, Bucknall and Gumersall.

First three pages of the old "Church Book" of the Birmingham Society [original plate II]. Click on image for a larger version.

If the question be asked what the second number after the year 1791, namely 35, means, the Conference minutes answer that question: the first date, 1791, has respect to the first Advent of our Lord, and the second date to His Second Advent, commencing from the year 1757, "at which time the Last judgment was accomplished, and the New Jerusalem began to descend from Heaven."

The same Conference (April, 1791), on Mr. Hands's motion, considered the matter of the ordination of New-Church ministers, and recognised the same, and made new provisions. Later in the proceedings, again on Mr. Hands's motion, the consent of the Conference was given to the ordination of Mr. Proud and Mr. Brant, "both of Birmingham." They were accordingly ordained into the ministry of the New Church, by the Rev. James Hindmarsh, on May 3rd, 1791, in London.

The Birmingham Temple top

And now we return from London, in that memorable year, to make the final preparations for the consecration of the Birmingham Temple. Unfortunately no picture or detailed description of it has been handed down from that early time. Can we, a century and a quarter later, when Birmingham has become so greatly altered in every way, draw a faithful picture of that first building erected in honour of the Lord Jesus Christ at His Second Coming?

The locality where it stood, on the slope, though near the crest of one of Birmingham's many hills, was practically new land, the New Hall estate having been thrown open for building purposes not many years previously, and the New Hall itself, which spanned the new street named after it, having been but half a block distant above the site of the New Jerusalem Temple. At that time the town counted nearly seventy-four thousand souls. A plan published in W. Hutton's history a year later shows that the site of our Summer-Lane church, built in 1829–30, was far beyond the city's precincts in 1791.

The edifice on Newhall Street near Lionel Street is still standing, but so changed that the friends of 1791, were it possible for them to visit the scene, would not be able to recognise it. It will have to be pulled down soon, as the walls are bulging, and temporary wooden buttresses hold it up in the rear. The buildings on that side of it where Mr. Proud's residence presumably stood, have been razed to the ground, permitting a photograph to be taken of the rear of the old building [see below]. The temple began where the wall projects above the main roof. The rear building was not so high originally. A close examination shows that in the wall where the rear building joins the temple, the lower bricks are bonded, not the upper ones, an indication that the rear building was originally of one storey only. In fact, we learn from Proud's Memoirs, that it comprised the vestry and a room for the minister. Above the roof of the rear building may be seen the crown of a Gothic window corresponding with the three upper windows in the side of the temple. It is the crown of one of three windows originally in the rear wall of the temple, but long since filled in with masonry. The glass showing in the six windows of the side wall dates from a later period. One of the original sashes is still in place in the original front wall, and shows that the sash bars in all the windows followed the curves of the window, as may also be seen in the token-coin, and in the upper window of the side wall in the rear building in the recent photograph. The rear wall of the temple was curved.

Newhall Street Temple

The first Newhall Street "Temple"—East view [original plate III]. (Photographed in 1916.) Click on image for a larger version.

A view of the interior was taken in 1905 from the gallery [see below]. The wall paper was not there originally, nor is it there now. Recent inspection of the interior has revealed cracks in the rear wall, faintly outlining the three upper windows that must at one time have existed there to admit light from above the vestry and minister's room. The photograph of 1905 gives, in other respects also, a very imperfect idea of what presented itself to the view of our early New-Church fathers. The pulpit furniture was different. The floor was covered with handsome pews, not chairs. What they looked like can be seen in the gallery, which is furnished with what appear to be the identical pews placed there in 1791.

View of interior

Interior [original plate IV]. (Photographed in 1905.) Click on image for a larger version.

Although no picture seems to have been taken of the temple at the time, yet, thanks to the interruption in the copper coinage of the realm at that period, we are given a clue as to what the building looked like. For, the scarcity of copper coins led tradesmen to issue half-penny tokens, which readily passed current. As people began to make collections of them, some of the enterprising medalists designed special series for collectors, incidentally advertising their own business. Peter Kempson, of Birmingham, issued several such series.1 One set published by him in 1796 consists of twenty-seven tokens, showing on the obverse the most prominent public buildings of the city. Among them is the "New Jerusalem Temple. Erected 1790." The reverse shown [below] is not that of this particular token, but is taken from one of two in the set which announce the fact that the set consists of twenty-seven. There seem to have been several issues of this particular token. One, which the writer has seen, had Kempson's name on the reverse. Another has the name of "I. Ottley, Medallist" below the coat of arms; and, above this, the words, "Birmingham Arms." The photographs of the tokens were made possible by Captain Brian Rabone's placing at our disposal his set (inherited from his grandfather John Rabone), that we might display it at the commemoration. (This gallant much-loved officer gave his life for his country's cause a few days after the commemoration, namely, on the first of July).

Kempson token

"New Jerusalem Temple, Erected 1790." (From Kempson's 27 Tokens, published in 1796.) [original plate V] Click on image for a larger version.

New Jerusalem TempleBack of Kempson token
Kempson token acquired by Glencairn Museum in 2007. Obverse: "New Jerusalem Temple Erected 1790." Reverse: "P. Kempson Maker of Buttons Medals & c Birmingham." Click on images for a larger version.

With the token as a guide, and after visiting the premises and sketching the old original window sash, Mr. Alfred Osborne, a member of the Birmingham Society, made a water-colour sketch [see below], to bring the old building before our eyes, approximately as it looked when fresh from the builder's hands. He has added, by anticipation, a couple of tomb-stones in the rear churchyard. The historian must record that no bodies of New-Church people were ever interred there, although some of the Baptists' were exhumed a few years ago. It was after the completion of this drawing that the back building was discovered to have been originally only one storey high.

Watercolor by Alfred Osborne

Water-color by Alfred Osborne, 1916 [original plate V]. Click on image for a larger version.

The reader will notice that there were two doors and a central window in the first storey, and three windows in the second.

The token presents such a different facade from that which we now see in the "Assembly Rooms" on Newhall Street, that it is difficult to believe that tradition is right in assigning the original New Jerusalem Temple to this place, until investigation shows that the original temple stood back from the street about thirty feet: that subsequent owners added a two or three storey front, and altered the doors into windows and the window into a door in this original facade, which has now become an inner wall. These alterations were made in 1846, during the ministry of the Baptist minister, the Rev. Arthur O'Neill, whose portrait is seen hanging over the chancel in the photograph of 1905. See Birmingham Faces and Places, Vol. II., where on page 152 is shown the building as altered by him, and as it still appears.

During the delivery of the present "Early History of the New Church in Birmingham," at the commemoration held on Monday, June 19th, 1916, Mr. Charles B. Bragg surprised the lecturer by having thrown on the screen a picture of the "Newhall Street Meeting house," taken from a book published in 1830, and entitled, An Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Birmingham, with . . . Forty-Four Views of the Principal Buildings [see below]. The building stands back, with residences on either side of the open space in front. The facade is different from that on the token, and leaves us in doubt as to which is accurate. Certain it is that at least in one detail, namely the window sashes, the token of 1796 is correct and the view from the "Sketch of Birmingham" of 1830 is not.

Sketch from 1830

From "Sketch of Birmingham," 1830 [original plate V]. Click on image for a larger version.

Mr. John P. Osborne, F.R.I.B.A., another member of the Birmingham Society, made careful measurements of the building, and found that the extra frontage of the lot was to the right (where the minister's residence presumably stood). He embodied the results of his painstaking investigations in an architectural drawing of the first floor, second floor, and longitudinal section, the original building being delineated in black, and subsequent additions in cross hatching [see below]. The front faces the south-west; the rear or chancel end, the north-east.

Architectural drawing

Architectural drawing, by John P. Osborne, F.R.I.B.A. [original plate IV]. Click on image for a larger version.

The temple was practically square. Those early New Churchmen were so enamoured of the charming new science of correspondences revealed in Swedenborg's Writings, that they loved to apply them. That the length and breadth of the New Jerusalem were equal indicated that squareness of character which is inculcated by the Doctrines signified by the New Jerusalem, in which good (length) and truth (breadth) are well balanced. Hence this must needs be symbolised in this the first structure planned by New-Church people! Also, the New Church is full of the Divine light of Divine truth proceeding from the Lord God the Saviour Jesus Christ, the Sun of heaven. Hence the many windows all around. Two tiers instead of one, would symbolise the two-fold character of a true Christian, who is spiritual and also natural, the Divine truth enlightening both degrees of his soul. The twelve windows in the upper tier, three on each of the four sides, would remind them of the three gates on each of the four quarters in the holy city that was seen by John to descend from God out of heaven.2

Mr. John Bragg [II], referring to the curved pews on the floor and in the gallery, stated in 1873 (see Birmingham Church Manual), that "this arrangement was adopted in deference to the descriptions given by Swedenborg of worship in the heavenly Societies," and that the wood of which the pews were made was also selected "because of the correspondence of the wood." "The place will probably hold about three hundred and fifty persons, everyone of whom would conveniently face the minister. In this consisted its chief peculiarity."

A guide to Birmingham, published a few years later, describes it as "an elegant building. . . . Its equal for magnificence was never seen in Birmingham." (A Brief History of Birmingham, &c., 3rd edition, 1805). This sounds extravagant, when within half a mile St. Phillip's reared its stately pile. It must refer to the effect produced by the interior.

Mr. Proud's Memoirs make the present drawing full of the life of that momentous day. He writes:

The temple, when finished, was truly elegant and beautiful. Three mahogany pulpits. Doors at the back of them to enter in from the vestry behind. An altar with mahogany railings. A superb font, solid mahogany, with large, grandly cut glass bowl, said to cost £50. Circular seats below, all capped with cedar; a gallery in front. [From minutes in the Church Book where the prices of sittings were determined, we can here supplement Mr. Proud's description. There were twelve rows of these circular pews on the floor; and three rows and "remaining pews" in the gallery are referred to]. A clock, and an organ in the centre of the gallery. A good vestry, and a study, at the back of the Temple. A book case furnished with books for the minister. In fact, no expense was spared to render the whole worthy the eternal doctrines and truths to be published therein.

Of all those ancient furnishings, the Birmingham Society possesses at the present time only the "superb font, solid mahogany," which stands in the library room of the Wretham Road Church. But the cut glass bowl has long since disappeared [see below].

Mahogany baptismal font

Mahogany baptismal font of 1791 [original plate VI]. (Originally furnished with a cut-glass bowl.) Click on image for a larger version.

The hymn books had been bound in purple with gold stars, and their appearance on the polished cedar book boards of the pews is said to have been very beautiful and effective. One of the original volumes has come down to our time, and was presented by Mr. Harry J. Rabone to the Birmingham Society on the occasion of the one-hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the dedication of the temple [see below].

Hym book

Hym book. (2nd Edition of Proud's "Hyms and Spiritual Songs," 1791.) As bound for the Consecration of the Temple [original plate VI]. Click on image for a larger version.

Mr. John Bragg [II] who took pains to gather together traditions current in his family, in the account printed in the Birmingham Church Manual for June, 1873, after referring to the " hymn-books bound in purple," goes on to say that "the pulpit Bible was similarly bound and covered with gold stars. The pulpit was very richly upholstered in purple velvet and gold lace, and Mr. Proud [and Mr. James Hindmarsh] wore purple and white vestments," as prescribed by the preceding Conference.

Consecration of the Temple top

As may readily be imagined, the event of the consecration of the temple was looked forward to with the warmest interest by the infant New Church throughout the kingdom.

The New-Church periodical of the day, The New Magazine of Knowledge, of London, which seems to have been issued on the first of every month following that for which it bore date, contained this notice in its issue "for May":

We are desired to inform our Readers, that
On Sunday the 19th of June, 1791,
at BIRMINGHAM will be Opened,
For the Worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, the One Only
God of Heaven and Earth,
By the Rev. Francis Leicester, A.B. late of St. Peter's
College, Cambridge.

Newchurchmen came from London and Manchester, and probably from other localities. The deputation from the London Society included Messrs. James and Robert Hindmarsh, and that from Manchester, Mr. Jacob Bradbury. (See Intellectual Repository for 1835, p. 450).

Great interest was also aroused among the general public in Birmingham, the following advertisement having been inserted in Aris's Birmingham Gazette (weekly 3½ d.) on Monday, June 13th:

The Inhabitants of Birmingham, and its Environs, are respectfully informed, that the NEW JERUSALEM TEMPLE in Newhall-street, will be opened for public worship, on Sunday, the 19th instant, by the Rev. Francis Leicester, A.B., late of St. Peter's College, Cambridge (and other ministers). The Morning Service begins at half past Ten o'Clock. Afternoon at half past Two, and the Evening at half-past Six.
Birmingham, June 6, 1791.

Mr. Leicester was taken ill a few days before the time, and could not safely undertake the journey from London to Birmingham.

The historic event was reported in the The New Magazine of Knowledge "for June":


On Sunday the 19th of June, 1791, at half past ten in the morning, the New Jerusalem Temple at Birmingham was opened by the Rev. Joseph Proud, who, after performing the ceremony of Consecration, delivered to a very crowded and attentive audience a discourse from 2 Sam. vii. 29: "Therefore now let it please thee to bless the house of thy servant, that it may continue for ever before thee: for thou, O Lord God, hast spoken, and with thy blessing let the house of thy servant be blessed for ever." As the discourse will shortly be published, it is unnecessary to point out particularly it's merits: suffice it to observe, that it was a masterly composition, highly suitable to the occasion, delivered with the utmost propriety, and most satisfactorily received by the audience.

It is somewhat remarkable, that the opening of the above Temple should take place on the 19th day of June, 1791, which is exactly 21 years (3 times 7) since the Lord sent his twelve disciples throughout the whole spiritual world to preach the new and everlasting gospel, That the Lord God Jesus Christ reigneth, whose kingdom shall endure for ever and ever. See True Christian Religion, or the Universal Theology of the New Church, n. 791. This circumstance is the more remarkable, as the 19th June falls on a Sunday, and the Temple at Birmingham is the first of the kind built in the natural world, purposely for the propagation of the heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem. And what is likewise worthy of notice is, that the proprietors of the Temple, when they appointed the day of opening it, were not in the least aware of the above circumstance, neither did the reflection occur to the mind of any person till after the day of opening it was publicly announced.

This report is incomplete. Mr. Proud delivered an evening discourse also, and Mr. James Hindmarsh one in the afternoon. All the services were attended by overflowing audiences.

Mr. Proud says, "many of the most respectable inhabitants of Birmingham attended, and great numbers could not find admittance." Prominent among those "most respectable inhabitants" was the celebrated scientist and Unitarian minister, Dr. Joseph Priestley.

Besides those already interested in the new doctrines were doubtless others who knew a little and wished to know more. Of such we have record of at least one, Mr. James Meredith, who soon became a leading member. An account of his conversion to the New Church may be found in the Intellectual Repository for 1848, page 238.

Of others, who had been totally ignorant of the New Church, we learn that there "were six persons, all related, but who went in three different parties, each without the other knowing. They were Mr. and Mrs. [Thomas] Perry, two of their grown-up daughters [the Misses Martha and Elizabeth Perry; see Intel. Rep. 1839, p. 677, and 1833, p. 342], and Mrs. [Mary] Bragg, another daughter [Intel. Rep. 1840, p. 569], with her husband, Mr. John Bragg."

Whatever the subsequent fortunes of this first edifice, it undoubtedly was the means of largely advertising the New-Church doctrines, of having important results in occasioning the first public—and amicable—controversy concerning them in England, and of converting some who had quietly been prepared for reception by the Lord and His angels.

So we read of the effect produced upon the Perry-Bragg family who had gone to the morning service in three different parties each unknowingly to the others:

They met at dinner after the morning service, as was their usual custom on the Sabbath day, and were all eager to express their delight at what they had heard. Divine Providence had prepared them by good parental training, religious lives, and also by serious doubts on matters of creed, for the new ideas. Increasing knowledge brought with it increasing love for the Doctrines, and in due time the whole family consisting of nine persons and three generations were baptised into the faith of the New Church by the Rev. Joseph Proud. Two of the three children were the late Mr. John Kingwell Bragg, of Bristol, and Mr. Thomas Perry Bragg, my father.

So wrote Mr. John Bragg [II] in the Boston New Jerusalem Magazine for 1892, page 543. At this later date we may add that descendants of the first New-Church John Bragg and his wife, as represented in the Bragg, Bragge, Baker, D'Este, Glydon, Hadfield, Haseler, Lowe, Parkes, Rabone, Schürhoff, Wainwright, and Wilkinson families still worship in the Birmingham New Church, while others are members of the New Church elsewhere in Great Britain, Australia, and the United States of America.

The baptisms to which Mr. John Bragg referred may be seen recorded on the second page of the "Church Book" [see above].

Nor can we doubt that others were likewise deeply impressed. The Church Book records the baptism of at least thirty-two within a year from the dedication.

While we are again examining these early pages of the "Church Book," we may note that Mr. Brant, whose signature is the third appended to the September declaration, removed to Bristol soon after, and entered upon his duties as the first resident minister of the Society there, on December 1st (1791). Mr. Proud had visited Bristol in the preceding May, and had preached there. A thirty-three page sermon by him, entitled "General Proofs that the Second Advent of the Lord hath Taken Place," was published in that city presumably on the occasion of his visit.

But, to return to the great New-Church Day in Birmingham. The two discourses delivered by Mr. Proud were published almost immediately, under the title: "Two Discourses, Delivered at the Opening and Consecration of the New Jerusalem Temple, in Birmingham, on Sunday, June 19, 1791—35. And now published at the unanimous Request of the Society. By J. Proud. 'And I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth, for the first Heaven and the first Earth were passed away: And He that sat upon the Throne said, Behold, I make all Things new.' Rev. xxi. 1-5. Birmingham, Printed and Sold by J. Belcher: sold also by R. Hindmarsh, No. 32, Clerkenwell Close, London, 1791. Price One Shilling." Pp. iv +47. The author's preface is dated July 4, 1791–35.

Priestley and His "Letters" top

Mr. Robert Hindmarsh has given his impressions of the day, in his Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church, in the following words:

I was myself present on the occasion, and can bear witness to the extraordinary sensation that was produced by this first public annunciation of the new doctrines in that town. Professors of all denominations were assembled, excited either by curiosity to hear something new and strange, or by the more praiseworthy desire of being made acquainted with the great truths of the new dispensation. Among the rest, the celebrated Dr. Priestley was an attentive hearer, who afterwards expressed his surprise, and indeed satisfaction, at the proceedings of the day. He was invited to tea by Mr. Samuel Hands, an active and zealous member of the Church, at whose house a number of friends were assembled to give the Doctor a meeting.

Mr. Hands's house, it will be remembered, adjoined the church on the Lionel Street, or left-hand, side.

He came the next day in the afternoon, when a most interesting conversation took place on the doctrines of the New Church. He acknowledged that he was altogether ignorant of the existence of such a body of Christians as he found us to be; and was particularly pleased with the arguments he had heard advanced in favour of the Divine Unity in opposition to the idea generally entertained of the Divine Trinity. But he was much puzzled, and perfectly astonished, to find that we maintained the Sole and Exclusive Divinity of Jesus Christ; imagining, at first, that it was impossible for any set of Christians, who believe in the absolute Unity of the Divine Being, and rejected the unscriptural notion of Tripersonality, as we did, still to ascribe to the Saviour of the world the undivided Majesty of the whole Godhead. This, he said, was a doctrine altogether new to him, and in his judgment incompatible with the many declarations to be found in the Apostolical Writings, and the general tenour of Divine Revelation. Seeing, however, that we appeared to be reasonable men, and that we cited the authority of Scripture in support of our views, he admitted that we were entitled to a candid hearing, and expressed his intention of examining the Writings of Swedenborg, from which we professed to have derived our information on the subject.

After much agreeable discourse on this and other topics relating to the peculiar doctrines of the New Church, against some of which he could scarcely raise an objection, the conversation turned to subjects of a lighter character (R. & P. 128, 129).

Those were two intellectual giants [see below]. Our confidence in the champion of our faith, though he was the younger of the two men, thirty-one years of age, is supported by contemporanous evidence. Mr. Jacob Bradbury, of Manchester, who was at that memorable tea in Hands's house, used to speak of it to his friends, and to relate that:

Dr. Priestley and Mr. Hindmarsh were the principal speakers. The conversation continued many hours, and the zeal and ability with which the latter removed the objections, and refuted the arguments of the former, surprised everybody present, and not a little disconcerted the Doctor. This was the memorable occasion which afterwards induced Dr. Priestley to address certain "Letters to the Members of the New Jerusalem Church." Mr. Bradbury always dwelt upon these circumstances as the most interesting he had ever experienced during the course of his life (Intel. Rep. 1835, p. 450).

Rev. Robert Hindmarsh and Dr. Joseph Priestley

Rev. Robert Hindmarsh, age 60 (left) (From painting by J. Allen, published in 1824). Dr. Joseph Priestley, Age 61 (?) (right) (From painting by Artaud, published in 1795) [original plate VII]. Click on image for a larger version.

It is not long since Mr. E. C. Stewart published some extracts from Proud's Memoirs in The New-Church Magazine (1915, p. 23, ff.), giving his interesting narrative of Priestley's intercourse with him; of his trying to dissuade Priestley from publishing the "Letters;" of Priestley's making an appointment with him to take tea at Mr. Hands's house to read parts of the Letters to him, and of how the riots prevented the fulfilment of that engagement.

Priestley himself gives the following account of the genesis of his "Letters to the Members of the New Jerusalem Church."

Many of my readers, to whom Baron Swedenborg and his religion are but little known, will perhaps wonder what it was that drew my attention to them. It was the forming of a Church, and the building of a very elegant place of worship, for persons of this persuasion at Birmingham, and my acquaintance with the ministers and leading members of the Church. To a Christian every thing relating to Christianity will be more or less interesting; and so striking a variety in the modes of christian faith and practice as this, together with the evident good sense, and good conduct, of all that I was acquainted with of this persuasion, drew my attention in a particular manner.

They were so obliging as to supply me with as many of the writings of Mr. Swedenborg as I wished to see. I read them with care, and the consequence was these Letters, addressed to the members of the New Jerusalem Church, as they call themselves. Living in friendship with them, I had made an appointment to read the Letters in manuscript to the minister, and the heads of the society, on Friday the 15th of July. But the night before this, the zealots of the Church of England, when I had no suspicion of any outrage of the kind, demolished my house, library, apparatus and every thing that they could lay hold of belonging to me, and would, I now believe, have destroyed myself if they had got me in their power.

The fair copy of these Letters, which was to have been delivered to the printer on the Monday following, was destroyed, together with my other manuscripts. But I happened to have taken a copy of them in their first and more imperfect state, by Messrs. Boulton and Watt's machine,3 and that copy was in the hands of a friend.

Dr. Priestley goes on to say that, being in London soon after, and having nothing else to do, he re-wrote the book, Mr. Hindmarsh obligingly supplying him with whatever books he needed for the purpose. And Priestley gives the full list of the New-Church books then published.

Attempts to Destroy the Temple top

It is known that Priestley's polemical writings and his sympathy with the French Revolution, especially as culminating in a public dinner in commemoration of July 14th, which he was believed to have attended, inflamed some misguided partisans of "Church and King," resulting in serious disorders by mobs who destroyed both the Unitarian meeting houses ("Old" and "New,") as also a number of private residences, those of Dr. Priestley and William Hutton being among them. A mob also threatened the New Jerusalem Temple, which had been dedicated hardly a month previously, but they were dissuaded from their sinister purpose by the courage and presence of mind of Mr. Proud, who, as we know, lived next door. Tradition, as embalmed in accounts contributed at a later date to some of our New-Church periodicals, and also to Langford's and Dent's histories of Birmingham, is to the effect that Mr. Proud threw the previous Sunday's collection among the crowd, who then went off, shouting "The New Jerusalem forever!" But our "Church Book" shows that no collections were taken in the first year or two, and Mr. Proud's unpublished "Memoirs," written about thirty years after the event, tells the story differently:

Two or three times the mob came to destroy our Temple, upon the supposition that we were against Church and King, as the Unitarians were supposed to be, and the last time the mob came by thousands, with wood under their arms to burn our Temple; I rush'd in amongst the crowd, to the ring leader, explained to him that we had no connection with Dr. Priestley or that Party, and that we wished no ill to the Church, or to the King, and putting a guinea or two into their hands (N.B.—this was given by Mr. Hands's brother), they went away with "Huzza to the New Jerusalem for ever." Thus the temple escaped destruction. After the mob was dispersed and peace restored, we were quiet and successful as before.

Mr. John Bragg [I] was also to feel the effects of the prevailing lawlessness. He resided at Ashted Row, on the east side of the town, and

one evening the rioters mistook him on his way home for William Hutton, to whom he was said to bear some resemblance. He was surrounded by the mob in Ashted Row, and escaped violence only by his assurance that he was not the William Hutton they were in quest of, and the more potent charm, perhaps, that he gave up his purse and the contents of all his pockets to the rioters.

The riots occurred in the middle of July. Dr. Priestley must have published his "Letters" before November of that same year, for Mr. Proud's Answer is dated November 14th. Each, Priestley's and Proud's, was a pamphlet of about ninety pages. Mr. Hindmarsh, at the solicitation of his friends, published a longer and more thorough-going answer to Priestley the next year. The great demand for his Letters to Priestley made a second edition (1822) necessary.

Priestley had the reputation of always having the last word in his many controversies, but he was unable to reply to the New-Church Answers to his Letters, although repeatedly pressed to do so. He removed to Pennsylvania in 1795. When, in 1803, our New-Church minister in Baltimore, the Rev. John Hargrove, published "The Substance of a Sermon on the Leading Doctrines of the New Jerusalem Church. Delivered December 26th, before the President and Congress of the United States," he sent a copy to Priestley, who acknowledged it in a courteous note, in which he stated that the sermon had not changed his opinion regarding the tenets of our faith, but conceded that "hereafter we shall all know more than we do at present." He died the following year. The full text of his note was published by John Fonerden in the Boston New Jerusalem Magazine for 1840, page 120.

The replies of Proud, Hindmarsh, Dr. Spence and John Bellamy, especially that of Hindmarsh were, in their day, important as missionaries in the cause of the New Church. This has been another far-reaching result of the consecration of that first temple.

Subsequent Events top

In December, 1791, Mr. Proud printed a sermon on "The True Nature of the Soul and the Resurrection."

Mr. Proud's services were in demand elsewhere also. He preached at Manchester on March 15th, 1792, where as yet the New-Church people had no church. The Unitarians courteously placed their chapel at Mr. Proud's disposal. His sermon on "True Greatness," delivered there, was published in Manchester that same year.

The next month Mr. Proud visited Bristol again, where the friends had leased a Roman-Catholic chapel, and had renovated it at considerable expense. He opened this for public New-Church worship on April 29th, 1792, and published the discourse "The Fundamental Doctrine of the New Jerusalem" which he had preached at Birmingham and Bristol.

In September of the same year, he published a volume of sermons of a little over 300 pages under the title "Twenty Sermons on the Doctrines and Truths of the Lord's New Church Delivered in the New Jerusalem Temple, Birmingham. And now published by Subscription, at the Request of the Society. By J. Proud N.H.M." [Novæ Hierosolymæ Minister]. The verse "And He that sat upon the throne said, Behold I make all things new" is printed on the title page in Latin; as is also the motto of the New Church "Nunc Licet" i.e., "Now it is allowed to enter with the understanding into the mysteries of faith." The book was "Printed and sold by J. Belcher; Sold also by the Author."

In October he published a sermon entitled "General Proofs of the Lord's Second Advent," preached in the Unitarian Chapel at Warwick; and another, entitled "Jesus Christ, the Supreme Head of His Church," preached in Birmingham.

But we have been anticipating.

While, as Mr. Proud records, the Society continued in the prosperity and peace with which the Temple had been opened, yet there was much political unrest in the city and country generally.

The Birmingham riots were a surface indication of the ferment going on in men's minds regarding principles of government—a ferment the greater for the injection of the leaven of the French Revolution.

The fear of priestly domination evinced by Mr. Hands in the Conference of 1791 seems not to have been inconsistent with his playing the benevolent despot himself. No organisation appears to have been formed, Mr. Hands paying all the bills.

But the seriousness of the times seems to have made it desirable in September, to organise with the declaration of loyalty formulated by the London Society and adopted by the Conference of 1791, referred to elsewhere; see the first page of the Church Book [see above], and notice the date, September 18th, 1791. Still no officers were elected until November, when a Church Committee was chosen, Mr. Proud being made president, Mr. Fullilove secretary, Mr. Hands treasurer, and Mr. Cooper deputy treasurer.

On December 11th the prices of church sittings were decided upon, ranging from 2/6 to 1/- per quarter.

It was not until October 7th, 1792, that a code of Rules and regulations was adopted.

How the disturbed state of the public mind affected the Birmingham New Church is shown by a minute of the meeting held on December 16th, 1792:

2. As at the present time considerable commotion of a political kind takes place, and as a general meeting was called by the magistrates and inhabitants of this town to know the sentiments of individuals, an Address was presented from our Society to that meeting, signifying our united determination to be totally neuter in the public affairs of government and state; which address was approved at this church meeting.

These minutes were signed by J. Proud, president, and John Bragg, secretary, the latter having been chosen to take the place of George Fullilove, who removed to London in January 1792.

Dark Days top

A hiatus in the monthly meetings occurs here, as the next minutes are of a meeting held on July 3rd, 1793. Why this long interval? These minutes state that they are "now about to remove from the Temple," and we miss the names of Proud, Hands, and Bragg. What has happened?

A sudden unforeseen blow has fallen upon the Society, destroying the prosperity and peace that had characterised their eighteen months of Mr. Proud's pastorate. To quote his own words, "About the close of 1792 a docket was struck against Mr. H—s, and he became a bankrupt."

From this and other sources of information we gather that Mr. Hands made unfortunate speculations in a patent, and dragged Messrs. Bragg and Proud and others into his financial ruin, they having unsuspectingly lent him whatever money he would borrow of them, and also endorsed his paper. He had expressed his intention of conveying the church property to trustees for the Church, but had not carried out his intention, and so this property also was seized to satisfy his creditors, soon to pass into the hands of the Baptists, by whom the edifice was renamed "Zion's Chapel." In the brief but eloquent comment of a lady chronicler, "much suffering and sorrow ensued" upon Hands's financial collapse.

The Conference of 1793 top

But during the interval between his failure and the enforced removal from the Temple, it witnessed the holding of a General Conference, not unconnected with the questions concerning the orderly methods of government agitating the minds of men within and without the New Church.

The Conference was held in the beginning of April, 1793, simultaneously with the holding of another Conference in the Great East Cheap Chapel, London.

The fact is, that a cleavage had been going on in the General Conference from the year 1791, where it first showed itself in a resolution proposed by Mr. Hands. And now it had resulted in this division into two "General" Conferences.

I cannot enter into the merits of the question here. The divergent views are to be found in the volume of Reprints of the Early Minutes of Conference, which volume was published in 1885, due to the initiative and enterprise of the late Mr. Isaac A. Best, of Birmingham. Suffice it to say that the London Conference was dominated by the views of Mr. Robert Hindmarsh, and the Birmingham Conference by those of Mr. Cowherd, of Manchester, who had been assistant of the Rev. John Clowes. Mr. Hands appears to have been present, but took no leading part in the Conference, other than, as president of the previous year's Conference, to call the meeting to order, and to inform the delegates:

That he had in conformity to the requisition in the minutes of the last year, written to the directors of the various societies, in respect to their appointing the most suitable place for holding the present conference; that he had received answers, by which it appeared the societies in general were for it being held at Birmingham; and that in consequence thereof circular letters had been sent with notice of the same, which we are happy to see honored by the deputation of the present delegates.

Mr. Samuel Mann, of Manchester, was elected president, and Mr. Charles Leadbeater, of Chester, secretary.

It is difficult to conceive that this was a happy meeting.

The result of such divided councils was that no General Conference was held again until the year 1807, fourteen years later.

As to the Birmingham friends, we may say here that Mr. Bragg went with wife and children to New York, to recoup his fortunes. Mr. Hands disappeared from view, only to reappear in Alloa, Scotland, six years later, in the vain effort, with his friend Wright, to develop a copper mine. Their stay there, however, led to the introduction of the New-Church Doctrines, and the inauguration, after they left, of the Alloa New-Church Society. There is no further mention of Hands in our Church literature until 1826, in which year the death is recorded, in Bristol, of a "Mr. Hands, a most worthy man, and many years a receiver of the heavenly doctrines of the New Jerusalem. The New-Church Society at Bristol will feel a great privation by the removal of such a kind and zealous promoter of the good cause." (New Jerusalem Magazine of London, 1826, page 288). In all likelihood this was the Samuel Hands who figures so prominently in the present history.

During this distressing time an attempt was made to burn the temple, but owing to Mr. Proud's vigilance and prompt action, the flames were put out before the fire had made serious headway.

And Mr. Proud, whose savings, home, and salary were all taken from him at one blow,—what about him? He gratefully records how, to his surprise and gratification, unexpected and certainly unsolicited help came to him from gentlemen of the town, both clergymen and laymen. And relief came also from another quarter. A church was being built in Manchester for Mr. Cowherd, and Mr. Proud was invited to become joint minister with him. He accepted the invitation, and left Birmingham—it may have been in the month of June, 1793.

Thus, tragically, ends the first chapter of the history of the New Church in Birmingham. A Society that is bereft of minister, temple, and leading laymen is certainly passing through a very severe trial, testing its faith, its love, its courage.

Promise of a New Dawn top

And gloriously did the Birmingham Society emerge from this trial. The truth of the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem remained as its most precious, triumph-bringing possession.

The loyalty of those that were left, the accession of a new convert who was to become the ancestor of another numerous race of Newchurchmen, the building of a second, though smaller "temple" on Newhall Street within two or three doors of the first one—these and other details, testifying to a vigorous life, whatever the outward material fortunes of the New Church in Birmingham might be, remain to be told, at some future time, in subsequent chapters of its history.

Appended Note

Several friends have asked whether the name of "Handsworth"—that district of Birmingham in which the present church and Sunday school buildings were erected in 1876,—may possibly have been named after the Samuel Hands who was so prominent in the early days of the New Church. There may be others to whom the same question has occurred, and the following information may therefore be of interest: It is extracted from the little book, Handsworth: Old and New, by Fredrick William Hackwood.

"It is certain that Handsworth village had its roots in the settlement of a Saxon family. . . . The name Handsworth is made up of the personal name of the Anglo-Saxon chieftain who headed that family of pioneer settlers; followed by the Anglo-Saxon suffix 'weorthing,' common to many place-names, as in Tamworth, Lapworth, Kenilworth. The founder's name may have been Hand or Hande, but more probably was Hun, Hune, or Hunn. The name of the place has appeared in many forms; for instance in Domesday Book it was Honesworde; in the next century it was spelt Hunesworth and Honesworth. The significance of the terminal 'worth' is property or farm, so that the whole name means 'Hune's estate' or may be 'Hune's farm.'

"Isaac Taylor, an eminent authority on place names, says, 'The Anglo-Saxon weorthing' which appears in English names in the form of 'worth' . . . denotes a place warded, or protected. It was probably an inclosed homestead for churls, subordinate to the 'tun,' or 'town.'"

Footnotes top

1 See Principal Token Coinage, by R. Dalton and S. H. Hamer, Part X., p. 281. Also Token Coinage of Warwickshire, by W. J. Davis, p. 20.

2 In confirmation of the author's conclusions regarding the designed introduction of correspondences, he refers the reader to a letter published by Mr. George H. Saunders, of California, in the New-Church Messenger of August 2nd, 1916, called forth by a report of our Birmingham commemoration last June, who writes that "the then minister of the Birmingham Society" had sent a sketch plan of the proposed temple "with correspondential dimensions as to length, breadth and height" to Mr. Saunders's grandfather, John Saunders, an artist who lived in London in the seventies of the eighteenth century.

3 Several specimens of this earliest of copying machines are preserved in the Boulton and Watt Collection in the Birmingham Public Library.—S.