200 Years of Bethel Evangelical Free Church
This Saturday Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Newhall Street, Hanley, will be celebrating 200 years of Christian witness on the site. The Church began in 1810, when a dispute in the Tabernacle Congregational Church in the High Street (now called Town Road) led to a group leaving that Church to set up their own. They started off worshipping in a temporary building while they found a permanent home. At the time the Shelton New Hall estate was being divided up and sold off by the owners of the New Hall Pottery works. The new Church purchased the Hall Meadow, next to the Pottery works, and built a handsome new chapel, which they named Hope. The chapel was opened on 7th October 1812, with the Rev. William Roby, the leading Congregational minister in Manchester, presiding.
The past 200 years have been full of excitement and challenge in many ways. We have had some 23 ministers in that time, men of all sorts of backgrounds, talents and gifts. Our first pastor, Rev. John Greeves, had been pastor at the Congregational (now URC) Church in Buxton before he came to us in 1814, and stayed only a little over a year before entering the Methodist ministry. Our second pastor, Rev. William Farmer, had been a minister with the Methodist New Connexion (the group who built Bethesda in Hanley) before he joined the Congregational ministry in 1806. He came to us in 1815 from Leeds. Under Farmer's ministry we sent out three men and their wives as missionaries to India and opened a second Hope Chapel at Wetley Rocks. Sadly, a very nasty scandal led to his leaving us with about fifty of our members and founding Brunswick Chapel, which later became Trinity Presbyterian Church, Hanley.
After Farmer we had a succession of ministers, most notable among them was Rev. Richard Henry Smith, who came to us in 1860. He had been a Church-planter in Greater London, and was full of enthusiasm for reaching the Potteries for Christ. He was an accomplished artist, and believed that art could be used as an uplifting influence; this led to him giving talks on famous artworks such as Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper', and publishing a number of popular books on religious fine art. He left Hanley in 1865.
Rev. David Horne, his successor, was a scholarly man from Yorkshire, though of Scottish parentage. He served as pastor from 1865 until 1885, but was very nearly killed in a terrible accident in 1881 which claimed the life of his closest friend. The cause was negligence on the part of the council, and there was a considerable outcry as a result.
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Rev. William Lansdell, who followed Horne in 1886, took charge of the chapel at Tomkin in addition to his work in Hanley; he was a leader in the Free Church Federation Movement, and in 1896 Chairman of the Staffordshire Congregational Union. Lansdell helped to establish Park Church in Shelton, and left Hanley in 1902 to plant a new Church in Wolstanton; this Church is now Wolstanton United Reformed Church.
The first few decade of the 20th century were a period of decline; in 1913 the Church had to apply for financial aid from the Staffordshire Congregational Union, and World War 1 caused the loss of over a quarter of the entire membership, especially young men who were regarded as future leaders. By 1930 the Church was on the verge of closure.
It was then that help appeared in the person of Rev. Edward Jeffreys. Jeffreys, a young Welshman from Maesteg, was the son of Rev.Stephen Jeffreys, one of the founders of the Assemblies of God, and the nephew of Rev. George Jeffreys, founder of the Elim Pentecostal Church. Though only mildly Pentecostal himself, Edward Jeffreys was a gifted preacher and evangelist who had been moving north from his base in Bristol, along the western side of England, holding mass meetings and establishing his Bethel Temple churches as he went. He came to Hanley at the end of 1930, and took the city by storm. Thousands professed conversion in his meetings, and the streets were filled with people singing Gospel songs to up-beat melodies. Hearing about the historic Church in trouble, Edward Jeffreys approached the leaders at Hope and offered to bring the Church into his Bethel Evangelistic Society. It meant a change of name and denomination, but saved the Church from closure. Jeffreys supplied a pastor to the Church, and through the 1930s the building was packed with eager worshippers.
In 1939 Edward Jeffreys unexpectedly dissolved the Bethel Society, leaving the Church independent once again. The Second World War brought considerable difficulties for the Church, and Rev. E.J. Vernon, the minister, did his best to keep it together. He died in 1953, in the chapel vestry, where he had been living to save on expenses.
Pastor Archibald W. Mead took over in that same year. A former Bethel pastor in Congleton, he had joined up in the War and had been working as an insurance agent since demobilisation. Under his leadership the Bethel in Hanley came alive again; the Sunday school was re-started, and again missionaries were sent out into the world. Under Pastor Mead the Church gained its present name, Bethel Evangelical Free Church, and affiliated with the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Church (FIEC). Pastor Mead left us to take up a pastorate in Feltham in 1963.
The longest-serving pastor in the history of the Church was Rev. Paul Brown, who came to us in 1966 and left in 1994. It was during his ministry, in 1975, that the old chapel was undermined by excavations for the building of the Tesco store on the New Hall Pottery site. The old building had to be demolished, and the present building was paid for by Tesco in compensation.
We remain a living, working Church, and on 29th September we shall be celebrating our 200 years of history with an exhibition and a talk called '200 Years in Hanley'. The exhibition will be open from 10:30 AM and the talk, given by the present pastor, will be at 2:30 PM.