Tristram Hunt: The perfect time to recognise this show of faith in our city
HERE's a Christmas story of hope. In this year of anniversaries, one particular bicentenary might have passed you by.
On the corner of Hope Street and Newhall Street, in Hanley, worshippers have been celebrating Christmas since a chapel first opened there in 1812.
And the practising minister at Bethel Evangelical Free Church, the Reverend Gervase Charmley, has commemorated this anniversary with a great, late Christmas present – a loving account of the chapel's history, in a book simply called The Hope in Hope Street.
Well-crafted and scholarly, it charts the church's story against the backdrop of a changing Stoke-on-Trent. So often history focuses on the deeds of mighty men, on kings and generals. But the benefit of this chapel biography is that it emphasises just how much real social change is wrought by the hands of ordinary men and women.
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Men such as the Reverend Richard Henry Smith, Minister at Hope in the 1860s, whose sermons carried forth a message of working class solidarity and philanthropy. Determined to expose Hanley's industrial poor to an 'appreciation of the true, the real and the beautiful', Reverend Smith set up a series of schools, lectures and art classes.
Perhaps more importantly however, the book demonstrates once more the powerful relationship between Protestant nonconformity and the Potteries.
The idea of 'nonconformity' dates back to the Act of Uniformity of 1662, when King Charles II ejected the dissenting Ministers – those who advocated freedom of conscience – from the Church of England.
In was in cities such as Stoke-on-Trent that the expelled Presbyterians, Independents and Congregationalists – the faith of Oliver Cromwell – found a home.
Historical records tell of a Jane Machin, widow of an ejected minister, who registered a house in Seabridge for Presbyterian worship as early as 1672.
And as the population of the Six Towns grew on the back of pits and pots, the father of Methodism, John Wesley, became a frequent visitor to the area, helping to build the city's first chapel and fill the void left by the established church.
Chapels went up in Hanley, Longton, Fenton and Tunstall. In their wake came other Nonconformist faiths, including Baptists and Unitarians.
Of course, Stoke-on-Trent's most famous Unitarian was Josiah Wedgwood, who embodied that faith's free-thinking, tolerant, inquisitive nature.
Few people can lay claim to have shaped our city as profoundly as Wedgwood, but his faith also moved him to push for wider social change. Joining force with Quakers and Anglicans (including William Wilberforce) in the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, he drew up a petition from North Staffordshire, writing: 'I have joined my brethren here in a petition from the pottery business for the abolition of it, as I do not like a half measure in this black business.'
But Wedgwood illustrates a broader point. Because in an increasingly secular age, as the latest census figures have shown, we are at risk of losing sight of the profound contribution which religion has made to British history and culture.
Moreover, this Christmas, we should celebrate the positive impact that religion can bring to our communities because the tradition of religious activism and philanthropy, of Wedgwood, and Reverend Smith, is alive today.
The most recent audit by Saltbox, a faith and community action charity based in Hanley, revealed that Stoke-on-Trent currently boasts 150 individual faith groups organising more than 300 community projects each week, run by over 1,000 volunteers and supporting more than 5,000 children and young people. By any standards that is a deep contribution to improving our city.
Anyone who has seen the work of the North Staffordshire YMCA, the North Staffs Community Chaplaincy, the Street Pastors, the Foodbanks, or the Islamic Centre in Shelton will already know this.
Only last Friday, a small team of Methodist worshippers came to my constituency surgery to explain how they were converting a pub into a community centre – that's real faith in the city.
All of which makes me delighted to recommend Reverend Charmley's history of Hope Street as a Christmas stocking-filler.
As he rightly says: "The beauty of our story is that it is the story of a typical chapel in the Industrial Midlands; a story of a part of England that has largely been forgotten, but which should be remembered." And at Christmas time, more than ever.