Biggleswade Baptist Church was formally founded in June 1771, and moved to its current site in Biggleswade in 1968.
The development of a Baptist presence in Biggleswade came about in a wider context of change. The seventeenth century had seen some major improvements in religious liberty in England and there were a growing number of people who, for a variety of reasons, rejected the involvement of the state in matters of faith. Those who separated themselves from this were generally known as non-conformists.
Biggleswade Baptist Church was formally founded in June 1771 and was probably known as the “Free Communion Baptist Church”. It is likely, however, that the church goes back much further. There are references to a licensed meeting house being used by “Independents” in the town in 1717 and 1720, and Biggleswade is listed as having a Baptist chapel in a list of Presbyterian and independent chapels in England from 1717 to 1729. A congregation of 300 described as “anabaptist” and “independent” was meeting by 1715, suggesting an even earlier beginning. There is evidence from the 1670s of 6 people who were subject to legal proceedings for not attending the Parish Church and these may have been early non-conformists. Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence was made in 1672, but was repealed the following year. This allowed congregations to apply for a licence and there was a house in Biggleswade registered in this way.
The title of the first Church book states it is, “of the Free Communion Baptist Church meeting in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire”. By 1851 the church was known as the “Old Meeting”, and this name change may have taken place when the “Calvinistical Baptist” Providence Chapel opened a few years earlier.
When the new building was opened in 1968, the Old Meeting name was dropped in favour of being known as Biggleswade Baptist Church.
By 1773 a list of dissenting churches in Bedfordshire shows the congregation numbering 200, although church records show the highest membership at the time to be 17.
Over the years membership and attendance have fluctuated. During the 19th Century records show the congregation regularly numbering 300. The membership declined from 125 to 50 between February 1879 and December 1886 during what was described as an “unhappy pastorate”. By 1902 the membership again numbered 125. It seems that matters of doctrinal disagreement were regularly at the heart of people leaving the church or being excluded from it, though the latter was also often because of issues of conduct and morality.
In 1971 the membership was around 80. The membership at the end of 2016 was 123, though there are over 200 people who regularly attend Sunday morning services.
In 1792, the organisation now known as the Baptist Missionary Society was founded by William Carey. Only three years afterwards (1795) the church in Biggleswade had established prayer meetings for this work. As Chaplin remarks, this ‘seems to imply that our church has been from the first – and thank God it still is – a missionary church.’ The church continues to support BMS and other mission concerns around the world.
Local mission was also a priority. In the early 1800s “Preaching Stations” (members opened their homes and people were invited to come and hear the gospel in a fortnightly service) were established including Henlow, Northill, Southill, Broom, Caldecote and Wrestlingworth. Late in 1824 a chapel opened in Stotfold, and several of the congregation became members of the Biggleswade church. This became independent in 1832. Also in 1824, nine members were sent to plant Shefford Baptist Church, and in 1826 a member was sent to take part in the work of starting a church in Baldock. In 1827 a chapel was opened in Langford. Around 1856 a Dunton congregation was begun. The church in Sandy was a joint effort with churches from Bedford and Blunham, although it has been stated that the Old Meeting is also the “mother” of Sandy Baptist Church. In 1889 it was agreed to hold open-air meetings in Biggleswade and by 1910 there are records of a weekly service being held in the Market Place at 3 pm.
More recently in 1961, Billy Graham crusades in Manchester were relayed to the church in Biggleswade. The church has continued to seek innovative ways to share the good news of Jesus.
The period from 1823 was particularly characterised by response to social issues. Help for the poor of the congregation, of other churches, and elsewhere was a feature of the life of the church.
At a meeting in July 1834 it is noted that slavery was to be abolished on 1st August, ‘…and it was therefore agreed that the day be observed as a day of thanksgiving to God.’ The church was active in supporting the rebuilding and restoration of chapels in Jamaica.
At the centenary service in 1871, mention was made of the church for the Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire Provident and Benevolent Society, the Cheap Clothing Society, and the British Schools in the town.
Since then financial support has been given to various missionary and relief organisations, as well as agencies working locally. In recent years the church operated a drop-in centre, has provided debt management and advice through its Christians Against Poverty centre, and supplied emergency food aid through its food bank.
CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE
During the late eighteenth century Sunday schools were set up throughout England. Work with children was being considered in Biggleswade as early as 1788, and a Sunday school was running by 1795. At one point the number of “scholars” was said to number 438, with an average attendance of 320.
Today the Sunday Club has a much smaller attendance, though many children and young people are contacted through work in schools and the annual Holiday Bible Club (which sees about 250 children attend for a week in the summer holidays).
RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER CHRISTIANS
In January 1798 the church meeting agreed to join the new “Bedfordshire Union of Christians” – a body of churches from various denominations – in order to ‘…promote the knowledge of the gospel to the utmost of our power’. It seems our church has also been involved in ecumenical relations since its early stages in order to further mission. Over the years the church has been involved with other believers – Baptists and those of other denominations – in various ways. In recent times this has included the church being involved in the formation of Biggleswade Churches Together.
The original Meeting House stood behind the Drill Hall which was situated on the corner of Bonds Lane and Foundry Lane. This was destroyed in the Great Fire of Biggleswade, on June 16th 1785. A new building was opened the following year in Hitchin Street, and was enlarged in 1818. Sunday school rooms were added during 1898 and opened in 1899. Around 1965 a plan was made to sell the site and move to the current location in London Road. The new premises were completed and opened in 1968.
Chaplin, C. H., History of the Old Meeting Baptist Church, Biggleswade, C. Elphick: Chronicle Office, Biggleswade, 1909
McGregor, M., Biggleswade Baptist Church 1771-1971, Biggleswade Baptist Church, 1971