Remember the days of old
Paul Bassett rehearses the story of Melbourne Hall Evangelical Free Church, Leicester (1878-2008)
The philosopher Hegel stated that ‘history teaches us that history teaches us nothing’. If that is true of secular history, it certainly isn’t true of God’s history – the story of his church. In fact God commands us: ‘remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father and he will show thee; thy elders and they will tell thee’ (Deuteronomy 32:7).
In May 1878, F. B. Meyer decided to resign as minister of Victoria Road Baptist Church, Leicester, and wrote accepting the pastorate of G1ossop Road Church in Sheffield.
In the providence of God, he was about to post the letter when he met Frederic Rust, who asked if he would preach to a small group who had begun to meet on Sundays at the Art Gallery in the New Walk Museum. Leaving the letter unposted, he agreed. So the work began and was soon honoured by God with conversions to Christ.
On 23 September 1878, seventy-seven members signed the ‘Declaration’, which is still the basis of life and communion at Melbourne Hall Church. Their avowed intent was to ‘be diligent in works of faith and mercy, for comforting the poor, strengthening the weak, restoring the erring and cheering the sorrowful, that we may be true helpers of each other in the household of faith.
‘And since our main object of our union is to seek to evangelise the great masses of our population which lie outside the ordinary Christian agencies, we desire that each of our number should be as far as possible engaged in some branch of Christian work’.
The need for a building was the matter of fervent prayer at a special meeting on 8 March 1879. Twenty days later Meyer called on an invalid lady who pressed an envelope into his hand containing a £10 note for the erection of a building for his ministry.
On 1 July the memorial stones were laid (they can still be seen at the front of the building) and the new church opened for public worship on 28 June 1881. It then seated about 1,300 people and cost about £10,000.
Meyer had caught the vision of evangelising the masses from the then unknown Dwight Moody, who had visited his church in York for three weeks. Yet Meyer’s vision was not so much Moody’s as the vision and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ who commands his disciples ‘to preach the gospel to every creature’ and ‘make disciples of all nations’.
Meyer had an amazing ministry at Welford Road Prison. A young girl had asked him to visit her father, then in prison. Meyer went, but found he had been moved to another prison. Miles Walker, the Governor, allowed Meyer to stand inside the walls of the prison every morning to speak to those being released before they crossed the road to the pubs.
A Christian man called Richard, who owned ‘The Welford Coffee Shop’, allowed Meyer to take the discharged prisoners to his shop. Over the years, Meyer took more than 3,500 ex-prisoners there and gave them a full breakfast, using his own money and contributions from friends.
Meyer began rehabilitating these men before rehabilitation was ever thought of. He rented a disused yard with a building workshop and a stable where 30 men lived. He named it ‘Providence House’.
Former prisoners could be seen in the city pushing barrows bearing Meyer’s name – operating window cleaning and firewood businesses! Some disapproved of a minister doing such a thing.
He also opened a working home for boys in need, noting in his diary that ‘the work was undertaken in partnership with his heavenly Father’. The Paradise Mission in Oxford Street saw the gospel preached in an area that some likened to hell, but with prayers and hard labour it became paradise and heaven.
Meyer made Saturday night a prayer night at Melbourne Hall. He led a meeting of about 300 and there were two or three other prayer meetings on the premises. Then, at about 10.30pm, they went on to the busy streets of the city, like a ‘spiritual and moral ambulance corps’.
They stopped fights, sought lost souls, took drunkards home – getting them to sign a temperance pledge and bringing them to church the next morning.
There were several prayer meetings early every Sunday morning. A Tramps Sunday School was held and some 2,500 children gathered in several Sunday Schools in various locations. There was also the beginning of the Christian Police Association.
Meyer was followed by the Rev. Charles Burt Sawday from 1888-1893. He had trained at Spurgeon’s College before working in the dangerous area of King’s Cross, London. Spurgeon called him ‘Young strike-a-light’ and he brought that light to Leicester for five years.
He was succeeded by another Spurgeon man – W. Y. Fullerton, a famous evangelist. Some expressed concern that Melbourne Hall had called an evangelist to be their pastor, but during his 18-year ministry from 1894-1912, the church received 1,602 new members.
He started the Melbourne Hall magazine, which soon had a circulation of 4,000. Under Fullerton the men’s and women’s meetings became powerful ministries which continue to this day.
In 1904-05 something of the Welsh Revival came to Melbourne Hall and Fullerton records a particular Sunday night when 100 were converted. Further blessing followed and at a communion service in January 1912 Fullerton welcomed 114 new members. Can one ever forget the photograph of 1,000 men in Melbourne Hall at his annual meeting of the Men’s Fellowship at that time?
The fourth minister was H. M. Nield, a Methodist who carried on the work briefly but faithfully from 1913-1915. Under his ministry a young men’s evening fellowship was greatly blessed and visitation brought in 150 new Sunday School scholars.
One or two present members still remember the next minister, Benjamin Gibbon. He was in fact Spurgeon’s last and youngest student. It is related that as he shook his hand he said, ‘Mr Gibbon, I hope I never hear of your decline and fall’!
Gibbon held the church together through two world wars. He waited, as he said, until his boys came back – then he went upstairs to glory. His faithful ministry extended from 1916-1946.
The Rev. Leslie Land (my spiritual father) ministered from 1947-61. He brought all the youth organisations together under the Young People’s Fellowship and had a great missionary vision.
During the 1950s, Betty Shelton went to India; Joyce McQuone and John Dean to Nigeria; Margaret Manton to Singapore; Colin and Joy Densham to Kenya; and Roland and Alice Hall to Italy. Indeed, over these 130 years the church under God has sent out 58 missionaries into 28 countries and their total service amounts to 890 years.
Home mission was not neglected, with the planting of North Evington Free Church and Thurnby Free Church, while Pastor Sidney Lawrence helped plant Knighton Evangelical Free Church.
If Leslie Land is remembered as a great Bible teacher and expositor, Dr Eric Gurr is remembered as a doctrinal preacher who led the church from 1963-75 through the dark and difficult days of ecumenism. Under his leadership Melbourne Hall stood firm on the impregnable rock of Scripture and the true unity of the church.
It has been my privilege to lead the church since 1977 assisted by Pastor Gurnam Singh, a former Sikh who was converted to Christ in this church in 1982.
One highlight of recent years was the invitation to broadcast Morning Worship on ITV on 12 January 1992. We prayed that the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ would be heard in the land and that God would have all the glory.
This prayer was answered overwhelmingly. We received thousands of letters and telephone calls asking for videos and audio tapes of the service. The ITV producer said they had never had such a response in 20 years. Indeed, for years afterwards we received almost daily letters and telephone calls from different parts of the UK.
Behind the mask of materialism in our nation, people were clearly seeking something beyond that – something only Jesus Christ can provide.
The ministries of the church among the needy continue, as every Monday night we reach out to men in bail and other hostels. There was a ministry for several years among asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, some of whom professed saving faith in Christ. Prison work continues with monthly meetings at Glen Parva Young Offenders Centre.
For nearly 30 years Melbourne Home has cared for elderly Christians, and we hold services in several nursing homes. A longstanding work continues in Beaumont Leys, a huge unevangelised area, amongst children, young people and older folk. The great vision is for a church to be planted there.
God has brought the world to our doorstep. We have the great privilege of ministering to people of many races the wonderful message that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’.