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150 years of Brixton Tabernacle

July 2017 | by Martin Humphrey

Due to the work of the Holy Spirit in an expanding London, the 1860s saw a number of new churches start in South London, including what was to become Brixton Tabernacle.

Although a comparatively unusual designation for a church these days, the term ‘Tabernacle’ was once common, perhaps taking its cue from Whitfield’s Tabernacle.

The word has, of course, a dual significance. The original tabernacle dedicated to the worship of God, had literally to be a tent, as the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness. Later tabernacles were so named to remind the worshippers that Christians are ‘strangers and pilgrims’, looking ‘for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God’.

Although, in one sense, it may seem an inappropriate term for a huge, brick built building, designed to seat over 600 people (which Brixton Tabernacle became), there is an additional significance, in that we are now in the third Tabernacle — there were various meeting places prior to the first — so the church has ‘journeyed’ over 150 years.

Beginnings

On 3 December 1867, ten people met together and formed the church. For a time, they met in a cottage on the corner of Mostyn Road, off the main Brixton Road, of which no trace now seems to remain. They then hired the North Brixton Hall in St Anns Road (now Southey Road).

In early 1871 they moved to a schoolroom in Lothian Road, ‘where Mr J. Brindle was chief supply’. It was during this time that he built the first ‘Brixton Tabernacle’, in Russell Street (now Hillyard Street).

The opening services were taken on 31 July 1871 by Mr Charles Cornwell, who was beginning to be an influential preacher. He was quickly invited to become pastor and did so in April 1872. Mr Brindle left the church shortly afterwards and became pastor of Rehoboth, Clapham North.

In 1874 the chapel was improved and enlarged with a Sunday school, beside the original chapel. The school had started in 1871 and continues to this day, although sadly with few children at present. According to a family tradition, it started in a nearby stables, although exactly where is lost in the mists of time.

The Lord so blessed the work that it grew quickly and, only ten years after the enlargement, an entirely new chapel was built, designed by Charles Cornwell and seating over 600 people — an increase on the original 235. This was closer to Brixton itself and built on land leased from the Angell Park estate, one of many great houses in the area. The site is now that of the famous Skate Board Park. The new chapel was opened on 11 May 1884. The old chapel was sold and became the Russell Street Independent Mission Hall.

Mr Cornwell played an active part in the Sunday school too, and published Juvenile Original Hymns, ‘the only book published purposely for Strict Baptist Sunday schools’. The only surviving copy we have was given to my grandfather in 1908. It was apparently Mr Cornwell’s custom to greet the children every Sunday afternoon and one of my great-aunts thought it would be wonderful to arrive in time to be with him, but apparently never managed it!

Perhaps uniquely, the church was pastored consecutively for the first 60 years of its existence by three different pastors. Mr Cornwell had a stroke in 1906 and died the following year, but had already appointed Mr Sapey as his successor.

Church merger

Around this time, the vast Surrey Tabernacle, which seated over 2,000 people, needed considerable renovation. Being a leasehold property and with a congregation of only several hundred, it was not felt practical to undertake the work. This chapel was built for the preaching of James Wells and, although only a stone’s throw from where Spurgeon was preaching to thousands at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, both buildings were packed — a far cry from our situation today.

Ernest Roe entered negotiations with Mr Sapey regarding the merger of the two churches and this was carried out in February 1920. As a result, Mr Sapey retired and Mr Roe moved to Brixton. The hymn book was also changed from Denham’s Selection to A Selection of Hymns from various authors, by James Wells, which was printed by Robert Stockwell, a member of the church. We still use the hymn book, although now only for midweek services.

The original selection was made by Wells, going through Gadsby’s Hymns and choosing the ‘best’ ones and arranging them in the same order. A supplement had been added in 1891 by the intervening pastor, Mr Obadiah Dolbey, almost doubling the number of hymns.

It was during Mr Roe’s ministry that my grandparents re-joined the congregation. At that time, any arriving less than a quarter of an hour before the service started would not be able to sit together!

In 1931 Mr Roe suddenly resigned, without notice, and moved away, preaching first at Stotfold (Hope Chapel) and then becoming pastor of Matfield Green in July 1933. Some church members at Brixton followed him to his new church, starting an exodus which was hastened with the coming of the Second War.

This marked the beginning of a long general decline in the size of the congregation, continuing up to the present day. In particular, there have been few families at the chapel since the war. Notwithstanding, the Sunday school continued to thrive, with 120 children in the 1950s and 70 on the register when I was in the Sunday school in the 1970s.

For over 20 years the church continued pastor-less, yet in nearly all these years, as had been the case from its foundation, there were those added to the church. However, in 1953, Mr W. J. Holt, from Prestwood, became pastor. He continued until 2 July 1967, when he resigned due to failing health.

The two remaining deacons were also unable to take a leading role, leaving three young males in the congregation to help with various meetings. Two of the current deacons, first visited the chapel on Remembrance Sunday 1945 on their way to play football in the park! They had been evacuated to Devon during the war, being billeted with the Sunday school superintendent of the village, and so went to a chapel ‘because “Uncle” would like us to’.

Chapel rebuilt

In 1966 a gentleman from the council knocked on the door of Chapel House and told Mr Holt we had to be out within a fortnight — they needed to widen the corner for the new one-way system. In 1975 we moved, but only after the present chapel had been built by Lambeth Council, free of charge, on the corner opposite.

The new chapel proved far more welcoming than the old and there were many visitors. Indeed, it was unusual not to have somebody new on a Sunday. However, such is the transitory nature of the local population that many stayed only a few months before moving away.

After Mr Holt left, there was another long period of supply ministry, although several invitations were made for the pastorate. However, in July 1981, Mr Jabez Laver accepted the call. He had previously pastored churches at Epsom and Southport and commenced his pastorate aged 70.

He always preached with great energy and, under his care, the church was built up. Although he retired as pastor at the end of 1990, his ministry continued as he preached weekly amongst different churches, while continuing as an active leader in the church, taking every first Sunday until October 1998, when Mr Kenneth Appleton became pastor.

It was a real handing on of the baton. Mr Laver last preached at Brixton at recognition services alongside Peter Rowell, commenting as he did so that the last time he had preached on such an occasion was alongside Mr Rowell’s father.

His last visit to Brixton was when he chaired the church meeting at which Mr Appleton joined the church. Shortly afterwards he became ill, preaching for the last time at Horsham in January 1999. His ministry lasted four months short of 70 years.

Mr Appleton’s was the shortest pastorate the church has known, finishing at the end of 2004, when he retired. It was during his time that we adopted Christian Hymns (first edition) as our main hymn book. In 2002 a Romanian-speaking church was set up, which met on Sunday afternoons. It continued until early 2012, when they merged with a sister-congregation in Stratford, East London. It was also in July 2012 that my pastorate commenced.

International congregation

We continue as a small church, with few attending the evening services. On Sunday mornings, the congregation is drawn from various parts of Africa, the West Indies, Romania, Iceland and the Philippines. A few are also British. This has been the situation for many years now.

The congregation is mixed in age, varying from newborn babies to a 91-year-old. We do have a large age gap between the babies and their parents’ generation, which is a concern. For the last 32 years, I have been the youngest member, although a number have joined the church in that time.

This has many implications. Mum started teaching in the Sunday school 71 years ago, albeit with a gap of many years. Dad taught consecutively for 65 years, for over 48 years as superintendent. While these facts show a wonderful sustaining from the Lord, they also underline our great need for others to gather with us and help shoulder the burden.

We have proved many times that ‘He is faithful that promised’, and we continue to look to ‘Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think’. ‘We praise him for all that is past, and trust him for all that’s to come’.

We hope that many will be able to join us on 24 June to give thanks to the Lord for his grace, help and goodness. God willing, Richard Lambert, a long-standing friend of the church, will preach, services starting at 3.00 and 6.00pm.

Martin Humphrey