This year marks the bicentenary of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, an historic independent and non-conformist congregation in which, by God’s grace, the gospel has been faithfully preached throughout its history.
It all began with the conversion of a young man from Hertfordshire called Joseph Irons (1785-1852), who very soon experienced a desire to preach Christ and found himself preaching at Camden Chapel in Camberwell, a mile or so from the present site of Grove Chapel.
It could be said that ‘the common people heard him gladly’ (Mark 12:37 AV), but those who were in charge were less enamoured with Irons’ emphasis on God’s sovereign grace and faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. This led to a breakaway group being formed, five men and seven women, who determined to call Irons as their pastor.
It soon became clear that no one was willing to accommodate them in any existing building, so it was decided to build Grove Chapel on its present site in Camberwell Grove. The foundation stone was laid on March 15, 1819, and just four months later, on July 20, the newly completed Chapel was open for its dedication service.
The text of 1 Kings 9:3 had been laid on Joseph Irons’ heart, ‘My eyes and my heart will be there for all time’. Joseph Irons took this as a clear promise from God that he would continue to bless and protect Grove Chapel for perpetuity. And on the first Sunday of this present year, 2019, we took this verse as our text in the morning service.
After Irons’ death in 1852, the Lord provided several more pastors, all of them notable preachers and all committed to the doctrines of Calvinism, and the Chapel was packed with regular listeners. James Jay and then Thomas Bradbury pastored Grove Chapel through to the end of the nineteenth century.
In 1913 Henry Atherton became the church’s fourth pastor. His own testimony of salvation was extraordinary, reminiscent in some ways of Saul of Tarsus. As a teenager in Wigan, Lancashire, he was living a very immoral life. One day he found a tract on his mantelpiece with the question ‘If you died today, where would you spend eternity?’ He angrily flung it into the fire.
Shortly afterwards, walking to the Wigan colliery, a young man sauntered towards him, whistling as he went, and then, without any warning signs, collapsed lifeless right next to Atherton. At that very moment a voice spoke behind him: ‘If that had been you, where would you have spent eternity?’ Atherton replied ‘hell’, then looked round but he saw no one there.
He quickly recognised that God was calling him, not only to be a Christian, but also to preach the gospel he had once hated. Atherton, having accepted the call to Grove Chapel, subsequently became the first Secretary of the Sovereign Grace Union, and later its President, shortly before his death in 1935.
Sovereign Grace, it could be said, has been a recurring theme in the Chapel’s history. Perhaps the most testing years were those during the long interregnum (1933-55) which followed Henry Atherton’s death. During World War II the Chapel sustained significant bomb damage and the congregation struggled to grow and thrive in the immediate post war years.
Moreover, one of the concomitant dangers with the wrong kind of emphasis on Sovereign Grace is a drift towards Hyper-Calvinism, and this seems to have taken place in the 1940s and 50s. The fifth pastor of Grove Chapel, Alec Campbell, did not receive a warm welcome when he arrived and his ministry lasted less than four years. Congregations dwindled to just a handful of families.
But God has remained faithful to his people. The five men who have pastored the church since 1961 are still alive and well today: Iain Murray (1961-69), Hywel Jones (1970-80), David Norman Jones (1981-93), Mark Johnston (1994-2010) and the present writer (from 2014).
The size of the congregation has ebbed and flowed, but what has undoubtedly changed is the international makeup of the congregation. There can sometimes be as many as twenty different nationalities present, from all ages and backgrounds. The building itself remains strong and secure, with a few adaptations which fit the changing culture of the twenty-first century, but the Chapel is still instantly recognizable as the one in which Joseph Irons first preached.
The emphasis continues to be the centrality of the preaching of the gospel, the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God, the necessity of conversion – the new heart and the changed life. And we are also witnessing a renewed emphasis on prayer and love for one another among God’s family.
We are challenged, furthermore, in relation to our willingness to be involved in evangelism and mission. We hope, by God’s grace, that the history of Grove Chapel still has many years to run and that Christ will continue to be proclaimed faithfully and fearlessly, with many souls being saved.
Grove Chapel will host an Open Church event during the weekend of 21-22 September, when members of the general public will be encouraged to visit the Chapel, view photographs and other bits of memorabilia, and learn something about its history.
The official Bicentenary Commemoration will be the weekend of 2-3 November, when the last three pastors of the Chapel will each be preaching on the Three Persons of the Godhead, and meals will be served on both the Saturday and the Sunday.
For more information, visit www.grovechapel.org
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Grove Chapel, Camberwell, London.