The Hope in Hope Street
270 pages, £7.50, ISBN: 978-1-47926-112-3
Star Rating: 3
Having no connections with Stoke-on-Trent, I anticipated that this book, a record of the 200-year history of the church originally known as Hope Congregational Church, Hanley, would be of little interest to me.
However, I was agreeably surprised. It is a well researched history which, although focussed on that local church (now known as Bethel Evangelical Free Church), sheds considerable light on the wider scene in 19th century Congregationalism and on 20th century evangelicalism.
It includes, for example, an account of the first missionaries sent out by the church to India, in 1821 (though no mention of the church’s present interest or otherwise in overseas mission work), and the church’s connections with 19th century Congregational ministerial academies.
The author, the church’s present pastor, centres most of the chapters around the successive pastors of the church over the past 200 years. Remarkably, most of these seem to have served for very short periods of time, often less than 5 years.
In each case, the previous and subsequent career of the man in question is thoroughly explored, resulting in some fairly far-reaching digressions. Some anecdotes make for salutary reading: for example, the case of the early pastor William Farmer whose ministry was destroyed by unproven allegations that he had fathered an illegitimate child.
The record of the church through the 20th century shows the effect of the world wars on the church and also provides a fascinating sketch of the influence of Pentecostalism in the early decades. The church on Hope Street was struggling by this time and welcomed the approach of Edward Jeffreys to re-invent itself as a ‘Bethel Temple’ for a time.
A significant part of the book’s later sections deal with the events of the long pastorate of Paul Brown, who committed the church to a more clearly Reformed position. These included the Lord’s remarkable provision of a new church building — at Tesco’s expense! The events in the years since Mr Brown’s departure in 1994 are only covered briefly.
In short, while some general interest in church history is necessary, the reader does not need to have a particular interest in Stoke-on-Trent to find this an informative and interesting sketch of Nonconformist history over the past 200 years.