- 1649 Abingdon Baptist Church was founded with John Pendarves as their first minister. Pendarves was a Cornishman, educated at Oxford, who was vicar of St. Helen’s Church, in Abingdon until 1647, when he became convinced of the Baptist understanding of scripture and left the established church. He died aged 36 in 1656 and an orchard on Ock Street was bought as a burial ground. At this time the congregation met in a house in the area now covered by West St. Helen Street car park.
- 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne and in 1660 a period of persecution began for dissenters, including Baptists. There were laws enforcing worship at state churches and those who refused were liable to fines and imprisonment. Amongst Abingdon dissenters the most notable was the assistant pastor, John Tomkins, who on one occasion hid in a wooden chest to escape his pursuers.
- 1686 Then pastor, Henry Forty, who had already spent a number of years in Exeter jail, was brought with others before the Assizes for absenting themselves from the Parish Church and not receiving the Sacrament at Easter. However James II granted a dispensation and they were acquitted. The next day, Sunday July 11th 1686, large crowds gathered at the church for morning and afternoon worship.
- 1689 After the accession of William and Mary, the Act of Toleration was passed, granting dissenters freedom of worship.
- 1700 The first “Meeting House” was built by Abingdon Baptists on the present site, in the orchard that had been bought 44 years previously. Part of one of the old walls is said to be still standing near the east boundary.
- 1714 After many years of peaceful liberty, restrictions on dissenters were again threatened by the passing of the Schism Act which would have dealt a fatal blow to the growing number of schools set up and run by dissenters. However Queen Anne died on August 1st, the very day the bill was to have been given the royal assent. The “good news” was conveyed to a minister preaching in a Baptist church in London by the dropping of a white handkerchief from the gallery, and has been remembered in Abingdon Baptist Church ever since by the Schism Sermon delivered traditionally in the evening of the first Sunday in August.
- 1714 – 1824 The Tomkins family had been an active part of the church from its foundation until the late nineteenth-century. Many of them were buried in the Church graveyard. Yeoman farmers, they built up a successful malting business and in the eighteenth century also went into banking. They also contributed some of Abingdon town’s most distinguished buildings – Stratton Lodge, Twickenham House and the Clock House. They also endowed the Tomkins Almshouses in Ock Street. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they, along with other Baptists, and Congregationalists, ran many of the trades and businesses in the town. They played an influential part in its civic life.
- The most distinguished minister of the Baptist Church in Abingdon was undoubtedly the poet, preacher and scholar, Daniel Turner whose service spanned fifty years, 1748-98. His library is now part of the Angus Library, Britain’s premier collection of antiquities at Regent’s Park College in Oxford. The church manse, now called 35 Ock Street, seems to have been used as an early theological academy for training Baptist ministers.
- 1824 In this year the Church built a British School on the Ock Street frontage on what is now the car park, for the education of children from less well off homes. An extension to the school still stands on the grounds of Coxeter’s on the east side of the church. The school was taken over by the County in 1907 and was later relocated to become Carswell School. John Kershaw was the Baptist minister who initiated the British School and he also established an academy in Radley which later became Radley College.
- 1841 The present church building was erected in this year. However the new premises were not large enough for all the people, many of whom came from the surrounding villages. So it was decided to found chapels in the villages of Drayton, Cothill and Fyfield, also later in Marcham.
- 1881 In this year the Abingdon church building was renovated. A new grand pulpit was installed and its late neoclassical facade comprising a pediment supported by a Doric order with attached columns designed by the architect John Davies was added. Later in 1893 a new roof was put on.
- 1971 In the ministry of Adrian Thatcher the inside of the building was renovated. The 1881 pulpit was removed.
- 1981 The dais was taken away to leave the baptistry uncovered since then a raised platform has been included and covered it again.
Who is Daniel Turner?
In his own day Daniel Turner was well known as a preacher, pamphleteer, hymn writer and poet, although few of his hymns are sung today. His most lasting legacy today was that he preached tolerance and understanding in an era which was marked by sectarianism and division. In particular, he wrote passionately that Christians of all persuasions should be able to share communion together, and that the communion table should be open to “all who love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity and truth” – words that are still used in communion services all around the world today.
In many ways Daniel Turner was a century or more ahead of his time.
But locally he was also loved as a saintly man and a fine pastor, and was known throughout the town as “Good Mr Turner.”
Over 200 years after his death, Daniel Turner’s life and ministry has been recognised by the presence of a blue plaque on the front of 35 Ock Street. This is a rare honour – there are only two other blue plaques in the whole of Abingdon – and recognises his contribution to the town and to Christian unity. The late Rev. Michael Hambleton, a past minister and latterly member at the Church, has done a lot to keep the memory of Daniel Turner alive through his book “A sweet and Hopeful people – the story of Abingdon Baptist Church”, unveiled the plaque after the morning service on Sunday 17th July 2011.
About The Schism Sermon
Our church has a long history, and for much of our early history Christians at Abingdon Baptist Church suffered a great deal of persecution, both official and unofficial. The last period of persecution was in the early 18th Century when a series of laws were passed designed to discriminate against Catholic and nonconformist churches like ours. The last of these was the Schism Act” which was passed by Parliament in 1714. This was designed to close Catholic and nonconformist schools, which would have been a serious blow to our church families who could not, in all conscience, send their children to Church of England schools.
However, before the Act could be enforced, it needed to be signed by the monarch, Queen Anne. She was in favour of the act, but was gravely ill and she died on the day the law was due to be enacted. Her successor, George I, was more tolerant, and the law was never enforced. The timely death of Queen Anne was seen by Baptists at the time as a great act of deliverance by God, and in this church a sum of money was set aside to pay one shilling for the preaching of a special sermon close to the anniversary of Queen Anne’s death.
This “Schism Sermon” is one of Abingdon’s oldest traditions and although today our relations with other churches are excellent, we keep the tradition alive to honour our forebears who suffered so much for the sake of their faith, to remember our history, and to remember that there are millions around the world who suffer persecution for their faith today.