THIS second article turns to Mid
Norfolk for evidence of the fruits of the labours
of Thomas Taylor, the 17th Century Congregational
minister born at Scarning.
When the foundation stone of the Cowper Congregational
Church, East Dereham, was laid in 1873, the trials
and tribulations of this brave pioneer were not forgotten.
His efforts at Dereham and Mattishall for the faith
on which he staked his very life were recalled, the
minister referring to him as "the man to whom
the commencement of this church is due."
At the best the Dereham Congregationalists or Independents
of Taylor's day – a mere handful of them - met
secretly in some old barn or humble dwelling house
well off the beaten track. Church and State hated
them like the plague, and the threat of persecution
was ever at their doors. Despised and rejected, they
were in every sense outcasts for their faith. For
the next hundred years practically nothing is known
of Congregationalism in the town, but it can be said
that there was little in it. Indeed, there were probably
times when its flickering light seemed as good as
A Hostile Town
In 1779 the Rev. John Carter, Mattishall’s first
Congregational minister, went into Dereham to preach
to the people, who were extremely hostile. He did,
however, find a few stalwarts prepared to follow him.
Maybe they were descendants of those who had listened
to Taylor, and the faith had never left their households.
After a time regular services were held in a barn,
and though Dereham showed some resentment at this
intrusion the mission flourished.
By 1812 so much progress had been made that it was
decided to build a chapel in London road, then known
as Swan Lane. The site was well away from the centre
of the town, as was essential in order not to cause
offence to the leading citizens. For an early 19th
century Nonconformist chapel this was a fairly ambitious
building, and some few years later it was much enlarged
and the ugly gallery common to that period added.
This chapel can still be seen, and is now serving
as a British Restaurant.
The next landmark in Dereham Congregational history
was the building of the Cowper Church, at the laying
of the foundation stone of which the congregation
heard the following interesting review "This
denomination of Nonconformists has increased so greatly
during the last few years that their small, dingy
chapel in Swan Lane, built in days when Non-conformity
was not treated with that respect it is now, no longer
affords them sufficient sitting accommodation. Nothing
but a new church would give the congregation the accommodation
required. The position of the old church in an out-of-the-way
back street somewhat represented that phase of Nonconformist
history which has not long since closed, the period
when Nonconformists were subjected to laws which kept
them from prominent posts in the kingdom. The new
site will equally well represent the new phase in
their history, the period which has witnessed the
abrogation of those laws, for this site is in the
Market Place and will be in close proximity to other
public buildings. What adds interest to the church
is that it will occupy the site on which stood the
house where William. Cowper, the author of "The
Task." spent his last days - a poet whose works
breathe much of the spirit which has animated Nonconformity."
Incidentally there was considerable opposition to
the building of this new church, but not on those
harsh religious grounds which Taylor experienced.
Many people naturally resented the demolition of Cowper's
historic house but the Congregationalists eased the
storm by deciding to name their building the Cowper
Memorial Church, and. by the by, this allowed them
to make an appeal for funds to a much wider circle.
At Mattishall the faith which Taylor had pioneered
endured through the worst oppressions of Charles II's
reign, but it was the sorely tried faith of which
martyrs are made. Nonconformists, in general, were
regarded as fomenters of conspiracies and insurrections.
If, said the Conventicle Act of 1684, five persons
are found, in addition to the resident family, at
any religious service other than that of the State
Church they are to be thrown into gaol Persons allowing
their houses to be used for illegal services were
subject to the most dire penalties. Early in the 18th
century, and maybe a little before that, there was
a congregation of Dissenters at Mattishall, and it
appears that a chapel was built there around that
time. Numbers were extremely small, and in 1744 or
the year after the congregation was dissolved following
many vicissitudes. Almost 15 years later the chapel
was pulled down. This early village centre of Nonconformity
did not, however, break with its traditions for any
length of time. In 1770 the man who had bought the
old chapel and demolished it gave the site and £20
for a new church, and the next year the famous Old
Moor Chapel, which is still to be seen was erected.
This rise in the fortunes of local Congregationalism
was closely linked with the calling to the pastoral
office of John Carter, a Mattishall man. A fiery evangelist,
Carter was ordained at the Old Moor chapel in 1772,
on which occasion a paper, signed by eight men, was
read, in which they stated that before that chapel
was built they had regularly met once or twice a week
for religious exercises, and, finding the Lord was
pleased to smile upon them with some increase, they
had, with the assistance of friends, erected the present
building for the dispensation of the Gospel among
us in a way and manner which we apprehend to be agreeable
to the Scriptures.' After referring to their invitation
to call Carter to be their minister, these men pledged
themselves to watch over each other with a Christian
spirit of love and tenderness.”
Carter's ministry proved so successful that after
a few years the chapel had to be considerably enlarged,
and Congregationalists from every part of the county
came to regard it as a Mecca At the building of the
chapel in Swan Lane, Dereham, Carter went to live
in the town while continuing to minister at Mattishall.
Shot At and Beaten
Persecution was by no means over, however and the
Rev T W Wilson, who became a minister of the Old Moor
Chapel in 1821, met with almost as much hatred as
Taylor had done in the 17th century. Records show
that when Wilson went into the neighbouring Mid-Norfolk
villages to preach he was set upon with sticks and
stones on numerous occasions, and more than once his
enemies shot at him. Under this strain his health
gave way, and he was obliged to retire, though, fortunately,
he recovered sufficiently to allow him to take up
the pastorate again in 1828.
In the 19th century this congregation time and again
were to the fore in fighting for Dissenters' rights.
There was, for example the case of Mr.
Jonathan Hatton*, a member, who was in 1867
prosecuted for non-payment of the Church rate. He
defended the suit, lost it, and was utterly ruined.
But the Norwich Committee of the Liberation Society
came to his aid, resolving that the case was one "entitled
to the sympathy and help of the friends of religious
liberty in Norwich and elsewhere, and that a request
be made to the Nonconformist congregations in the
county to render assistance in this matter by public
What of Persecution?
Much could be added of the growth of Congregationalism
in other centres where Taylor laboured, of how his
magnetic influence can be traced a century or two
after his death, but enough has been said to show
the calibre of the man, and to emphasise what a debt
of gratitude Nonconformists owe to his unflinching
courage and independence of outlook and to those of
Today the Congregational Church and, indeed, all
Nonconformists have nothing to fear from anyone. and
sometimes they may appear to the man in the street
to have forgotten the bitter struggle, of their forefathers,
and to have divorced themselves from all which might
be considered revolutionary Whether or not an entire
absence of persecution has strengthened Nonconformity
is not for me to say, but some have held that persecution
makes both the cause and the man.