BUNYAN CHURCH - A DETAILED HISTORY
Bunyan Meeting Church has its roots in a tradition of radical dissent, and a passion for freedom, that still shape our church today.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Church of England, Established in law by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I faced strong and rebellious opposition from Christians who wanted to see far more freedom. And they paid for their convictions! For the next 200 years or so, radical Protestants, including Baptists and Congregationalists, were excluded from being educated in schools or universities, or holding any public office. In effect, they were excluded from public life, and many were fined, imprisoned or even executed. John Bunyan himself was in prison in Bedford for more than 12 years.
No-one could have foreseen the effect of such banishment on the people of non-conformity and dissent! Cut off from the usual routes to ambition, the dissenters established new academies in the rising industrial heartlands, where independent thinking was encouraged; they threw their energy into trade, industry, the new sciences, and exploration – the powerhouses of nineteenth century development; and they put their social awareness to work in radical politics, and a mission to change the world!
The industrial revolution drew thousands of people from traditional rural lifestyles into new urban centres, including Bedford. This gave rise to appalling conditions of poverty, disease and crime, documented, among others, by Charles Dickens. The non-conformist ethic included a powerful social conscience, and a desire to build a better world.
As the churches followed colonial expansion out into the world, a great missionary movement developed, often misguided, for sure, but also carrying ideals of equality and justice, and modern techniques in medicine and education along with the gospel.
Ordinary people, who would never have had access to the means of learning, were suddenly introduced not only to a world of radical theology and social thought, but also to the equally radical idea that they could think for themselves. They didn’t have to take traditional notions at face value, but could use their own reason, experiment and explore.
Once participation in government was opened to them, many became involved in local or national government, and were often at the forefront of major reform movements, including the campaign to end the slave trade, educational reform, and rights for women.
Many of the freedoms we celebrate today owe their acceptance to the thinking that came directly from the Reformation, and Bedford nonconformists played a prominent role in social and political debates that still resonate in our time.
John Howard is best known as a prison reformer. He was a member of Bunyan Meeting, and began his reforming career by rehousing the workers on his estate in Cardington, and ensuring they had access to public amenities and education. In 1773 he was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, even though, as a nonconformist, he was not eligible to hold the position. The role held the responsibility of Keeper of the County Gaol, though most High Sheriffs of the time delegated this to others.
Not John Howard, though. He was appalled by the conditions and abuses of the penal system, which he found were prevalent, not only in Bedford, but throughout Britain and (in his later travels) around Europe. From then on, he campaigned tirelessly for prison reform, through education, legislation and direct action.
He was supported in his campaign by local businessman, Samuel Whitbread, of Whitbread’s brewery. Also from a nonconformist family, Samuel was elected an MP for Bedfordshire as a Whig in 1790. He engaged himself in social and financial reform, speaking out against abuses of all kinds.
Howard drew on his researches into conditions in prisons to petition parliament for reform. Samuel Whitbread sponsored the bills presented to parliament on the grounds his evidence. These tackled what we would regard as very basic human rights. For example, a prisoner remanded in custody, who was acquitted of his crime, could not be released from prison until he had paid his gaoler all he owed. Gaolers were not paid and relied on the fees levied from prisoners and their families, who were often not in a position to pay, with the breadwinner in prison! Howard campaigned for gaolers to be paid a salary.
The legislation was not successful in their lifetimes, but the laws governing the treatment of prisoners now, reflect the tireless work done by Howard and his fellow reformers.
Among Howard’s friends was John Aikin, a medical doctor, who had studied in his father’s Dissenting Academy in Warrington. He was very much part of the liberal dissenting community, having travelled to Scotland and the Netherlands, where there was more freedom of thought than in England at the time. The Dissenting Academies encouraged education through experiment and debate, rather than classical learning, and formed the basis of modern educational methods.
John’s son, Charles, helped to develop the Smallpox vaccine in London, and worked with the Royal Jennerian Society to make it available free of charge to the poorest in society, laying the foundation of the major vaccination programmes which have transformed world health.
John’s sister, Anna, was a hymn-writer and satirical writer, a campaigner against slavery and inequality. She wrote her pamphlets under a variety of pseudonyms, to hide her gender.
All these derived their passion for justice and concern for the least advantaged in society, from their profound Christian faith. They stood against hypocrisy of any kind, and their actions genuinely changed the world in which they lived, and we live today.
Bunyan Meeting follows in the same traditions of openness and care. We seek to serve the community of Bedford, welcoming a number of community organisations into our building, and working with people to support and educate, and help develop the gifts they have. We are in touch with churches in Latin America, the Middle East and Syria, where ordinary local Christians are responding faithfully and courageously to the most extreme circumstances.
Our worship is broad and inclusive, valuing the best in the nonconformist traditions, while being open to a whole range of voices.
Our current activities include . . .