07 May 2022

United Reformed Church in
Newport Pagnell has roots
in 17th century dissent

Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church can be seen through an interesting arch on High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Newport Pagnell earlier this week, I visited both the Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and the site of Tickford Priory, now Tickford Abbey. But SS Peter and Paul Church also has a past association with the United Reformed Church, which I came across when I saw it through an interesting arch on High Street, Newport Pagnell.

Newport Pagnell URC began life as a Congregational Church in the 1660s and today it is part of the United Reformed Church, which has brought together English Presbyterians, Congregationalists in England, Wales and Scotland, and members of the Churches of Christ, through unions and mergers in 1972, 1981 and 2000.
In all, the URC has over 100,000 members and almost 800 ministers throughout the United Kingdom in 1,600 congregations.
The church in Newport Pagnell dates from 1660, when the Revd John Gibbs (1627-1699), a Puritan minister during the Cromwellian era, was ejected as the Vicar of the Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul after he refused Communion to people he regarded as undesirable. He had known Baptist sympathies, although his followers identified with the ‘Independents’ or Congregationalists.

Gibbs was the son of a Bedford cooper, and he was a close friend from childhood days of John Bunyan (1628-1688), the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, who was part of the Cromwellian garrison in Newport Pagnell.

Gibbs studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1648. Two years later, he succeeded the Revd Samuel Austin, who was ejected by the Cromwellians as Vicar of Newport Pagnell in 1650. Gibbs was at the forefront of the social and political upheavals in the mid-17th century and an active supporter of the Parliamentarians or Cromwellians.

In the theological atmosphere in Restoration England, his preaching was unacceptable even before the great ejection of 1662. Gibbs was then licensed as a Presbyterian preacher in 1662, and a number of former parishioners started to meet with him in William Smyth’sa barn at the back of the site of the present church building.
Gibbs was influential in dissenting church circles, and he was jailed on several occasions. He was an opponent of infant Baptism and many of his contemporaries regarded him as an Anabaptist.

The new church was formed on ‘Independent’ or Congregationalist’ principles, and it predates almost all Congregationalist churches in Engand that began to develop from 1662 on. Gibbs continued his ministry in Newport Pagnell until he died on 16 Junein 1699. He was buried at the parish church in Newport Pagnell.

The first purpose-built chapel on the site was built three years later, in 1702. A beam from the barn can be seen in the remains of the chapel that was demolished to make way for the present church building.
The Revd William Bull (1738-1814), a key figure in the history of the church, was ordained in 1764, when he succeeded the Revd James Belsham as pastor of the Independent Church in Newport Pagnell. Bull was a friend of the hymnwriter John Newton (1725-1807), curate in nearby Olney in Buckinghamshire for 16 years, of the poet and hymnwriter William Cowper (1731-1800), and of many prominent of the Clapham Sect, including Zachary Macaulay, Thomas Babington.

With Newton’s support, Bull founded the Newport Pagnell Theological College, also known as the Academy, in 1782. He frequently preached in London chapels at the invitation of Lady Huntingdon.

The Revd William Bull, who died in 1814, was the minister in the church for 50 years until he died on 23 July 1814.. He was succeeded by his son, the Revd Thomas Palmer Bull, who died in 1859. William Bull’s grandson, the Revd Josiah Bull, also ministered in the church, so that these three generations of the Bull family had a ministry in Newport Pagnell that spanned 105 years.
Newport Pagnell Theological College closed in 1859. By then it had trained over 100 ministers. The remaining students and funds were transferred to Cheshunt College and later Westminster College Cambridge.
As the congregation in Newport Pagnell grew, alterations and extensions were made to the chapel. The present church was built in 1880-1881 and designed by the London-based architect Sir John Sulman (1849-1934), who emigrated to Sydney in 1885, where he became one of Australia’s most prominent architects.
The church is built of red brick in Flemish bond with Bath stone dressings, and it has a south-north orientation rather than the traditional, liturgical east-west orientation. There are memorials to the Revd John Gibbs, the Revd William Bull and his successor the Revd Thomas Palmer Bull.
Other tablets and memorials commemorate Thomas Hackett, a student at Newport Evangelical Institution, who ‘died unexpectedly’ in 1821; Jones Milas (d 1852), secretary of the British and Foreign School Society; and Arthur George Percy French.
Apart from a fire in the roof in 1979, the church remained largely unchanged until a major redevelopment of the building that began in 2006.
Today, the church describes itself as an inclusive church wherein which all are welcome. The Revd Jo Clare-Young has been the minister since January 2022. The regular Sunday service is at 10:30 every Sunday morning.
The present church was designed by the architect Sir John Sulman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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