30 August 2023
The Strict Baptist Chapel
in Jericho, Oxford,
has no welcome sign,
but is it closed?
Jericho has become a gentrified part of Oxford in recent years and is one of the trendiest areas, with its fashionable wine bars, cafés, restaurants, shops and night clubs.
I was in Jericho last week, visiting Saint Barnabas Church and the former Saint Paul’s Church, and found myself wandering through the narrow streets and terraced houses between the Oxford University Press and the Canal.
Squeezed between the houses that face onto the front of Albert Street is the small building that was once Albert Street Chapel or Oxford Baptist Chapel, also known as the Strict Baptist Chapel. Until it closed, this was the only non-conformist chapel in Jericho that had remained in use.
A carved stone above the porch or entrance reads: ‘Strict Baptist Chapel 1881.’ There is a sign board on either side of the porch. One has recently been filled with a poster that reads: ‘Jesus said, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’
On the other hand, the signboard to the right of the porch has been left blank. I mused how it offered no indication to the wary and heavy-laden on how they might take up that invitation to come in and be given rest.
But I ought not to jest. I have long given up on trying to inject any sense of fun into fundamentalism.
If the chapel is closed, why was there a fresh poster in one noticeboard? If the chapel is open, why are there no words of welcome or indication of when or where to find services?
Oxford has at least seven Baptist churches or chapels, including New Road Baptist Church, Bonn Square; Headington Baptist Church; Botley Baptist Church; John Bunyan Baptist Church, Crowell Road; Oxford Baptist Chapel, Albert Street, Jericho; Woodstock Road Baptist Church; People’s Baptist Church or International Baptist Church, Crowell Road; and Oxford Baptist Chapel.
The New Road Baptist chapel dates back to a Presbyterian chapel in 1721, which was almost entirely rebuilt in 1798. A Baptist chapel was founded in George Street in 1821 with JH Hinton as minister, but it closed in 1836. A small chapel built in Middle Way, Summertown, in 1824 may have closed by 1829 when one of its founders, William Carter, registered another meeting house at his ironworks in Walton Street. There may have been a Baptist meeting in a private house in Summertown in 1831.
The first major new Baptist chapel in Oxford, the Adullam chapel on Commercial Road, Saint Ebbe’s, was built in 1832 for and largely at the expense of HB Bulteel, a former curate of Saint Ebbe’s Church. It was designed by William Fisher and for many years it was the largest nonconformist chapel in Oxford, seating 800 people.
Bulteel’s preaching attracted large numbers, but the precise religious affiliations of the chapel are uncertain, since his own views fluctuated. Bulteel left Oxford in 1846 and his successors were unable to hold together the congregation. The chapel was described as Particular Baptist in 1851, and its congregation was said to be 500-600. However, it was ‘dissolved’ in 1858, and it was taken over by the Methodist Reformers in 1862.
Then, in 1868, the remnants of the ‘Bulteelers,’ under Alexander Macfarlane of Spurgeon’s College, bought back the chapel. and the renovated chapel was opened by Charles Spurgeon in 1869. The group was at first known as the Tabernacle Baptist Society, but the chapel was later described as Particular Baptist. When it closed in 1937, the remaining members joined with a Baptist congregation from South Hinksey to open a chapel in New Hinksey.
Other Baptist chapels and meetings in Oxford were found in Caroline Street (1869-1887), Pusey Lane (1883-1891), and Bridge Street, Oseney (1883-1921). The New Road chapel also sponsored the formation of the North Oxford church and the John Bunyan church was built in 1941 and rebuilt in 1964.
Meanwhile, the earliest records of Baptists in the Jericho area are in 1843, when William Higgins registered a meeting of Particular Baptists in his house in Clarendon Place, Jericho. Higgins may have been their pastor, and by 1851 the congregation averaged 60.
The address of ‘Higgins’s Room’ was given as King Street, Jericho, in 1869. Whether Higgins moved or whether Clarendon Place was an earlier name for King Street is not clear but there is no Clarendon Place on the 1850 map.
The King Street Baptists were derisively called ‘Hypers’ in the 1870s, and they may have been connected with the earlier group of Bulteelers known by that name. In 1881, they built a chapel in Albert Street, Jericho, described as the ‘Strict Baptist Chapel’. The term ‘strict’ refers to the strict or closed position held with regard to membership and communion, and their strict understanding of Calvinist theology. These Baptists are referred to as Strict and Particular Baptists.
By the time the chapel was built, most of Albert Street had been developed piecemeal in the 1860s and the 1870s. The chapel itself incorporates an interesting if not curious hints of the influence of Gothic architecture, and is embedded in rows of Victorian terraced houses facing onto the narrow streets of Jericho.
However, within a decade of the chapel opening, numbers had declined to a core membership of about a dozen. Throughout most of the 20th century it was even smaller than that.
As Jericho changed and developed in the 1970s and was transformed, the remaining members of the congregation moved to live outside Jericho, only coming in on Sundays and at times of special observance. They seem to have shared little identification with the local residents although, at times, the congregation contributed financially to local causes
Without a pastor, the chapel relied on visiting ministers from all over the country until 1992 when David Cooke was appointed pastor. Shortly afterwards, the church formally adopted the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, written by English Baptists who subscribed to strict Calvinistic views.
The 1990s saw a period of growth in the chapel, largely due to a small group of students, some of whom remained in Oxford after graduation. Around 150 students passed through Albert Street Chapel during this period, including a large number of Americans, many on short-term exchange courses. Church membership eventually peaked at 18.
From 2003 on, there was a steady outflow of young couples moving to other parts. The church never recovered from that loss, and the small Sunday school closed in 2005. The pastor’s impending resignation brought matters to a conclusion.
The congregation of Albert Street Chapel met for the last time on 28 December 2008. The pastor, David Cooke, had announced his resignation following his appointment to Banbury Evangelical Free Church.
The church decided to disband at the end of 2008. After the closing service, the chapel building remained in the hands of trustees. But, since then, it seems, the building passed into the hands of the Oxford Baptist Chapel, which dates from March 2010.
Oxford Baptist Chapel is an independent Baptist church in Oxford, the pastor is Derrick Morlan, and it has a fundamentalist approach to preaching, teaching and doctrine. It is the one of the six Baptist chapels involved in the Crown Christian Heritage Trust, formed in 2011. There are similar congregations in Blackheath, Brighton, Liverpool, Tyseley (East Birmingham), and Welshpool.
It seems Oxford Baptist Chapel no longer meets in the former Strict Baptist Chapel on Albert Road, Jericho. All services are currently held at ‘The Field’ on Southern By-Pass Road. They include Sunday services at 11 am and 6 pm, and Wednesday Prayer Meetings at 7 pm.