History of Downton Baptist Church
Downton Baptist Church in South Lane sits within a beautiful ancient village as a thriving place of worship for its members, reaching beyond its walls into the heart of the community. It is difficult to imagine the Church as anything other than a unified hub of Christian worshippers. So why were there once three congregations of Baptists in Downton?
Baptists have worshipped in Downton from almost the beginning of the Baptist movement in England. Originally meeting secretly on Wick Downs above Downton from 1662, at a time when non-conformists were driven into hiding. The second Act of Uniformity passed in 1552 meant every Church needed to conform to Thomas Cranmer’s Anglican liturgy in the form of the Book of Common Prayer. Failure to comply with this law would result in possible imprisonment. Unfortunately for Downton, this meant the Pastor, John Sanger and his assistant Mr Cole, were fined and jailed in Fisherton Street in Salisbury.
The passing of the Act of Toleration in 1688, by King William and Queen Mary, allowed the first purpose-built meeting place for Baptists to be established in Downton. The building of a new Chapel reflected the growth of the Baptist movement, with an estimated fifty-nine thousand across England and Wales.
The congregation established in Gravel Close were referred to as the General Baptists. They continued to meet here for a decade or so, when in the early 1730s there seems to have been a difference on doctrines and beliefs. The records show that there had been a dispute over suspicion of “Arian tendencies”. This doctrine is the belief that Jesus Christ was subordinate to God as he was made human by God. This seemingly subtle difference questions the structure of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as being one God. The suspicion, which was circulating in many non-conformist Churches during this period of the Enlightenment, was clearly enough to split the congregation, who left to maintain orthodox teaching.
This resulted in a group of worshippers leaving the Church and meeting in a house in South Lane. However, neither group appears to have then held this Arian view as part of their continued doctrines.
The group in South Lane became known as Particular Baptists and the Gravel Close congregation remained as the General Baptists. The South Lane Baptists rented a warehouse at the Headlands on the Borough, for forty years, until a plot of land called the “Rhodes” meaning a clearing in the woods, was given to them by Mr Barling, a wealthy and supportive local landowner, to build a Chapel.
1794, saw the opening celebration of the completed South Lane Particular Baptist Church, marking the end of a devastating winter of failed crops and floods in Downton. The Church records show the original certificate of authorisation from the Bishop of Salisbury. This confirmed a licence to conduct worship on this site, necessary as the act of Uniformity was still valid, restricting worship by non-conformists. Permission was granted as Downton was more than five miles from Salisbury Cathedral. In 1857, this same building would be remodelled to provide for a larger congregation but built around the original baptistery of 1794.
Coincidentally, prominent English Baptist, William Carey, started his first missionary trip to India, as part of Baptist Mission Overseas in the same year that Downton Baptist Church was commissioned. William Carey represented the commonly held Baptist call to mission and striving for social justice.
In November 1793, South Lane Baptist Church established its first constituted Covenant. The Covenant was agreed by every member and included eight pledges. These promises formerly united the Church for the first time. These included the support of one another in faith and bearing with other weaknesses. It included an internal governance to watch over and rebuke each other when lacking in attendance or in adherence to the scriptures in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Manse was built in 1813 to house the minister for the flourishing South Lane Baptists as part of their Covenant commitment to the Minister. This suggests that this Church was now deeply rooted in this community. Although the two Baptist Churches were separated by doctrine it appears that fellowship was shared between them, especially given they were only 300 yards apart!
In 1842, however, there appears to be another split in doctrine with the General Baptists, when a Strict Particular Rehoboth Chapel was built in Lode Hill. Records don’t specifically show where this congregation sprung from or why, but coincidentally the membership at Gravel Close went down by a similar number. Now there were three Baptist Churches in Downton!
A healing occurred in 1891 when the Baptist Union was formed. The union had drawn on a doctrine that all should praise and worship God and do their duty whether they were predestined for salvation or not. In Downton this caused the General Baptists to move to South Lane and become united as one. The Strict Baptists remained at their Lode Hill Chapel until the congregation dwindled and eventually closed.
The 1793 covenant of the Particular Baptists at Downton was agreed by the joining General Baptists in this wonderful act of unison. Differences laid aside to become one body in the name of God. This united Church has grown and remained true to its Covenant. As the second promise of the 1793 Covenant reminds us “We promise to walk in all holiness, humility and brotherly love”. This historical promise reminds us that we should aim to work together in the name of God, humbled and always shoulder to shoulder with others.