Chapel History

About the building

The Old Baptist Chapel is a 500 year old building with a fascinating history of domestic use, Nonconformity, decline and restoration. It is arguably the oldest baptist chapel still standing in existence with its use as a place of worship allegedly dating to 1623, a mere decade or so after Thomas Helwys brought the baptist religion to England.

Medieval Origins 

It started life in the 15th century as a three bay hall house, with a fire in the centre of the building and the family sleeping on the two balconies, originally partitioned off for privacy. Local tradition suggests that cattle may have been kept downstairs for security! We recommend that visitors interested in the medieval origins of the building also view the Merchant’s House, which is of comparable age and displays the key features of a hall house. The Merchant’s House is situated across the road from the chapel and is also part of the John Moore Museum.

The building is timber-framed with much of the original structure still visible today, including an exposed wattle & daub panel at the north end.

Early Baptist Movement

Local legend suggests that the Baptists began using the chapel in 1623 though we have found little evidence so far to support this. The audio tour in the chapel explores the problems of research associated with the chapel’s history, including persecution of the group leading to secrecy. Being positioned so near Tewkesbury Abbey must have highlighted this fear. Indeed, the Baptist minute Book includes a double page, coded to protect the anonymity of the congregation.

Nonconformists in the 17th century can often be defined through their opposition to the established Church at the time. The Tewkesbury Baptist Minute Book records the names of several members expelled from the congregation for having returned to the ‘national church’. Like many Nonconformists, the Baptists wished to return to Scripture, the Word of God. In addition, they sought to avoid the High Church and beautification associated with places of worship such as Tewkesbury Abbey. This is why the chapel is simply decorated and without religious images. Many Baptist groups continue to this day to regard the people and their relationship with God as a personal one and not tied to any particular building or place. You can worship in a field as much as in a church. The chapel is not now, or ever has been, consecrated.

The Baptists or ‘dissenters’ as they originally referred to themselves, also sought to avoid the clerical hierarchy central to many other groups. It is therefore particularly interesting to compare this adaption of a family dwelling into a place of worship, with the belief that religion should be centred around the family and home, as opposed to the monumental churches and more hierarchical clergy.

Unlike other Nonconformist groups, Baptists believed in full adult immersion, representing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To begin with, it is believed that the Baptists used the nearby river for baptisms with opponents labelling them murderers due to the practice of entering cold and polluted water. They were also accused of sexual lasciviousness as imaginations ran wild with images of men and women bathing together!

Conversion into a Chapel

It was only after the Act of Toleration in 1689 that Baptists no longer had to escape persecution and consequently were able to worship publically. As a result, the building was ‘modernised’ in 1720 to make it more suitable for its new use, with the addition of:

  • A minister’s room
  • A vaulted ceiling and tall windows
  • A baptistery

It is primarily its 1720 appearance we see today, though features from all phases of the building’s history can be seen.

Decline and Restoration

After 1805, when a larger chapel was opened in the town, the Old Baptist Chapel gradually fell into disuse as a place of worship. The two end bays were converted into Victorian cottages, with the central bay left as a redundant chapel with the baptistery hidden beneath a wooden floor.

In 1978, Tewkesbury Borough Council acquired the Court and chapel and restored the building to show how it probably looked in about 1720.

The Latest Chapter in the Chapel’s History 

The Abbey Lawn Trust, a building preservation charity who own the John Moore Museum, took over the chapel in 2012. Thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Abbey Lawn Trust, Tewkesbury Borough Council and Tewkesbury Town Council, the building was renovated in 2015. It has been improved as a warm, welcoming heritage attraction as well as an education space with heating, lighting, a kitchenette and DDA-compliant. There are also new ways to tell the fascinating stories of the building’s history with audio tours, panels, replica historic items, a model showing the different stages of the building plus a digitalised version of the Baptist Minute Book.

The chapel is open to visitors, school and adult groups, events and also for commercial hire.

 

To find out more about the chapel’s history: 

Visit the chapel 

View the Baptist Minute Book 

Purchase a guidebook about the Old Baptist Chapel (by visiting or contact us)

If you have information, stories or resources relating to the Old Baptist Chapel, please contact us on education@johnmooremuseum.org 

Plan a visit

see our opening times
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