The English word "church" is used to translate the Greek word ekklesia in the New Testament. This word means an assembly - it was used in ancient Greece of the assembly of the citizens of a town who met together for government purposes. So a church is not a building, it's the congregation or assembly who meet together. The church that now meets at the Bethel in Hanley began in 1810, when a group of former members of the Tabernacle Congregational Church in Town Road constituted a new church. Not long afterwards they bought the old Hall Meadow in Newhall Street, next to Shelton New Hall, an area that was being developed at the time, and built a chapel on part of the site, keeping the rest as a burial ground. It probably doesn't occur to most people walking by that what is now the church car park has some four hundred people buried under it, but it does!
We don't know a lot about those first members of the church. We know they were Congregationalists, who believed that local churches should be independent, not managed by a central body somewhere else, although they believed just as firmly that local churches shouldn't be isolationist. We know they were evangelicals, people who believed in the importance of a living relationship with Jesus Christ, and in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Some of them were wealthy; potbank owners, grocers, shop-owners. Some of them were poor, workers in pot banks and in mines, shop workers, people in other trades. They were outward-looking people who wanted to tell others about Jesus and the Gospel of God's grace. In the 1820s two of them went out to India as missionaries to share the good news with the people of India, and since then many other people have gone out from Hanley to places all over the world to share the Gospel.
The church has been made up of rich men and poor men, and lots of women. Most of us have been what you'd call ordinary people, people who have served our generation in the will of God, quiet saints who nodoy writes books about, but who the world couldn't do without.
The members of the church today are much like the men and women who formed the church back in 1810. We're not always easy to live with - it all started with an argument in a church meeting at the Tabernacle - but we are people who believe in the forgiveness of sins. We come from all sorts of different places, and all sorts of backgrounds, but we are all united by one thing - the fact that God has saved us and made us members of his family in Christ Jesus.
In 1810 the Church was founded as a Congregational Church, meaning that it was self-governing, led by men selected from the membership on the basis of qualifications found in Scripture. The chapel built on the old Hall Meadow was named Hope, one of the three great Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Hope is the assurance of faith, and Martin Luther said that all things in the world are done through hope. The church has known many ups and downs over the years. The worst down took place in the 1920s, after the Great War had killed many of the young men. The church was struggling with massive debt, and a small congregation of working people could not afford to pay it off. Closure seemed inevitable.
But God had other plans. In 1930 a young and charismatic evangelist named Edward Jeffreys came to Stoke and held massive evangelistic meetings in the biggest halls of the city, hundreds were converted. He approached the leaders at Hope Chapel, asking if they would like to join his Bethel Evangelistic Society. They agreed, and Hope Chapel became Bethel Temple, Hanley. The Bethel Society was wound up in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, but the church retained the name Bethel. In the 1950s the name was changed from Bethel Temple to Bethel Evangelical Free Church. Apart from the brief period in the Bethel Evangelistic Society, the church has always been Independent, not governed by a denominational leadership, but never isolationist. Since the 1950s we have been part of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), and since the 1960s part of the North Staffordshire Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (NoSFEC).
The word "pastor" means a shepherd, and is used in the Bible of the leaders of churches. It conveys the fact that the calling of church leaders is to feed and protect the people, who are God's beloved flock whom he purchased with his own blood. The Church at Bethel has had twenty-four pastors over the last two centuries, men with all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of characters. Most have been English, but some have been Scottish, and some Welsh, while our twenty-third pastor was from Zambia. Some were young men at the beginning of their ministries, others were old men who spent their latter years in Hanley. Only one, Pastor Joh Vernon, has died while pastor of Bethel; he died in the vestry of the old building early in 1953. Some details of all the pastors are given in The Hope in Hope Street, the book written by our present pastor, Gervase N. Charmley, in 2012, but below are a few details about some of the more notable men.
1. The First Pastor: John Greeves
Although he was born on 28th May 1791 in King's Lynn, in Norfolk, John Greeves was a Londoner by upbringing from the age of four, when he went to live with his uncle, a City banker. He did well at school, and his uncle wanted him to become a banker, a career that did not appeal to young John. He was something of a young tearaway, and three times he ran away from home. On one occasion he went back to King's Lynn to live with his parents, but he soon became homesick for London. On another he joined a company of travelling actors, but found the work so hard that he left them and joined the army instead, only to be dismissed as unfit for service.
He became an usher, a junior teacher, in a London school, and while he was there a Mr. Jaques, one of his colleagues invited him to come with him to a service at Spa Fields Chapel. This reminded Greeves of the way that one of his sisters had died at the age of thirteen, upheld to the end by a deep and living faith in Jesus Christ. He thought of the difference between himself and that sister, and began to seek God in Christ. The next week he went to a small group meeting with Mr. Jaques, and through that meeting he came to faith in Christ, and the realisation that "My sins, though many, were all forgiven." He became a teacher in a Sunday school connected with Spa Fields Chapel, and gave up his old lifestyle of dances and parties. But that didn't help him much financially, as he began to spend all he could save on good books like John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In 1892 his granddaughter Edith wrote an account of his early life based on his personal diary, and it reveals that he had the same struggles many young Christians do today, feeling that he was too shy and timid to witness to other people about Christ. He began to preach, and in December 1811 he entered a theological college to study for the Independent ministry. He spent a lot of time attending Methodist meetings, but his family thought the Methodists were not respectable enough, and so he went with the Independents, with whom Spa Fields had connections.
John Greeves' first pastorate was in Buxton, the church that is now the URC. He became pastor of the church that is now called Bethel, but which was then called Hope, in 1814. But in Hanley he came into contact with the Methodists again, and after fewer than two years, our first pastor realised that his spiritual home was in Methodism, and joined the Wesleyans. He remained a Wesleyan minister for the remaining thirty-one years of his life. He had four sons, three of whom became Methodist ministers, and one of whom became an Anglican vicar. He died on June 25th 1846, aged only 56.
2. The Returned Missionary: John Edmonds
John Edmonds was the fourth pastor of the church. He was born in the coastal town of Poole, Dorset, in 1798, and while he was still a boy, his parents moved to Portsea, Portsmouth. He grew up in one of the main bases of the Royal Navy, and in a place where tall ships sailed off daily across the world, trading and exploring. Like many of our old pastors, he was converted at a fairly early age, through the ministry of Rev. John Griffin. He began his Christian work as a Sunday school teacher, but as he grew older this young man thought of the many places where the ships that sailed from Portsmouth went, and the need for workers on the foreign mission field. He applied to the London Missionary Society, one of the earliest foreign mission societies, and was accepted as a student at their training college at Gosport, on the western side of Portsmouth Harbour. There he was trained by David Bogue, a local minister.
The Gosport Academy was an intensive training course that focused on producing teachers and language scholars. The first task of any missionary was to master the language of the people among whom he was working, and his second was to make contacts with them. The establishment of schools allowed missionaries to make meaningful connections with local people. So it was that in 1824 Edmonds and his new wife set off for India, where they settled near Calcutta. But the climate and its attendant diseases took their toll, and in 1827 the couple were forced to return to England, their health quite ruined.
Thankfully a return to England allowed them both to recover, and in 1828 Edmonds accepted a call to the pastorate in Hanley. Just as he had run a school in India, so he organised a school in Hanley, and under his ministry a dedicated school building was constructed behind the chapel. He contined to act as a deputation speaker for the London Missionary Society, and kept the church's missionary vision alive. Edmonds left Hanley in 1841 to take up a pastorate at St. Helen's in Lancashire, where he remained until his death in 1858. It is recorded that his last sermon was on the subject of "Access to God through a Mediator," from the text Epheasians 3:12. He preached the sermon on March 21st, and that very evening he died. He was faithful unto death.
3. The Highlander: Robert Macbeth
Robert Macbeth was as Highland as his name suggests. He was born in Auldwick, Caithness, on 4th July 1816. His father was an engineer and a farmer, and insisted that his sons all learn a trade and be able to work on the farm. He was a stalwart of the local Congregational Church at Wick. Robert was converted early in life, and in 1841 he was accepted as a student by the Blackburn Theological Academy. This became the Lancashire Independent College during Macbeth's course of studies, and he was called to the pastorate at Hope Chapel in 1845, at the end of his course. His ordination services were a major occasion, with sermons given by some of his Manchester tutors. Our photograph shows him towards the end of his life, but the craggy Highlander is quite apparent. He began each service by announcing "Let us worship God," and bowing in the high pulpit that dominated the old chapel. He was a champion of civil rights and an ardent supporter of education. He was noted for "his powerful personality and earnest eloquence." Though very learned, his sermons were simple Bible teaching. He was at Hanley for six years, moving on to Darlington, and then to Hammersmith, where he was called to revitalize a church that seemed to have its best days behind it. Under his ministry things turned around, and for almost forty years he ministered there, retiring in 1891. He died in 1899, beloved by many..
4. The Church Planter and Artist: Richard Henry Smith
Richard Henry Smith was a pioneer at heart, an evangelist and a builder who planted two churches in the London suburbs, built a new chapel for a church on the Isle of Wight, and published books on art, child-rearing, and family worship. He was a man consecrated to God, a man who looked for Gospel work that needed to be done but which nobody seemed to be doing, and then set about to do it. He sought to commend the teaching of Christ through self-giving and devoted service. The Gospel ministry was, he knew, a high and sacred calling, not a mere profession to be worked at in the hopes of making a living.
He studied at Highbury College, which was situated where Arsenal football ground now stands. After leaving college he settld in the Isle of Wight, where he took up the pastorate of a small and struggling church in the village of Brading. He founded a school in the village, and the church knew great blessing, so that they were able to build a new chapel in a better location, the old one being too close to the village sewers. He moved on to a pastorate in Suffolk, and then undertook church planting in Subiton. It was from Surbiton, where he had established the new church on a sound footing, that he came to Hanley in 1860.
By 1860 the area around the chapel was thoroughly industrial, with little rows of cottages cheek-by-jowl with potbanks. Entertainment for working men was in short supply, and Smith undertook to supply wholesome entertainment and instruction by using his talents as an amateur artist. He gave illustrated lectures on art, some of which were published in book form. He was a loving father who shared some of his thoughts on child-rearing in a book called Twigs for Nests. In it he spoke of the importance of love in the home, and trust between parents and children. He compiled a book of illustrated family worship.
After only five years, Smith had to leave Hanley because the pollution from the potbanks, which burned coal, caused respiratory diseases in several of his children, one of whom, along with his wife, died from it. He moved to Hampstead, then a healthy suburb of London, and there began church planting again. He founded Gospel Oak Congregational Church, beginning the work in a house in Kentish Town recently vacated by none other than Karl Marx.
5. The Studious Worker: David Horne
David Horne succeeded Richard Henry Smith, and was the longest serving of all our 19th century pastors. He was born in Keighley, Yorkshire, to Scots parents, and was the eldest of two brothers who went into the Congregational ministry. The younger was named Charles, and he left the ministry in 1865 to become a journalist. His son, Charles Silverter Horne, also entered the ministry, and as a pastor and a politicians was one of the leading Free Churchmen of the latter 19th century. He was also the father of the comedian Kenneth Horne.
But our concern is with David. At first he worked as a teacher; in those days there was no state education system, so schools were either private or run by charities. It was while teaching that he became aware of a call to the ministry, and he entered Airedale College, Bradford, where he took the London BA degree. He served a number of short pastorates before coming to Hanley in 1865. He was a very different man from Richard Henry Smith, a deep thinker and rather shy and diffident. He was a scholar, and while many in the church no doubt compared him with Smith, the very difference between them worked in Horne's favour.
David Horne knew both blessing and tragedy while at Hanley. His wife died in 1868, and their two adult children also died. He remarried in 1870, and had two children by his second wife. An event in 1881 almost ended his own life. On the evening of February 2nd he and his close friend Thomas Cocker, who was pastor of the Congregational church in Stoke, spent a pleasant evening with a mutual friend in Northwood, where they had been discussing the forthcoming Revised Version of the Bible. The discussion went on longer than intended, and by the time the two pastors left the house it was not only quite dark, but a thick fog had descended, blanketing the Potteries. They set off for Horne's home in Birch Terrance, but became lost on the way, and took a wrong turning. This was quite literally fatal to Pastor Cocker, as the road they took ended abrubtly twenty feet above Bucknall New Road. When the men realised that the road did so, it was too late, and they toppled into the fog. Cocker was killed by the fall, and Horne, badly dazed, got to his feet and stumbled home in a semi-conscious state. He was forced to take a very long holiday to recover from the worst effects of the fall, but he never fully recovered. By 1884 he was aware that he needed to retire, and he helped the church to find a suitable successor. He moved to Alsager after his retirement, where the Congregational church asked him to act as a temporary pastor during a vacancy, and then moved to Bowdon Downs, on the edge of Greater Manchester, where he died in December of 1904.
6. The Young Leader: William Lansdell
David Horne's successor was a go-ahead young man, as different from Horne as he had been from Richard Henry Smith. William Lansdell was born in Norwich in 1859, to parents who were members of the Princes Street Congregational Church. He grew up deeply influenced by his pastor, George Slayter Barrett, who was nicknamed "The Nonconformist Bishop of East Anglia." Barrett edited the Congegational Church Hymnal, the hymnbook that was used by most of the Congregational churches of the era. His preaching was very much focused on the atonement, and he insisted on the importance of knowing what we believe, and why. It ws through Barrett that Lansdell came to faith in Christ, and it was to him that Lansdell turned when he felt that he was called to the ministry. Barrett recommended the young man to the Lancashire Independent College, near Manchester, and when David Horne was seeking to retire, the church at Hope had students from the college come to "preach with a view." Lansdell proved acceptable, and in 1885 he succeeded David Horne.
It was during Lansdell's pastorate that the church took its fullest part in the wider activities of the Congregational denomination in Staffordshire. In 1889 he was appointed Missionary Secretary for the Congregationalists of North Staffordshire, his task being to coordinate deputation speakers and missionary meetings, and in 1893 he was involved in the creation of the Potteries Congregational Association, a union of like-minded churches in Stoke and Newcastle. In 1896-7 he was Chairman of the Staffordshire Congregational Union. During his ministry he warned against three dangers. The first was that of a loss of vision for the Congregational ideal, resulting in a centralized denomination rather than a fellowship of independent churches. The second was a secularization of vision, where social and political ideas replaced Chrstian ones, and the third was an over-spiritualization, in which the church paid no attention whatsoever to social and political issues. He was an early advocate of the Christian Endeavour movement, a movement for young people in the churches.
Lansdell was also interested in church planting; he was one of those involved in the beginning of what is now Park Church, Shelton, and in 1902 he left Hanley to plant a new church in Wolstanton. Today he is commemorated by Lansdell Avenue, Porthill. He died in 1943, and on his grave in the Norfolk market town of North Walsham is a quote from the commentator Matthew Henry, "A life spent in the service of God and in communion with him, is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in the world."
7. The Yorkshire Evangelist: Mark Bairstow
The photograph of Mark Bairstow in the vestry shows a bespectacled, bald man who looks for all the world like a Yorkshire grocer. Yet appearances can be deceiving; this practical-looking Yorkshireman was a powerful evangelist with a well-developed dramatic sense. He was born in Castleford on 28th February 1859. His first job was as a glass-blower. Bairstow was converted in early life and joined the United Methodist Free Church in the town. At the age of only seventeen, he was accepted as a local preacher. From there he became a full-time evangelist, opening a mission hall in Knottingley and organising a group called the "Red Ribbon Army." He was duly ordained and went to Birmingham, where his passionate preaching drew great crowds.
In 1889 he became a Congregationalist, and took up a pastorate in West Bromwich, from where he was called to Hanley in 1908.
Bairstow was described as "a devout Methodist with Puritan tendencies." His preaching was deeply moving, "he had a wonderful dramatic power, being able to have his audience in laughter and tears within the space of five minutes." He did not just use that dramatic gift in preaching; he also ventured into the world of fiction with a novel entitled The Village Blacksmith and the Squire's Daughter, pubished in 1903. He left us in 1912 for a pastorate in Barrow-in Furness.
8. The Passionate Welshman: John Vernon
Ernest John Vernon (always known as John) was the second Bethel pastor, and the only pastor to die in office. He was born in Cwbran in south Wales in 1903, and grew up in the afterglow of the 1904 Welsh Revival. He was one of the men who, in 1930 joined Edward Jeffreys, the son of Pentecostal leader Stephen Jeffreys, in the Bethel Evangelistic Society, which ran a series of campaigns moving north from Bristol, where in 1929 Jeffreys had founded the original Bethel Temple in Milk Street. Vernon became one of the movement's pastors, and in 1934 he succeeded Alfred Anderson Brown as pastor of Bethel Temple, Hanley. The early years of his ministry were spent within the context of a young church-planting denomination that was still finding its way. He hosted visits from Edward Jeffreys and Anderson Brown, who on one occasion brought a whole train-load of children from Bootle on a Bethel "invasion" of Hanley. He contributed many articles to the denominational magazine, articles about the love of Christ for his people, and the love of the Church for the Saviour.
The dissolution of the Bethel Evangelistic Society in 1939 meant that Pastor Vernon faced the challenges of the Second World War without the extra support that society would have given. He and the congregational leaders managed well, but there were still many challenges, not least financial ones. In 1944 the church bought the building from the Congregational Union trustees, but the cost proved something of a challenge. Pastor Vernon soldiered on until his death in 1953. Not only did he die in office as pastor, but he died in the vestry of the old chapel; he was found dead in his chair on the evening of Wednesday 21st January, when the chapel caretaker opened up for the evening meeting.
9. The Part-Time Pastor: Archie Mead
Pastor Vernon was succeeded by a former Bethel man, Archibald Walter "Archie" Mead. Pastor Mead was born in 1907 in Bristol. He was converted under the ministry of Edward Jeffreys at the Milk Street Bethel Temple. He was ordained pastor of the Congleton Bethel Temple on 3rd February 1933, and later combined this with the pastorate of a smaller work at Talke Pits. When he ministered at Talke, he had his Sunday lunch in the home of a family named Tabinor, who had a young and vivacious daughter. One thing led to another, and they fell in love, getting married on August 1st 1936.
Although ministers were supposed to be protected from being drafted into the military, the situation of young Pastor Mead after the dissolution of the Bethel Society in 1939 was somewhat precarious, and he soon found himself serving King and Country in the Army. On demobilization he settled in Kidsgrove with his young family - his son David had been born in August of 1937, and was soon followed by two girls, Beryl and Valerie. He found work as an insurance agent, and worshipped with a Brethren Assembly in Butt Lane, while also preaching in various churches around the Potteries.
Pastor Mead formally began his ministry at Bethel on 7th September 1953, and was paid £5 a week (more back then). He remained in secular employment until 1959, when the church situation had improved, and when the debt on the building had finally been paid off. In 1955 he led the church into the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. During his ministry several members of the church were sent out to the mission field, and the name of the church became Bethel Evangelical Free Church, as it remains to this day.
In 1963, almost a decade after he began his ministry here, Pastor Mead was called to take up leadership of a new church in Feltham, Middlesex, but he retained close links with Bethel until his death in December 1973, during a visit to the Potteries. His funeral was held in the old church on 27th December.
10. The Reformed Man: Paul Brown
Paul Brown was the longest-serving of all our pastors, serving the church for almost thirty years. The son of a Baptist minister and sometime missionary to Spain, he studied for the ministry at the London Bible College, under Principal Ernest Kevan, whose biography he would go on to write. He came to Bethel from Spring Road Evangelical Church, Southampton. He first preached at Bethel in February 1966, and on June 18th of that year the Church Meeting extended a call for him to become pastor. He was inducted to the pastorate on 14th September.
Paul Brown was almost ten years into his ministry when a huge crisis faced the church. The former Newhall Pottery next door had been closed, and the site was acquired by Tesco for the construction of a new superstore, to be the largest in the country at the time. It was to include an underground car park, which would necessitate deep excavations perilously close to the church building. While Tesco's engineers assured them there would be no issue with the church building, several church members disagreed. They were right, soon alarming cracks began to appear in the walls of the sanctuary, and the vestries and schoolroom at the back of the chapel became unsafe. On Sunday 27th April 1975 Paul Brown mounted the pulpit with very real fears that should the building shift during the service, there might be a serious incident. That Friday, after a coping-stone fell from one of the side windows, the building was declared unsafe.
Tesco paid for a new building, which opened in October 1977. Paul Brown's ministry continued at Bethel until he left us in 1994 to take up a pastorate in Dunstable. He is now retired and lives in Alsager.
The Church is the people, not the building, but the building is where we meet, and the centre of our life together. The first chapel was opened on 7th October 1812, and it was a typical chapel building of the period with galleries on three sides of a sanctuary that was almost square, and a seating capacity of about five hundred. Following a major renovation project in the late 19th century, it lasted until the 1970s, when Tesco began to build a new store next door. In spite of warnings that excavations so close to the chapel would cause damage to it, they went ahead with the work, and very soon they undermined the foundations and the old building had to be pulled down.
A new building, more suited to the changing needs of a 20th century congregation, rose in place of the old. We were greatly blessed in having for an architect Andre Clowes, a former member of the church who understood its needs. The new building was opened on 1st October 1977.
In 2017 we celebrated forty years in the new building with a special service that was broadcast on BBC Radio Stoke. The building continues to serve the church well into the 21st century.