Baptist heritage brought to life
Retford Baptist Church members form company to organise heritage tours of area's unique Christian and Baptist history; it has deepened their faith and developed links with the community. By Adrian Gray
Central to their heritage the Catholics have Rome, the Anglicans have Canterbury, the Methodists have Epworth and the Baptists have… where exactly?
Pilgrim Fathers, All Saints, Babworth
In fact some of the most important sites for the origin of the Baptists lie in north Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, so members of the Baptist Church at Retford (itself on the same site since 1691) have formed a group to promote awareness and arrange tours or visits.
The area broadly covered by modern Notts. and Lincs. has a Christian heritage of astonishing richness, but it is one that is largely uncelebrated and even unrecognised by people who live there. In the early seventh century the missionary, St Paulinus, baptised hundreds from the kingdom of Lindsey in the River Trent, after which the area saw some great medieval saints and some important spiritual texts being written.
However from the 1540s it began to produce many religious radicals, who challenged the restrictive status quo and some of whom paid with their lives.
From about 1600 local puritans began to abandon the Church of England and move to Holland where, under the leadership of Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, they became Baptists. Some left for New England and became known as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ – although quite a few women went too!
It is an extraordinary fact that Smyth, Helwys and their successor Murton, all came from within a few miles of each other in Trentside settlements.
Helwys and Murton died in prison in London – martyrs for their beliefs – but Helwys in particular is notable for arguing for free will in an age of Calvinism, and also for his defence of religious freedom for all.
Over the next few years the region produced a number of other Baptist ‘greats’ – Thomas Grantham, then the baptism of Dan Taylor in the local river, on to the famous Victorian Chartist Thomas Cooper from Gainsborough, who had a re-conversion experience whilst giving an anti-religion lecture and became a Baptist after taking tea with a Barnsley minister’s wife.
Retford Baptist Church members have formed a social enterprise company, Pilgrims & Prophets, to organise local Christian heritage tours and use them as a basis for fellowship and even evangelism.
The response has been very positive, with the idea of Christian heritage acting as a bridge to other non-Christian groups. It has also been picked up by the local paper, which is publishing a series of articles about Christianity in the area.
As chairman Gerard Pontier explains, ‘We are aiming to encourage Christians and non-Christians to visit our area and explore this wonderful spiritual heritage. It is an opportunity to have a great day or two out and we especially welcome groups who’d like to come and have some fellowship at our church, which is experiencing amazing growth.’
Pilgrims & Prophets can meet the needs of small groups and large groups, including day visitors and those who wish to stay longer. A programme for school groups is also being developed. You can contact the group to discuss a visit by:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07586 732462
Adrian Gray is a member of Retford Baptist Church