History of Calne Baptist Church
The church began meeting in a home of Christians in 1655, during the time of religious freedom and nonconformist expansion ushered in by the Commonwealth. They believed in independence from the state and practised believers’ baptism. However, from 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy, our people were persecuted by the Establishment, and had to meet in secret out of town to avoid arrest, fines or prison. They used a field at Whitley, which became known as ‘The Gospel Bush’, and Moss’s Mill on the River Marden.
At this time of oppression, they helped to keep alight the flame of freedom. This pressure eased from 1690. For many years there were two churches in Calne – St Mary’s Anglican and Castle Street Chapel, as we were known.
The church was small and continued to be led by laymen, until the Rev Isaac Taylor, aged 21, was appointed the first full time minister in 1776. An evangelist and educationist, he spearheaded a forward movement, being active in Calne and surrounding districts, but he is mainly remembered for starting a Sunday School in 1804. This was not only the first Sunday School in Calne, but also the first attempt to provide some basic education for the working children of the town – those who worked in the mills six days a week and had no opportunity to benefit from the relatively few places, for the wealthy, at the Day Schools. Isaac Taylor was encouraged in this enterprise by the 1st Marquis of Lansdowne.
The first half of the 19th century was a time of ups and downs, partly reflecting the economic fortunes of the town.
The present building is of 1817, though altered and added to since.
During the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the church grew and was increasingly community-oriented, particularly during the two periods of ministry of the Rev W H J Page. A number of church members and officers served as town mayors; and others were involved in various social advances in the town. The church was a major player in the 1868 provision of the ‘Nonconformist Cemetery’, in Curzon Street (now the town cemetery). The background to this was that Nonconformists and Catholics could still not be buried in churchyards under their own rites. (Mr Page arranged for a Catholic lady to be buried in the Baptist graveyard so that a priest could officiate.) This change epitimised their struggle for the full rights of citizenship, which had been denied them during a century and a half of bare toleration.
Community service continued, for example in the provision of special facilities for members of the armed forces during wartime. Removal of pews and replacement by chairs with carpeting made the building more user-friendly and adaptable for other activities.
Of the four historical themes – freedom; concern for youth; equality; and service – the first and third have been met. The struggle for freedom and equality is over and we relate to, and act with, other churches. But the church still works in line with the second and fourth, where needs persist, with other churches if possible.