‘The Nonconformists’ guided walk by Chris Upton

by FoBAH

During a guided walk around streets and canal paths in the vicinity of the new Library of Birmingham on 11 May, Dr Chris Upton (FoBAH committee member and Reader in Public History at Newman University) talked about some of the key historical sites associated with religious and social nonconformity in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Birmingham.

Many of the members of George Dawson’s congregation at the Church of the Saviour, which used to stand in nearby Edward Street, were influential and well-to-do middle class citizens.  The church had been built in 1847 after Dawson and many of his congregation had left the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Graham Street for what became a theologically more liberal Unitarian setting.

Recent excavations for the new library revealed traces of one of Thomas Gibson’s ambitious projects from 1814 onward – a private canal branch and wharf development, known as Gibson’s Basin or Arm.  Gibson was a very prosperous and energetic  self-made man.  Before his death in 1840, he had founded a Unitarian school in Cambridge Street and a chapel in Newhall Hill

Easy Hill, a fine house about quarter of a mile from the town, was the home of John Baskerville, the letter-founder and printer. Though he was very famous both nationally and internationally, his overt atheism and other unconventional traits rather detracted from his reputation locally.

The Millerites, a sect launched in the 1830s by an American preacher, William Miller, had a chapel in Cambridge Street.  Like some other small sects in the town, the second coming was one of their core beliefs but Miller’s estimate of “about 1843” had long gone by the time the chapel opened in the 1850s.

The chapel of the Swedenborgians or Church of the New Jerusalem in Newhall Street, dated from 1794 and remained in use until 1830. Their beliefs were based on the Bible as interpreted by the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Christian mystic.

Also in Newhall Street was the Chartist Christian Church, the only one which survived in England for any length of time. Their pastor, a Baptist minister Arthur O’Neill, was a prominent and influential radical figure in Birmingham from 1840 until his death on 1896.

Lawrence Street (by the Aston Triangle) was the site of a chapel built in 1819 by the disciples of Joanna Southcott, an eccentric, self-styled prophetess from Devon.  One of Southcott’s many disciples, the even more eccentric John Zion Ward, also known as Shiloh, preached there on occasions. Ward was convinced that  he was the biblical messiah.  Later, in 1839,  the chapel was taken over for a few years by the Owenites, followers of the socialist and philanthropist, Robert Owen.

These are a sample of the diverse nonconformist sects attracted to the rapidly expanding and developing town during this period.  In their more limited ways they were active alongside the Anglican, Catholic and more orthodox Nonconformist Churches.