Nonconformism in the Vale
Evesham has a long and distinguished history of independent thought. This was brought out at the start of a talk on 26 January by VEHS committee member Gerry Harte.
She revealed that just the second person in England to be burned at the stake for his Protestant beliefs was an Evesham resident: Thomas Badby, a tailor and follower of the teaching of the fourteenth century reformer John Wycliffe. Accused of heresy and brought before the Bishop of Worcester at the beginning of the 15th century, he was burned at Smithfield in March 1409.
Gerry led her audience through a brief account of the reformation proper, starting with the famous 95 theses nailed by Martin Luther to the church door in Wittenburg in 1517. Thanks to the media revolution which had taken place in the century after Badby’s execution, namely the invention of the printing press, Luther’s ideas spread quickly, and both sides in the debate used cheap pamphlets to promulgate their ideas.
Towards the end of the 16th century, many reformers - as dissatisfied with the Church of England as they were with Catholicism, and persecuted for not attending Church of England services - fled to Holland. It was in Holland in 1609 that the first recognisable non-conformist denomination was formed by an ex-Anglican clergyman called John Smyth, namely the Baptists. This new religion spread very quickly, with the very first Baptist chapel in England being established at a house in Tewkesbury in 1623. The house may still be visited today as part of the John Moore Museum.
The earliest non-conformists to establish themselves in Evesham were the Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. They used at first to meet, during the 1650s, at a private house in Bengeworth belonging to a former Mayor of Evesham called Edward Pitway, on the site of the present Northwick Hotel. The Quakers were non-conforming in social as well as religious matters and were determinedly persecuted by the authorities in Evesham. By the 1670s, however, the climate in the town seems to have become more tolerant to the extent that the Friends were able to purchase the site of their current Meeting House in Cowl Street (which of course is where the VEHS talks are held). It is not known how much of the original 17th century building survives.
Gerry reviewed the history of the Baptists and the Methodists in Evesham up to the 19th century, when, with the repeal of the Test Acts and Catholic Emancipation, religious freedom was established.
She finished her talk with a look at the Evesham returns for a government census of religious worship carried out 1851, showing details of services and church attendance on a particular day: Sunday 30 March that year. It transpired that though attendance at each individual non-conformist places of worship was considerably lower than that at the three Church of England churches (St Peter’s, Bengeworth, All Saints’ and St Lawrence), overall numbers of non-conformists were comparable to the numbers of members of the established church.
An extensive period of discussion followed the talk.