Celebrating 180 Years!
A Permanent Baptist Presence
Laurie Rowston asks . . .
How determined are we to maintain a Baptist presence in Tasmania? Are we doing the transformational work required to stay relevant in 2021? Do we retain the resolve of our forebears?
City Baptist Celebrates
In just a few weeks, on Sunday December 27, City Baptist will celebrate a memorable occasion in Launceston: the opening 180 years ago of the Baptist Chapel in York Street on Sunday December 27, 1840. This event was the beginning of a permanent presence of Baptists in Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was then called. Note the word permanent!
York St Chapel and adjoining Manse
Some years previously, in December 1834, the arrival in Van Diemen's Land of the Rev. Henry Dowling (pictured), was intended only as a visit to see family. His eldest son, Henry Dowling Junior, had arrived in 1831, and was now establishing himself. Eventually, Dowling Jnr became one of the most significant people in early Launceston. But Dowling Snr didn't plan to stay long, and brought with him only 100 pounds (approx. $15,500 in 2020), to pay for his and his family's return to England.
All good plans can change
However, on arrival, the Rev. Henry Dowling learned two things. First, that his Colchester Chapel in the UK had been sold, and instead of remaining a Particular Baptist Chapel--a Baptist Chapel with Calvinist teaching, the new owner made it a Strict Baptist--Communion restricted to members only. While Dowling was a Calvinist, he was not a Strict Baptist. Most Baptist Churches in England at the time were Calvinist in their theology. So, the Chapel at Colchester was now closed to him.
Secondly, he discovered the need in the colony was such, that he felt he ought to stay. However, instead of constituting a Baptist Church, he formed the Van Diemen's Land Baptist Missionary Society. Then, he began the work of an itinerant pastor, riding the length of the colony, visiting those who were Baptist, and anyone else who would receive him. He wrote at the time, "A missionary work is far more suited to our state of things."
He also spoke to the chain gangs and road parties. In country districts he married settlers if they so wished. He also "dedicated to the Lord" their children, and baptised believers in streams and pools. As he settled into this itinerant life, the dream of a chapel in Launceston grew in his mind.
Finally, he spent the 100 pounds he had kept to return home, and opened the chapel in Launceston. This represents his commitment to long-term Baptist ministry in the colony--a ministry which continues in us to this day. The Church was constituted on 22 December 1840, and five days later, on December 27, the new chapel was opened.
Tasmanian Baptists were amongst early trail-blazers
So the opening of the York St Chapel was a significant event, notably impacting our Tasmanian Baptist heritage. There were already several church denominations in the colony at the time, and we Baptists added to the growth. The Anglicans had certainly made their presence felt, and invested heavily in the work. Equally, the Wesleyan Methodists were early trail-blazers, and were more established earlier than the Anglicans, but the Anglicans came to the fore in time. The Congregationalists arrived at the same time as the Rev. Dowling, and they too put down roots.
It was another 30 years before the Brethren and Church of Christ arrived in the 1870s, which shows just how early we Baptists were established. Eventually, the Salvation Army arrived in the 1880s.
Resolve and determination: The stepping-stones from York St to City Baptist
- The building of the York Street Chapel was the resolve of Dowling and his Launceston Baptists. It represents the determination to be a long-term Baptist presence in Launceston.
- Then, more than 40 years on, the building of the Cimitiere Street Tabernacle (1884), pictured, is evidence of the continuing resolve of Launceston Baptists to remain a long-term presence. Sadly, the Particular Baptists in the York Street Chapel had become inward-looking and sectarian.
Cimitiere Tabernacle, then
Cimitiere Tabernacle, now
- Eventually, Cimitiere Street became an industrial area, and the Tabernacle was no longer where the people were. So, continuing the resolve of Baptists in Launceston to be a long-term presence, the Tabernacle Church moved to Brisbane Street in 1950, becoming Central Baptist Church. Yet Brisbane Street also proved an interim measure.
- Finally, in 1983, there was the move from Brisbane Street to Frederick Street, now City Baptist, as a continuing resolve of Baptists in Launceston to be a long-term Baptist presence in the city.
The question for Tasmanian Baptists approaching 2021
So, we might ask in 2020, how is City Baptist, or any of our other Tasmanian Baptist churches, undergoing transformation so they remain a continuing Baptist presence, whether it be in a city, town or rural community? This is the continuing challenge for all Tasmanian Baptists as we find ourselves in a similar place to Rev Dowling Snr, saying, "A missionary work is far more suited to our state of things."
Tasmanian Baptists Historian
Laurie has just released a book telling the story of the York Street Particular Baptist Chapel, 1840-1916.
The 133-page book (plus 24-pages of black & white and coloured photographs) is stitched with hardback covers.
The books are $30 and can be ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org