Our Meetings are as follows...
Sundays 10.30am. every 2nd, 4th and 5th
Bible Studies every Thursday at 7.30pm
The building is open for visitors to look around every Saturday
from 10.00am to 4.00pm during June,July and August.

A Brief History of Hamsterley Baptist Church

As the Baptist church at Hamsterley celebrates its 360th anniversary in 2012, it can look back with pride on the significant contribution it has made to Baptist life in Hamsterley and throughout the North of England.  The origins of the church can be traced back to the formation of a Baptist church in Hexham in 1652 under the leadership of Thomas Tillam.  Tillam, with the passion of an evangelist, reached out beyond Hexham, and he and those who succeeded him in the leadership of the Hexham church established Baptist congregations in several locations, including Broomley, Muggleswick and Bitchburn, near Bishop Auckland.

The church at Bitchburn, under the leadership of Henry Blacket, grew in numbers and influence, and in addition played a prominent role in the early years of the Northern Baptist Association.  In 1714 the Bitchburn church decided to erect a Baptist meeting house in Hamsterley which was opened in 1715, and this became the new location for the church.  This was one of the first dissenting chapels built in the North of England, and in the first twenty years of its existence, it hosted the annual Northern Baptist Association Assembly meetings on eleven occasions.  In 1741 the church became a significant centre of Christian witness under the leadership of Isaac Garner, who pastored the church for sixteen years until his death in 1758 at the age of 41 years.

The church was blessed with two other pastors of great ability in subsequent years – Charles Whitfield (1771-1821) and David Douglas (1822-1849) – and under their leadership the church continued to prosper.  Charles Whitfield was born in Weardale in 1748, and when 13 years of age moved to Newcastle to begin an apprenticeship.  At that time John Wesley’s Methodist movement was spreading throughout the North East, and Charles Whitfield joined the Methodist Society in Newcastle.  John Wesley himself recognised Whitfield as a young man of great promise, and took a personal interest in his development as a local preacher and church leader by providing him with study facilities.

However, Whitfield began to have reservations about John Wesley’s ‘Arminian’ theology, and in addition became convinced about the Biblical truth of believers’ baptism.  As a result, he left Methodism and became a member of the Baptist church in Newcastle.  He made frequent visits to the place of his early years in Weardale, and on several occasions preached at some of the Baptist churches in the vicinity.  In 1771 the Hamsterley church, which at that time was linked to the congregations at Rowley and Hindley, invited him to take pastoral oversight of the three congregations, and on his acceptance he took up residence in Hamsterley, where he remained until his death in 1821.

The church soon grew under his leadership, and by 1774 attendances at the church ranged between 150 and 200 people each week.  Around this time the church was rebuilt with an adjoining manse.  Whitfield was widely recognised as a Hebrew scholar (as well as Latin and Greek), and an evidence of this is his inscribing the Hebrew word for ‘Bethel’ (which means ‘house of God’) above the door of the newly rebuilt church.

Due to the growth of the church it was decided in 1785 that the Rowley/Hindley congregations would separate from Hamsterley and appoint their own pastor, and so from then until his death 36 years later, Whitfield devoted his time and energies to the church at Hamsterley.  His concern, however, extended well beyond the village.  In 1775 he published a book entitled, ‘The Form and Order of a Gospel Church’, and he was being increasingly recognised nationally as a leader in Biblical and theological scholarship.  He was the driving force in the revival of the Northern Baptist Association, and in the last 25 years of his life was recognised as the leading Baptist in North East England, initiating many evangelistic endeavours and establishing several new Baptist churches throughout the region.  When Charles Whitfield died in 1821, his passing was mourned throughout the whole Baptist denomination, and the Hamsterley congregation erected a stone in their chapel graveyard to honour his memory.

Two years before his death, Charles Whitfield was struck down with paralysis, which resulted in him being unable to continue his pastoral and preaching work.  He invited David Douglas, a young Scot from Edinburgh who was a student at the recently formed Bradford Baptist Academy, to provide temporary ministry to the Hamsterley church during his incapacity.  On Whitfield’s death, David Douglas accepted the invitation to be pastor of the church, and he served the church for 27 years until his death in 1849.  He was a worthy successor to Charles Whitfield, both in his ministry at Hamsterley and his active interest in the well-being of all the Baptist churches in the Association.  During his ministry the church established three new congregations in Teesdale (Middleton, Egglesburn and Eggleston) and a fourth in Brough in Westmorland.

It is perhaps worth recording that David Douglas experienced considerable personal sorrow during his years at Hamsterley.  His wife died in 1822 after only seven months of marriage, and in 1841 his second wife died aged 41 years.  Four of his children died in their youth at Hamsterley, including his eldest son who was almost blind and whose death occurred when he was 14 years of age.  Yet despite all these things, he exercised a faithful and fruitful ministry, and as with his predecessor, his death was widely mourned.  But he left a church that was strong and active in Christian work and witness.  Some indication of this can be seen in the 1851 Census which reveals that in the village of Hamsterley on 30 March that year 138 persons attended the Baptist Church, 55 the Methodist Church, and 53 the Parish Church.

It could be said that by the middle of the nineteenth century the ‘glory days’ of Hamsterley had come to an end.  Growing towns were coming into existence throughout the region due to the vast expansion of the coal mining industry, and the leadership of the Association passed from Hamsterley to the larger churches that had been established in these new towns.

In the 1850s the church entered into a joint pastorate with the Wolsingham church, but this was short-lived and unfruitful and was eventually discontinued.  In 1869 the Rev J P Beel became the pastor at Hamsterley, and during his pastorate the church experienced renewal.  There were, however, two factors that militated against the church seeing great numerical growth.  First, new Baptist churches were being planted in neighbouring growing towns such as Bishop Auckland, Witton Park and Crook, and some of the members of Hamsterley transferred their membership to these new causes to help them become established. And secondly, since the village of Hamsterley was outside the area of the exposed Durham coalfield, it meant that the village did not see any large growth in population due to mining operations such as was seen in other places. 

In the period from 1904 onwards the church entered into several joint pastorate schemes with other nearby churches, and although this meant that regular services could be maintained, the church was never to see the numerical growth that had characterised it a century before.  Throughout most of the twentieth century, simply maintaining the services and activities occupied the members’ energies, and by 1970 things had deteriorated to such an extent that the church’s worship service was held on only one Sunday each month.  In 1972 Mr Angus Pearson, a member of the Rowley church, began to serve the church as lay pastor and secretary, a service he continued for over twenty years.

In 1987 the Department of the Environment listed the church and the manse as buildings of architectural and historic importance by giving it a Grade II* listing, and this placed on the members a responsibility for maintaining the fabric in good condition.  Some restoration work took place in the following years, and this secured the use of the premises for future generations.  By the beginning of the 21st century services again began to be held monthly, with Bible Study every Thursday evening, and in 2010 a new era in the life of the church began with the appointment of the Rev Ray Richardson as pastor/Moderator.  We are now holding services on 2nd 4th and 5th Sundays when members of the other Baptist Churches in the Mid Durham group (Crook and Bishop Auckland) join together at Hamsterley.