Serving the Community for over 184 years
Our history - Shoreditch Tabernacle Baptist Church
Walking down Curtain Road in 1829 you might have heard a voice coming from a warehouse, possibly the good and godly James Bradley. He had started a Sunday School for ‘poor, ragged and wicked children’, of which there were multiplying numbers in 19thcentury Shoreditch. Meeting one evening with others in the home of William Perkins, ‘trimming maker’ of Curtain Road, it was agreed to form a Baptist church. Soon the congregation had an able pastor, James Smith. He attracted a growing congregation so land where the present Tab Centre sits was purchased for £350. The first building, Providence Chapel seating 6-700 people, was opened in 1836. It was a time of controversy among non-conformists over matters such as who should be permitted to take communion and this church suffered from these divisions for the first 30 years.
After some years of unsteady development a strong congregation of several hundred invited William Cuff to be the Pastor. A former butcher, he was a lively, ‘feet on the ground’ preacher of the gospel, deeply committed to serving the often desperately poor people who lived in the area. Within four weeks of his arrival in 1872 there was no room on a Sunday in the chapel. Cuff was hardly able to get in the door. The deacons agreed to hire the 800 seater Vestry Hall (now the Town Hall) into which, by one account, 1800 people squashed for Cuff’s evening services. They had to have more room. ‘Cuff’s Tabernacle’, seating 2000 and opening onto Hackney Road was completed in 1879. Then in 1890 a creatively designed ‘Lecture Room’ was built to accommodate the enormous number of children who came. This exists as the Grade 2 listed ‘Tab Centre’.
The leaders and members of the church were deeply involved in community service. Within five minutes’ walk of the church was the ‘Old Nichol’ and area of abject poverty, crime and disease. It was demolished in 1891 and replaced as the Boundary Estate. Over these decades the Tabernacle staffed about 20 different ‘missions’, with services, Sunday schools and community work. Church members from the ‘visiting society’ went out every week to hundreds of homes with food, clothes and gospel literature to serve the needs of the lonely, forsaken and sick.
This breadth of church work and preaching continued after Cuff’s eventual retirement in 1927 with able ministers and leaders sustaining the varied activities. In particular over the next 50 years Shoreditch had 25 greatly influential ‘deaconesses’ acting as assistants and social workers. They usually wore a uniform and were recognised and loved for their works of mercy and gospel preaching among women and children. A notable pastor, his wife Ruth a trained deaconess, was former Sunderland United player Earnest Clifford. After the economic stresses and decline of the 1920s they oversaw much needed refurbishment of the Tabernacle and strengthened the church in many areas. But even their great effort and the amazing resilience of the church in wartime London could not prevent terrible destruction. One night in 1944 a ‘doodlebug’ sealed the fate of the Shoreditch Tabernacle.
The 1960s building that eventually replaced it saw many good times and much able leadership, but the post-war decline of both the area and the church could not be reversed. By the latter years of the century finance from Baptist Home Mission was needed to sustain the ministry. In 2000 the courageous and ‘faith-based’ group of leaders, inspired by their new pastor Sarah Parry, began to create a new mood. The buildings were cleared of clutter and refurbished. The ‘Tab Centre’ gradually became a managed asset rather than a liability. Money sources were tapped and vision came for developing the whole block and to build a new worship sanctuary. The long tradition of serving grew strong through weekly activities of the church in the Tab Centre. The ‘new’ church was demolished and under new leadership a whole fresh impetus of worship, Bible teaching, mission and service has grown.
For more than 180 years this church has worshipped, witnessed and served and the story as a whole is astonishing. In this densely populated area of London, with its enormous and social and spiritual need, a Baptist Church grew up and still prospers. Her people consist of thousands who loved and sacrificed in spite of decline or deeply damaging setbacks. Year after year, decade after decade, they regrouped, recovered and rebuilt, and still are making impact with the gospel of Jesus Christ who transforms lives and communities.
See Chris Voke, When I Grow Rich - A History of Shoreditch Baptist Church (Baptist Historical Society, 2017) obtainable from the church at £10.00.