TAVISTOCK CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
It appears that a Congregational Church existed at Tavistock at least as early as the year 1652 and of this church Mr Larkham was the pastor. So that Mr Larkham held the officers of vicar of the parish church and pastor of the Nonconformist Church at one and the same time, a circumstance as it would appear by no means rare in those days.
AN HISTORICAL ACCOUNT
The following is the substance of a paper read by the Revd.J.M.Newland, at the Annual Meeting of the Church held January 25th 1869.
This church had its origin like so many others in the secession which followed upon the passing of the Act of Uniformity in the year 1662. Of the two thousand ministers of the gospel, who then gave up all, braving poverty and persecution for conscience sake, Devonshire has the honour of claiming the largest number of any county in England. One hundred and thirty seven (137) of her clergy were ejected by this Act. The number in the adjoining counties being - Cornwall 41. Dorsetshire 54. Gloucester 52 and Somerset 99. The numbers in Devonshire exceeding those in the counties of Essex and Yorkshire. Names of distinction are to be found in the Devonshire list, amongst them John Flavel of Dartmouth, Mr Nosworthy and Mr Collins.
In Tavistock the Rev. Thomas Larkham was at this time the clergyman of the parish church. Twelve or fifteen years before this date, the living being vacant, the then Earl of Bedford had promised to present and pay any minister whom the inhabitants should choose. They fixed upon Mr Larkham, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, who in early life had been compelled by the tyranny of the bishops to take refuge in New England, but returned to his native land just at this period - A volume of his sermons on the attributes of God, preached in this parish church is still extant. Whilst labouring in Tavistock with great zeal and success, he also was ejected by the Act of Uniformity. His attached congregation unwilling to be deprived of his services applied in their perplexity to the Countess of Bedford, who was pre eminently distinguished for her pious and amiable character. She not only listened to their application, but solicited and obtained from the Earl one of the vacant Abbey buildings as a place of worship. This was none other than the Abbey Refectory, which from that day to this has continued to be a Nonconformist Chapel. The Earl granted to the petitioners the free use of this building together with an annuity of Ten Pounds yearly , which has been regularly paid almost to the present date.
A word or two may here be inserted respecting this Countess of Bedford, and the connection of the house of Russell with Tavistock.
In 1506, Philip, Archduke of Austria, having been driven by a storm into the port of Plymouth, was hospitably entertained by Sir Thomas Trenchard a neighbouring country gentleman, and Sir Thomas invited a Mr Russell, as being a traveller and good linguist to meet his unexpected guest. During this visit Mr Russell so pleased the Archduke that he recommended him to the King by whom he was appointed one of the gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. He afterwards attended Henry Vlll in his expedition into France. In 1522 he was knighted.
At the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands of the Abbey of Tavistock, and of the dissolved monastery at Woburn were conferred upon him and he was made Earl of Bedford. He died in 1555 and was succeeded by Francis, second Earl. Another Francis succeeded him and the fourth Earl was William Russell who married Lady Ann Cave, daughter of the Countess of Somerset. This was the Countess of Bedford, who befriended the ejected minister of Tavistock, and who was mother of Lord William Russell of famous memory, Member for Tavistock at this very time.
The history of Lord William Russell is known by all. His indignation was roused by the hypocrisy and shameless venality of Charles ll and he gave all his strength to the popular cause. He ranged himself with the defenders of Protestantism and opposed the false King’s policy and the attempt to restore Popery in England. "I never knew" says Burnet "any man have so entire credit with the nation as he had". Charged with a part in the "Rye House Plot" he was tried for High Treason. The evidence against him was contradictory and insufficient. No one charge in the indictment was proved. But he was found guilty and sentenced to death: beheaded in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on the 21st July 1683, attended to the last by his noble and devoted wife, Lady Rachel Russell. His son was created first Duke of Bedford.
The Rev.T. Larkham lived only seven years after his ejectment. While numbers of the ejected ministers were driven from place to place by the operation of the Five Mile Act and the Conventicle Act were fined, imprisoned, persecuted Mr Larkham was suffered peacefully to preach under the very shadow of the church he had left, protected by the powerful influence of the house of Russell. He was at one time threatened with imprisonment if he went beyond his own house but the threats were never put into execution. After his death his enemies would have prevented his interment in the church, but the Steward of the Earl of Bedford interfered and he was buried in that part of the chancel which belonged to the family of Bedford.
Two other of the ejected ministers succeeded Mr Larkham in the ministry at Abbey Chapel. The Rev. W Pearse who was ejected from Dunsford Church whose ministry at Tavistock continued for nineteen years and the Rev. Henry Flamank of Lanivet Church Cornwall minister for 4 years and who died in 1692.
During the succeeding century, the following ministers were pastors of the church at Tavistock
Rev. Jacob Sandercock - 41 years
Rev Peter Jillorrd - 11 years
Rev Samuel Merivale - 16 years
Rev. Bernard Dowdell - 10 years
Rev. Theophilus Edwards - 22 years
During this period a spirit of scepticism and indifference had crept over the churches and in this the church at Tavistock shared. When the departure from the old standards of belief had become pronounced and Unitarian principles were around , a few families, finding no remedy, refused any longer to continue their connection with the lapsed church, withdrew from the old place of meeting and set about forming another church more in accordance with their views of Christian truth. This took place in the year 1794.
In the same year Mr Edwards left the Abbey Chapel and was succeeded by the Rev. William Evans who continued as minister of the place for 47 years until the year 1841.
The few families forming the new congregation, with manifold faith, proceeded to the building of a place of worship. This edifice stood in what is now Bedford Square, and before being pulled down, became converted into two dwelling houses.
The new chapel was opened by the Rev. William Rooker July 3rd 1796. The sermon was preached from the text "Whom we preach" - and there is yet living one member of the church (Susan Farnham) who can recall the occasion, and especially remembers one of the hymns that were sung, viz the hymn of Dr Watts commencing, ‘When the first parents of our race ...’
On the 30th October 1796 Mr Rooker became the settled pastor of the church. He was ordained June 19th 1799. Very soon galleries were added to the chapel and in 1820 it became necessary to build a new and larger place of meeting which was opened August 30th of that year. On the 24th August 1832 a fire occurred which destroyed nearly the whole of the building but it was rebuilt and reopened in the following year.
Of the events of Mr Rooker’s life and ministry many present are well aware. A tablet to his memory stands in the present chapel and a brief memoir from which some of the foregoing particulars are taken was compiled by his son Mr William Rooker of Plymouth, a copy of which is to be found in the vestry library.
The Rev John Lockwood entered upon his ministry in 1844, first as co-pastor with Mr Rooker, and then upon Mr Rooker’s retirement as sole pastor of the church. During his ministry the present schoolrooms were built (and were opened in 1847) at a cost of £400. Mr Lockwood was succeeded by Mr Straker in 1851.
In 1855 the Rev W Major Paull became pastor of the church and was succeeded in 1859 by the Rev Edmund Miller. The Rev J M Newland entered upon his ministry in 1867.
Subsequently to the reading of the foregoing paper a correspondence arose between the Rev N Lewis of Cockermouth in Cumberland and the Rev J M Newland of Tavistock, which has resulted in further information respecting the Rev Thomas Larkham, founder of the Tavistock Church, and respecting the way in which the church originated.
Mr Lewis explained that he was preparing a history of the church at Cockermouth and that the Rev. Thomas Larkham was founder of that church also, that his journal was preserved in that locality and contained some interesting allusions to Tavistock and Mr Lewis wrote in this first instance to ask for an explanation of some terms found in this journal, which he supposed might be explained by local customs.
Extracts from Mr Larkham’s journal clearly substantiate the fact in his case. What were the circumstances which first brought Mr Larkham into Cumberland, there is nothing to show, but it was while he was pastor of the church at Tavistock that he undertook the forming of a few Christian brethren at Cockermouth into a church, of which church, his son the Rev. George Larkham shortly after became the pastor, and so continued until his death in the year 1700.
There is also evidence to show that a Mr Deliverance Larkham, son of Mr George Larkham of Cockermouth, was about the year 1694, pastor of the church at Launceston, although the date of the formation of that church is given in the Congregational Year Book as 1712. A daughter of the Rev. Thomas Larkham, named Jane, married Mr Daniel Condy of Tavistock and about the year 1671 Mr George Larkham made a journey from Cockermouth to Tavistock, but finds "his dear sister there, removed to the other world." He "was absent about two months in that long and tedious journey."
The following additional particulars respecting the Rev. Thomas Larkham, are also from the same source.
He was born at Lyme Regis, Dorsetshire Aug 17th 1601. He was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge and was first settled at Northam. Thoroughly puritan, he was exposed to "vexatious prosecutions" and in a short period "almost all the courts of England" were familiar with his name and could testify to his sufferings. The Star Chamber and the High Commission Court held him at the same time, within their grasp. A suit was promoted against him in the Consistory Court of Exeter, for the alleged crime of slander, he having reproved "an atheistical wretch" by dealing with him as "an atheist" in his endeavour to bring him to a better state of mind.
Pursuivants came upon him, one upon the back of another, till at last, by the tyranny of the Bishop, and the tenderness of his conscience, he was forced into New England.
November 14 1642 was the date of Mr Larkham’s return from exile. After his return he accepted an appointment as chaplain to the regiment of Sir Hardrass Waller and was chosen by the inhabitants of Tavistock as their minister.
At Tavistock his labours were productive of the fruits of righteousness, indeed they were crowned with more than ordinary success. A gentleman, whose name was Wilcox of Linkinhorne in Cornwall went to hear him on one occasion, merely with the design of diverting himself, but he left "pricked at the heart" and ever after he cherished a particular respect for Mr Larkham.
Scurrilous pamphlets were written against him by one Mr Watts who, some time after, openly professed his sorrow and begged forgiveness.
In 1653, Mr Larkham thus writes in his journal "Thus farre the Lord hath holpen me and hath delivered me from all my fears, troubles and dangers. By him I have leaped over many walls and have skipped over many craggy mountains. I remember thy great name in England and thy poor despised handful in Tavistock. This present first of June I write these lines. This day twelve month I had the doors of the parish church shutt up against me by Hawsnorth, a sad trooper in the Kings army, chosen the Saturday before to be churchwarden, and confirmed by Glanville and others. I have been this year exceedingly persecuted by arrests, in the Committee for plundered ministers, by enditement for a supposed Riott with divers of my brethren to the expense of at least £50 charges. Yet, out of all the Lord hath delivered me; blessed be his name."
Again. Jany 18. 1661. " I was made a prisoner by Col. Howard and had a guard of six soldiers put into my house, and the Monday following was conveyed by sixty troopers to the Provost Marshall at Exeter, and returned not until April 11th. Eighty four days in all. Divers men and women sent tokens of their love to me, the which I wrote out and cannot now find. The Lord grant that it may be for the furtherance of their profit and abound to their account respectively. Thou Lord knowest them by name and what they did in the way of communicating with mine affliction."
Mr Larkham died at Tavistock in 1669, aged 68, lamented by pious persons of all persuasions in those parts. "He was a man of great sincerity, strict piety and good learning." Notwithstanding his many excellencies, he for some time before his death, dared not "stir abroad for fear of a jail and even after death, so bitter was "the malice of some" that they endeavoured to prevent his burial within the walls of the church. But the Earl of Bedford interfered through his steward, and a resting place was found for the body of the good old man in that part of the chancel which belonged to his Lordship’s family.
Mr Larkham published sermons on the attributes of God, on the Wedding Supper and on paying Tithes.
In the diary of the Rev George Larkham there occurs this entry..February 20th 1661 " I parted with my dear Father at Wigan in Lancashire, having brought him on so far, in his way from my house to Devon"
In the previous August (1660) Mr Larkham was summoned from Tavistock to the assizes at Exeter, to defend himself against two indictments, but his case being postponed to the Lent assizes, instead of returning to Tavistock, he "rode forward to Cumberland where the Lord preserved me in health and safety" He was now on his way from Cockermouth to meet those indictments, reaching Tavistock March 1st where he proceeded to Exeter. (There appears to be some error here with regard to dates.)
Memorandum. June 2 1871.
A note from Mr Lewis of Cockermouth announces his intention of publishing the diary of Mr Thomas Larkham complete. A copy of this diary will, when received, be deposited in the vestry library. (This has been lost!)