The Green Street roots of the Cambridge Unitarian Church

As I mentioned in my post last Saturday about the formal opening of our current church in January 1928, as far as I knew there was no organised, formal Unitarian/Socinian presence in Cambridge before 1875/6 when, as F. J. M. Stratton (1881-1960) our church’s very distinguished first chairman told the public meeting which followed the opening service, the congregation had begun to meet in the “smoky atmosphere” of a billiard room in Green Street. However, I was wholly unaware of the following, additional, claim made by Stratton in the same meeting that:

“The Unitarian Church was formed in 1680, and met in a chapel in Green Street until 1818, when the lease of the building fell in.”

Naturally, I wondered whether this were true. Fortunately, a member of the congregation, Brian Keegan, very kindly did some searching through an online archive of newspapers to which he subscribes and found two articles in the Cambridge Independent Press during 1906 which reveals Stratton was completely correct. Not only that but, as the second of the two articles will reveal, Stratton’s decision to restart the Unitarian cause in Cambridge in the “smoky atmosphere” of a billiard room in Green Street was, almost certainly, motivated by its direct connection with our earliest forebears. In doing this he ensured that there is a real physical as well as spiritual, theological and philosophical continuity between our modern congregation and this very interesting and, at times, theologically very radical, meeting house.

Where possible Ive added hypertext links to my transcription below to help better reveal some of the background of various names mentioned in the text and, of course to reveal something of the noncreedal, Arminian, Socinian, Unitarian connections that abound. If you find anymore and/or better ones please let me know. To help orientate yourselves through the twists and turns of the story below, here’s a map of the scene taken from the marvellous Capturing Cambridge website. Click on the picture to enlarge it. You might also find it interesting to consult this town map from 1800 which shows another Presbyterian meeting house at the Trinity Street end of Green Street which is not mentioned in the texts below. Whats going on there? 

The Cambridge Independent Press, August 31, 1906, p. 4

Many times writers have told the story of Cambridge Nonconformity so far as it regards the congregations at St. Andrew’s Street and at Emmanuel Church. But alongside of them there once existed another gathering at least as influential as they, whose history is quite forgotten and has never been put into print — the congregation of the old Meeting-house, long ago utterly vanished, on the north side of Green Street.

Even before the Toleration Act, that street had possessed a Nonconformist assembly. The returns of conventicles in 1680 record one which met at “Widow Elizabeth Petit’s house in Green Street,” and was ministered to by the Rev. Samuel Corbyn, a former chaplain of Trinity College. Eleven years before, the returns of 1669 record the same brave widow as sheltering in her house in St. Michael’s parish — the street is not specified — the only important congregation of Nonconformists that Cambridge then possessed. It consisted of about a hundred hearers ; and was ministered to by three divines who had been ejected in 1652 from Trinity and Clare under the Act of Uniformity :— Corbyn, and Oddy, and the apostolic confessor Holcroft. [See also this link.]

After the Toleration Act, we find a Congregational Church established in Green Street, with a settled meeting house. This meeting house lay some distance back from the street, and was — at any rate in modern times — accessible only through a narrow passage that ran between two houses. Such secluded situations were commonly preferred for the early Nonconformist edifices, as affording a useful protection against mob violence. As this meeting-house was (and always continued to be) private property, It may very well have been the selfsame building where Widow Petit had kept up Nonconformist worship in the days before Toleration. It lay on the north side of Green Street, and towards the Sidney street end of it. Its congregation was ministered to by an old Caius man, Thomas Taylor ; who after being master the endowed school of Swaffham, in Norfolk, became (in the time of Cromwell) minister of a small Independent congregation that met in the Shire-hall at Bury St. Edmund’s. (The parish-churches of that town were then in the hands of the Presbyterians). In 1662 the Act of Uniformity broke up this congregation ; and Taylor was “silenced” (though, as he held no endowed benefice, he cannot be ranked amongst the two thousand divines who were actually “ejected”). Soon afterwards he had to spend a year in Bury prison for the offence of Nonconformity. On his release, he went to London ; and supported himself by going into trade, but continued to preach as opportunities offered. Very soon after the Toleration Act, he settled at Cambridge as pastor of the Green Street congregation. In 1692 he published a book, “Jacob Wrestling and Prevailing,” which he had written in 1660 ; and it was followed in 1693 by his volume “The True Light.” These books show him stern against Quakers and other “despisers of ordinances,” but equally stern against liturgies. He seems to have been a moderate Calvinist and a quiet, thoughtful man. A friend of his describes him in 1692 as “a judicious and faithful minister who hath witnessed a good confession, and that in bonds, for the commandments of God.” In his book of 1693 he describes his Green-street flock as only “small.” It was much surpassed in numbers by the “Great Meeting,” in Hog Hill (i.e., what is now Downing-place), which was ministered to by the Rev. Joseph Hussey, and which is now represented by Emmanuel Church. That congregation was of Presbyterian origin, but in 1694 Hussey induced it to begin to follow Congregational usages, and in October, 1696, it carried them to the extent of devising a “church covenant,” by which the members bound themselves together. These innovations caused some to, give up church membership, though without ceasing to attend the Great Meeting ; but others to leave it altogether and join Green-street. These new comers obtained sufficient influence in Taylor’s church to induce it to cease to be Congregational, whereupon some of the older amongst its members seceded to Mr. Hussey’s flock.

Probably the smallness of the Green-street Church made it easy for a few zealous people to transform its system of government. But it must be remembered that the change was far slighter than it appears to us now-a-days, accustomed to think of “Presbyterianism” in its Scottish form. That form, with the close-knit centralisation of Presbyteries and Synods, was never generally adopted in England, even in the Commonwealth period. And when the Presbyterians organised themselves again, on the passing of the Toleration Act, they abandoned all attempt at centralisation. Their congregations were just as independent of each others’ authority as were those of the Independents themselves. And practically the only difference between the two denominations lay in this — that the power of governing the affairs of a congregation, and especially of admitting new church members, was exercised amongst the Independents by a democratic vote of all its members, and the new member was received only on making satisfactory public declaration before them all of his religious faith. In a Presbyterian congregation, on the other hand, the power was regarded as altogether delegated to the minister and office bearers, and the new member was required to satisfy them alone. The close alliance of both branches of Nonconformity in Cambridge in even their very earliest days is well attested by the fact that, about 1690, on the death of Francis Holcroft (the ejected Fellow of Clare, who had been in days of persecution. “the Apostle of Cambridgeshire”), the preface to his funeral sermon was signed jointly by Taylor as the minister of the Congregationalists, and by Joseph Hussey as minister of the Presbyterians. In Thoresby’s letters (preserved in the British Museum) there is mention of a Rev. Thomas Leavesley as having settled in 1697 as minister at Cambridge ; so he very likely came to be colleague to the aged Mr. Taylor. Leavesley afterwards became minister at the Old Jewry, 1726, and died in 1737. He must have been a man of “broad” tendencies, for at the Salter’s Hall controversy, he voted with the party who opposed subscription to creeds. As he came in 1697, just a few months after there had seceded from Hog-hill the Presbyterian group who joined Green-street, and led it to change to Presbyterian usages, it is possible that this change brought about the call of Mr. Leavesley.

In November, 1700, Mr. Taylor died, aged seventy-five, and was buried in the meeting house. It is wrongly stated in Calamy’s great history of early Nonconformity that Hussey then succeeded to his pulpit. Hussey was busy in a far larger congregation. His actual successor (probably from 1701 onwards) was the erudite James Peirce, afterwards famous at Exeter. In 1701, Peirce became a trustee of the Hog-hill Chapel so he must have been already settled In Cambridge. He was a Congregationalist by origin, but had received his ordination from Presbyterian ministers. He had received a University education at Leyden and Utrecht. In 1701 he was now eight and twenty. At Cambridge he formed an acquaintance with one of the best known of the Professors — the mathematician Whiston — which led to results important, through both of the men, to the history of English controversial theology. Peirce was orthodox until some years after he left Cambridge, and so was Whiston, but they ultimately became the most prominent Arians of their generation. When Peirce first came he found his little congregation in Green-street “a discontented people,” but he left them contented and happy. He came only intending to stay three years, but did stay six. By 1708 he had settles as minister at Newbury.

At Cambridge his usual custom was to go into his study when the curfew rang at nine, and to sit till four or five in the morning, and yet be never thought the time long. His study looked into a churchyard. One night (see the “Monthly Repository” for 182l, p. 330) he looked out of its window, and saw in the churchyard a horse without a head. He watched carefully, and saw it move on its four legs just like any other horse. He had no belief in ghosts, and determined to satisfy himself, so he returned once or twice to the window, but there it always was. Next morning he looked again, and found it was the horse which was all white, with a head that was quite black, and which therefore was quite black, and which therefore was not to be seen in the dark so easily as the rest of the animal could be. This went, he said, to confirm his opinion that all ghost stories, if carefully sifted, would equally easily disappear. Though so cool and calm an inquirer, yet he retained sufficient Puritan prejudices to refuse to go to his owe daughter’s wedding because she was to be married with a wedding ring. The anecdote recalls the fact that, just about a hundred years later, the illustrious Robert Hall, during his Cambridge ministry, lodged in Petty-cury, in rooms overlooking St. Andrew’s Churchyard, and that the first symptom of his becoming insane was his delusion that he saw “the gravestones rise in rapid succession from the graves, and beat against the church tower like boys playing at fives or tennis.”

It seems to have been hard to find a suitable successor to him, for by 1715 Hussey bitterly accuses them of having had twenty ministers in the fifteen years — of course, mere “supplies.” In that year their congregation had some three hundred persons associated with it. Hussey’s had eleven hundred.

C. S. K.
The Cambridge Independent Press, September 7, 1906, p. 4

In 1715, the Green Street congregation had as its pastor the Rev. John Cumming, a Presbyterian, born in Ireland and ordained in Scotland. He removed in 1716 to London. Then George Wightwick became their pastor, but in 1720 removed to a Colchester congregation. Peirce had never distinctly called himself Presbyterian; but Cumming and Wightwick did.

In 1721, the Green Street congregation (still numbering some three hundred), invited to its pulpit the afterwards celebrated James Duchal; whose history, like Peirce’s, may be read in the “Dictionary of National Biography.” He ultimately became one of the most famous men in the history of Irish Presbyterianism ; but he always declared that his years in Cambridge had been “the most delightful part” of all his life. In 1728, during his Cambridge ministry, Duchal published a little volume containing three sermons on “The practice of Religion” which affords striking evidence of his own mental calibre, and therefore, presumably, of that of the congregation who had chosen him. The sermons read to us strangely modern. Unlike other Nonconformist discourses of that period, they quote freely from secular history ; and they are expressed not in Puritan diction, but in that of Addison. They recall the writings of the Cambridge Platonists ; and, in dignity and simplicity, their strain is that of the best pieces of Fenelon. A very competent critic (Principal Gordon, of Manchester) recently pronounced them “perhaps the most spiritual sermons that that period of English theology produced.” We may quote from them a few sentences :—

“A man must taste something of heaven here or he will never see it hereafter.” 

"We are in heaven now ; and at death we do but go into a higher station in it.”

“All the laws of morality may be summed up in this one, ‘be happy.’” 

“What is holiness but the conformity of our dispositions and actions to eternal reason! Therefore religion is nothing but the practice of reason.”

As Hussey had left Cambridge in 1720, and some twenty years elapsed before this Hog Hill congregation obtained any really able successor to him, we may conclude that Duchal would attract many of their people to Green-street. But in 1730, he left Cambridge and entered upon his brilliant career amongst the Presbyterians of Ulster. Two years later, when the Rev. Samuel Bourn, a Presbyterian Minister in Lancashire, was removing to Birmingham (in the history of which town he played a prominent part for the next twenty years), we find him vainly urged to wait awhile, as a call was coming to him from “the two congregations at Cambridge,” and he might be the means of combining them into one church. No doubt the congregations would be Green-street and Hog Hill ; for the latter pulpit was also vacant then. Bourn, however, did not come ; and Duchal was succeeded by John Notcutt, who left soon after 1740. In 1741, Notcutt gave hospitality to Dr. Doddridge, who visited Cambridge in June, and was “very respectfully received” by the authorities in several colleges, and who found as regards creature-comforts that “in Cambridge everything is exceedingly good in its kind, particularly the tea.” Doddridge in his letters twice describes Mr. Notcutt as “the dissenting minister” of Cambridge ; so the Green-street congregation must at this time have been decidedly the most important in Cambridge. Mr. Condor was then only beginning at Hog Hill (i.e., the Downing Place of to-day) that successful ministry which permanently shifted away the relative importance of Green-street.

In 1743, a pupil of Doddridge’s, Mr. Marshall, came to Green-street as minister ; but apparently to but a thorny field. For a hope is expressed that he will “revive vital religion” in his people, and that they “will retrieve their honour,” and it is feared that he will “soon become uneasy there,” (Doddridge’s Correspondence, vol. IV. 27, 212). How soon he left does not appear ; but in 1750 there came the Rev. Richard Jones, who also had been a pupil, and even for a time the secretary, of Dr. Doddridge. In an obituary of him in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1800 (p. 1,005), a very pleasant and amiable character is given of Mr. Jones. “At Cambridge, without betraying his principles, be lived in harmony with all the members of the University, and with many of them in the strictest intimacy and friendship.” He seems to have been a broad-minded and practical preacher. From Cambridge, he removed to the Crosby Hall Congregation in London, and afterwards to a congregation at Peckham. He died at Greenwich in 1800. His essay on “Friendship with God” was republished as recently as 1847 by the advice of an Anglican bishop.

Jones was followed about 1762 by Samuel Henley, from the Daventry Academy. He was a clever youth, but the congregation did not prosper under him. In 1769 he joined the Established Church. The “Dictionary of National Biography” tells us that, after passing some years in America, he became in 1782 Vicar of Rendlesham, and rose subsequently to be Principal of the famous East India College at Haileybury. He died in 1815. On his leaving Green-street, the chapel was closed for about two years. Then, in 1772, came another student from the Daventry Academy, John Robotham, “nearly, if not quite, a Socinian.” Besides being heterodox, he was tedious, and, under these two disadvantages, his little congregation dwindled rapidly. He left about 1778. The meeting-house was then closed, and the Presbyterian congregation disappeared. Some of its members took themselves to the Independents at Hog Hill ; others to the Baptists in St. Andrew's-street, then flourishing under the brilliant and masculine ministry of Robert Robinson (1760-1790), the most dramatic figure in the whole history of Cambridge Nonconformity.

In 1781 the closed Green-street chapel was re-opened as a Congregational Church by John Stittle, of whom Professor de Morgan has preserved some graphic recollections. John Stittle (miscalled “Stettle” by Byron in 1811 in the “Hints from Horace”), was born at Madingley in 1727, and died in 1813. He was one of the many Cambridgeshire converts won to piety by the eccentric clergyman, John Berridge, the friend of Wesley. He was a hedger and a thrasher, could read well, but never could write. This had the advantage of compelling him to preach extempore ; (and some people are said to wish, for the sake of the same advantage, that all preachers were blind). An anecdote, which Professor de Morgan has immortalised, represents him as saying, in contempt of academical learning, “D’ye think Powle (i.e., St. Paul) knew Greek?” But Professor Adam Sedgwick, the eminent geologist, declined this anecdote quite incredible, and utterly at variance with the strong mental powers which Stittle possessed. When Mr. Simeon, who had befriended Stittle, preached a University sermon, in which he stated Calvinism more moderately than had been usual with him, some of those Dissenters who had occasionally attended his church became offended at his apparent change of views, and consequently transferred themselves altogether to Stittle’s chapel. Simeon, nevertheless, did not resent this, and ultimately he very generously made Stittle a permanent quarterly allowance, which, he jocularly said. was “for shepherding my stray sheep.” (The tradition of this raying was preserved by a person who had often been employed by Simeon to carry the money). Stittle remained to the end a high Calvinist. He used to say, “Arminians are like wood-pigeons. They say ‘Do, do, do’ all day long, but they are the laziest birds that fly.” He would have sympathised with the poet who wrote :—

“Go search Paul’s Epistles, you shallow Arminians, 
You'll not find one text to support your opinions.” 

He rejected all water baptism, either of infants or adults. He had a standing feud with the undergraduates. They used, as Byron suggests, to go to Green-street to ridicule the sermons, and would bring sparrows into the chapel and let, them loose. One man, seeing himself watched, put his cap in front of his face. Stittle grimly said, “In the Day of Judgment there’ll be no caps to hide your face in.” In old age he used to be carried to the chapel in a Sedan chair. An undergraduate called out to the bearers as they were carrying Stittle over Magdalen Bridge, from Castle End where he lived. “Drop him over the bridge into hell.” Stittle replied, “They can’t ; for my Master keeps the keys of hell.” One day he was met in Petty Cury by three undergraduates, who respectively accosted him, the one as “Father Abraham,” the next as “Father Isaac,” and the third as “Father Jacob.” He replied, “I am none of the three, I am merely Saul, son of Kish, sent to seek my father’s asses. And lo ! have found them.” He preached so long a series of sermons on David, that one of his flock complained, “You have picked all the flesh of David’s bone.” He replied, “Yes, and I shall now crack the bones and see what marrow is in them.” In one sermon he compared eternity to a clock so gigantic that it said “tic” in one century and “tac” in the next. Then suddenly turning to some undergraduates in the chapel he said : “Go home and calculate the length of that clock’s pendulum.” On one occasion when insulted by undergraduates he invited one of them to come to his house and share the “herby pie” supper of his family ; after which be induced him to stay on for family worship ; this resulted in the youth being led to think seriously of religion, and in his ultimately becoming a valuable clergyman. Stittle was four times married, and survived his fourth wife. He said that if he had known that he should survive her so many years he would have married a fifth one. (But he had not the foresight of the man who engraved on the wedding ring of the fourth wife, “If I survive I’ll make them five.”) In Dean Alford’s “Plea for the Queen’s English” there is given a powerful passage from one of Stittle’s sermons. He died in 1813, aged 85 ; and was buried in his chapel.

In 1815 his congregation took as his successor a Mr. Popplewell, for whom in 1818, as the lease of the old building had nearly expired, and the owner refused to renew it, there was hired at a rent of £40 by the few survivors of the congregation, a building on the south side of Green-street. This, after one or two intervening pastorates, was ministered to by a Mr. Snelgar (whose daughter subsequently became the wife of Mr. Shilleto, the great Greek scholar.) Under Mr. Snelgar troubles arose (apparently from his wishing to introduce more modern forms of worship, such as ceasing to read out the hymns line by line); and the congregation came to an end. Their new meeting place was subsequently hired by the Wesleyans; afterwards by the Union Society ; and, still later, by the Reform Club. It is now a billiard-room, in the yard adjoining No. 29.

The older meeting house, the one where Stittle himself had ministered, was hired in 1819 by a small and newly-formed flock of highly Calvinistic Baptists. But about 1820 they migrated to a new chapel which they had built in Fitzroy-street, on land that was part of a piece called, “The Garden of Eden.” Hence the name “Eden” was given to their new chapel. For in 1826 Green-street underwent a reconstruction, and the old chapel was pulled down. Stittle’s grave accordingly was opened, and the body was found perfect. But in a few minutes it fell to dust, leaving only the skeleton, which was reinterred at Eden Chapel.

C. S. K.

Site of the first Green Street Chapel (the white, yellow and white frontages) 

Location of the former passage way that led to the
second Green Street Chapel (later Wesleyan)
and, eventually, Stratton’s Billiard Room