Smarden in Kent is a village well known for its great antiquity and the handsome character of its houses. Less well known though is the fact that it is the home of the oldest Baptist community in Kent. The records of this body go right back to 1640 and are arguably the oldest nonconformist books in England.
The roots of Kentish Non-conformity are to be found in the Lollards of the 14th century. Later several martyrs from the Weald went to the stake because of their faith during the Reformation.
The Baptist movement began in earnest during the later years of Charles I. At Cranbrook, a public debate led to the formation of a large congregation, which meet in the house of Richard Kingsnorth, at Spillshill, near Staplehurst.
The restoration of Charles II saw all dissenters persecuted until 1689. Nevertheless Baptists continued to meet in almost every village of the Weald of Kent, in spite of fines and imprisonment.
The Act of Toleration soon saw meeting-houses springing up, and the Spillshill Six Principle group divided early in the eighteenth century, with some meeting at the Bell General Baptist Meeting House, until they built Zion in 1841, and the others building Tilden Particular Baptist Chapel at Gilham Quarter. Each congregation has kept careful records and these give an insight both into the progress of Christianity, and the social life of those days. Both meetings flourished, and the census of 1851 reveals that they constituted 74.8% of the church going population of Smarden. Later a third meeting called Bethel was established.
Christopher Blackwood bought the house of the separatist John Lothrop in Scituate Mass. in 1641. George Hills a Particular Baptist took a pastorate in America early in the early 1800’s. Joseph Padgham was called to Newburgh Baptist Church – New York – in 1855. Many families from the General Baptist congregation emigrated in the 1840s and 50s to dig the Erie Canal. The Kingsnorth, Austen and Hosmer families settled in Oneida County in the Mohawk Valley to do this. The visits of Sellar Martin a Negro preacher, during the American Civil War were memorable days.
Families which figure large in the story are – Banks, Bassett, Blackwood, Burch, – Copping, Cornwell, Daniel, Dobell, Gilham, Haffenden, Hickmott, Hosmer, Jarvis, Jeffrey, LaVander, Medhurst, Mills, Oliver, Pearson, Pyall, Rofe, Sanders, Syckelmore, Tilden, Uden, and Vane.
These Christian communities are now rapidly being forgotten, but over the course of the years they brought education, love, compassion, and real Christianity to the locality.
Norman L. Hopkins
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