Conditions now-a-days are strangely reminiscent of the “hungry forties” of the last century, but it is difficult to say how the political and social upheavals of the early nineteenth century affected the life of rural England. Today villages are small editions of the towns, but it is unlikely that a hundred years ago the storms of the outside world perturbed the placid life of the pretty and isolated village of Burrington, up on the hills, fourteen miles from the nearest town – Barnstaple.
On many a calm summer evening in those far-off days the village folk must have listened to the Gospel being preached under the great old tree in the
square by such men as Anthony Norris Groves, George Muller and Robert C. Chapman, all of whom are known to have become deeply interested in the place for some reason or other. Among those who believed was Thomas Blackmore – a very intelligent man of fine character – who began forthwith to study the Scriptures. His discoveries led him to seek further fellowship with Robert Chapman, at Barnstaple, as a result of which he became confirmed in his convictions as to the Scriptural mode of gathering. He was instrumental in helping others in the district who were similarly exercised – notably William Babbage, a gentleman of some standing in the Parish, and George Ford, a local farmer and builder at Kingford, a hamlet at the foot of the hill, on the banks of the River Taw, close to the spot where many were baptised. It is interesting to note in passing, that the latter is still represented in the North Devon Assemblies by the fourth and fifth generation of his descendants. These three men were chiefly responsible for the erection of a meeting room on a piece of ground a few hundred yards outside the village, belonging to Mr. Babbage. Mr. Ford put the work in hand, and it proceeded as funds became available – at no stage was any debt incurred. When the building was completed a piece of land was walled in for a burial ground, and a Trust Deed, dated 31st May, 1846, conveyed the whole of the property from William Babbage to twelve trustees, the purchase price being the amazing sum of £6 . The opening meeting was of sufficient interest to attract George Muller, Robert Chapman and a Robert Gribble (a man much used of God in the Gospel in North Devon about that time), and many of the leading brethren in the county. The writer remembers talking 15 years ago to a sister (then 96 years of age) who remembered being taken to these meetings as a girl of 10 by her grandfather, a farm labourer named William Snell – one of a band of humble but fearless followers of Christ, whose testimony cost them a great deal. His bigotted employer had warned him that if he dared to be baptised he would lose his employment and his home. Nothing daunted, he obeyed the Lord, and returned from the Breaking of Bread which followed the baptism to find his wife and children out in the road surrounded by all his goods and chattels.
The only Day School was controlled by the clergyman and these men who had bought the truth at such cost were not prepared to allow their children to be taught things contrary to the Word of God. George Muller helped, as he did in other places in Devon and elsewhere, to establish a Day School in the meeting room. The old school desks are still there as a silent witness to those stirring days.
Thomas Blackmore cared for the work until called home in 1872, at the age of 64 years. Such was his piety that some of the oldest inhabitants of the village Still speak of the influence he exerted. Associated with him were Robert Saunders, whose son laboured with Mr. Chapman in Barnstaple, and a Mr. Payne, the father of the late Henry Payne, of Barcelona, known to so many. After the home call of these early stalwarts the Assembly began to experience more difficult days. Families died out, and others left the district. It rather looks as if the younger people in the Assembly, who had not paid such a price for the truth, were inclined to be impatient with their older brethren. Possibly, too, the older men were apt to overlook the needs of the young people. At any. rate it seems that the younger generation was not prepared to carry on in the face of difficulties and discouragement, and the light began to wax dim until by about 1879 the Assembly was threatened with complete extinction. God intervened by raising up the village blacksmith, William Callard, a godly man of simple but robust faith, who kept the flickering flame alight. In the early eighties things had got so low that for a space of about two years not a soul attended the meeting room but this solitary and dogged figure. Although mercilessly twitted by his relatives and neighbours, he wended his lonely way every Lord’s Day and regularly spent in prayer the hour usually devoted to the Breaking of Bread. His faith and patience were rewarded when Thomas Milton, a carpenter in the hamlet of Kingford, already mentioned, was constrained to open his home for the preaching of the Gospel. The novelty of cottage meetings attracted a large number from a wide area and several young people were soundly converted, baptised, and added to Assemblies in their localities. A few joined up with William Callard, now an old man, and remarkably enough some families connected with Assemblies elsewhere were led to move into Burrington Parish. The Assembly now began to flourish to such an extent that eventually late comers found it difficult to get a seat at the Breaking of Bread Meeting. This improvement was maintained for a number of years, until in the early part of the present century the tide began to turn again, numbers dwindled and things reached a low level once more. As in the previous generation, the door might have been closed had it not been for the faithfulness of a small handful of brethren and sisters who loyally stood by the work. Amid much to discourage, the Lord cheered them by the salvation of their children and so they struggled on. Of late years the work has been reviving again and the Assembly now consists of a vigorous and happy company of old and young who labour willingly and eagerly together.
To mark the Centenary of the Assembly’s foundation, the little company, with the fellowship of others, courageously embarked on the renovation of the building and great improvements have been effected. The village was astir on June 1st when hundreds of Christians from near and far gathered in a large marquee for the Centenary Meetings. It was thrilling to hear from the lips of Mr. Jesse Ford an outline of the Assembly’s chequered history and a tribute to the noble perseverance of brethren and sisters in days of yore, who builded better than they knew. Suitable ministry was given afternoon and evening by a number of speakers, and we left at the end of the day impressed by the oft-stated truth that although God buries His workmen He carries on His work.