THE BIRTH OF AN ASSEMBLY usually makes an interesting and instructive story and for that reason we have, from time to time, given a number of such stories, to illustrate how wondrously God works when men are anxious to learn and do His will. To those who are exercised about maintaining the scriptural order of gathering, few things are more encouraging than the fact that again and again seekers after truth have been led, from their own study of the Scriptures, to adopt the simple New Testament pattern. This should strengthen our convictions and rebuke any tendency to hold lightly what is so clearly God’s mind for His people. Such a case is Loughton in Essex, which, when our story opens at the end of the last century, was a quiet rural village of some five hundred souls, on the edge of the beautiful Epping Forest. The forest remains much as it was but Loughton has developed into a modern suburb of the ever-encroaching London, although it has not altogether lost signs of the old-fashioned place it once was – signs which make it easier to believe that the modern High Street flanked with smart shops, was once a rough cart track running between grass verges and bordered by lovely trees, like outposts of the forest. Sixty years ago communications were not greatly developed and, except for the favoured few with private carriages, the only links with London were the old Great Eastern Railway and the carrier’s cart. Consequently there was not much movement of population – the inhabitants were content to live a placid life where their parents had lived theirs, and consequently almost everybody knew everybody else.
Although small, the village had several places of worship but spiritual conditions were poor and there was little to appeal to spiritual aspirations or evangelical fervour. Yet God was at work to bring the Gospel more clearly to the people and, as is so often the case, He chose what many would have regarded as unpromising instruments – three young men, all in humble positions. One was the milkroundsman, who in the course of his work would look in on the village cobbler for mutual encouragement in the things of God. The third was the postman. Having regard to the days in which they lived it is not surprising that they were men with few advantages – although to the cobbler, who had never spent a day at school, his comrades, who had mastered the mysteries of reading, seemed to be highly educated men! To his credit be it said that he learned to read well by the slow and pains¬taking method of copying and memorizing, three at a time, words which one of his friends would write out for him.
As these three were drawn more closely together in simple Christian fellowship, they became exercised about the need of a clear Gospel witness, and those who can visualize village life in 1897 will be able to appreciate their initiative in renting a tea room in the Tavern for Sunday School and Gospel meetings. After scantily furnishing it with plain backless benches they announced meetings and there was an encouraging response from the working-class section. Adolescents proved very difficult to manage, but prayer and patience were rewarded in the conversion of several. On fine days meetings would be held in the Forest and the sight of boys and girls and older folk carrying benches through the village proved to be an excellent advertisement.
The obtaining of suitable teachers and preachers was no easy task but these young men could only do their best in dependence upon God. Occasionally they were able to obtain help and among the preachers they secured were some rela¬tives of the well-known Gypsy Smith, who were in fellowship at the Princess Hall, Buckhurst Hill. Most of the preaching, however, fell to their lot and although they had little knowledge or experience the Lord blessed their zealous efforts and quite a number were led to Christ. The work developed into a kind of mission with regular attendances from forty to fifty.
The responsibility of caring for the converts forced upon these young men the need of studying the Bible more diligently than they had done before, and when it became clear to them that it was the Lord’s mind that believers should be baptized by immersion, this was taught and practised. They also gained a scriptural conception of the Lord’s Supper and ten or twelve used to gather to observe this in simplicity, in the Tavern Room after the Gospel service. Gradually the feeling grew that the place was not altogether suitable and the brethren began to pray about better accommodation – prayers which were answered in an unexpected way.
One Sunday in 1898 the little company was taken aback by the entry of a gentleman of distinguished appearance, who bore every evidence of wealth and influence – they would probably have been even more disconcerted had they witnessed his arrival in a ‘carriage-and-pair’, which we had better explain, for the sake of younger readers, means a private carriage drawn by two horses. The stranger turned out to be Mr. Arthur Boake, who was then senior partner in a well-known firm of manufacturing chemists. He had been in fellowship atCholmeleyHall,Highgate,buthavingremovedto Loughton he had sought out this small and humble company and now desired to have the privilege of remembering the Lord with them. So, accompanied by his daughter, the wealthy and influential business magnate sat down on the backless benches with this little group of poor villagers – all one in Christ Jesus. In these democratic days it is not easy to realize how incongruous this must have seemed and it is small wonder if the folk felt somewhat embarrassed, but they soon found that their visitor was a man with a heart for the Lord, who used his wealth to further Gospel work, being especially interested in missionary work.
Perhaps sensing that his presence in the Tavern Room made the others a little uneasy he offered the use of a room in his palatial house for the breaking of bread and it was felt that this would be more fitting. The Gospel work continued in the Tavern, pending the erection of a permanent hall upon which Mr. Boake had set his heart. It is worthy of mention that the believers had so commended themselves to the proprietress of the Tavern that she declined to let the room so long as it was required for meetings.
Mr. Boake had taken a great fancy to a timber chapel he had seen in Norway and he thought that a similar building would be ideal in the setting provided by this village in the Epping Forest. He accordingly had a replica constructed in sections in Norway and transported to Loughton, where it was erected on a commanding spot in 1899 – all at his own expense. At the time it was believed to be the only building of its kind in England. The development of the village has done nothing to detract from the advantages of the site.
It is interesting to recall that among several speakers at the opening Conference were Sir Robert Anderson, then Chief of C.I.D., and Mr. J. W. C. Fegan, founder of the well-known orphanage which bears his name.
The work which began in such a simple way continued vigorously in the new hall and Mr. Boake’s generous help made it possible to have several campaigns in the next few years. His home-call in 1926 deprived the assembly of a valued helper, although his widow continued to show the same interest until her death ten years later. As older members were removed, so the Lord raised up others to carry on the work and there has been marked blessing from time to time. During the last war large numbers of service men and women stationed in the area provided a fruitful field for evangelism and what was sacrificially done for their comfort prepared many a heart for the Gospel.
In the nature of the case the assembly has never been very large but the believers have proved their ability to face challenges and accept burdens, as, for example, when in 1953 it was discovered that an old land drain from the Forest, the existence of which was quite unknown, had caused the foundation timbers and other parts to rot, making it necessary to rebuild the front and two sides of the hall at considerable expense. At present there are about fifty in fellowship, including a few who remember the beginning of the testimony and from whom this story has been obtained.