Of the East Midlands, a late 19th century commentator said, "there was not one church that manifested any aggressive power worthy of notice in the spreading of the truth…" Evidence existed that drunkenness among Leicestershire clergymen was as common a vice, as among their parishioners! Sermons were empty of the gospel.
The aristocracy of the land - the rich landowners, people of power, position and influence, were equally untouched by the gospel, But there were few exceptions, one being Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon, of Donington Hall, in the north west of the county - now the headquarters of British Midland Airways. Selina Shirley had been brought up in the family home at Staunton Harold near Ashby, and married the 9th Earl of Huntingdon . She had come to personal faith in Christ, influenced by her sister-in-law, Margaret, a committed Christian, and ‘yielded herself to the gospel call….’ Though her husband was never a believer, Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon was to live a life zealously committed to the cause of the spread of the gospel. She expended her wealth on the building of chapels for gospel preaching, and founded a college in south Wales for the training of preachers. She became closely associated with George Whitefield and John Wesley. Large numbers of titled and influential, wealthy people, including royalty and government ministers, would be invited to Donington Hall to hear Whitefield preach….and many were never the same again!
Not surprisingly, some of the servants of Lady Huntingdon at Donington Hall heard the gospel there and were converted. One was David Taylor, who soon went out preaching in the open-air himself in the villages around here. In June 1741, John Wesley had been preaching at Markfield, and a few days later David Taylor began preaching in the nearby village of Ratby. One of the hearers in a field was Samuel Deacon who laid down his scythe and heard him. He was converted and became a preacher too! He would often travel 40-50 miles on a Sunday to preach elsewhere... walking to Melbourne, twenty miles away to preach was not uncommon for him, getting back at 3 o’clock in the morning!. At 80 he was still walking 30 miles to preach in village chapels. More about him later.
At Markfield, John Taylor, a teacher at one of Lady Huntingdon’s schools there, had been influenced by the spread of the revival preaching, and become a zealous Christian. He went out preaching too! A poor working man from Osbaston near Hinckley had got to Taylor’s preaching meetings at Markfield and longed that this gospel preaching could be heard in his little village. So John Taylor went to Osbaston, with villagers crowding in from Barlestone, Newbold Verdon, Cadeby and Nailstone. John Whyatt was there from nearby Barton-in-the-Beans, and at later meeting John Aldridge from Barton. They invited Taylor to come to Barton to preach this gospel. So on a warm summers evening in June 1743 villagers crowded into John Whyat’s house in Barton, many for the first time to hear about saving faith in Christ.
Little Barton-in the-Beans… in the heart of bean-growing fields at that time: a tiny and insignificant hamlet to many, with a population of less than two hundred (only around that today!)…but a place that was to become the centre of remarkable activity for the gospel, which was to spread out to many parts of the county, and beyond.
Preaching meetings in the village continued in houses. People were converted. There was much opposition, some violent. Preachers were attacked, and their property damaged. Nothing dampened their enthusiasm to go on preaching in Barton. People began to join them from surrounding villages.
By 1745 houses were too small for preaching meetings, so having formed a ‘society’ of believers they built a chapel for £170. They soon felt that the Bible clearly taught that only believers should be baptised, so a baptistery was constructed in the nearby stream, its remains can be seen today.
This ‘local church’ grew and grew…men went out preaching from little Barton to villages beyond, and into Warwickshire and Derbyshire. They carried the message of the gospel into the open-air wherever they could. Souls were saved. And even more people made their way to Barton, by foot or on horseback to join with the growing numbers there. These newly converted preachers, set on fire with the gospel, were ordinary labourers, tradesmen, farmers, blacksmiths…walking miles to preach then returning to work during the day. No longer could the preaching meetings be centralised at Barton…it was growing fast. So preaching centres in villages elsewhere were set up as ‘mission stations.’ Each drew villagers from around. They decided to call themselves ‘Baptists’, and Baptist churches were formed at Barlestone, Market Bosworth, Bagworth, Measham, Newbold Verdon, and northwards twenty miles in Melbourne, Castle Donington and Diseworth, John Bradley of Long Whatton listened to the ‘new doctrines’, got home and exclaimed to his wife, "Mary, it is not of works at last!". Converted, he moved to Kegworth, where a building was erected for preaching in 1755.
So the spread of the gospel - a wave of this evangelical revival in the early part of the 18th century went on. As each place was won, it became a mission station for others. From the beginnings in Barton with around seven or so believers, within twenty-five years no less than nine hundred were meeting in various villages of north and west Leicestershire. In 1841 a new chapel had to be built at Barton to hold over 350 -in a village of only 200 residents! In 1845 there were 350 children in the Sunday school at Barton. The Baptist church in Loughborough, and others around the town, and in nearby south Nottinghamshire, had their origins in little Barton-in-the-Beans.
One of the early pastors of the Melbourne church was Francis Smith, of Barton. He worked during the day, then walked six to ten miles in the evening to preach. Often on Sundays he preached three times and travelled on foot ten to thirty miles! Every fortnight he would go to the preachers conference at Barton; work till 3 o’clock, then walk fourteen miles to Barton, arriving at 6, stay till midnight, and get home early next morning! Joseph Donisthorpe, the first pastor of the Loughborough church, would walk nine miles to get to preach there each week.
Samuel Deacon was converted having heard the preaching of David Taylor in the fields at Ratby in 1741. He became the first pastor of the group of believers there, but moved to Barton-in-the- Beans in 1782, when aged 68 he became the pastor of the Baptist church till he died at 98! When he died, he had been a preacher for sixty years, and a pastor for 52. His preaching had saved many.
Samuel Deacon’s son, Samuel, became one of the leading men in these times of revival in this part of Leicestershire. Samuel (junior) was born in 1746 in the early days of the revival. At eight he was in farm service in Melbourne, then East Leake. But he preferred ‘studious’ things and became an apprentice to Joseph Donisthorpe, the Normanton le Heath blacksmith and clockmaker, remarkably converted walking home one night. He too became a Barton preacher and eventually pastor of the Loughborough church. Samuel Deacon moved to Loughborough with Donisthorpe in 1766 and in that year became a Christian, and was baptised at 21. He would often walk to Barton to the meetings from Loughborough, a round trip of 26 miles!
He married the daughter of one of the Barton church leaders, and settled in the village, commencing his own clockmaking and blacksmith business, He preached his first sermon there in August 1777 and it was ‘warmly received’. Two years later he became co-pastor with his father in the church, and ministered for 37 years, in addition to running a thriving clockmaking business, which lasted in the Deacon family till 1951. Samuel Deacon’s clocks brought him worldwide fame. A self-taught musician, he became the principal maker of musical clocks in the region. They played a different tune each weekday and a hymn or Psalm on Sundays! Some of his, and his family’s, masterpiece grandfather clocks bearing the name ‘Deacon-Barton’ are still around today. (he also extracted teeth, with instruments he personally made!)
But his greatest love was the gospel and the desire to preach it all around the area. He saw the great end of his ministry as the salvation of souls. He wrote hymns and many books. Villagers read the books with delight ‘and were led to the Saviour by their clear presentation of evangelical truth….his language was that of the Bible’. He died precisely as the clock struck 9 on the evening of March 2nd 1816.
When David Taylor left the Countess of Huntingdon’s home at Donington Hall to preach in the villages of Leicestershire, and John Taylor preached that first sermon in the farmhouse in Barton in 1743, they had no idea of the impact that preaching was to have in many parts of the Midlands. They did not know that in the purposes of God tiny Barton was to be the centre of a special work of God leading to the conversion of many and a phenomenal growth in churches in this area. This was a wave of the 18th Century revival that spread in the providence of God across our county. But the vision of the Barton preachers did not fade at the village boundary, or even at the county boundary, or at the shores of the land. They sent missionaries from Barton to Orissa in India in large numbers over many years. A convert in Orissa asked if London was as large as Barton-in-the-Beans! He had seen so many missionaries from Barton and heard so much about it.
Times of revival produce extraordinary events, with extraordinary things happening to people. Several years ago the contents of an old chest at Barton -a few papers, torn, discoloured and written in faded ink -were rescued from destruction. They were applications for church membership, some written on two large sheets of paper, and many written in the wildest possible spelling! But all with a depth of spirituality, out of a real and lasting spiritual experience. The writers made frequent mention of the preaching they had been privileged to hear. They spoke of ‘pain, anguish and troubled minds’ because of their sins. They looked upon themselves as ‘brands plucked from the burning’, as lost sinners saved by a loving, dying Saviour. The applications were frequently signed….your weak but happy brother in Christ…..your unworthy but happy sister in Christ.
The church at little Barton is still there. Many of the churches established by the Barton preachers remain active today, conscious of their gratitude to God for those days of revival in the early 1700s which produced an extraordinary growth in the church of Jesus Christ in this area, and beyond, and lives set on fire with the power of the gospel. Many long and pray for such things in this new millennium.
And finally….on November 22nd 1808 a baby was born to Elizabeth Cook, whose father was one of the Barton preachers and co-pastor of the church at Melbourne. They called him Thomas…Thomas Cook, who later was to achieve worldwide fame as a travel and tourism entrepreneur. He organised the first ever-public railway excursion, a trip from Leicester to Loughborough on Monday, July 5th 1841. 485 passengers paid a shilling (5p), travelling in open tub-type carriages. After walking into the town centre, and meeting in the Market Place, they enjoyed tea and games in Southfields Park, and had the time of their lives.
But Thomas would want us to know that the best thing that happened to him was that he had become a Christian in his teens, was baptised, and spent four years as a village missionary, travelling all over the East Midlands preaching and giving away bibles, tracts and Christian books. As a later ‘fruit’ of the 18th century revival, he delighted in the activities and vision of the Barton preachers, and for years sought to encourage the churches founded through their labours. His name is still above many travel agencies…his house still stands at 244 London Road in Leicester…his statute is outside Leicester rail station….may they too serve to remind us of the special things that happened as a result of the wave of the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival spreading across the county of Leicestershire in the 1740s.
By John Todd.
The full story is available in the book "By the Foolishness of Preaching", obtainable from John Todd, 76 Leconfield Road, Loughborough, LE11 3SQ UK, price £2.00 plus 40pence p&p in UK. Overseas enquiries welcome.