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Your unclaimed inheritance

BBC’s popular Heir Hunters shows commercial probate researchers tracing family histories for those who have died intestate and finding rightful heirs. There is not usually a fortune to inherit but people are often interested in finding out about distant relatives.

Old Meeting House, NorwichMost of us never ponder the fate of relatives we’ve never met. Similarly, many churches seem to know little about their spiritual roots or the giants of faith who founded them. Might it inspire and enrich your spiritual life if you discovered more about your spiritual roots?

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Norwich was second only to London in importance and is a place of great importance for the Separatist Church.

Non-conformist groups in England did not have their own chapels until the Act of Toleration in 1689 which granted freedom of worship. The Old Meeting House Congregational Church was one of the first chapels to be built after this Act but prior to that its members used to meet in secret, risking imprisonment and even torture.

God is more interested in people than buildings but there are places that have been greatly used by God and some see as being “spiritual wells”. (The website UK Wells lists them and mentions the Old Meeting House.)

Do you know anything about Robert Browne, John Robinson, William Bridge and Thomas Allen? All were important English Puritans who lived in Norwich.

Over 20,000 people joined the movement known as the Brownists, started by Robert Browne circa 1580. Shakespeare referred to Brownists in Twelfth Night. Browne’s book A Treatise of Reformation Without Tarying For Anie, was so controversial that you could be hung just for owning a copy! This seminal work was used to lay spiritual foundations in America. Browne held that the Church must be separate from the State. In England this was outrageous as even today the UK has a State Church unlike America which accepted Browne’s teaching.

old Meeting House, NorwichAfter the Reformation St Andrew’s Church in Norwich became a preaching house for the new ‘Protestant’ religion. In August 1603 John Robinson (1576-1625) became its associate pastor. Norwich had strong links with Holland and Flanders. It was home to a large number of foreign workers and refugees and its most influential political leaders and merchants were Puritans. Robinson was one of the founders of the Congregational Church and later became pastor to the Pilgrim Fathers before their emigration to the New World. In 1620 two boats set sail for America, Robinson and some of his followers were on board the Speedwell, which proved to be unseaworthy and had to return to England but those in the Mayflower were able to settle in America and became known as the Pilgrim Fathers. Robinson died before he was able to join them, however his teachings went with these early settlers who founded the church in America on Congregational principles.

William Bridge (1600–1670) served on the same Parliamentary committee as John Owen, who was chaplain to Cromwell’s Model Army. His full life story can be enjoyed in William Bridge: The Puritan of the Congregational Way by H. Rondel Rumburg.

From 1637, Bridge lived in Norwich as Rector to two churches. He came into conflict with Matthew Wren, bishop of Norwich, for Nonconformity. He went into exile in Rotterdam. Charles I, upon hearing that Bridge had “gone to Holland...rather than [that] he will conform” replied, “Let him go: we are well rid of him.”

Bridge returned to Great Yarmouth and Separatists in Norwich used to walk twenty miles to Yarmouth to hear him preach every Sunday. In 1643 from this group he was able to gather the Old Meeting House in Norwich. He was also responsible for gathering other chapels around East Anglia. He wrote over three dozen books but only Lifting Up for The Downcast is readily available. It contains thirteen chapters on an exposition of just one verse from Psalm 43:5! He spoke to Parliament several times and even addressed the King in 1643.

When Bridge came into conflict with Bishop Wren, Thomas Allen, who was Rector at St Edmunds in Norwich, also went into exile, fleeing to Massachusetts but he returned to Norwich in 1656 where he became the minister of Old Meeting House. They met in St George’s Tombland until his death. He wrote several books and The Way of the Spirit in Bringing Souls to Christ is available from Amazon. Thomas Allen is just one of the estimated 20,000 who emigrated to America in the 1630s from England.

Between the 1640s and 1650s, a quarter of these settlers returned. Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home, by Susan Hardman Moore is a fascinating book.

The Old Meeting House is perhaps the oldest remaining Puritan chapel in England. Please visit our website.

There is even a virtual portal on the site - so you can visit the chapel from the comfort of your armchair. But the best thing of all is to arrange to come and visit and be inspired by this deep spiritual well.

John Clements
Pastor of the Old Meeting House Congregational Church