Gloucester has a long and proud history going back nearly 2,000 years. It also has a distinguished Christian heritage going back nearly as far. Below is an outline of some of the key events and locations in the city’s Christian story.
It is very likely that the first Christians in Gloucester arrived in Roman times. St Mary de Lode church is generally held to be the city’s oldest parish church. According to local tradition, it was the burial place of Lucius who, it is said, was a king of Britain who established a bishopric in Gloucester in the second century. He had been converted to Christianity in AD 105 during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Findings from an archaeological dig suggest the presence of a church on the site of St Mary de Lode since Saxon times or even earlier.
Abbeys and Priories
In the middle ages, the various monastic movements swept the country and Gloucester has a large number of surviving medieval monastic buildings from this time, including:
The cathedral only became a cathedral in 1541, following the Dissolution of the Benedictine Abbey refounded after the Norman Conquest but with origins as a mid-7th century Saxon minster.
Llanthony Secunda Priory
Llanthony Priory is a ruined former Augustinian priory. It was founded in 1136 by Miles de Gloucester, 1st Earl of Hereford, as a retreat for the monks of Llanthony Priory, Vale of Ewyas, in what is now Monmouthshire, from persistent attacks by the local population. The new priory flourished. By 1150 it had “stately buildings in a landscape of gardens and vineyards”; it became independent from its mother house and it amassed property both in Gloucester and the surrounding area. By the 16th century, Llanthony Secunda was the sixth largest Augustinian house in England, owning 97 churches and 51 well-appointed manors.
St. Oswald’s Priory
St Oswalds was first built in about 900AD by Aethelflaed, the daughter of King Alfred the Great. Aethelflaed and her husband refortified the decayed Roman town of Gloucester, and built St Oswalds just outside the city wall. For the next century, the church of St Oswald was famous for its wealth and miracles. It was nicknamed the golden Minster.
It then declined and, by 1100, it was overshadowed (in every way!) by St Peter’s abbey (now the cathedral). In 1152 St Oswald’s became an Augustinian priory. The Priory had been a fairly large establishment, initially converted into the parish church of St. Catherine’s at the Reformation.
The Blackfriars was the house of the Dominican friars established in 1239, benefiting from grants from Henry III. The church was not consecrated until 1284.
Greyfriars House opposite the church of St Mary de Crypt has a c1800 facade but, behind it, are remnants of the nave and north aisle of the church of the former Franciscan Friary. This had been established around 1230 but had been rebuilt early in the 16th century, just before it fell prey to the Dissolution in 1538.
Post reformation developments
The second Bishop of Gloucester, John Hooper, was born in 1495 in Somerset and educated at Oxford University. He later became a Cistercian monk, and followed that with a spell as a friar at Blackfriars in Gloucester. After the dissolution of the monasteries, he returned to Oxford where he became influenced by Protestant reformers. Following his marriage, Hooper stayed in Zurich in Switzerland, the European ‘Protestant hot spot’. On the accession of king Edward VI and the Protestant sympathising Protectorate, he returned home and was appointed personal chaplain to the Protector, the Duke of Somerset, and later preached at the Royal Court where he denounced ‘Aaronic vestments’ (garments worn by priests in Old Testament times) as superstitious and anti-Christian.
He was then promoted to the Bishopric of Gloucester and arrived in 1551. Straightaway he made a thorough visitation of the diocese and interviewed the clergy. He found many to be ignorant of basic Christian doctrines. He drew up a list of fifty articles to be observed by all clergy. Hooper was an outspoken critic of many church practices, causing stone altars to be replaced by plain wooden tables, candles to be banned from churches and rood screens, tabernacles and painted images to be destroyed. He was also especially good to the poor, inviting them to his house where his table was described as being “spread with a good store of meat and set full of beggars and poor folk”.
Edward VI died in 1553 and was succeeded by his Catholic sister, Mary, who was determined to stamp out Protestantism.
Hooper was summonsed to appear before the Queens Council to answer a false charge of misappropriation of funds from his diocese. He was sent to Fleet Prison where he remained for 17 months in horrible conditions. He was condemned to death by burning at the stake.
On the morning of 9 February 1555, Hooper was led to the place of his execution, just outside St Mary’s gate and marked now by his monument but overshadowed then by a great elm tree.The place was overcrowded with 17,000 spectators; even the boughs of the tree were filled! The Dean and chapter of the cathedral were forced to watch. Hooper was bound to the stake and the fire lit, but it took three attempts to make the fire hot enough to kill him. He cried out “For God’s love, good people, give me more fire!” His ordeal then lasted 45 minutes but he “endured the fire with the meekness of a lamb, dying as quietly as a child in his bed”. He met his fate ‘with steadfast courage and unshaken conviction’. A Victorian monument marks the site. He was the first bishop martyr, preceding other bishops later burnt at the stake in Broad St, Oxford.
Hooper was not the only Gloucester protestant martyr. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) reports the burning of two men at Gloucester – Thomas Drowry, a ‘blind boy’, and Thomas Croker, a bricklayer.
In about 1658, a new church was formed close to the Cathedral, near the little cloister in the precincts, in Edward Fletcher’s house. The group quickly became the most important dissenting church house in Gloucester in the 17th century. The man behind it was James Forbes, a Scot with degrees from Aberdeen and Oxford Universities. He had first arrived in the city during the Commonwealth in 1654 at the age of 24 on his appointment by the Council of State as lecturer and minister at the cathedral. He was so successful that pressure from his many converts led him to set up the congregation. He remained leader of the church until he died in 1712. From 1660 until the Act of Toleration, there was sporadic persecution of non-conformists and he was forced to spend several years away from Gloucester. He trained students for the ministry and sought to bring the different groups in Gloucester together. He opened his vast library to other non-conformist ministers.
George Whitefield, the 18th century evangelist, was born at the Bell Inn, Southgate Street, in 1714. His parents were the Inn’s landlord and landlady, which at the time was the largest inn in the city. He was the youngest of seven children and at an early age discovered he had a passion and talent for acting – a talent he later used in his theatrical re-enactments of Bible stories in his sermons. He was educated at the Crypt School, which was then still in its original building next to St Mary-de-Crypt church in Southgate St, and then at Pembroke College, Oxford. His parents were relatively well off as the Bell was a large and flourishing concern, but when his father died, the family fortunes plummeted and Whitefield did not have the means to pay for his tuition. He therefore entered Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of student in the university and which involved acting as servant to several higher ranked students. He was also a member of the university ‘Holy Club’ with the Wesley brother and eventually became its leader.
The Bishop ordained him a deacon in Gloucester Cathedral and he preached his first sermon from the pulpit at St Mary-de-Crypt in 1736. He was a key leader of what became known as the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, a major international Christian revival. Whitefield had charisma and his powerful voice, which reportedly could be heard at great distance, suited his style of open air sermon. He is estimated to have delivered 18,000 sermons during his life in England, Scotland and America, of which 78 have been published. He crossed the Atlantic thirteen times. Whitefield died in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts on 30 September 1770. John Wesley preached his funeral sermon in London at Whitefield’s request.
Thomas Cole was the main leader of the Awakening locally. Born in Gloucester in 1679, he became the minister of the church founded by James Forbes’ in 1718. They soon took a lease out on the great hall in Blackfriars and in 1730 built a new church on the site of Cole’s house in Southgate Street. By 1741, Whitefield and others were holding meetings in a barn just outside the city.
During the revival, Cole became a close friend and big influence on Whitefield and the two worked closely together during the evangelist’s frequent trips to his native city and county. Cole saw in Whitefield someone who God had raised up for a mighty work, and regarded him with wonder and love, and called himself his ‘curate.’ In Gloucester, it was Cole who led the revival. He cared for the new converts, visited the societies formed amongst them and became their recognised organiser and leader. Revival preachers visiting the area were referred to him, and it was he who planned their rounds and organised their hospitality. Cole died in 1742 aged 64, during the night after preaching in Nympsfield. He was a workaholic and was ‘worn out’ serving a revival that had begun when he was already 60 years old.
Sunday school pioneers: Robert Raikes and Thomas Stock
Robert Raikes was born in Ladybellegate House, Gloucester, in 1736, baptised at St Mary de Crypt church the same year and educated at the Crypt and Kings Schools. On leaving school, he was apprenticed to his father who was the highly respected printer and publisher of the Gloucester Journal. Shortly after his 25th birthday, he inherited the editorship and, sharing his father’s concern over the need for prison reform, the columns of his paper were used to inform the public of the appalling conditions in Gloucester prison, which he witnessed as a prison visitor.
On seeking the services of a gardener one day, he found himself in St Catherine’s Street in Gloucester where he was concerned to see a group of ragged children playing in the street. He was told that the children’s behaviour was worse on Sundays (their days off from working in local factories) when they let off their energy and pent up frustration. Raikes realised that the prison was full of unfortunate people who had been shaped by such deprivation in childhood.
Thomas Stock was born into a Gloucester family in 1750. His father was a well-to-do grocer with premises near the Cross. He was educated at the Kings School and also possibly, like Raikes, at Crypt as well. He was baptized at St Mary de Crypt, and along with the rest of his family went on to be regular attender at that church. He went on to Pembroke College, Oxford and gained an MA in Classics. Whilst at Oxford he felt called to the ministry.
It was while serving his first curacy at St Mary the Virgin in Ashbury in Oxfordshire he felt the need to offer some sort of Christian education for the children of the village. His remedy was to create a Sunday School for them, starting off in the chancel of the church. This initiative was so successful that the church became too small for those attending so the school moved to a nearby cottage.
From that curacy, Stock moved to Gloucester three years later having been appointed Headmaster of the King’s School. He was also appointed curate, later Rector, of St John’s Northgate Street.
A chance meeting with Robert Raikes in 1788 led to the two men working together to establish school on Sundays in Gloucester. As Stock later recalled: ‘…Mr Raikes, meeting me one day by accident at my door, and in the course of conversation, lamenting the deplorable state of the lower classes of mankind, took particular notice of the situation of the poorer children. I had made, I replied, the same observation, and I told him if he would accompany me into my own parish, we would attempt to remedy the evil… We immediately proceeded to business and procuring the names of 90 children, we placed them under the care of four persons for a stated number of hours on Sunday. As minister of the parish, I took upon me the principal superintendence of the schools and one third of the expense.’ The two men worked together in the selection and employment of the teachers.
The first to be opened was in a cottage in St Catherine’s Street in 1780 where children between the ages of five and 14 were admitted, regardless of the state of their clothes or demeanour. Others soon followed in Oxbody Lane (now the Oxbode) and St Aldate Square.
The Gloucester Journal regularly reported on the schools which, largely thanks to that publicity, soon became a movement across the country. By 1831, they were schooling 1.25 million children. As these schools preceded the first state funding of schools for the general public, they are seen as the forerunners of the current English school system. Stock died in 1803 and Raikes in 1811.
Gloucester Churches Together
The Independent Church flourished again during the ministry of William Bishop (1794 – 1832) particularly during what is now known as the Second Evangelical Awakening. In 1803, Bishop promoted a city wide monthly prayer meeting ‘for the present world crisis and for the success of the gospel in the city in particular and through the county and the world at large’, hosted by all the city churches in rotation. 200 people attended an early morning meeting at the Southgate Street church in September 1803; a similar number attended a lunch time prayer meeting at Northgate Methodist chapel on the same day. And in the evening, St Mary’s Square chapel was full for a 7pm meeting.
Nineteenth Century Onwards
The Salvation Army
In 1879, a year of enormous expansion for the Salvation Army generally, Captain Pamela Shepherd and her daughter were sent to the city to start a new Corps by the Army headquarters in London from Porth in South Wales where they had been successfully ministering. They arrived at Gloucester to find posters announcing the arrival of the ‘Hallelujah Lassies’ and explaining that the Salvation Army was about to ‘open fire’ on Gloucester.
At the time of their arrival the Army had only formally been in existence for just over a year. Mrs Shepherd, though originally from South Wales, had been converted herself through the work of the Army founders, the Booths, in London a few years earlier. Before her conversion, she had been a streetwise alcoholic. She was also married, but her husband was at that time in prison.
Not surprisingly Mrs Shepherd, given her background, had a clear vision for her work in Gloucester – it was to bring ‘drunkards and fallen women to Christ.’ She soon found both groups in the docks area where she joined the Mariners chapel and other missionary groups who were working there. She booked the Wellington Hall in Longsmith Street (now demolished) for meetings. Within a few weeks there were complaints in the Gloucester Standard that the worst characters in the city were gathered around the Shepherds, singing their own ribald songs in opposition and pelting them with rotten eggs and tomatoes. Sometimes there were as many as 400 to 500 people in the crowd.
On 31 January 1880 Mrs Catherine Booth visited Gloucester and at a special meeting at the Corn Exchange presented the Gloucester Corps with its colours. Mrs Shepherd immediately handed them to Ginger Phillips, formerly a particularly nasty character who had a dramatic conversion at one of the Army’s meetings. This was the Army tradition that the job of looking after the colours and heading the outdoor marches with them was given to the most notorious local convert. During the meeting, Mrs Booth preached on ‘Aggressive Christianity.’
Ripples of the Welsh Revival
The early years of the twentieth century saw another massive worldwide revival. Locally, the epicentre was Wales in 1904-1905. Christians in Gloucester heard what was going on in Wales, and prayer meetings started up across the city for a similar visitation. Rev John Luce, the much-loved and respected vicar of St Nicholas, Westgate Street, approvingly visited the revival epicentres for himself.
The Rev William Rice, the minister of Brunswick Baptist Church, then in Brunswick Road, responded by inviting to the city a couple of young Welsh evangelists who had been working with Evan Roberts, to lead revival meetings.
Meeting began in January 1905. One of the Welsh evangelists told the Citizen that ‘no English town they had visited was more prepared for a revival than Gloucester, nor anywhere else had the results been so good …’ Packed meetings were held every evening in different churches across the city, with many more outside unable to get in. Given that the average capacity for a city centre nonconformist church at that time was around 1,000, it clearly had a big impact on the city. Based on the figures quoted through the two weeks, numbers of converts are likely to have been around 450.
Like with the arrival of the Salvation Army, opposition was also evident. The person most associated with the Welsh revival, Evan Roberts, visited Gloucester in 1906 after the fires of revival had died down and met up with several ministers of various denominations, and prayed with them.
The arrival of Pentecostalism
Many of those involved in the worldwide revival of the early years of the Twentieth century went on to be key figures in the emerging Pentecostal movement which had as its epicentre a revival in a church in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, in the United States. In 1920, the first Pentecostal church was set up in Gloucester. In 1925, this emerging group joined the Assemblies of God denomination. It is known today as ‘One Church’, and is a large and thriving church.
This church was set up, and led in the early years of its life by Naomi Sherman, one of eleven children of a devout Gloucester Christian couple, Arthur and Mary Anne. Naomi became a Christian herself when she was 12 and then in 1911 attended a meeting led by Smith Wigglesworth where she was baptised in the Holy Spirit. The following year she went to Toronto, Canada, to work as a parlour maid. While she was there, her sister Frieda’s health deteriorated. She had a spinal deformity and could not walk. God spoke to Naomi and told her to return to Gloucester. If she did, God would heal Frieda, fill her mother with the Holy Spirit and use Naomi to start a Pentecostal Church.
Naomi returned to Gloucester and God kept his promises. On 13th November 1920 God miraculously healed Frieda and later that same year Naomi began to hold the first Pentecostal meetings from her parents’ home at 55 Blenheim Road, Gloucester. One of the main Pentecostal leaders of the day, Willie Burton, was invited to hold a meeting and conducted the very first breaking of bread service at the Sherman’s home.