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The Story of Religion in Sheffield

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The story of religion in Sheffield is a guide, in a small way, to the whole story of growth and change in the religion of England. Apparently there was no church in Sheffield till the Lovetots became Lords of Hallamshire after the Norman Conquest. Then their interest was chiefly centred on the country from whence they had come, so they gave two-thirds of the tithe of Hallamshire - that is, of the tenth of all produce, or the Church's portion - to an abbey in Normandy. The other third they gave to Worksop Abbey which they had founded, and Worksop supplied the priests who conducted service at a church built where the Parish Church now stands.

For centuries the Sheffield tithes, to the extent of two-thirds, went to Normandy, and then a law was made prohibiting church funds from being sent out of the country. Then these Sheffield tithes were given to an English monastery - at Coventry. All this we should now regard as unjust, but not more unjust than what happened at the Reformation, when these funds were taken from the monastery at Coventry and given to the Earls of Shrewsbury, Lords of Hallamshire. Thus public funds gathered for religion and charity passed into private hands by royal favour.

By the time the Reformation came, certain other funds had accumulated in Sheffield, given by public-minded, charitable, or pious people, and were managed by the Burgery, or free tenants of the Lord of Hallamshire, under a charter granted by the third Lord Furnival in 1297. Such of these funds as were of a religious character were seized by the commissioners appointed in the reign of Edward VI to investigate the uses to which Church property was being put. The total income at that time was 27 a year, and of this the King's exchequer seized 17 9s. 4d., leaving the rest under the control of the Burgery.

When, however, Queen Mary succeeded to the throne and restored Roman Catholicism, a fresh inquiry was held respecting the funds devoted to religious uses in Sheffield, and they were given back under certain conditions; namely, that they should be used to maintain three chaplains to help the vicar, to repair the Parish Church, the bridges, and common ways, and to assist the poor and needy. To carry out this scheme a corporation was formed by the name of the "Twelve Capital Burgesses and Commonalty of the Town and Parish." There were thus two property-owning corporations in the city - the Burgery of Free Tenants, founded by Lord Furnival, and now known as the Town Trust, and the Twelve Capital Burgesses and Commonalty, now known popularly as the "Church Burgesses."

Of these bodies something more will be said in the chapter on the government of the City. Here it is sufficient to know that, in the way just mentioned, money was found for giving the vicar the assistance of three curates in carrying on the religious work of the Parish Church; and it may be taken as a fact that till the seventeenth century all public religious worship in Sheffield was carried on in that church.

No one knows exactly when the first church, dedicated to St. Peter, was built in Sheffield, but there was a re-dedication of a church in 1286, and that church was superseded in the fifteenth century by one that has left remains in the present church. The Shrewsbury Chapel was built in the church by the fourth Earl, and contains his tomb and the effigies of himself and his two wives, one of whom, however, is not buried there.

The altar tomb in the centre of the chapel commemorates the first wife of the sixth Earl. The monument to the sixth Earl himself is against the south wall of the chapel, and was placed there by the Earl in his lifetime, as he would not trust his descendants to do him justice, they having been made unfriendly by the scheming of "Bess of Hardwick," his second wife. The Latin inscription on the Earl's tomb was written long beforehand by John Fox, the author of the Book of Martyrs, for Fox himself died three years before the Earl.

The church was largely rebuilt in 1790, and in 1802, and was restored in 1878-80. Much altered from time to time, and of very mixed architecture, it remains the one building in Sheffield that is truly historic. The stone slab of the ancient high altar preserves five consecration marks. Here only in Sheffield is the mind assisted by its surroundings in travelling to the distant past. In the chapel of the Shrewsburys we step back into the midst of the feudal system; yet when this chapel was built, a church had occupied the spot for at least four hundred years.

It is the burial-ground not only of the Talbot family when they ruled with a high hand throughout all Hallamshire, but of middle-class families that followed in the days of growing freedom, and occupied an honourable place in the expanding life of the districts - the Brights of Banner Cross and Carbrook, the Spencers of Attercliffe, and the Jessops of Broom Hall.

As far back as records extend, Sheffield has been in favour of a Puritan type of religion, with such a leaning towards "gospel" preaching as to leave little difference, in spirit, between Church and Nonconformist services. In the Civil War in Stuart days, it was, as we have seen, strongly on the side of the Parliament, and its leading families, such as the Brights and Jessops, gave their sympathies against both the autocratic claims of the Stuart kings and the High Church teachings of churchmen like Archbishop Laud. That view was not only held by Independents, Presbyterians, and Quakers, but by the majority of Sheffield Churchmen; and, indeed, the Church seems to have satisfied almost the whole community by her services.

Except that, perhaps, George Fox, the Quaker, who came near Sheffield but not to it, had a few quiet followers in the town, who were the founders of the Friends' Society in Hartshead, there does not seem to have been any organized Dissent in Sheffield before the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1662. That Act, which made acceptance of the conditions laid down in the Prayer Book the test of ministerial work in the Church of England, caused 2,000 clergymen to be expelled from the service of the Church, and amongst the 2,000 were James Fisher, Vicar of Sheffield, and Edward Prime, Matthew Bloom, and Rowland Hancock, his three assistant ministers.

Not only were these four conscientious men deprived of their livings, but they were followed by persecutions stern and persistent. They were not allowed to conduct worship at all except in their own families, and they could not stay within five miles of the place where they had been serving the Church before their expulsion. If they did preach, they were subject to fine, to imprisonment, and, for a third offence, to transportation. But they did preach - all of them. Three of them - Bloom, Hancock, and Fisher - were imprisoned, and before they went into prison, and after they came out of it, they started Nonconformity in Sheffield.

This violence in religion, created by the laws of Charles II, was not, apparently, in accordance with the views of the churchmen of Sheffield, for they gathered round the expelled ministers, and some of the best families of the district did their utmost to prevent persecution. The most vigorous of the enemies of the dissenters was apparently a "knight of the shire" who sat in Parliament for the constituency in which Sheffield was situated, Sir John Reresby of Thrybergh. He was all for fines and imprisonments, and at Rotherham Sessions was openly withstood by Mr. Francis Jessop, of Broom Hall; whereupon Reresby threw a leaden dish at him and cut his face open, and the two magistrates drew their swords upon each other in the Justices' chamber; but Sir John was disarmed by Mr. Jessop's son. To the next Cutlers' Feast, Sir John did not, as usual, receive an invitation. Mr. Jessop's action had its effect on the other justices, and, as one of the diarists of the time says, "when Mr. Bloom was prosecuted on the Five Mile Act, and Mr. Wadsworth for absence from church, they 'came off well.'" All of which shows that the law was much harsher than public opinion.

The ejected vicar, Fisher, formed a congregation of Independents, who began to worship in the New Hall in Millsands, a building afterwards changed into Hollis's Hospital for aged people, a charity now accommodated close by Whirlow Bridge. Thomas Hollis himself, a Rotherham cutler who had been apprenticed in Sheffield and prospered as a business man in London, was a generous supporter of the new movement. Three or four years after his expulsion, Vicar Fisher died, and was succeeded by a Mr. Durant, who in his turn was succeeded by Mr. Timothy Jollie. This minister may be said to be the popular founder of Nonconformity in Sheffield.

Though he was persecuted and imprisoned, Timothy Jollie continued his work, and, to accommodate his growing congregation, eventually built Upper Chapel, opened in the year 1700, besides establishing, at Attercliffe, an Academy for young ministers. The chapel was simply dedicated "for the worship and service of Almighty God," without further mention of beliefs, and the church consisted of 1,163 persons - a number which proves how great a hold persecuted Dissent had gained over the town, for at that time the total population of Sheffield was only about 7,000 or 8,000. Nether Chapel was built in 1715, in consequence of a dispute as to beliefs, after the death of Timothy Jollie. Other Congregational chapels followed at intervals. The first Baptist Chapel, Townhead Street, now closed, was opened in 1814. The first Roman Catholic Church, St. Marie's, was opened in 1850.

It was not until the year 1740 that a second church was added to the resources of the Church of England, though the beginning of the building of St. Paul's goes back to 1720. The Parish Church had a chapel at Ecclesall from 1622, and at Attercliffe from 1629, served by the assistant ministers from the Parish Church. Ecclesall Chapel, in times before the Reformation, had been served by the monks of Beauchief Abbey. The Ecclesall Church which preceded the present edifice was built on Carter Knoll, as it was called, in 1788, not quite on the site of the old chapel. Attercliffe remained as a chapel only till 1853. The third church built in the populous part of the city was St. James's.

St. Philip's, St. George's, and St. Mary's were all originally started as chapels of the Parish Church, which may truly be called the Mother Church in Sheffield. A new movement was started for the building of churches by the Million Act, passed in the year 1818 to provide church accommodation in rapidly growing towns. By its aid the Church sought to keep pace with the needs of the people and the multiplication of Nonconformist places of worship springing up in every part of the fast-spreading town. The city was given a suffragan bishop in 1901, and now is the centre of a fully organized and endowed bishopric.

The only exciting break in the steady growth of religious facilities, from the withdrawal of the Church ministers in 1662 and the opening of Upper Chapel in 1700, was the coming of Wesleyan Methodism, now so extraordinarily strong in the city. John Wesley first came to Sheffield on one of his preaching tours in 1742, and his brother, Charles Wesley, followed in 1743. At that time the vicar of Sheffield was the Rev. John Dossie. He was vicar for over forty-one years, and all that Joseph Hunter the historian can find to say of him - though he is always very tender towards the clergy - is that he was "a very respectable parish priest." What he did when the Wesleys arrived in the town preaching the gospel fervently, was to preach, or allow to be preached, in the Parish Church, four sermons on "the wickedness of encouraging wolves in sheep's clothing."

This departure from the kindly feeling, which otherwise has always marked the relationship between the Church of England and Nonconformists in Sheffield, was taken by "the baser sort" as an encouragement to violence. The Methodists had already built themselves a small preaching place near where the Town Hall stands. This was attacked by the mob at the time of Charles Wesley's visit in 1743, and utterly destroyed.

The Methodists, however, built themselves another "preaching house" between Burgess Street and Pinstone Street, but again, without any defence from the guardians of " law and order," it was, in 1746, pulled down by the mob. But that kind of treatment had no effect on the early Methodists. Within three years of that date, Sheffield had become the head of one of their circuits. The first superintendent of the circuit, the Rev. Edward Perronet, was the writer of the well-known hymn, "All hail the Power of Jesu's Name." John Wesley came often to Sheffield - indeed, there are records of thirty-five visits.

Mulberry Street Chapel, quite a modest building, was long the gathering-ground of the Methodists, until Norfolk Street Chapel was opened in 1780 on the site now occupied by the magnificent Victoria Hall, one of the most up-to-date centres of modern evangelization. Since the building of the Norfolk Street Chapel, the story of Wesleyan Methodism and other Nonconformity in Sheffield has been, like that of the Church of England, one of gradual expansion.

Altogether there are considerably more than 200 places of worship in Sheffield, including forty-six Anglican churches, about forty Wesleyan Methodist chapels, seventy other Methodist chapels, thirty-five Congregational, Baptist, and Presbyterian chapels, seven Roman Catholic churches, ten Salvation Army centres, three Unitarian chapels, a Society of Friends meeting-house with four missions, and a Jewish synagogue, besides the meeting-places of other smaller religious bodies.

The religious life of the city is conspicuous for its wide diffusion of Christian charity and co-operation, and the general absence of irritation or jealousy, due probably to the type of teaching being largely evangelical. All denominations have been confronted by the same difficulty - the withdrawal of the more prosperous citizens from the centre towards the outskirts of the city, leaving the older churches and chapels without sufficient numerical support. This has led to the closing of several of the chapels, and the weakening of others; but, on the whole, the decline in central accommodation, partly accompanied by a decline in central population, has been more than balanced by the energy shown in providing for the needs of suburban worshippers. Still, if it should ever occur, on any one Sunday evening, to half of the adult population that they might with advantage be in a place of worship, the seating of all the churches and chapels would be taxed to the uttermost.

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