A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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Dissent was persistent from the 1609s, when Isleham contributed members to a congregation originally founded in 1693 at Guyhirn (I. Ely) by the preacher David Culy. Isleham shortly became the initial centre for worship for dissenters drawn from several neighbouring Cambridgeshire and Suffolk villages which gradually established their own separate dissenting meetings. After Culy's followers broke with his increasingly radical teachings in 1699, (fn. 1) leadership of the group around Isleham fell to the Isleham elder Robert Moody, a member since 1693; (fn. 2) Isleham produced c. 34 out of c. 75 new members admitted, 1696-1700. (fn. 3)
After some setbacks a new covenant was drawn up late in 1706, half the 50 subscribers being resident at Isleham, where a house was shortly registered for worship. (Another possibly connected with Fordham dissenters was registered there by a Bury tailor in 1714.) The minister in office until 1724 was formally appointed in 1708 to serve a distinct congregation. Isleham was then made the seat of the church and one of two places, out of four altogether, where meetings for communion were held on alternate Sundays. (fn. 4) At his death in 1712 Moody left £40 to buy land nearby whose rents were to go to the preacher and teacher. It was invested in 1739 in 1 a. in Soham. Later endowments for the chapel, sometimes inaccurately described c. 1775-1835 as Presbyterian, included 2 a. in Isleham and 1 a. in Fordham, devised in reversion in 1776 by John Chapman's widow Henrietta (d. 1788) and received in 1814, and £215 of stock given in 1826 by Daniel Riste. The interest, with the rent, then £7 5s. 8d., went to the minister in 1837. (fn. 5) A meeting house was built in 1723 on a site acquired in 1722, east of the northern part of Pound Lane. (fn. 6) A west gallery was erected in 1769, partly to accommodate young women. (fn. 7)
Under the first minister and his successor until 1747, an ill-educated but vigorous preacher from Wicken, (fn. 8) barely 40 out of c. 165 new members admitted came from Isleham itself, the rest after the 1720s largely from Soham, Fordham, and West Row, a hamlet in Mildenhall (Suff.). (fn. 9) A vacancy, 1748-53, was troubled with disputes over adult baptism which led most Soham members, who favoured it, to secede and found their own church in 1752. (fn. 10) Such divisions were possibly reflected in the registration, twice by the Wybrow family, of three Isleham houses for worship in 1741, 1754, and 1758. (fn. 11) After some transient, unsatisfactory preachers, one an Antinomian, for whom a house was obtained as a manse in 1748, (fn. 12) the Isleham Independent church was revived by the youthful Samuel Lambert, minister from 1753 to his death in 1805. He was formally ordained in 1756, (fn. 13) when a new covenant was drawn up, to which 42 people, 19 from Isleham, 10 from West Row, adhered. It required a strict mutual discipline and thorough separation from the profane world. (fn. 14) Members were often censured, occasionally expelled, for offences including failure, sometimes by men who preferred neighbouring preachers, in regular church attendance. (fn. 15) Others married outside the congregation, (fn. 16) or were penalized for drunkenness, (fn. 17) wagering, playing bowls (fn. 18) and cards, dancing, and going to christening feasts. (fn. 19) Lambert's scrupulousness over the purchase of smuggled tea led in 1777-8 to the secession of most members at West Row, for whom their own meeting house had been built in 1770. Only 46 members, including 27 women, supported him. (fn. 20) After 1757 two out of three communions were held at Isleham. (fn. 21) From the 1760s only 3-5 people a year, half from Isleham, joined the church, and from 1785 none. (fn. 22) Following over 12 expulsions its membership had fallen to 25 by 1798. (fn. 23)
A further revival followed renewed Baptist influence. Although a few adults had been baptized in the early 18th century, (fn. 24) infant baptism was the normal practice under Lambert, as since the 1710s. (fn. 25) In 1798-9, however, his son-in-law Robert Fuller reintroduced adult baptisms at Isleham, which were initially performed in the river Lark, (fn. 26) Membership began to increase. A new and more enthusiastic covenant was subscribed in 1799. In 1805 a known Baptist was chosen as minister. (fn. 27) By 1851 the Pound Lane congregation considered themselves Particular Baptists. Their chapel was rebuilt in 1829 on the original site to provide 410 sittings, all but 50 free. (fn. 28) The new chapel, still standing in the 1990s, of grey brick, has a plain house-like threebayed west front, with a manse for the minister attached on its north side. W. W. Cantlow, minister for 32 years until c. 1872, in 1851 claimed, besides c. 67 Sunday-school children, a congregation that doubled from 110 in the morning to 206 at the third, evening, service. (fn. 29) In May 1850 he baptized at Isleham Ferry the youthful C. H. Spurgeon, later the famous Baptist evangelist, who occasionally returned to preach at Isleham. At Sunday baptisms the minister usually preached to large and inquisitive crowds from a barge in midstream. (fn. 30)
In the 1840s a schism among the Particular Baptists probably led to the founding of another congregation, using the Zoar chapel, seating 100, built in 1846 at the turn of Sun Street. In 1851, when three services were held, its deacon reported average attendances of 50-65. (fn. 31) Perhaps the 'Calvinist' chapel reported in 1858-64, it probably closed in the mid 1860s. (fn. 32) The building, with a simple three-bayed front in brick surviving in the 1990s, had until recently been a warehouse. (fn. 33)
During the ministry, until c. 1920, of Cantlow's successor at Pound Lane, under whom a Sunday school, which had up to 170 pupils c. 1900, was erected in 1888, membership of that chapel was usually 80-100. Thereafter it declined gradually to 69 in 1935, 39 in 1955, and only 13 in 1973. Later ministers were more transient, and from 1961 to 1990 the chapel had a lay pastor. (fn. 34) Ancient antagonisms inhibited its aging and declining congregation from merging with Isleham's other, by then better attended, Baptist chapel. In 1978 they united instead with the local Primitive Methodists as Isleham Free Church. There were 29 full members c. 1987. (fn. 35) The Pound Lane chapel was still open in 1994.
In 1841 a small General Baptist chapel was built in Isleham fen. Seating 30, it was attended in 1851 by 20-30 people. (fn. 36) After the timberframed building, also accommodating a Sunday school, fell into disrepair, Cantlow bought a site for another building, probably opened c. 1858, to hold 150 people. (fn. 37) That mission chapel probably remained open until c. 1950, (fn. 38) and was later demolished.
Some of those baptized in 1798-9 had c. 1804-5 invited sermons from the Soham Baptist minister. In 1806 they registered a house at Isleham for their services. They broke with that minister after he avowed Unitarianism in 1807. Their leader William Norman, rejecting the Calvinism predominant among local Baptists, adhered to the Arminian General Baptists. In 1812 he formally organized a congregation, occupying a new chapel at the east end of Isleham Church Street, registered in 1811, which he built and in 1817 gave in trust for that congregation. At his death he also, by will of 1818, left it £800, received in 1834, partly invested in cottages. The income, in the late 19th century £50 yearly, along with another legacy of £200 from John Diver in 1872, helped to maintain its ministers. They changed relatively rapidly, there being twenty between 1812 and 1962. The 'High Street' chapel, of white brick dressed in red, was enlarged c. 1840, when two galleries were installed. (fn. 39) Its three-bayed west front with a round-arched centre still dominated the east end of Church Street in 1994. In 1851, when it could seat 390 with 40 standing, its minister claimed average attendances rising to 250-300 at the two later services. (fn. 40) In 1897 a house on Church Street was bought for the minister, previously in lodgings. (fn. 41) By 1910 the chapel also had 7¾ a. in the fen, and later 6½ a. off Pound Lane, which in the late 20th century produced steadily increasing rents, of over £550 by the 1990s. (fn. 42)
From the 1870s the High Street chapel gradually outstripped the older Pound Lane one, its membership rising from 92 in 1875 to 155-65 c. 1885-1915, then falling slowly to 96 by 1935 and c. 80 in the 1950s. (fn. 43) Religious conservatism long remained strong at Isleham: the recreation ground was closed on Sundays until 1964. (fn. 44) Open-air baptisms by immersion in the Lark were still performed occasionally until 1972. Thereafter they took place in an indoor pool constructed at the chapel. (fn. 45) From the mid 1970s the High Street chapel was reinvigorated by Tom Chipper, minister from 1965. Introducing a new 'baptism of the Holy Spirit', he encouraged spiritual healings and 'speaking in tongues' and transformed the services, removing the pulpit and pews and changing a pipe for an electronic organ. He thus attracted many young people from outside the village. A membership which reached 180 by 1979 and 250 by 1992 was by then divided into house groups led by deacons. Attendance at services rose from the 60-70 that Chipper had found in the 1960s to 350 or more by 1985. He was still actively supervising his enlarged congregation in the 1990s. (fn. 46) The chapel, enlarged by one bay in 1926, had a further two-storeyed extension added at the rear c. 1992. By then its income, largely from convenanted donations, had reached over £80,000. (fn. 47)
Methodism reached Isleham by 1840, when the Primitive Methodists opened a small chapel off the Causeway to the east, probably seating c. 170. It was attended in 1851 by up to 210 adults, besides 56 Sunday-school children. (fn. 48) Built of clunch and later seating 194, (fn. 49) the chapel remained open until 1976, when subsidence caused by quarrying in an adjoining field forced its closure and demolition. (fn. 50) Its congregation at first used the Pound Lane chapel, then combined with its members in 1978 as Isleham Free Church. (fn. 51) In the 19th century the Methodists often held outdoor 'camp meetings', (fn. 52) preaching from a waggon in the 'Hole', a natural amphitheatre, at Waterside. That tradition was preserved in the late 20th century by an annual summer open-air service on the recreation ground, in which the pastors of all three surviving Isleham dissenting churches often combined. (fn. 53) It was continued after 1978 by the united Free Church. (fn. 54)