This site has been prepared to assist students of this and future generations who may be studying the history of the Old Meeting House at Ditchling, the genealogy of their families or other related matters.
As more information comes to light so the site may need to be amended or extended. This the compiler hopes to do if needed. The present information should thus be considered an interim one.
The compiler would welcome advice from any reader who has additional information on the subject and which might serve to make a future edition more useful. It is hoped that such a future edition will be supplemented by genealogical trees of the larger families whose names appear here. Substantial progress has been made in the compilation of these trees, but they are at present insufficiently complete to warrant publication with this site
Most of the persons whose names appear in the records which follow were members, or descendants of members of what was once a relatively closed community. To understand why this community existed and why these people chose to belong to such a community, it is necessary to look back into history.
The early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth were ones of stability and consolidation. The Church had been rid of its worst corruption and superstition in the time of her father, had swung to one extreme, so it was argued, in the reign of her brother, had swung to the opposite extreme under her sister to the revulsion of most people in the country, but was now treading a steady middle path. The Book of Common Prayer had been re-established and had found general acceptance. The Bible, now widely available, was having a profound influence on the people who regarded it as the ultimate measure of what was right and wrong in things spiritual. The Government was firm, and if justice was a little rough at times, the fears of enemies abroad and conspiracy at home rendered it acceptable.
Such conditions could not last as the country became more settled. The revulsion against the spiritual bondage of the past was deeply ingrained in many people, lay and clergy. They saw the pride and wealth of the bishops, the vestments of the Church, and many passages in the Book of Common Prayer as savouring of popery.
The more thoughtful clergy, commonly known as 'Puritans', began to give no more than lip service to the church establishment. They preached without vestments. They baptised without the sign of the cross. When John Whitgift was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury he had a firm directive from the Queen to enforce conformity. The Puritan party came under persecution, but to no avail, for two generations later their strength had grown such that crown and bishops were swept away.
There were some clergy whose minds followed a more radical path. Whereas the Puritans sought to purify rather than destroy the Church of England, these other minds, by dint of deep study of the bible, found no scriptural authority for an established church. Moreover they found many of the practices of the church as contravening the scriptures. They concluded that when two or more were gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ, there was the true church. It was that church and no other, that should appoint Elders for their spiritual uplifting, Deacons for their temporal support, and Messengers for spreading the Gospel.
Some took a step further. Admission to the true church could only be as a result of belief in the teachings of Jesus, repentence for past sins and the washing away of those sins by baptism. Baptism of infants was meaningless and without any scriptural authority.
Such people were originally called 'Anabaptists' as a mark of decision though, in time, they accepted the name 'Baptists'.
At that time the teaching of Calvin was becoming widely accepted throughout much of Europe and England. It taught, amongst other things, that salvation was limited to a predestined few and that the bulk of mankind was lost through the sins of Adam. Most Baptists found this view quite unacceptable. They considered salvation was available to all and general who diligently sought it. From this tenet they becajne known as 'General Baptists' and it is from these that the Ditchling Meeting House people trace their origin.
Baptists suffered much persecution, both the General Baptists and those who held to the Galvinist view and were known as 'Particular Baptists'. Those caught practising adult baptism risked imprisonment or even death. The hoped for improvement in these conditions on the death of Elizabeth failed to materialise. A number fled to Holland and it was in Amsterdam in about 1609 that the first English Baptist Church was formally constituted.
A few years later, uneasy at the thought of accepting a safe refuge rather than facing troubles at home, the church leaders returned to England eventually to die in prison. Not till the time of the Civil War did conditions in England allow Baptists and others separated from the Church of England to worship in peace. Sadly, with the restoration of Charles II, persecution began once more. It was not till the Glorious Revolution of 1680 which placed William and Mary on the throne that religous persecution virtually came to an end.
Persecution for 100 years or so had left its mark on the Baptists, as with others. Secrecy of worship had been essential for long periods. Any stranger might be an informer. Thus the custom arose of intermarriage between Baptist families, a custom often enforced by threat of exclusion from their communion.
The records which follow, even though relating mainly to persons living long after persecution had ceased, still show extensive intermarriage between the old families, at least up to the early 1800s by which time the old customs had almost died.
So too by then had some of the old beliefs. From its inception the movement had a strong aversion to any written creed or statement of faith other than in the most general terms. Their only authority was the written word of the bible and this, in strict terms, meant the Greek and Hebrew originals. As modern biblical criticism arose so their approach to the bible was affected. Some, troubled by the new thinking, had moved to Methodism or across to the Particular Baptists. Some, despairing of the religous and political climate in England had moved to America.
Leonard J Maguire