The Pontefract Congregational Church was founded on 24th August 1662, when Rev. Joseph Farrett, along with about two thousand other clergymen felt compelled to leave the Church of England because they were unable, as a matter of conscience, to make declarations required of them by the Act of Uniformity.
This Act required ministers to submit to a system of church government, which included bishops governing all the churches in a diocese, and a formal order of worship based upon the Book of Common Prayer.
In Pontefract, Rev. Farrett, who had been a minister at St. Giles, lost his livelihood as a result of his decision, but was able to enjoy the hospitality of a Mr. Ward who owned a mansion called ‘the Court’ in Tanshelf. It was there that he led in worship those Christians who shared his independency and so formed what became known as the Independent or Dissenting Church, which was, in its regard for Scripture as the only source of authority for the Church and its emphasis on the preaching of the Word, the evangelical church of its day.
Rev. Farrett died the next year, 1663, at the age of 63, and was succeeded by the Rev. J. Noble, who had left the parish church at Smeaton in 1662. The Dissenters, as the Independents were sometimes known, had to endure persecution, but continued to meet and eventually grew in numbers under a succession of ministers until 1746, when the Rev. Stamford died. At some time during this period, a building known as the Dissenting Meeting House was erected somewhere in Newgate.
For a while there was no minister and the Rev. Coppock who came next was very much a product of the times. Although the Methodist Revival had begun by then, Rev. Coppock had been educated and had entered the ministry in an age of liberalism and rationalism. He was a follower of Socinus, a Swiss theologian of the 16th Century who denied the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead. These views were gaining ground in England at the time and became known as Unitarianism. As a result of having these unscriptural views, ‘this gentleman’, to quote Dr. Boothroyd’s History of Pontefract, ‘found a respectable congregation and preached it away’. When he died in 1782, only two or three families attended. Here then is a lesson from history of what will happen when a church does not guard its pulpit and allows unbiblical preaching.
Following his death, a number of evangelicals, probably influenced by the Methodist Revival, called an evangelical minister, Rev. N. Tapp, who served until 1791 when he was succeeded by Rev. Dr. Boothroyd. The Trust Deed made in 1794 contained very specific requirements of any minister who should be elected. He would have to adhere to the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and specific mention was made of the preaching and maintenance of ‘the doctrines of a Trinity of Persons in the Godhead of equal power and glory’. It was intended that no Unitarian would ever occupy the pulpit again.
The original Ebenezer Chapel was built in Finkle Street in 1795-96, and the church removed there from the Dissenting Meeting House in Newgate. Dr. Boothroyd’s ministry at Pontefract continued until 1818, during which time a Sunday School was begun at Pontefract and, under Dr. Boothroyd’s guidance, the Congregational Church at Knottingley began to meet.
Between 1818 and 1868 there were six ministers. Nothing is recorded about the spiritual life of the church during this period but ‘achievements’ are recorded for three of the ministers. Between 1837 and 1847, the original Ebenezer Chapel was rebuilt and enlarged; between 1852 and 1857 an organ was installed in the Chapel; and between 1862 and 1868 the large Sunday School building, which stood where Stuart Road now runs, was built. During the ministry of Rev. J. Inness (1857-61) a member from Pontefract who moved to Castleford was instrumental in the formation of Carlton Street Congregational Church under the presidency of Rev. J. Inness.
Church Minute books exist from 1867, but the quality of the record keeping has varied as the spiritual life of the church has ebbed and flowed. We do know, however, that in the 1800?s there was a strong spiritual life from the evidence of ‘cottage meetings’ – house groups are not so new! – and the exercise of biblical church discipline.
In 1881 the porch was added to the front of the Chapel: the date is above the door. In 1911 a breach which had been developing between the church and the Sunday School (which apparently had begun to act independently of the church) was healed. This emphasises the importance of the church, acting through its appointed leaders, maintaining a close involvement with everything which is done in the name of the church and ensuring that all organisations and meetings are under the leaders’ spiritual authority.
For most of the twentieth century, until 1968, the church was in a state of spiritual, followed by numerical, decline in common with most churches in the established denominations. This began with the advance of liberal theology, ‘the downgrade’ which C. H. Spurgeon fought against, at the end of the nineteenth century. Minutes of church meetings during this period show a changing emphasis from discussion of spiritual matters to a greater concern with social events, finance and property maintenance. Active membership ranged between 15 and 20 during the 1950’s and early 1960’s but, despite the numerical decline from the nineteenth century, there remained a small nucleus of members who gave spiritual activity in the church priority.
The turning point for the church came in 1968 when the Rev. Bill Dyer was called as pastor. The spiritual development and numerical growth of the church since then has been the result of faithfulness to the Bible as the inspired Word of God and the emphasis on expository preaching for Christians and the preaching of the gospel to non-Christians at every opportunity.