The village of Shrewton lies in the valley of the River Till, overshadowed by chalk escarpments, about four miles from Stonehenge. One of my ancestors, Charles Light, was the pastor of the Zion Chapel, a Baptist church there, in the second half of the 19th century. Charles’s younger brother, Henry, was also a Baptist minister, preaching in Chitterne, the next village. His son, another Henry, my father’s grandfather, took their trade – bricklaying – and their religion south to Portsmouth.

Shrewton is halfway between Salisbury and Devizes, on the old road between London and Warminster, a position that made it less dependent on the sheep and corn farming from which most local people derived a living. Tradesmen and artisans set up shop there; carters delivered goods and made purchases en route to the more isolated villages on Salisbury Plain; inns catered for travellers and, more recently, for visitors to Stonehenge. I left my car near the less hospitable accommodation provided by the Blind House, the old parish lock-up, a windowless brick cell the shape of a pepper-pot, into which prisoners were crammed for the night before being moved to Salisbury’s Fisherton Gaol.

I’m an old hand at family history so I knew that there had been Lights in Shrewton, but their faith was a surprise. A few months after my father’s death I chanced on the Portsmouth Nonconformist registers and found his immediate forebears: all roads led to Zion. My father often mentioned that his father had left home because his family were ‘strict Salvationists’, but that didn’t mean much to either of us. He half-hoped they were in the Salvation Army, recalling with admiration the girls in bonnets who’d braved the pubs of his youth selling copies of their magazine. My father never went to church himself, but he was a great believer in what he called ‘the fifth dimension’: a mix of moral philosophy, humility in the face of the unknown, Wellsian science and hedging his bets. I went to Shrewton because I miss him and it was one way of carrying on our talks, but I was also prompted by reading the Victoria County History of Wiltshire, which reveals that on Census Sunday 1851, 350 people, more than half the population of Shrewton, attended Zion Chapel’s services. In this village the Baptists were not a minority sect.

Even without the pictures I’d downloaded from the internet, the chapel would have been unmistakeable. Positioned aslant the road with its entrance facing up the High Street, it dominates one end of the village, about as far from the Anglican church, St Mary’s, as could be. It’s an imposing, undecorated brick structure with the date 1816 over its lintel, quite elegant in its simplicity, its windows symmetrically arranged. Now called Zion House, it has the introverted, shifty look of a public building converted into a private residence. There’s no mention of the Baptists. Perhaps Zion’s memorials are still inside. Guiltily checking I was not being observed I peered through the windows, catching sight of a modern kitchen. Ministers were often buried under the pulpit and I wondered whether Charles Light’s ashes were now beneath the fridge or cooker and whether I should care.

Shrewton’s first Baptist chapel, Bethesda, was built 20 years before Zion and was a good deal more discreet. Tucked away at the top of Chapel Lane, which runs uphill from the High Street, it was, VCH tells me, a mud-walled house built in the garden of a tinker convert. Bethesda is long gone, as are the next-door Bethesda Buildings, where Charles and Henry’s parents, Thomas and Christian, lived. Bethesda was the pool in Jerusalem where Jesus healed the sick, but the names of other contemporary Baptist chapels nearby are less consoling and make clear how thoroughly these rural congregations knew the Old Testament. Upavon’s chapel is called the Cave of Adullam, the stronghold where David sought refuge from Saul’s armies (1 Samuel), presumably as a reminder of the persecution suffered by dissenters; Little Zoar, near Calne, is evidence of the fortress mentality of those strict Calvinists among the Baptists who believed that only the Elect would be redeemed. Zoar was where Lot took shelter, the only city of the plain to be spared by God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19.22).

The doors of St Mary’s church were also shut. The current incumbent, Sue Armitage, is a team vicar who serves four parishes. St Mary’s has a long history of hard-pressed or absent clergy. In the 1780s, when the evangelical revival stirred the Baptists back into action, Shrewton’s vicar, John Skinner, lived in Salisbury, where he was master of the cathedral choristers; he left the parish to an underling who served three livings on low pay and celebrated communion three times a year. Most of the labouring poor avoided church and resented church tithes. The Church of England was the church of the gentry, who expected them to stand at the back, go up last for communion and be buried in the worst corner of the churchyard; the church of the farmers and merchants who ratcheted up prices; of the justices who criminalised poaching and backed the Enclosures Act which in 1801 ended the villagers’ rights to pasture and common husbandry. Before they became Baptists, the Lights relied heavily on parish handouts; then as now the building trade was unsteady work, dependent on the vicissitudes of the weather and the amount of money around. In 1793 Thomas Light’s grandmother Mary was buried courtesy of the parish in a shroud costing three shillings and a coffin costing eight.

Between 1800 and 1850 nearly 1200 places in Wiltshire, some tiny cottages, were registered for dissenting worship. Rejecting infant baptism was more than a doctrinal difference; it made the members of the sect separatists, outside the parish, which was an administrative unit of the state. The Baptists were on equal terms with their pastors; Charles and Henry Light were chosen by fellow church members. The ministry was not a sinecure; pastors could be ejected if unpopular and congregations could vote with their feet: in 1861 one schismatic group left the Zion Chapel and set up a Wesleyan Methodist church which is still in business on the High Street in Shrewton. From the 1820s the village’s Baptists ran Sunday schools and evening study groups for around 200 adults and children, the only education most of them would get. Farm workers, washerwomen, thatchers, hedgers, carriers, carpenters, shopwomen, servants – these were among Zion’s congregation.

I wanted to quiz the locals in the pub but I was too shy. I nervously raised the question of Baptists with the woman serving me in the local Londis, but she looked blank until I mentioned Zion House: she said it had been bought by architects but was now rented out. There were no local history pamphlets in the shop and all the postcards were of St Mary’s, Salisbury Cathedral or Stonehenge. I bought a tea towel for £4.50 which shows all the local pubs and churches, the Londis shop itself, the garage, the lock-up and several other buildings, but not Zion Chapel. I’m surprised that there isn’t a picture of the saddle and harness-maker’s shop where Cecil Chubb was born. Chubb got a scholarship to grammar school in Salisbury and a double first at Cambridge. He bought Stonehenge for £6600 in 1915 when a local family auctioned off their estate and he gave it to the nation three years later; Shrewtonians still have free admission. There’s a plaque on the side of Chubb’s old house, but it’s covered with foliage. Wandering back to Zion I plucked up the courage to knock on the door, framing my unlikely introduction – ‘Excuse me but my great-great-grandfather’s brother was pastor here’ – but no one answered.

I’d like to see a plaque on Zion’s walls. I feel tender towards those who refused to conform, who walked up Shrewton’s High Street in the opposite direction from St Mary’s, cocking a snook, I like to think, at pastor and squire. What matters to me is politics, what mattered to them was salvation; the misery and poverty the congregation suffered in this life is easier for me to appreciate than the joy they may have felt about the next. I should have contacted the nearest surviving Baptist church a couple of miles off at Tilshead, but their website put me off: ‘We believe the Bible to be totally reliable and true, written by men inspired by God.’

Genealogy used to belong only to the wealthy, with their ‘line’ of ancestors ratifying their claim to land and property, entitling them to a stake in the past. The history of the poor, by contrast, is usually one of temporary tenancies, expropriations, evictions and migrations. This may be one reason family history websites are so popular: family history constitutes a narrative; it resettles. Genealogy is now largely an obsession for those, middle-aged or older, who are alert to time passing and want to make peace with the recently dead. It’s flourishing at a time when family members are far-flung and fewer of us actually live in families. Discovering long-lost ancestors online is a happily mournful activity, but they’re easier to deal with than living relatives; they don’t need looking after or ringing up.

The next day in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham I read Zion’s Church Book, which records its meetings. The language is familiar: committees and minutes, mutual responsibility and moral policing, ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ who are ‘excluded’ or ‘erased’ from the sect for wrongdoing. Nothing survives from Charles Light’s 34-year pastorate. In 1889, when the church membership had shrunk to 50, revisionists destroyed the old records and church rolls, in which there was ‘much to sadden’: ‘unscriptural marriages of members with the ungodly; slander; immorality; drunkenness; bad language’. The Rev. Light had belonged to an older dispensation. By the end of the 19th century Baptist ministers were usually college-trained, the temperance movement was in full swing, and being a dissenter was socially acceptable. The Lights became master builders and employers; their sons solicitors and architects.

Not my grandfather. In the one photograph I have of him, he is on a building site, a man in his fifties or sixties: cap and Norfolk jacket, V-neck pullover, shirt and tie. He faces the camera with a cryptic smile, the tips of his fingers resting lightly, perhaps in a mildly proprietorial way, on a pile of bricks. I inherited his Pocket Oxford English Dictionary (1932) with his name and initials, H.H. (Henry Herbert) Light, inked on a spine held together with the masking tape decorators use. He tried to escape his fate, left the church, abandoned his apprenticeship and joined the navy as a cook’s mate at some point before the First World War. Twenty years later, in the midst of the Depression, a widower with four children, he came back to Portsmouth, according to my dad, ‘with his tail between his legs’, and begged work from his Salvationist father. He never returned to the fold and was always too fond of a drink.

The records for the sale of Zion Chapel are preserved in Chippenham. I found a letter from an elderly member who had ‘borne witness’ for 40 years, and wrote to thank the minister after the service held for the church’s decommissioning. His sermon was ‘so nicely put over that we could feel it was only the bricks and mortar to give up’. For Baptists the church is the visible church of the congregation or it is nothing. Even so I wish they had been a little more worldly. The Baptists sold for £65,000 in 1999; in 2006 Zion was on the market with Savills for half a million more than this, advertised as ‘a modernist heaven’ with a floor ‘of poured concrete which is heated to blood temperature and studded with lights’, a ‘kitchen-zone, two enclosed pods (for television snug and study)’ and five bedrooms. Riders attached to the original contract veto the property being used for the sale of alcohol, for the purposes of gambling or ‘any other illegal or immoral purpose’ and forbid any direct reference to the ‘Baptist Chapel’.

Shrewton’s first Baptist chapel owed its existence to Thomas Wastfield and John Saffery, itinerant preachers supported by the Baptist Missionary Society who travelled the plain, gathering converts ‘amidst great opposition’. An accounts book from 1796 details every subscription from local Baptists and every item of expenditure on the new chapel: ten quarters of lime (£1 12s), flints, chalk stones and the cost of wheeling the dirt for the walls (£1 2s); 1000 laths with nails (1s), 500 bricks and their carriage from Warminster and Salisbury (16s); 23 bushels of hair (13s 5d), and 1700 pantiles for the roof (£4 16s 4d). A Mr Light was paid £17 14s 6d for building the walls of the Bethesda meeting house, tiling and plastering. Two women, who worked for more than three weeks digging and drawing earth, earned 12 shillings each. Their names are not recorded.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences