History in brief
Taken from “In Pleasant Places 1767-1967” written to celebrate the bi-centennial of Zion Baptist Church, June 10th/11th 1967 by Rev. W.S.Davies, a deacon of the church at that time.
The first Baptist Church in the area met in the home of James Blackmore in 1678. They were known as General Baptists. They later merged into the Unitarian Church. In 1726 a group separated themselves on theological grounds (according to Chambers) and John Jains applied for a license for the dwelling house of Mary Emker at West Cross to be used for the exercise of religious worship by the people called Baptists.
The date of the formation of Zion Baptist Church is actually unclear but tradition has it as 1767. Dr Whitely in his brochure “The Baptists of the Weald of Kent” states that the Sandhurst Church contained members from Tenterden and that a new Church was founded there in 1767. J.E.Mace (“Notes on Old Tenterden”) states that on 12th October 1776 a licence was granted for a Baptist Meeting House to be erected in Honey Lane (now Bell’s Lane). The church community was in existence prior to that as shown in the Church Minutes of 1773.
John Aitkens was the first recorded Minister. There have been 27 Ministers to date since then. In the early years there were a few ups and downs. There was steady growth until 1825 then a decline until 1833 when it almost closed. With the arrival of G.W.Moulton an increase began again and by 1843 there were 90 members. It was during this period that the decision was made to build a new Church on the present site. It was opened August 6th 1835 at a cost of £800. Between 1843 and 1856 there was another decline. On May 11th, 1856, the church was closed for 6 months.
Then a devoted Baptist called Mathew Rogers arrived in the town. He volunteered to fund expenses to reopen and run the church. He served the church and the town for over 50 years, being Mayor of the Borough four times. Mathew Roger’s faith and generosity were used by God to revive the work in Tenterden and owes a great debt to him.
In 1861 the Sunday school teachers expressed the need for better accommodation as the church was being used at that time. There were between 220 and 260 scholars at that time despite losing many in a scarlet fever epidemic. A schoolroom was built at the rear costing £300.
There was slow growth rising to 80 by 1881 when John Glaskin was called. During his pastorate extensive alterations were made to the building including new seating, improvement to the frontage and installation of an organ donated by George Barnes of Syracuse, N.Y. in memory of his parents who worshipped at Zion.
There is an almost complete record of minutes since 1787 apart from a few small gaps coinciding with declines. They contain fascinating accounts of the churches’ approach to the calling of ministers, preaching, evangelism and mission, auxiliary groups, communion, finances, worship and discipline. These are to be found in the full version.
Zion has enjoyed an association with other Baptist Churches in the area from as early as 1779. Over the years Zion has enjoyed fellowship with Churches in the Weald, Kent and Sussex Association, and from 1836 with the Baptist Union, which remains today. Zion is a member of Churches Together in Tenterden.
In recent years the church has needed major refurbishment. During the pastorate of Rev, D. Bedford-Groome the organ started to sink into the floor and it was evident that the structure was in need of attention! The pews, organ and pulpit were removed and the wooden floor was replaced with concrete. New timber panelling was also fitted. The new Open planned design proved to be a great improvement and lent itself to use by the wider community for various organisations and enabled the church to offer more outreach including Rainbow Tots, a very successful Mother and Toddlers Group (now re-introduced – see Youth and Children’s Work). It was envisaged that with the completion of the redevelopment at the rear, Zion would be able to offer more opportunities to benefit the wider community. This has proved to be the case. In 2005 plans were drawn up for an ambitious redevelopment costing £1,000,000 but they were shelved. In 2011/12 the chapel was given a complete makeover. In early 2013 the rear of the building was gutted and completely reconfigured. See the redevelopment page.