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A Rebel Saint: Baptist Wriothesley Noel, 1798-1873 by Philip D. Hill

by
11 November 2022

Andrew Atherstone on a forgotten Evangelical

EVANGELICALS have often threatened secession, en masse, from the Church of England. In every generation, for 350 years, Evangelical clergy have resigned their parishes in protest at the drift of Anglicanism, but never has the trickle become a flood. During the Church of Scotland’s Great Disruption in the 1840s, 450 Evangelical ministers broke away. When the prominent London preacher Baptist Noel resigned from the Church of England a few years later, it was assumed that many would follow him. But no one did.

He was christened “Baptist”, and the name became a prophecy. At the height of his fame, Noel was an Anglican Evangelical platform speaker, author, organiser, and royal chaplain, and seemed certain to become a diocesan bishop. He called for 2000 new congregations across London diocese. But he grew increasingly disillusioned with the spiritual state of the Church of England, lamenting that “proud, indolent, and worldly ecclesiastics” were “hindrances to true religion”. He resigned and joined the Baptists in 1849: an act of “social suicide”.

As Philip Hill argues in this illuminating biography, Noel’s secession was a “serious embarrassment” to the Anglican Evangelical leadership, who were alarmed that many junior clergy would be tempted to follow his example and thus drain the lifeblood from their movement. Evangelical heavyweights, such as Bishop Daniel Wilson and the missionary administrator Henry Venn, not only snubbed Noel personally, but “used studied silence as a means of neutralising him”. By presenting a bold united front, they stemmed the haemorrhaging of young talent.

Seceders from Anglicanism often struggle to find a new spiritual home. Noel’s wife always disapproved of his decision, and, at his death, she ensured that he was buried with full Anglican rites in the parish churchyard. Hill, himself a Reformed Baptist, suggests that Noel “did not simply die but was effectively deleted” from the Anglican Evangelical narrative, deliberately forgotten, and we have had to wait 150 years for his rehabilitation.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

 

A Rebel Saint: Baptist Wriothesley Noel, 1798-1873
Philip D. Hill
James Clarke & Co. £25
(978-0-227-17761-7)

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