Baptist College, Stepney (1810-1856) and Regent's Park College, London (1856-1927)

(Historical account to 1860)

In 1689 the Particular Baptists identified 'the giving fit and proper encouragement for the raising up of an able and honourable ministry for the time to come' as a matter for urgent concern (Ivimey, English Baptists, I, 478-80), and almost immediately began to raise funds for that purpose amongst others. Division between London and the provinces seems to have vitiated that initiative; accordingly a new start was made with the establishment in 1717 of the Particular Baptist Fund, but the funds raised were small and educational needs had to compete with grants for the maintenance of the ministry: as late as 1770 the managers only had some £700 p.a. for distribution.

In 1752 a more deliberate initiative was taken with the founding of the London Baptist Education Society, which employed a succession of tutors - including Thomas Llewellyn and Samuel Stennett - from 1752 to at least 1769. By 1784 the Society had ceased employing a tutor in London, and instead supported a few students at Bristol Baptist Academy or John Fawcett's Academy in Yorkshire. This practice came to an end around 1796 when the sum of £1800 was transferred to the Particular Baptist Fund to be applied specifically to educational purposes. The last remaining trustee was William Taylor (1728-1811), one of Abraham Booth's deacons at the Prescott Street Church, who supported his pastor in a new initiative to establish a new Baptist Education Society in 1804. Alongside Booth and Taylor, two others were very active in the new society: Joseph Gutteridge, a treasurer of the Particular Baptist Fund from 1798 to 1844, and William Newman, who had worked as an assistant in John Collett Ryland's school at Enfield. Booth urged that 'though we are by no means warranted to consider a learned education as an essential to the discharge of the duties of the Christian ministry, yet we cannot but reflect, with much concern, on that degree of illiteracy which is sometimes observable in those who preach the Gospel of Christ' (Gould, Baptist College, 17).

In 1810 the older education society was transformed into a committee promoting 'The Baptist Academical Institution at Stepney', with William Taylor as the new institution's principal benefactor. Taylor, having purchased the Stepney premises, conveyed them to thirteen trustees, appointed with his approval. Their successors were to be appointed by the managers of the Particular Baptist Fund, and the whole enterprise to be devoted to 'the education of pious young men designed for the Christian ministry' (Gould, Baptist College, 32). To that end the remaining assets of the 1804 society were transferred to the new institution and the Particular Baptist Fund was reminded of the funds that it held for the purposes of ministerial training. The new premises were located next to the Whitechapel Road and Radcliffe Highway, and included a refectory, library, chapel, and accommodation for tutors and students.

Baptist College, Stepheny
Baptist College, Stepney [courtesy of Regent's Park College, Oxford]

The promoters of the new institution tried to persuade Joseph Kinghorn of Norwich to become the first president and resident tutor. But Kinghorn would not move from Norwich and so the promoters turned to Newman instead, with the vocal support of Andrew Fuller of Kettering, the theologian who more than any other persuaded most British Baptists to abandon the high Calvinism of John Gill and John Brine in favour of a missionary-oriented evangelical Calvinism. But more was needed to promote the new institution, and to that end Robert Hall, then of Leicester, was prevailed upon to write a Prospectus. In this document, Hall was at pains to indicate that the college did not intend to compete with existing dissenting institutions and he pointed to the difficulty experienced by London Baptist Churches in securing the services of suitably trained pastors. Compared with an earlier period, Hall did not believe that it was any longer necessary to argue the desirability of the scholarly equipping of candidates for the Christian ministry, for all now admitted 'the propriety of enlisting literature in the service of religion'. Mindful of the widespread judgment that ministers were prepared by God rather than fashioned in college, Hall argued that the union of education and piety would 'much enlarge the capacity of doing good' (Gould, Baptist College, 38). Further argument was to be found in the increased educational achievements of the wider society in which the graduates of the new institution would be called to minister.

Hall's Prospectus specified the institution's principles as those of the Reformation, more specifically the principles of Particular or Calvinistic Baptists. This is reflected in the requirement of the Baptist Education Society that all students be a member of a Baptist Church that avowed Calvinistic sentiments. The 'Rules of Admission' to the Academy once established were not identical to those of the Education Society and do not include any mention of Calvinism. Candidates were required to write a letter of application stating the means of their conversion and their views of the leading articles of Christianity. This list of Rules, still implying the sole purpose of ministerial training, was emended slightly from time to time and was printed until 1857. From 1858, when the college began to admit lay students, letters of application from ministerial students were no longer required.

The succession of principals after William Newman (1810-26) was Solomon Young (1826-7); William Harris Murch (1827-43; interim president 1849); Benjamin Davies (1843-47); William D. Jones (1847-49); and Joseph Angus (1849-93). The problems of the new institution in its early years were considerable. Although endowed with buildings which were initially appropriate for its task, in many years it failed to raise sufficient funds from the churches for its healthy development. As a consequence it was often under-staffed and had difficulty attracting students, with some of those admitted having received only a limited education at the time of enrolment. In 1828 it was agreed that such students should undertake a year's preliminary study with a competent tutor, so that by the time of their admission to the college they could read Virgil in Latin and the New Testament in Greek. This was followed in 1839 by the adoption of a written entrance examination as part of the admissions process. The problems of staffing were exacerbated by illness and premature death, until Angus brought a measure of stability to the institution.

The other major problem for the staff was the breadth of the curriculum they had to cover in a four-year course devised by Murch. Some information about the earlier curriculum before Murch's time survives. Newman devised a four-year plan for theology divided into four parts, grammatical, historical, systematic, and pastoral. A sermon class apparently existed from the start. Other comments indicate that Hebrew and Greek were taught from the beginning, as were the principles of dissent, science, and anatomy. Murch, together with his colleague Samuel Tomkins, an early Stepney graduate who was classics and mathematics tutor from 1828 to 1847, did much to consolidate the work of the college. The subjects taught included Greek, Hebrew and Latin, mathematics, English composition, rhetoric, logic, history, Jewish antiquities, mental and moral philosophy, evidence theology, ministerial duties, Christian doctrine, and ecclesiastical history. The students were tested in all these areas by an annual examination assessed by external examiners. By 1841 the syllabus also included the teaching of German and natural science.

In 1834 the committee of the Three Denominations (Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist), on which both Newman and Murch served, used the occasion of its loyal address to the crown to canvass for the University of London to receive degree awarding powers. In 1840/1 Murch secured for the college affiliation to the University of London, in whose foundation Baptists, and especially those associated with the college, had played an important part. In securing a royal warrant on 11 December 1840 the college had the advantage of advice from James Martineau, who had earlier been through a similar process for Manchester New College.

At the same time as raising the status of the college, its officers were mindful of the need to head off any suggestion that it was becoming over-academic. The Report for 1841 assured supporters that 'the advanced acquirement of secular knowledge and the clear understanding of the works of God . . . greatly assist in the study of His Word'. While the committee were 'anxious for the literary improvement of the College' they were confident that it would 'never be forgotten that it is upon the piety and simple devotedness of the students that the Institution is mainly dependent for its success'.

To meet all the demands placed upon them, from the year 1841-2 those matriculating for university study had their course lengthened from four years to five. Having secured these developments, Murch resigned in 1843 because of ill health, and was replaced by the Old Testament scholar, Benjamin Davies. However, Davies was a better scholar than administrator, and after only three years, frustrated by the situation in the college, he returned to Canada where he had been serving before he came to Stepney, though in 1857 he was happy to return as a much-loved tutor for a further eighteen years.

Baptist College, Stepheny
Regent's Park College, London [courtesy of Regent's Park College, Oxford]

In 1856 the college had moved from Stepney, which was increasingly proving an unsuitable location for an institution of higher education, to leased premises at Holford House in Regent's Park. The new premises were within easy reach of University College, from whose academic facilities, especially the ability to take arts degrees, Baptist students were to benefit. Student numbers increased from 15 in 1816, 17 in 1830, 20 in 1850, to 37 in 1860, the last figure including lay as well as ministerial students. From 1858 the college admitted three kinds of students: those studying theology; those intending to study theology, but taking a course of preliminary education first; and lay students. Angus noted with satisfaction in 1865 that although Regent's Park was not the largest of the affiliated colleges, in most years the college recommended twice the average number of students to proceed to degrees.

In 1857 Angus arranged for collaborative work with New College, London. As in all the colleges there was a struggle to get the balance between general and theological education right. The hope was that University College would aid with the former, and this seems to have happened to some degree. Even after the move to Regent's Park staffing was minimal, with Angus serving on his own with only part-time help, amongst the more colourful of whom was James Sheridan Knowles, the actor and dramatist who taught the Regent's Park students elocution. Much of the division of labour between the colleges at this time was necessarily ad hoc.

By these means Angus was able to increase the range of courses available to Regent's Park students while at the same time bringing the college budget under control, even after the Baptist Missionary Society had ceased to sponsor students, by developing the college endowments and seeking to build up funds both to underwrite professorial salaries and support those wishing to serve overseas. Angus believed it was both advantageous for ministerial students to share their education with non-theologians and good for a number of lay students to read for their degrees within the life of a Christian collegiate community. Such lay students were to be prepared for the Civil Service, the professions, and the higher walks of commercial life. For some of these, study at Regent's Park was preliminary to further work at Oxford and Cambridge. Another particularly distinguished group were to join the Indian Civil Service, for which Angus served as an examiner. Regent's Park lay alumni who secured some distinction in public life and scholarship include Sir Frederick Lely, Sir Stephen Sale, and Dr E. S. Weymouth. Prominent ministerial alumni include J. M. Cramp, president of Baptist College, Montreal, and then of Acadia College, Nova Scotia; David Jonathan East, principal of Calabar College, Jamaica; Samuel Gosnell Green, editor of the Religious Tract Society; Alexander McLaren of Union Chapel, Manchester; Silas Mead of Flinders Street Baptist Church, Adelaide, South Australia; Henry Ierson, who became a Unitarian and co-edited The Essex Hall Hymnal.

When the University of London was reconstituted at the beginning of the twentieth century Regent's Park became a Divinity School of the University with its tutors becoming recognized teachers of the new theology faculty. S. W. Green (son of S. G. Green) of Regent's Park played a major part in drafting and implementing the new scheme, himself serving as Dean of the new Faculty of Theology. In 1927 the College moved to premises in St Giles, Oxford and in 1957 became a Permanent Private Hall of the University.

John H. Y. Briggs


The college archives are housed in the Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford.

Published sources

Baines, Arnold, 'The Pre-History of Regent's Park College', Baptist Quarterly, 36 (1995), 191-201.
Cooper, R. E., From Stepney to St Giles': The Story of Regent's Park College, 1810-1960 (London, 1960).
Gould, George P., The Baptist College at Regent's Park: A Centenary Record (London, 1910).
Ivimey, Joseph, A History of the English Baptists, 4 vols. (London, 1811-30).
Payne, E. A., 'The Development of Nonconformist Theological Education in the Nineteenth Century, with Special Reference to Regent's Park College', in Studies in History and Religion, ed. E. A. Payne, (London, 1942).
-----, 'From an Old Box: Some Stepney College Papers', Baptist Quarterly, 7 (1934), 186-192.
Randall, Ian, 'Conscientious Conviction': Joseph Angus and Baptist Life (Oxford, 2011).
Sell, Alan P. F., Philosophy, Dissent and Nonconformity, 1689-1920 (Cambridge, 2004).

John H. Y. Briggs, 'Baptist College, Stepney (1810-1856) and Regent's Park College, London (1856-1927)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, August 2011.