Previous Ministers

Rev. Roland French
(additional information)

Roland French, his wife and children.
Roland French, his wife and children.

The Census’ returns for Branscombe show Roland living near Church, Branscombe, his grandfather Amos being the head of the household.

Year Name Age Occupation
1881 Roland J. French 4 Scholar
1891 Roland J. French 14 Cliff Labourer
1901 Roland J. French 24 Market Gardener

The first Methodist Chapel opened in the village in 1831 and it was there, in 1892, that Roland and his friend and cousin Peter Williams were converted, at the age of 15, during an evangelistic mission taken by two ladies; Roland later to become a Baptist minister and Peter Williams a Methodist missionary in South Africa. In their teens they preached in the streets of Branscombe, and Roland played the clarinet in Chapel.

In January 1894, aged 17, they were received on trial with the Methodist local preachers.

It is recorded in the Minutes of 20th December 1897 that it was carried unanimously that Brother Roland French should be placed on fall plan.

Roland was present when the Methodists transferred to their new chapel building in Branscombe in 1900.

Dunoon, Scotland

Roland seems to have spent a short period in 1902 at Dunoon Baptist Church, Scotland, where his name appears on their Register of Members.

Information received in 2003 from Mr. G. Newall, of Dunoon Baptist Church, shows that a Deacon of the Church was the well known Christian writer, Oswald Chambers. He was also a Tutor at a small Baptist College at Shalling Mhor, and Roland may have attended there prior to entering Spurgeon’s College in London, as his records from Spurgeon’s show him as having come from Dunoon Baptist Church.

Roland entered Spurgeon’s in 1903 and was settled in 1907.

Middle Wall Baptist Church, Whitstable 1907-1910

The Rev. R. J. W. French’s first church was in Whitstable. Records show that “in January 1907 an invitation was given to a young student from the Pastors’ College. Mr. French served the church in a difficult time for three years with much acceptance. He had a love of open-air work which, before long brought him in conflict with the Police. The common meeting place at that time was the cross, at the junction of the High Street and Harbour Street; it was here that the Baptist friends held their services, but for some reason objection was made and the friends told to move on. Feeling the injustice of the act, especially since other gatherings were allowed there, the Baptists continued as hitherto to make their witness with the result that a summons was served upon them to appear at Canterbury Court. About thirty to forty friends attended, some giving evidence; the result was one day’s imprisonment for the leader, which of course meant instant dismissal (I presume of the case - not the minister!) The services afterwards were carried on at Reeves’ beach.”

The church grew during Roland French’s ministry. Between 1908 and 1910 the Sunday School premises were extended. As the records state: “it may be some indication of his exceptional preaching powers that our church had to be extended the year after he left...” so in 1911 the church was extended by the addition of an entrance vestibule and a gallery doubling the seating capacity to 350.

The work progressed well under the Rev. Roland French; and it was a keen disappointment to all when he tendered his resignation, and later in May 1910 bade farewell to Whitstable for Leytonstone.

Harrow Green Baptist Church, Leytonstone. 1910-1914

According to records of a Church meeting on 31st March 1910, the Rev. Roland French had been invited to preach on 3rd March and they were now considering an invitation to accept a position as Pastor. Much blessing had been received from his preaching. Delegates had visited Middle Wall at Whitstable, to hear him in his home church, and had met with Mr. French. From enquiries it was ascertained that he had all the requirements of a Baptist Minister, that his doctrines were right, he was adapted to young people, and behind his sermons there was an unmistakable note of love, sympathy and compassion for all men. He had the grit necessary for the work, and he was against officialism. A call was given.

On 26th May 1910 it was reported that Mr. French had accepted the invitation to become Pastor. During his ministry Saturday midnight meetings were held regularly. The fellowship prospered and the Rev. Roland French remained as minister until 1914.

His resignation was read on May 28th 1914 to the Church meeting informing us of his acceptance of the Pastorate of Greenwich South Street Baptist Church. It was accepted with regret. Preliminary arrangements for the farewell service on Monday 22nd June were announced.

The church was gutted by a fire bomb in 1940 and was rebuilt in the 1950’s - but is not now used by Baptists. On 18th March 1945 Roland French returned to conduct the morning and evening services marking the nine day celebration of the church’s Jubilee.

South Street Baptist Church, Greenwich 1914-1927

Unfortunately little is known of Rev. Roland French’s ministry at South Street as the Church records are missing, but the current Church Administrator, Mrs. Irene Nash has provided scanned pictures.

Bethesda Baptist Church, Ipswich 1927-1946

The following are quotes from ‘The Bethesda Story’ by the Strict Baptist Historical Society:

“At a church meeting held at the end of 1926 it was decided, after occupying the pulpit on three Sundays, because church officials and people were much impressed, to invite Rev. R. J. French to the Pastorate. Mr. French accepted the invitation. It was the first time a call was given to a leader outside the Strict Baptist denomination, and the church’s first college-trained minister.”

“Mr. French was born of humble stock, had early in life been deeply stirred in his soul, and by sheer perseverance and grim determination had made his way for training at Spurgeon’s College. His Evangelical fervour was not questioned nor were his Baptist principles in doubt, but he had not been accustomed to the ’closed table’ nor was he strongly associated with the denomination into which he would be expected to throw in his lot.”

These two facts were to cause some early problems, but were later resolved.

“At the time no manse was available, the Minister was asked to make his own domestic arrangements. This he did and on 20th March 1927 welcome meetings were held with crowded audiences.”

“The minister was quick to note the restricted accommodation for the School and Bible Classes which then numbered 400 and 250 respectively. A thanksgiving day was inaugurated to raise funds, which became an annual event. In April 1931 two extra classrooms were completed.”

“During the years changes took place. The deaf-aid system was introduced, but a motion to permit women to speak at Church meetings was regarded as non-essential, so it had to wait a few more years!”

“Individual communion cups were introduced, and the question of who should be permitted to use them (which had been the subject of much protracted debate) was settled.”

“The ‘faith and order’ clause had been deleted, so that ‘baptised believers who were in membership with other churches’ became now admissible to the Communion Table.”

“Evangelistic Missions were introduced, and the Christian Endeavour Societies were formed, (see photo of The Rev. French as President of CE)”

“Mr. French was a keen open-air worker and conducted such activity with considerable zest. It is known that he frequently visited racecourses, taking his accordion, which he played first to draw a crowd before speaking.”

“When the war ended in 1945 Mr. French intimated that his retirement from the pastorate and from active ministry was in sight.”

“Final arrangements were that Mr. and Mrs. French should celebrate their 19th Anniversary in March 1946. This would virtually be the farewell, although the ministry would continue another three months. On the last Sunday in May Mr. French preached his farewell sermons taking ’The Benediction’ as his text.”

“At the conclusion of the evening service the Church treasurer made a farewell speech on behalf of the Church and congregation, and presented Mr. French with a cheque for £210.”

“The church also published an appreciation of Roland’s wife, Effie French:”

‘Mrs. R. J. French: from her earliest days Christian influences surrounded Mrs. French. Her father was an evangelist of considerable ability and experience.

Although of a retiring disposition, Mrs. French engaged in various kinds of Church work, she was not blessed with an excess of physical strength and in addition to the care other family of three, an aged mother needed her attention for many years. Nevertheless at Bethesda she played her part with zeal, and won the love and esteem of all.

Her leadership of the women’s work was the main interest, and she worked with harmony and concern among the women of the Church. The problems of the depression years culminating with the clouds of war denied Mrs. French the full reward of a service rendered with unexcelled loyalty.

Although the years in retirement were fraught with problems, Mrs French bore them with patience, and whenever health permitted worshipped at Bethesda regularly until called Home in December 1960.’ ”

The Rev. Roland French died on 14th November 1965 aged 88 in Ipswich hospital.

Roland French was a distant cousin. His grandfather, Amos, was a nephew to my great-grandfather, Isaac.

Gladys Sutch
July 2004

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© Tony Harris 30/04/2013