The roots of Wade Street Church go back over 400 years. At that time, some people became unhappy with the Church of England and the many ways in which the bishops and priests tried to impose things on the life of the country – and particularly on those who went to church (most of the population in those days).
Those who were unhappy decided to form their own churches called Nonconformist churches (because they didn’t conform to the same rules as everyone else), or Independent churches (because they were separate from the Church of England, which was so closely linked to the monarch and the government).
The authorities didn’t like this, and there was a certain amount of persecution of the Independents. (If you look on the walls of St Mary’s Church, in the Market Square, you will discover plaques which tell of the fate that befell those who did not conform.)
There was an Independent Church in Lichfield in about 1654, but it did not last very long. In 1790, though, a small group of Nonconformists began to meet in an old warehouse in Sandford Street. It was a damp and draughty building, but the people kept coming and eventually employed a minister.
The first minister didn’t stay long, and was soon replaced by a man named William Salt in 1804. The church was now known as a Congregational church, because decisions were made by the congregation as a whole, not imposed by the minister or a bishop (although at the time many people confused it with the Methodist Church – and some still do!).
A strange tale
In 1808 a very strange incident occurred. William Salt preached a sermon at a morning service and afterwards one of the people from the church – a 19-year-old tailor’s apprentice called Henry Fairbrother – committed suicide. The people of the city, who didn’t like the Congregationalists anyway, were enraged and assumed that it was William Salt’s fault. So they went to lynch him.
The magistrates were called and William said he would preach the sermon again to show that there was no reason to blame him. In a packed courtroom, William satisfied everyone that the sermon was not the cause of Henry’s death – and some people were so impressed that they gave money for the Congregationalists to build their own church, Salem Chapel in Wade Street, which was opened in 1812.
That building is still used today and the outside is more or less unchanged. It is a listed building because it is one of the few examples of Georgian Nonconformist chapels in the Midlands.
Within three years it was so full that a gallery was added at the back. In 1824 the side galleries were added and the original box pews (which were rented out to rich people until the 1920s) are still in place on one side. About this time, a house was built on the back of the church for the minister to live in (it was demolished in the 1980s).
Behind the pulpit, which stood at the front of the church, was a secret door so that the minister could escape out the back when the church was attacked by those who did not like the Congregationalists (which unfortunately happened quite often).
You will notice that there are very few adornments in the church – no statues, no stained glass windows, no candles etc. That’s because the people who built it did not want anything to distract them from their worship or from what the preacher was saying. The minister stands in the centre of the church at the front when he or she is preaching, to emphasise that the Bible is central to the Christian faith.
Over the years the church grew and declined, much in line with national trends. In 1972, when the Congregational Church became part of the United Reformed Church, Wade Street Church became a URC.
Then in 1994, the church here joined up with the Baptist Church to form a Local Ecumenical Partnership – a church in which people from more than one denomination worship together. The buildings were extended and refurbished and the congregation continued to grow.
New members of staff were appointed (an associate minister, a youth worker, a children’s worker and an administrator) and the church is now very much involved with the wider community in many different ways – ‘A church at the heart of the city, with Christ at the heart of the church’.