On 1st October 2009 a blue plaque was unveiled at Spring Hill College, Wake Green Road, Moseley to commemorate a very extraordinary man, Rev. John Angell James, without whom Moseley School West Wing building would probably not exist.
Around 50 distinguished guests, including John Angell James’s relatives, representatives of Birmingham Civic Society and several former head and deputy head teachers of Moseley School listened to short talks from Mr Tim Boyes, Moseley School Head Teacher, Roger Green, Moseleians Association Chairman, Dr Freddie Gick, Birmingham Civic Society Chairman, Keith Townsend, Moseleian Historian, Ken Jones, Head of History at Moseley School, Rev.
Toby Howarth, St Christopher’s Church, Mr Noor Hussein, Chair of Woodlands Road Mosque and Mr Ranjit Singh, Soho Road Gurdwara before Rev. Hilary Fife gave an account of John Angell James’s life and unveiled the blue plaque which will be attached to Spring Hill College. After refreshments Rod Ling led a tour of the building.
A brief account of the life of John Angell James
For a man who died 150 years ago there is still a wealth of available information concerning Rev. John Angell James and it is difficult in a brief summary to do justice to the importance of the man, not only within Birmingham but regionally, nationally and, it is no exaggeration to add, internationally. I have written a summary based on his life as an influential pastor/preacher at Carr’s Lane Church, as a theologian (Evangelical Alliance, London Missionary Society, author), as a fundraiser for, and chairman of, the Educational Board of Spring Hill College (relocated in 1886 to Oxford under the new name of Mansfield College) and as a campaigner against slavery (particularly with regard to the pre-civil war USA). (Most of the information and the italicised extracts come from www.gracegems.org/22/James_biography.htm)
The ‘Blue’ plaque, which has been awarded by the Birmingham Civic Society will be attached to the Spring Hill College (SHC) building in Moseley. The original College building (formerly Manor House) on Spring Hill was demolished in the early 1970’s. James lived for many years in a large house on the Hagley Road but we have no record of the number and therefore we are uncertain as to whether it still stands.
James was born 6th June, 1785 in the small Dorset town of Blandford Forum. Bound as an apprentice to a draper from the age of 13, he nevertheless felt drawn to the Christian Ministry. In 1802 his father consented to the breaking of his articles and he left Poole to study under Dr David Bogue at Gosport. He was there for two and a half years. Despite his training he always felt inadequately educated for the Ministry (which no doubt played a part in his active support for SHC when it opened in Birmingham 1838).
In 1804, while still a student in Gosport he was invited to preach at Carr’s Lane Church in Birmingham. The Church had recently been split by dissension and was not well attended at the time. James was invited to become the new minister. He agreed and took up his post from September 1805 at the age of 20.
Carr’s Lane Church
Under James’s pastorship church attendances (and membership) gradually increased from 50 or so in 1805 to many hundreds by the end of the second decade. Largely as a result of his popularity a new and larger church, with a capacity to seat 1800 worshippers, was built and opened in 1820. His appeal as a preacher has been described by C.A. Haig;
“He had no use for ‘a cold intellectuality’ in preaching, ‘heart is moved by heart’. He made great use of embroidered and even extravagant images which today would not be acceptable, but in his day evidently enthralled his great congregations. He had a fine voice and a commanding presence, and an eloquence which carried all before it. Above all he believed in preaching as a God-given instrument and the highest employment of a man’s powers of mind, imagination and voice. He prepared every sermon most carefully and did his utmost to make every word compelling.”
Later, when the deterioration in his health caused James to look for a successor he only felt reassured when he met R. W. Dale. The latter’s talents were noted when Dale was a ‘scholar’ at Spring Hill College in the 1840’s. Dale was the ‘other’ major 19th century Independent minister associated with Carr’s Lane Church. He ultimately succeeded James as pastor at Carr’s Lane following the latter’s death in 1859. Dale also followed James as Chairman of the SHC Board of Education which had by this time moved to fine, new accommodation in Moseley. Dale, James’s mentee, is already commemorated with a blue plaque positioned on Carr’s Lane Church.
[James] had neither the education nor the intellect of his successor R W Dale, but his piety and eloquence were sufficient passport to popularity among the manufacturers in the growing town of Birmingham.
Spring Hill College
In 1826, largely as a result of the generosity of Sarah Glover and her siblings, George and Elizabeth Mansfield, a Trust was established to plan and prepare for the opening of a college to train young men for Ministry from within the Congregationalist church. Birmingham was growing rapidly at this time and with it the demand for new chapels. As ‘dissenters’, opportunities for educating Congregationalists were limited. This ambitious project required the energetic support of the two main chapels in Birmingham, Ebenezer and Carr’s Lane.
[With the opening] of Spring Hill College, Birmingham, in 1838 [James] was elected Chairman of its Board of Education, and he held the office until his death. He was extremely anxious to lift the level of scholarship among Nonconformists. He insisted upon the value of classical and philosophical studies in addition to Biblical and theological work, and approved of the affiliation of the Independent colleges to the University of London so that the students might have the stimulus of working for a degree. Many stories have been told of his personal kindness to individual students. He was an untiring beggar on behalf of College Funds. Not content with pleading in public for a large collection it was his custom, whenever it was practicable, to arrange a meeting of some of the wealthier members of the congregation, so that he might press upon them individually claims of the College. Occasionally he was unsuccessful, but on at least one occasion he succeeded far beyond his expectations, when a wealthy and eccentric gentleman, having listened to him without much interest, finally said ‘Well, I will give you a cheque for £5000.’
James’s fundraising for the College played a major part in the move to purpose-built accommodation in what was then rural Worcestershire. The new building, in Moseley, survives and is listed at grade II. Much restored in the second half of the 1990s, due largely to Heritage Lottery funding, it now serves as a 6th form teaching and conference facility as part of Moseley Secondary School.
Thirty years after James’s death, the theological College moved to Oxford. As an independent institution its new name paid tribute to the Mansfield family. It eventually became part of the ancient University in 1955. Without James’s early and major contribution, it is unlikely that this distinguished establishment would have been a success.
Wider Influence as a theologian
James was of course man of his time. Britain was building an empire and this political and military process was accompanied by a spiritual confidence aimed at converting native peoples, both within and outside the Empire, to Christianity. In this context James played a part not only in the growth of the Congregationalist movement but also that of the London Missionary Society (now part of the Council for World Mission) supported by Congregationalists and other Evangelicals. He retained a particular interest in missionary work in China. He was a leading figure in the formation of the Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1832 and virtually the founder of the Evangelical Alliance, an international body, in 1846.
[Moreover,] James was a prolific writer as well as eloquent preacher. His busy pen poured out a constant stream of tracts, pamphlets and sermons. The one which achieved the widest circulation was ‘The Anxious Enquirer after Salvation Directed and Encouraged’, published in 1834.
Some of James’s writing is still available today as any ‘Amazon search’ will attest.
It is likely that James’s commitment to the anti-slavery movement dates back to his training with Dr Bogue in Gosport. The latter was an active campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. With the passing of the Act forbidding the carrying of slaves on British ships in 1807, James concerned himself through his active links to churches in America, to campaigning for the abolition of slavery in that country.
The following is an extract from a letter to a leading Presbyterian minister, Revd. Dr. William Paton, in New York, in May 1857, referring to the tensions in America over the Supreme Court decision to allow the extension of slavery into the new territories;
It is the first time that I know of when a whole race was put without the pale of social life on account of the colour of their skin. Will your country submit to it? Can it be conceived that the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers will bow to so horrible a rebellion against the precepts of Christianity and the dictates of reason? My dear brother, what are the Eastern states about that they do not rise en masse against this dictum of a few men upon the bench?
There are a number of images of James in the National Portrait Gallery but the most important is the renowned painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon of the world’s first international Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. More than 500 delegates are addressed by the Quaker, Thomas Clarkson; James’s portrait, as the Birmingham delegate to the Convention, is one of those that are identifiable within the picture.
Death and funeral
In 1855 the Church celebrated the Jubilee of James’s ministry at Carr’s Lane. What a fifty years they had been in the history of England. Since commencing his ministry, he had seen the defeat of Napoleon, the granting of Roman Catholic emancipation, the passing of the Reform Bill, the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the outbreak of the Crimean War. Through all these changes he had laboured unceasingly to preach the Gospel, to convert souls and to build up the Church. The membership of the Church at Carr’s Lane had risen from fifty in 1805, to about one thousand in 1855. Some eight other chapels had been built in the town and suburbs. Nearly two thousand children were in attendance at the Sunday and day schools, and night schools for young men and women met regularly. Of James himself, his successor wrote ‘The stainless reputation and incessant labours of fifty years, won for him a respect, and gave him a moral and spiritual influence in Birmingham, which the brightest genius might have coveted in vain.’
James died on October 1st, 1859, at the age of 74. He had been pastor of Carr’s Lane Church for more than 50 years. Respected throughout the country, his funeral brought Birmingham to a standstill. The following is an extract from The Birmingham Journal of the day;
SATURDAY OCTOBER 8th, 1859
THE FUNERAL OF THE
James was buried beneath the pulpit of his beloved church in Carr’s Lane. In 1968 his remains were exhumed and re-interred at Witton Cemetery when the 1820 building was demolished. Those remains are now said to lay, with others unknown, in an unmarked grave. He is a largely forgotten figure.
In the year 2009, 150 years after his burial, it is an appropriate time for Birmingham to honour James’s contribution to the religious, community and political life of his adopted town in the first half of the 19th century.
Article on Rev. John Angell James written by Rod Ling