The New Church
Non-conformist religious movement popular in 19th-century England




Other sources

  1. The Haselers of Birmingham, 1750-1970, by David Binns / Michael Baker, Looks Lane Publishing, 2015
  2. Various correspondence with John C. Bragg
  3. Family tree of the Faraday family, compiled by Frank Milner Best (1921-1997)
  4. 'Pedigree of the Birmingham families of Benton, Best, Bragg, Faraday, Haseler, Milner, Stone and Wilkinson', 1968, compiled by Frank Milner Best (1921-1997)
  5. Correspondence with Maurice David Haseler (son of Arthur C. Haseler), and Laurence and Simon, sons of Wilfred E.M. Haseler


Other information

The Swedenborg portrait

The portrait shown above right, painted in 1817 but only recently restored in 2005, has a fascinating history, which is set out in detail on the website of the Glencairn Museum in Pennsylvania.3 Thanks to Ed Gyllenhaal, Curator of the museum, for the information.

Wretham Road church committee in 1895

An indication of how embedded my ancestors and related families were in this church is that the Committee in 1895, consisting of 12 people, included:4

(See the page on 'the Colony' for more details on these families.)

Wretham Road war memorial

Wretham Road war memorial
War memorial from Wretham Road church

Photograph from 1995, courtesy Frank Milner Best and John Bragg

The war memorial from the Wretham Road church, now in the Winleigh Road building, includes many sons of the families described here: 11 men from the Haseler family fought in World War I, of which three lost their lives, as did Frank Clifford Carr and Arthur Brian Rabone.

John Arrowsmith ('Jack') Best, Alan Bragg, Claudian and Stanley Johnstone and Geoffrey and Norman Wilkinson also served in that war.

Key Hill

The places of worship listed here did not, it seems, have burial grounds, and in the early 19th century it was decided to look for a site where Swedenborgians and other non-conformists could be buried according to the customs of their churches. The site selected was a former sandstone quarry at Key Hill in Hockley, on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter, and the cemetery was opened in 1836.14

This beautiful, romantic cemetery, now somewhat unkempt, is no longer used for burials - the chapel was demolished in 1966 - but is still a vital part of Birmingham's business and religious history.

Key Hill Cemetery


Iris in Key Hill Cemetery, 2022

Many members of the families of my ancestors were buried here, for example Francis Johnstone and his wife Emma (née Faraday). (Francis' funeral was conducted by the Rev. R.R. Rodgers.) As well as Swedenborgians, some Methodist ancestors are also in Key Hill, for example at least two members of the Watton family, possibly including Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Smith (see the page on the Smith family). Finding graves is not easy, but with a map, some time and a certain amount of luck, it can be done.15,16

Emanuel Swedenborg


Emanuel Swedenborg

Portrait by Carl Frederik von Breda (see also side note)

Used by kind permission of the Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn

The families Johnstone, Faraday, Wilkinson, Bragg, Haseler, Rabone and Best were linked by the four houses built for them on Hamstead Hill which became known as 'the Colony'. But just as importantly, they belonged to the same church, namely the New Church (also called the Church of New Jerusalem, the Birmingham Temple, the New Jerusalem Temple etc.). This religious movement was based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg of Stockholm (1688-1772), and became popular in England and later America in the late 18th and 19th centuries.1 Swedenborg believed that God had appointed him to write a 'Heavenly Doctrine' and reform the Christian church. Originally a Lutheran theologian, he rejected the idea of the Trinity, and stated that the Last Judgement occurred in 1757. His followers regard his writings as divinely inspired, effectively a 'Revelation' or a 'third testament'.2

Swedenborg was also a scientist and an inventor, whose hobbies included watchmaking and lens grinding, and he gained an international reputation for his writings on metallurgy. It was perhaps this linking of science, philosophy and religious doctrine which appealed to Birmingham businessmen engaged in fine metal manufacture at the end of the 18th century.i At its height, the Swedenborgian movement in Birmingham probably numbered some thousand members. An article on the pastor of Wretham Road, Rev. Rodgers, published in 1897, describes his flock as "educated and refined classes", people of "intellect and imagination", familiar with "higher culture".4

New Hall Street 5,6

The New Church in England started in London in the 1780s: a New Church Society was formed in 1787, and in 1788 the first religious service was held, in a rented chapel on East Cheap, near the Monument in the City of London. The New Church Society in Birmingham was formed in 1789, in a rented room on Temple Row. The main movers were the Rev. Joseph Proud, the Rev. Edward Madeley, and Mr. Samuel Hands. In 1790, a plot of land was leased on New Hall Street near Lionel Street, and the first building in Britain expressly intended for the use by the New Church - the 'Birmingham Temple', as it was called - was constructed. (The word 'Temple' came from Swedenborg's use of the word 'Templum' - nowadays, 'Birmingham Temple' usually refers to one of several Hindu temples in Birmingham). The building no longer exists, but the images below show it (shortly before its demolition) in 1916, and, in a watercolour also from 1916, how it might have looked when it was built.

Newhall St Temple watercolour


New Hall Street Temple

Watercolour by Alfred Osborne, 1916

Newhall St Temple photo


New Hall Street Temple

Photograph, 1916

The opening service of the New Hall Street Temple was held on 19th June 1791. Among those present were one John Bragg (1751-1795) and his wife Mary (née Perry). John, who became Secretary of the Society the following year, was the head of a long line of prominent Birmingham jewellers and silversmiths - see also the page on 'the Colony'.ii Also present that day were Mary's father Thomas Perry, his wife, and two other daughters.

But the church had the misfortune to have started up in turbulent times. In the years immediately following the French Revolution, there was political unrest in England, and on more than one occasion the Temple was threatened by an unruly mob. John Bragg himself had an unpleasant confrontation with rioters near his home in Ashted Row. Then in 1792 disaster struck: Samuel Hands went bankrupt, and as the lease on the land in New Hall Street was in his name, the Society was forced to leave the Temple. John Bragg and Joseph Proud were dragged into the financial mire, and for a (surprisingly) short time, the New Church in Birmingham was no more. Bragg went to New York to recover his fortunes, Hands went to Scotland and then Bristol, where he died in 1826, and Proud went to Manchester. The Temple was for a time used by a Baptist congregation, becoming known as the Zion Chapel.5

Summer Lane

The history of the New Church in Birmingham becomes slightly more sketchy at this point. It seems that after the Temple on New Hall Street was abandoned in 1792, another chapel, also on New Hall Street, was found, and used from 1794 to about 1830.7 This was succeeded by the church in Summer Lane, Aston, built in about 1830, which was the predecessor of the church in Wretham Road. (See the map of Birmingham for most of the locations given here.) But it also seems that a group seceded from the main movement in 1809, rejoining it some years later.8 As yet no pictures have come to light of the second chapel in New Hall Street, or that in Summer Lane, but the latter is described as a "handsome, commodious structure", built in 1830 to accommodate 400-600 persons.8,9 Rev. Rodgers10 on the other hand (see below) thought the Summer Lane building "incommodious, exceedingly ugly and inconveniently situated"!

Wretham Road church


Wretham Road New Church, ca. 1876

Photo: kind permission of the Library of Birmingham

Wretham Road

One of the main drivers behind the move from Summer Lane to Wretham Road was indeed the Rev. Robert Rodgers (1839-1928), who had been pastor at Summer Lane since 1866. He was instrumental in raising £6,000 towards the cost of its construction, half of which came from his congregation. The church, on Soho Hill west of the city centre, was built in 1875, the foundation stone being laid by 'Mrs. Henry Wilkinson'. This is perhaps Marian Kate (née Bragg), wife of Joseph Henry ('Harry') Wilkinson - but see also the page on the Wilkinson family.

Unusually for a 'dissenting' place of worship, the building featured a tall spire in the neo-gothic style. The first religious service was on 22nd November 1876.4,10,i The first pastor was Rev. Rodgers, the choirmaster was George Hope Johnstone (GHJ), and the organist was Charles W. Perkins,11 the City Organist of Birmingham and a close associate of GHJ. Whereas the building in Summer Lane reportedly seated 400-600 people (the congregation in 1851 was about 150), that at Wretham Road originally seated about 530, and in 1892, the average Sunday evening congregation was pretty much at this capacity.8

Oaklands New Church Centre
Oaklands New Church Centre, Winleigh Road

Photo: Google Street View

Winleigh Road

The Wretham Road church saw through the gradual decline in following for the New Church movement through the 20th century, but was eventually closed in 1974. It was replaced by the Oaklands New Church Centre in Winleigh Road in Handsworth. It seems however that this establishment is no longer used for New Church services as such.

Family links

The families of my ancestors are linked with the New Church in several ways. Firstly, as mentioned above, John Bragg (V) (1751-1795) was one of the early members of the New Church Society in Birmingham, and gave financial support to the building of the first Temple. His two sons were baptised by the Rev. Proud himself, and many of his descendants over about four generations, in particular John Bragg (1821-98) (VI) and Charles Bayley Bragg, were strong supporters of the church.ii

Secondly, the Rev. William Faraday, the maternal grandfather of George Hope Johnstone, was a minister at the New Hall Street Temple. He was born in Kirkby Malham in Yorkshire in 1763, was ordained by the Rev. Joseph Proud before the latter moved to London, and served at the New Church from 1797 to 1809 (i.e. in the second of the two New Hall Street chapels). He retired in 1809 and died in Clifton in 1817.6,iii As one might expect, most members of his family were also baptised in the New Church. Arthur Faraday (grandson of the Rev. William) was a New Church minister in Snodland, Kent, from 1890.12 William Faraday was a cousin of the great physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Michael, a noted non-conformist, was in fact a Sandamanian, but almost certainly knew of Swedenborg and his scientific theories.13

Thirdly, Francis Johnstone, the 'Dancing Master from Dumfries' and father of George Hope Johnstone, heard the Rev. Proud preach in London, and was so taken by it that he moved to Birmingham to be near Proud's church.iii There he had his son Alfred Benjamin re-baptised, and met Emma, the daughter of Rev. William Faraday - the rest, as they say...

Lastly, many, many members of the Johnstone, Wilkinson, Bragg, Haseler, Rabone and Best families were christened and married within this church.iv John Haseler (1792-1860), father of an important family of jewellers, was baptised in New Hall Street just seven years after it was built, and his son John Bush Haseler and Rev. Rodgers were neighbours. John's son Edward Madeley Haseler was named after the Rev. Edward Madeley (see above).i GHJ was not only choirmaster at the church in Wretham Road, but had sung in the choir from the age of ten (presumably in its Summer Lane building). Isaac Arrowsmith Best was active in the Society in the 1880s.4 The list (left) of the Wretham Road church Committee shows how strongly represented these families were. As they tended to marry within the church, and as this community was not very large (perhaps a thousand or so souls), the effect was of many close links between a handful of families. This had advantageous effects on their businesses, and drew the family members together socially. See the page on 'the Colony' for more details.

Although the Swedenborgian movement is still strong in the USA, its following in England, and among these families mentioned, has diminished as the 20th century progressed. The wedding of GHJ and Catherine Maas for example, in 1899, was in the Anglican stronghold of St George's Church, Hanover Square. But the movement was significant enough that the 125th anniversary in 1916 of the founding of the Birmingham Temple was a significant event, with a lantern slide show by Charles B. Bragg, and a specially-commissioned watercolour of the New Hall Street temple (see above).5 Also present on that occasion were Arthur J. Rabone and his son Arthur Brian, who tragically was killed on the Somme only days later. More recently, three members of the Haseler family, now in their seventies, used to attend services at Wretham Road church.v And Mrs. Constance Hollingsworth, a great-great-granddaughter of John Bragg senior, counted herself a member of the church when she died in 1990.ii