The history of Baptists in Naunton goes back at least to 1676, when there were six non-conformists in the village. It is traditionally said that Oliver Cromwell deliberately settled some of his Puritan followers in this area after the Civil War, and that some of these who first brought the "chapel" way to these parts. In fact, there is good evidence of Puritans within the Church of England at Bourton and Slaughter very early in the seventeenth century, and these were almost certainly the fathers and grandfathers of the first non-conformists congregations.
At around 1660 the Baptist Church was founded in Stow, though local Baptists had been meeting in the Stow/Moreton for a number of years, and are recorded in 1655 sending representatives to the Association of Baptist Churches meeting at Warwick, as did the Baptists of Bourton on the Water. The influence of Stow Baptist Church also reached out into the villages.
Among its numbers in 1685, Anthony Freeman, Thomas Bradley and Richard Lambe of Guiting, and William Wood of Barton are recorded as fined for not attending the Parish Church, and at least Richard Lambe was imprisoned. Anthony Freeman, a mercer, was the pastor of the Stow Baptist Church around the end of the 1600s, and it was a Mrs Margaret Freeman of Guiting who presented Stow Baptist Church with two communion mugs around 1700. Amongst those fined are men from a number of other villages around Bourton and Stow - though not from Naunton.
It looks likely that during the mid seventeenth century Bourton was a stronger influence than Stow Baptist Church. The rector there was, Anthony Palmer, a strong Calvinist. He was ejected from the Church of England in 1661, but records show that in 1676 nearly half the stated population of Bourton on the Water refused allegiance to the Church of England - an exceptionally high proportion - compared with just 5 "dissenters" (non-conformists) in 1603. With Bourton only five miles away, it is safe to presume that non-conformity reached Naunton from there.
A diocesan survey in 1735 records 11 non-conformists in Naunton, out of 44 families. The 11 are identified as 6 presbyterians, 3 baptists, and 2 "sabbatarian and congregational" - a shoe-maker and his wife, who are also identified as baptist and unitarian.
About 1737 a Baptist called Joseph Hitchman was preaching the gospel at Naunton to these local non-conformists, in the open air or, more probably, in a cottage. At least two local people were moved to believe in Jesus - Robert Wake Rowlands and his wife Mary were baptised in the river "about three lug [16 yards] below the bridge". Robert was a young man of about 20 - a tailor from Notgrove.
In 1740 Bourton Baptist Church called as in minister Rev Benjamin Beddome. His ministry lasted for 52 years, and was hugely influential. During his time the Bourton Baptists grew greatly in strength and number, including from the surrounding villages. Stow Baptist Church was going through a weak period, and became part of the Bourton church in 1742. Bourton Baptist Church at this time had about 100 members, drawing from most of the villages within a 8 mile radius, including Naunton, the Slaughters, Barton and Hawling. (The popularity and effectiveness of Beddome's ministry was such that within 10 years membership increased to 180, with the chapel enlarged in 1748 and a new one built in 1765 to accommodate the extended congregation.)
For the first forty years of Beddome's ministry, the few Baptists at Naunton must have made the 10-mile round trip to Bourton for worship. As their numbers slowly grew, they must have increasingly desired a place of worship of their own - but Beddome was the sole minister of the large Bourton church, and could not be expected to travel to minister in the villages.
Then in 1777 - when Beddome was 60 - an assistant minister was appointed to help him, Rev William Wilkins. Although early evidence is circumstantial, it seems likely that Wilkins was crucial to the establishment of Naunton as a separate Baptist church. Two years after Wilkins' arrival the Naunton Baptists took the first of three important steps that would lead to their independence. In 1797 ten Naunton villagers applied to the Bishop of Gloucester to register Robert Rowland's house as a place of public worship, as was required by law. They would still be a part of the Bourton Baptist Church, but would now have their own place for worship. There is no immediate, direct evidence, but it is fair to presume that William Wilkins was able to visit the villages, and that this prospect encouraged the Naunton congregation to establish their own place of worship in Robert Rowland's cottage. (Wilkins was certainly closely connected to the work in Naunton - sometimes very directly - for the next 33 years). ... The congregation grew steadily ...
By the 1790s Beddome was declining in health and was well through his 70s. (He was to die in 1795, still the pastor of Bourton Baptist Church). In the Summer of 1792, Rev Wilkins had stepped down as Beddome's assistant, for reasons that are not recorded: he remained a very active player in the local Baptist scene.
Whether influenced by Wilkins, or in premonition that Beddome's death would lead to a period of instability at Bourton, the Naunton Baptists now took their second major step towards becoming an independent church. In 1794 twelve local men subscribed to a fund to pay visiting preachers to take services at Naunton every month (presumably communion). This was a significant step, establishing partial financial and ministerial independence from Bourton.
An intriguingly un-dated document records that Mr Wilkins was formally invited to be minister by 55 people who describe themselves as "attenders of the Baptist Congregation at Bourton on the Water" but are all from villages around Naunton (15 from Naunton itself). The names in the document and circumstantial evidence would suggest a date between 1792 and 1797. If so, this would be a record of the Naunton congregation seeking to call Wilkins as their minister following his separation from Bourton.
Separate Bourton records indicate that they had been asked by the Naunton congregation for Communion sometimes to be administered at Naunton itself, and that this by Wilkins - but that both requests were declined. Bourton records also indicate that Wilkins preached for some years at Cirencester after leaving Bourton in 1792: perhaps he had a commitment to Cirencester that prevented him from responding to a formal invitation to become a minister at Naunton in the 1790s.
It seems that with Wilkins unable or unwilling to serve at Naunton, the congregation there "secured the services" of a Mr Roadway in 1797 as "their minister". A further step to independence had been taken.
Following Beddome's death, Bourton Baptist Church entered a period of instability and fragmentation. The Naunton congregation by now was most likely too large to meet in the Rowlands house, and a proper chapel was needed. First they had to obtain formal approval - a fourth step to independence. In October 1797 twenty one men, including William Wilkins, signed another certificate for the Bishop of Gloucester to grant permission for the building of a chapel - again signed on the Bishop's behalf by Thomas Rudge, Deputy Registrar.
It may have taken a little while to raise some funds and identify a plot of ground, for it was in 1799 that the congregation set to work "to provide a more convenient place for their assembling together". A piece of garden ground 17 yards by 9 yards was bought from Robert Perry at the western (war memorial) end of the current site. Work began on the walls in 1799, much of it done by a Mr Mosen - a name still associated with building work in the village of Naunton today.
There was also concern that services would be properly administered. Early in 1800, William Rowlands - clearly a leading figure in the congregation - received a letter from his cousin William Hitchman concerning the correct way to administer communion.
In the Summer of 1800 the first Chapel formally opened, and six months (later) Naunton Baptist Church was formally recognised as independent of the Bourton congregation, a (fact) recorded in the following slightly sharp message:
As you have after prayer and consideration, withdrawn yourselves from this church, so as not to interfere with the concerns thereof, having chosen Mr Rodway to be your minister and pastor, We, the members, now met together by appointment, think it our duty to send you this message, not in anger, but in prudence, to let you know that we no longer look on you as members with us, but to esteem you as brothers and sisters in the Lord, wishing you peace, love, and prosperity, and desiring your prayers for us.