The history of Zetland Evangelical Church can be traced back to 1832, when Henry Craik and George Müller began preaching at Bethesda Chapel, Great George Street.
Henry Craik, George Müller and Bethesda
George Müller is best known for his work among orphans in Bristol. This work began in April 1836, when Number 6 Wilson Street was opened as a home for thirty orphan girls. It grew rapidly so that, by 1870, more than 2000 orphans were being cared for in four purpose built homes in Ashley Down. However, Müller’s influence on churches in Bristol, and on church planting in particular, is perhaps equally as significant as his work among children.
On August 13th 1832, only seven believers met together for worship in Bethesda. This seemingly insignificant gathering marks the beginning of the Brethren assemblies in Bristol. Müller writes:
“This evening, one brother and four sisters united with brother Craik and me in church fellowship at Bethesda, without any rules, desiring to act as the Lord shall be pleased to give us light through his Word.”
From this small beginning, the assembly grew and other assemblies grew from it. The first of these, in 1842, was Salem Chapel, which met in a building formerly belonging to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion. Some assemblies were established as independent works, such as Unity Chapel, Midland Road, which was built in 1855; others remained under the oversight of Bethesda.
By 1887, four assemblies were part of the United Bethesda Church:
Bethesda, Great George Street
Clifton Bethesda, Alma Road
Stokes Croft Chapel
Totterdown Gospel Hall
Stokes Croft Chapel
The work at Stokes Croft began soon after Salem Chapel closed, and many of those who used to attend Salem joined the new assembly. The assembly met in a disused roller skating rink, which, after extensive renovation work, was formally opened as Stokes Croft Chapel in 1879.
The Croft, as it was known, soon became the largest of the assemblies and, by the early 1900s, it had a fellowship of more than 400 believers. It also held Sunday Schools in Eugene Street, behind the back of the Royal Infirmary, along with a soup kitchen for children on Sunday mornings.
Throughout this period, the building in Stokes Croft had been rented but, in 1920, after two years of committed giving by the United Bethesda assemblies, sufficient funds were raised to purchase the chapel and the adjoining buildings.
However, the assembly had not found its permanent home in Stokes Croft, as the assembly’s minute book records:
“On the night of Sunday 16th March 1941 to Monday 17th March 1941, Stokes Croft Chapel received a direct hit from a high-explosive bomb. This fell on the main building which was demolished. Incendiary bombs which fell at the same time caused fires in the main premises and classrooms”.
Meetings were temporarily transferred to Eugene Street, where for 16 years the assembly met in cramped conditions. Then in September 1957, the assembly moved to new premises, Zetland Hall.
One newspaper reported the opening of the Zetland Hall as follows:
“Greetings were read from friends in all parts of the world at the opening on Saturday night of Zetland Hall, North Road, Bristol, which has replaced the old Stokes Croft Chapel destroyed in 1941 by enemy action.
Some 400 people were present, some in the chapel and the overflow in other rooms with extension speakers so that they could take part in the service.
The guest speaker at the service was Dr. Latimer Short, son of the late Mr. Edward Rendle Short, who was a member of the church for many years.
The new building, which is most attractively and tastefully decorated, has been equipped with many personal gifts from members and friends. These include an electronic organ and a baptistry.
The new premises are the fourth to be used. From 1831 to 1879, the old Salem Chapel was in use, then for the next 61 years, Stokes Croft served the members’ needs. From the day when the church was bombed to now, members have been meeting at Eugene Street hall.
The church, in addition to its other duties, supports 17 missionaries in Africa, South America, India, Iceland and other countries. This must be one of the largest number undertaken by a single church.”
Prior to its use by the assembly, the Hall consisted of two large semi-detached houses, which had been joined together to be used as a school. The building was further expanded in 1963, by adding a first floor youth hall, after the premises at Eugene Street were sold to allow the Royal Infirmary to expand.
Zetland Evangelical Church
Zetland Evangelical Church, as Zetland Hall is now called, is no longer a Brethren assembly. It is now an independent church that is committed to the Reformed, Evangelical faith. It still holds to many of the ideals of Müller and Craik. All church members are viewed as equal under Christ, though some members have been appointed by the church to be elders and deacons. The church is committed to the word of God and to evangelistic outreach, whether through Sunday Schools or through the work of overseas missionaries. The church continues to break bread together each week.
We are grateful to God for his faithfulness over many years. Whether the history of the church is traced back to the opening of Stokes Croft Chapel or Salem Chapel, or to the work of Müller and Craik, it is God who has blessed the church with gospel preaching; it is he who has preserved it.
To Him be the glory.
1832 George Müller and Henry Craik begin preaching at Bethesda Chapel
1842 The work expanded to include Salem Chapel
1872 Clifton Bethesda, Alma Road built
1879 Salem Chapel closed; Stokes Croft Chapel opened
1887 Totterdown Gospel Hall built
1921 Stokes Croft Chapel purchased
1923 United Bethesda given independent oversight
1941 Stokes Croft Chapel destroyed; meetings held in Eugene Street
1957 Zetland Hall opened
1963 Zetland Hall expanded
This majority of this history has been written using information from Linton, Keith and Alan Linton. I Will Build My Church: 150 Years of Local Church Work in Bristol. Bristol: C. Hadler, 1982. The newspaper report was taken from the unpublished Zetland Evangelical Church formerly Stokes Croft Chapel: The Story of the Church 1879-1979, which was produced as part of the centenary celebrations.