1803 – 1864
William Tiptaft, founder of the Abbey Baptist Church in Checker Walk, was born in 1803 near Oakham, Rutland, into a moderately wealthy family. He was educated at Cambridge and ordained into the Church of England in 1826. In 1829, he became vicar of Sutton Courtenay.
It was a time of great turmoil and questioning in the church. While there was a strong movement towards High Church principles and several well-publicised conversions to Catholicism, Tiptaft’s spiritual development led him in the opposite direction, towards an extreme Calvinism. After a period of uncertainty that had started in 1827, he arrived two years later at the belief that salvation could not be achieved by good works but depended entirely on divine grace. He was encouraged in this by certain local clergymen who held the same opinions, but it cost him his hopes of marriage when his fiancée rejected both them and him.
He now began to preach his new ideas with force and eloquence, and attracted large crowds to the church in Sutton Courtenay. Many went from Abingdon to hear him. At Christmas 1829, he was invited to preach in St Helen’s. His sermon was deliberately controversial and provocative. The headmaster of Abingdon School, Joseph Hewlett, tried to make the case for orthodoxy, but was scornfully dismissed as ‘a wine bibber, a great card-player, and a fox-hunter’.
In 1831, Tiptaft resigned his living and, like some of his clerical friends about the same time, ‘seceded’ from the Church of England. Moving to Abingdon, he built a new chapel with his own money. It was opened in 1832, and could hold up to about 500 people, though some of them would have to listen from the vestry and not all could be seated. A few months later he was re-baptised into the Strict Baptist denomination.
Tiptaft was primarily a preacher, often away from Abingdon, and he does not seem to have given much attention to his pastoral duties. He was criticised for this, and it pained him. Yet he gained a reputation for great generosity and personal kindness. He seems to have been respected and loved by his congregation. His ministry continued until his death.
© AAAHS and contributors 2013
The Church of England normally requires belonging rather than belief, but around 1830 a generation of particularly serious young clergymen plunged it into a period of doctrinal dispute. What attracted most attention was the Oxford Movement, propelling its adherents in the general direction of Rome, with some travelling the whole distance. But there was also an opposing trend which looked to historical Geneva rather than Rome for its inspiration and caused no less concern to the ecclesiastical authorities. This faction was represented in Abingdon by William Tiptaft.
Tiptaft was born in 1803 near Oakham in Rutland into an affluent landowning family. As a third son, he was always intended for the church. He was educated at Cambridge and ordained in 1826. In February 1829, after several posts as a curate in Somerset, he was inducted as vicar of Sutton Courtenay.
At this time, his spiritual development was already carrying him from an unexceptional evangelicalism towards an uncompromising Calvinism. The conversion process had begun in Somerset in January 1827 but was not completed there. It was only in the late summer of 1829 that a reading of the story of Lydia in the Bible confirmed to him ‘the blessed doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints, and also the doctrines of predestination and election’, although ‘it is a hard doctrine to receive, and (I) feel risings in my own mind against it’. About the same time, there was the trauma of an engagement that was broken off after a theological disagreement with his intended bride. It may have been this that suggested to him that his destiny did not lie in marriage and family, and changed his whole attitude to religion and to his ministry. He was now influenced by new friends he had made locally such as Henry Bulteel of St Ebbe’s in Oxford and his later biographer, J C Philpot, curate at Stadhampton. Philpot noted a change in his preaching style to one of zeal and challenge. This proved very successful, and his large church was so crowded that even on weekday evenings worshippers were standing in the aisles.
What he now preached were the austere doctrines of double predestination and antinomianism. These doctrines were deeply troubling to the orthodox. If salvation and damnation were predestined, if the elect were free of the burden of sin which everyone else was doomed to bear, what incentive remained for good living and what sanction against wrongdoing?
On the evening of Christmas Day 1829, Tiptaft was invited to deliver the regular civic sermon at St Helen’s in Abingdon. His reputation was already made and the church was crowded. His forceful exposition of the Calvinist theory of free grace was sensational and deliberately provocative. Many even among his admirers found it offensive. On the next Sunday, Joseph Hewlett, headmaster of Abingdon School, was recruited to make a suitable response, but failed to impress. Tiptaft scornfully dismissed his opponent as ‘a wine bibber, a great card-player, and a fox-hunter’. Both sermons were published. Abingdon people began to resort in large numbers to the church in Sutton Courtenay.
In November 1831, Tiptaft wrote a long letter of resignation and secession to the Bishop of Salisbury. He gave fourteen reasons why as a true Christian he could no longer remain within the Church of England. They included the admission of the non-elect to Holy Communion; the prayers for the king, who was plainly a reprobate himself; and the use of the prayer-book. The letter was printed and proved a best-seller, spawning a secondary literature of replies and commentary. The bishop responded by insisting that there was no legal way in which he could be relieved of his duty towards the church hierarchy, but this played into Tiptaft’s hands; he could pose as a man victimised for his beliefs by an oppressive religious authority. The bishop eventually gave up.
Tiptaft now moved to Abingdon, building with his own money the chapel in Checker Walk which exists to this day as the Abbey Baptist Church. It was inaugurated in March 1832 with sermons by two Strict Baptist clergymen, John Warburton from Trowbridge and Roger Hitchcock of Devizes. Hitchcock would complete Tiptaft’s separation from the Church of England a few months later, re-baptising him by total immersion according to the Strict Baptist rite.
The chapel was originally intended for four or five hundred worshippers, many of whom would have to follow the services from the vestry, and some of whom would have to stand. At least in its earlier years, it was always crowded. The authorities at St Helen’s saw it as competition, and raised money to expand their own activities, but in fact the worshippers seem mainly to have been attracted from the other local dissenting congregations. Tiptaft himself lived modestly at a house in Spring Road, with just a married couple to look after him.
From his public activities, Tiptaft may seem to have been an unattractive character, fanatical and self-satisfied in the religious position he had assumed, intolerant equally of theological naiveté and principled dissent. His letters, edited and published by his friend J C Philpot, show a very different personality. The conversion he had undergone in 1829 was only one stage in a lifelong journey through a spiritual landscape that, as he grew older, he increasingly perceived as arid and beset with obstacles and dangers. His preaching needed to be clear and confident yet he himself was plagued with self-doubt: ‘sometimes I seem to have the marks of grace, and of my call to the ministry, and at other times I have none’, he wrote in 1835, and, a year later, ‘if we are to reign with Him, we must suffer with Him. There is no path to heaven but the path of tribulation’. Some relief was achieved only in 1843, with a new religious experience that gave him confidence of God’s love and his own redemption.
We must allow for an element of hagiography in Philpot’s writing, and understand that inner turmoil is a standard ingredient in edifying accounts of well-spent religious lives. Yet in Tiptaft’s case, we may accept Philpot’s opinion that it appears to have saved him from arrogance and undue insistence on a harsh doctrine that might be beyond the understanding of his flock. Aware of his own human frailties, he was reluctant to make distinctions, and, in the words of his memorial tablet on the wall of the chapel, showed ‘the tenderest regard for the feeblest mark of grace’.
In line with the Calvinist tradition he had embraced, Tiptaft saw his mission as primarily that of a preacher. He spent much of his time on preaching tours away from Abingdon, and was criticised for neglect of his pastoral duties. Among his own fears was that he might be unsuited to the work of a pastor. Certainly, his letters have little to say about pastoral concerns. Nonetheless, he was loved by his congregation for his piety, hospitality, and for his many acts of charity and personal kindness. His ministry continued until his death.
© AAAHS and contributors 2013
Page numbers refer to J C Philpot, William Tiptaft (London, 1867; reprinted Harpenden, 1972) unless otherwise stated.
 P. 5
 J H Philpot, The Seceders: the story of J C Philpot and William Tiptaft (London, no date), p. 65; Acts 6:14
 Pp. 5, 16-18, 62.
 Pp. 15, 18, 43-55.
 Pp. 18-19
 Pp. 22-5
 Grayson Carter, Anglican evangelicals: Protestant secessions from the via media, c. 1800-1850 (Oxford, 2001), p. 287
 Carter, Anglican evangelicals, pp. 288-90
 Carter, Anglican evangelicals, p. 290
 Pp. 65, 75
 P. 86; Carter, Anglican evangelicals, p. 288
 P. 65
 Pp 100-120
 Pp 95, 107
 Pp. 121-6.
 Pp. 104-5.
 Pp. 83, 94.