By Fred Anderson
In July on my way to and from the Baptist World Alliance gathering in Izmir, Turkey, I spent some time in England in search of Robert Norden. In 1714 – 300 years ago – English Baptists appointed Norden along with Thomas White as “messengers” to a group of Baptists who had settled along the south side of the James River.
The group – which the previous year had sent word to England to send them a minister – likely was from County Kent and were neighbors to Norden and White. The appeal was received by the Baptists living at Canterbury within the shadow of the historic Anglican cathedral. The Canterbury Baptists promoted the effort and raised funds for the mission to Virginia.
In the spring of 1715, Norden and White made the ocean journey and White died at sea. Robert Norden registered in Prince George County and ministered to the scattered flock in Prince George, Surry and Isle of Wight counties.
He gathered the Baptists and together they constituted the first Baptist church in the colony. Forever after, Norden has been remembered in Virginia Baptist history as the founder of the first church.
He lived and labored in Virginia for ten years but left behind scant evidence. My research forays in England were motivated by a desire to find more information on the man.
My first stop was a private library in the heart of London. Dr. Williams’s Library was established under the will of Dr. Daniel Williams who died in 1716 and presents itself as “the pre-eminent research library of English Protestant nonconformity.” For years I had wanted to visit the library.
In previous research trips to Regent’s Park College, the Baptist school in Oxford, it seemed that everything which I requested on the Baptists of Kent was said to be “at Dr. Williams’s library in London.” Finally, I had a few hours to spend at the library.
I had contacted the research librarian in advance and she had materials ready for my use. I was half way in the midst of transcribing by hand some documents from printed sources when the librarian interrupted me and said: “Come with me to the manuscripts department.”
There I held in my hands the original manuscript which I had been transcribing. Mainly I was using the minutes from the early 1700s of the local Baptist association in the area of Kent. They pictured a man who was single-handedly establishing a Baptist witness in Virginia.
Norden, who likely already was in advanced age for the times – maybe even 65 – when he arrived, informed the Baptists back home in 1716 that “in a little time [I have] baptized and settled 18 Parsons [persons] in Gospell order.” He reported that he conducted “great Meetings” for which people came from “many miles.” Because of the prospects and of his age, he kept pleading “Earnestly for help.” And help was in short supply.
The English Baptists sent a helper, William Wood, but he only stayed about three months. When Wood reappeared in Southeastern England, his supporters were none too pleased. At a Baptist association meeting in 1719, it was reported that “divers Churches have been grieved about Bro. Woods speedy returne from Virginia.”
Wood did “lend eight pounds for the use of Bro. Norden.” Another English Baptist, William Benge, had “sold up,” disposing of personal property in anticipation of going to Virginia; but when “the funding collapsed,” Benge suffered personal financial loss and appealed to the English Baptists to reimburse him.
In 1725 Norden wrote a letter describing his physical plight. “I am very weak & helpless,” he wrote, adding: “My Eyes are inflamed wth. heat Redness & Soreness.” He was covered in boils with “running sores” and was confined to his bed. Unable to ride his horse to visit his scattered flock, instead he conducted worship services while sitting on the side of his bed. The last words of his letter were a continued appeal for help and a resolve to “leave it to gods Disposing hand.”
Robert Norden died in 1725 in Virginia and is buried in an unknown grave. The work which he started continued and eventually resulted in a great and enduring Virginia Baptist contribution to the religious and spiritual life of Virginians and Americans.
My search for Norden in England continued with a determination to find his hometown. The records indicated that Norden was from a hamlet known as Warbleton in East Sussex, just across the county line from Kent. As circumstances had it, I was the guest of a friend who lived in Kent and who caught the fervor and spirit of my adventure.
Armed with a detailed map, we four – my host, Mervyn Jones, his sister Helen, my wife Nancy and myself – made the trek from Sandwich, near Canterbury, to Heathfield, the nearest market town, to find Warbleton. My host’s automobile raced along motorways, dual carriageways, around roundabouts, and finally we were somewhere within spitting distance of the hamlet.
We stopped for directions at a public house – a “pub” – where someone indicated that the place was nearby: “Keep straight, turn left on Furnace Lane and there will be Warbleton.” We soon found Furnace Lane and it was more of a pig path than a country lane. Bordered by massive hedgerows and peppered with potholes, it would have been impossible for another vehicle to pass and luckily none tried. At the end of the lane we indeed came to Warbleton.
It was not a town or a village but what it was supposed to be – a hamlet, an honest-to-goodness hamlet tucked away in the English countryside. There was a pub, an old house or two or three, a brick “workhouse” from centuries past, and a large stone Anglican parish church which dated from the 1200s.
From almost any direction the eye could look across vast open fields. And that was Warbleton, the place from which the first Baptist minister for Virginia had hailed. To Norden, it probably had looked like a thriving place in 1714-15 compared to the completely undeveloped countryside of Virginia where he ministered.
I poked my head inside the pub, The Black Duck, and discovered a cozy and welcoming place where locals had gathered for lunch.
I told the manager that I was looking for a man who left Warbleton exactly 300 years ago. She quickly retorted: “Well, he’s not here! But you can check the cellar!”
She let me know that the pub had been there since the 1500s so it was a building which Norden had known. She also said that the house next door and the workhouse were of the same period.
Indeed about the only thing “new” was the red phone box sitting across the lane from the pub and surrounded by a thicket of wildflowers.
There was no time to explore the ancient church although I did walk among some of the tombstones. There was no sign of anything resembling a Baptist church although Norden’s congregation likely met in a home. One bit of information revealed that in July 1690 Norden’s house had been registered as a place for worship by “Anabaptists.”
My search was as complete as it possibly could have been. I had found a few documents which bore testimony to Robert Norden and the enterprising mission to Virginia and I had stood in the same hamlet where he stood three centuries earlier.