The Meeting House on Newington Green was built in 1708, but the story begins sixty or so years earlier, in the aftermath of the Civil War, when Newington Green became the nucleus of a distinct dissenting community.
At this time Newington Green was little more than a cluster of houses and London lay at a distance across green fields. This was a comfortable and pleasant place to live and the dissenters who lived here were well-off and influential – many were connected with the upper levels of Cromwell’s army and government.
Dissenters were those who rejected the Church of England. Because this implied a rejection of the monarchy they were not given full civil rights – they could not take civil office or attend university. They were also forbidden to meet to worship and had to do so secretly and in private. They therefore tended to settle in isolated places, with like-minded people. As dissenters’ rights improved in the late 17th and early 18th century it became possible to worship in public and the Meeting House was built to serve the now well-established Newington Green community.
The Newington Green dissenters now had a public focus and ‘shopfront’ for their religious activities.
As London spread closer, the community grew and became increasingly networked with a wider world of international events and ideas. The apex of this development was the last two decades of the eighteenth century when Richard Price, philosopher, political theorist, mathematician and Royal Academician was preacher. He formed friendships with many of the leading intellectuals of his day, including the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the scientist and founding father of the United States,Benjamin Franklin, the chemist and theologian Joseph Priestley, and the philanthropist and prison reformer John Howard. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who moved to Newington Green when her husband became preacher after Richard Price’s death in 1791, continued the tradition of active involvement in politics and global affairs by campaigning for equal citizenship for dissenters and against slavery and the slave trade. She was also a talented and inspirational poet.
In the nineteenth century, Newington Green became a less exceptional district. No longer the refuge of radicals and intellectuals it became a more ordinary London suburb. But while the Meeting House’s congregation now became less prominent in global affairs, its members began to engage more closely with their neighbours. A Sunday School was opened in 1850, at a time when many children worked, there were no state-funded schools, and the limited schooling that was available in poorer districts tended to be of an extremely basic standard.
The surviving building reflects this active period of the community’s history.
The site was finally bought freehold in 1858 and there were major refurbishments in 1860: a remodelling of the main building, but also the construction of the schoolrooms, and the gallery for Sunday School children (who tended to disrupt services when they sat in the ground floor pews).
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the congregation’s drive for social justice continued with inter-faith projects in the 1950s and the campaign for equal marriage rights in the early 21st century.
Today the Meeting House is an intriguing and unusual space: a place of worship with a humanist message, where the minister and most congregants do not believe in God; a place of historic significance that is forward-looking and strongly engaged with social justice. There are many draws for the curious visitor – international connections, local history, and a modern-day place of worship whose rationale is unique by being radically inclusive.