As we pass to the Churches of the District beyond the city boundary, the Crowle Church at once attracts our interest. The story of its beginning is lost in obscurity, its Church book—which a hundred years ago was described as "tattered remains"—having been irrevocably lost. Some leaves brought to light in 1866—alleging the existence of a Church here in 1599—have been declared, after investigation, to be a forgery. Crowle was originally part of the Isle of Axholme Church, which gathered its members from Epworth, Butterwick, and Crowle; the "Isle" was the firm ground among the fen lands where the Trent, the Idle and the Humber join.
The Rev. W. T. Whitley, LL.D., of the Baptist Historical Society, has kindly supplied the following information : "John Smyth, in about the year 1606 organised a church at Gainsborough, and that it included members from this district the original records at Amsterdam show.* But the emigration of 1608 took away so many, that those left behind—obviously the weak-kneed — are heard of no more. A study of the archives of York and Lincoln might yield much to a patient investigator. The Declaration of Indulgence gave the Church confidence, for it began to keep records, and reported 126 members in 1675, with John Shaw and John Norfolk as elders.
The fact that Norfolk's signature is found in 1660 entitles us to say that the Church existed at that date." From Hooke's Apology, we learn that, in 1700, the river Torn in the Isle of Axholme was "famous for dipping." In 1699, land was given to the Society for a burial ground; and the Axholme Church was amongst those that united in forming the Lincolnshire Association, on July 16th, 1695. In 1738, the affairs of the Church appear to have been in confusion, for a meeting was held for its reorganisation. Trustees and deacons were appointed for Epworth and Butterwick, and Israel Cotton came to be elder.
In 1750 many members were excluded for joining the Methodists, and, ten years later, a building was erected at Epworth. But the Church appears to have suffered a decline, "the most interesting doctrines of the gospel being seldom introduced", a phrase which suggests an incoming of the widespread Socinianism of the time. The first mention of Crowle is in 1789, and in 1804 a Crowle member was made a trustee; a building does not appear to have been erected at Crowle until 1820.
It will be seen that the history of Crowle is entirely bound up with the Axholme Church, of which it formed a part. This Church in 1817, numbered fifty members, with one pastor and three assistant preachers. My attempt to complete a record of the Axholme pastors gives the following fragmentary and uncertain list :—John Norfolk (1660-1678); John Shaw ( -1705); John Grant (1718-28); Israel Cotton (1738, died March 5th, 1764); Edward Foster (1765, died 1813); David Cheeseman (pastor for 19 years, died August 25th, 1832); Joseph Chamberlain (pastor for 40 years, died February 27th, 1857); S. Watson (very brief); R. Heaton (1834-41); D. D. Billings (1841-49) George Rodgers (1854-56); W. Sharman (1856-58); — Lovekin (1859-61); — Allen (1861-63); W. Saunders (1863-64); Jabez Stutterd (1866-84); F. Norwood (1885-87); W. R. Parker (1887-1904); J. Pope Smith (1904, the present pastor).
* The Piggott family were from "Axen," or Axholme, and Thomas Piggott wrote "The confession of fayth by the remaynders of Mr. Smithe's company."—C. E. S.