History of the Tabernacle
In religious terms the Eighteenth Century began in slumbering fashion. The passionate, sometimes violently held views of religion that had convulsed much of national life in the previous century, subsided as people's minds turned away to new ideas in science, the arts, fashion, world exploration and the like. Into this scene burst George Whitefield and John Wesley, preaching with great fervour the Good News of the Gospels and quickening the spiritual lives of their hearers in a remarkable way.
George Whitefield's ancestry was based in the Thornbury area of Gloucestershire and it was in Gloucester that he grew up and discovered his amazing gift of oratory. The English Evangelical Revival began in Kingswood Forest near Bristol when, in February 1739, Whitefield took the then unusual step of preaching in the open air. This was to a group of coal miners. Though in the years that followed he toured widely in this country and America, he often returned to his native county to preach in church, chapel and hedgerow, including Dursley in 1743 and 1769. Those in who he awakened increased spiritual fervour often began to meet in 'societies' to share experiences and study the Bible. As with Wesley, Whitefield had no intention of creating a religious order separate from his beloved Anglican Church but sometimes the 'enthusiasm' of these societies was not acceptable to existing churches or chapels and they built their own meeting houses.
In Gloucestershire, Thomas Adams, a gentleman of Minchinhamton and a Whitefield convert, gathered a group of evangelists about him in the early 1740s and these roamed the county and well beyond, preaching to Whitefield's societies and, when there was none, to the public at large. One preaching place was in Stancombe on the far side of Stinchcombe Hill to Dursley and a society came into being there by 1742. Among it's members was John Dando, a hat maker of Parsonage Street, and it is almost certain that it was because of him that this group of Calvinistic Methodists (who differed in theology to Wesley's Methodists) moved to Dursley. In 1760 they built a meeting house (or Tabernacle as it was not meant to be permanent) holding some 400 people. It's site is on the opposite side of Kingshill Road to the present church.
To begin with, the society was served by itinerant preachers, Anglican in allegiance, but soon after Whitefield's death in 1770 the society gave up all pretence that it was part of the Anglican Church and became Independent or Congregational. It continued to be served by visiting preachers until in 1795 it called it's first settled minister. This was the Revd David Ralph who had trained at the college at Trefecca, South Wales, started by the Countess of Huntingdon, friend and patron of Whitefield.
By this time the society had a Sunday school. This had been gathered in about 1778 by one William King, a wool card maker in Woodmancote, who became very concerned at the ignorance of the children of his employees. King was a friend of Robert Raikes and seems to have played a significant role in motivating Raikes to begin the campaign in his Gloucester Journal newspaper to promote Sunday School on a national scale. By 1820 the Tabernacle school had some 400 scholars, drawn from miles around, and it gave them instruction in reading, writing as well as religious knowledge. Later sick clubs were begun for children and their teachers and a lending library was created. The school's superintendent at this time was John Glanville who later entered the ministry himself and served with great effect at Kingswood and Wotton under Edge Tabernacles. While in Dursley he led a breakaway group from the Tabernacle which met in a chapel in Boulton Lane. Later it was led by the Revd Jerome Clapp, father of J.K.Jerome, who preached in the Tabernacle after ending the schism.
Burials of early members of the society would have been in the parish graveyard but towards the end of the 1700s interments began in the meeting house itself. This was found to be impracticable by 1792 and land for a burial ground was acquired from Robert Harris of Oaklands, later Rednock, for a pepercorn rent. This burial ground was converted to a Garden of Rest in 1986. The Harris family were prosperous clothiers in the local woollen cloth trade and staunchly Anglican. However on one occasion one of the family fell ill and it was to the saintly Adrian Newth of the Tabernacle that they turned for help. It seems likely that it was this respect for Newth that led them to be so generous to the meeting house that was a rival to the parish church.
THE PRESENT CHURCH
The Tabernacle's second minister was the Revd William Bennett. It was he who got more land from the Harris family on which to build a manse in 1807, next the burial ground. Curiously for the home of a Congregational minister it was called 'The Parsonage'. More land from the Harris family allowed work to begin in 1808, next to The Parsonage, on a new Tabernacle, the old meeting house having become too small and as well as unsafe. It was opened with great rejoicing in 1809 with the famous Revd Rowland Hill preaching. The main differences a present day visitor, transported back to then, would notice would be a much higher pulpit, box pews and the main door in the long wall facing the road. William Bennett is buried in front of the pulpit of his new chapel.
Most of the nineteenth century members and adherents of the Tabernacle were of fairly modest background - workers in agriculture and the wool cloth trade, shop keepers and so on - and when the cloth trade, the main industry of the area, collapsed in the 1830s they were hit hard. In the town as a whole some families dropped to starvation level and the population decreased by about 25% as families moved away, some to Australia and other colonies. As a consequence the Tabernacle buildings deteriorated. It was then, in 1873, a great act of faith to begin major restoration work. The town's population had continued to decline after the 'hungry forties' and the remarkable growth of the engineering firm of R.A. Lister & Co. was still in the future and had not begun to reverse this trend. However work was begun and the building today is much as it was when the work was completed in 1881 - all pitch pine and mahogany. In 1892, John Harding, ironmonger, who lived next to the burial ground in a house which now belongs to Dursley Cricket Club, gave the present organ, made by Sweetlands of Bath, to the church. His ashes rest under the church vestibule.
The building is, as was the first Dursley Tabernacle, fundamentally a 'preaching house'; a meeting house designed so that every seat has a view of the pulpit from which the Word of God is proclaimed. Although a sacred place it is not consecrated, for it is not the stones from Stinchcombe Hill of which it is built that are holy but the people who are the church proper. Today, as Dursley Tabernacle United Reformed Church, it is possibly the strongest of the churches that owe their origin directly to the preaching of George Whitefield and, as at it's beginning in about 1742, it occupies a vital place in the community it seeks to serve.