When we look at the numbers attending our chapels today it is easy to imagine those in Victorian times and see them full. It comes as a surprise then to learn that this was not necessarily the case and there were instances where membership was in single figures. It is even more surprising to find that there is at least one of these, Ebenezer Methodist chapel in Weston-on-Trent, South Derbyshire, still holding services today. Here, in 1875, there were just four members later declining to only two. Instrumental in its survival was the faith, dedication, and evangelism of an indomitable Wesleyan Methodist, Henry Fitchett Parker, born in Weston in 1828 who was one of the two members referred to.
For Henry and his wife, Mary, the chapel was their life. They kept the building clean and for 50 years their house provided hospitality for the preachers. On a Sunday morning he would walk miles to hear preachers and missioners but would always be back for the evening service at Weston. He frequently visited Melbourne, Castle Donington and Derby often taking the opportunity to also learn hymns which he would in turn teach the children.
Like John Wesley, he found that a very effective way of bringing the gospel to others was not necessarily from behind closed doors but by being out in the open and he was frequently to be found on the village green preaching the “good news” to those who listened. He was a fervent believer in the power of prayer and the importance of the prayer meeting exemplified by the account of one local preacher taking the evening service at the chapel. It was a stormy night and the preacher had arranged with the Kings Mills ferry keeper to be waiting for him at an earlier time than usual to take him across the Trent. When he announced to Henry that, because of this arrangement, the prayer meeting after the service would have to be cancelled Henry told him in no uncertain terms “’My lad, there’ll be a prayer meeting after the service, whether you stop or not.’ The point was made and the preacher never suggested cancelling the prayer meeting again!
In spreading the gospel he also believed in the personal approach. For 20 years he purchased tracts out of his own pocket. Handing these out gave him the opportunity to engage people in conversation which he was not afraid to do. His love of the Lord was shown in his giving too. He was a keen supporter of Overseas Missions and, as a result, the chapel’s giving was often the best per capita in the circuit. In support of the Twentieth Century Fund to which each member was asked to give one guinea, he and Mary practised self denial. He made a special box and they agreed to eat half a pound less meat each week the money saved going into the box. This example of self sacrifice encouraged others and £16 16s was contributed by Weston. He was resourceful in finding others who would contribute to the cost of repairs and running expenses. He would ask those attending shooting parties on the farm where he worked if they would help with necessary work to the “Lord’s House and was able also to procure a free supply of paraffin for the chapel lamps. He was ecumenical as he also attended morning worship at the Parish Church from time to time and was much respected by the rector, Rev John Wadham, who once confessed that Henry knew more about the work of the Holy Spirit than he did!
This great example of Christian discipleship passed away on 20th August 1902 after suffering much for the last 12 years of his life as a result of an accident. His funeral cortege halted at the chapel where the funeral service took place before proceeding to the graveyard where the service was conducted jointly by the rector and the Methodist minister, the first time a nonconformist had taken part in a service in the graveyard.
(The account of John Fitchett Parker is an abridged version of that in “A Story of Faith and Works, Methodism at Weston on Trent – An Historical Outline” by G F Parker published in 1926)