Open Doors Baptist Church: 150 years of worship and activism

Members of the Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Simon Dachi

Members of the Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Simon Dachi - Credit: Simon Dachi

Open Doors Baptist Church celebrated 150 years of music, activism and worship at the weekend.

The Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Holly Chant

The Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Holly Chant - Credit: Holly Chant

The Clapton church, formerly known as Downs Chapel, has challenged injustice, survived world wars and a bombing - and seen its congregation shaped and re-shaped by a century-and-a-half of change in the borough.

The corner of Queensdown and Downs Road was alive with song Sunday afternoon as the church choir belted out Christian hymns to rejoice and celebrate.

Samuel Ghann, the church's first ever African and black minister told the Gazette about his church: "It's a vibrant group of worshippers - not your typical English baptist congregation.

"[There's] a blend of charismatic spirit, vibrancy in worship."


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The church was built in the winter of 1868 and opened it's doors for worship a year later.

It first stood on a street described as a badly lit, unprotected thoroughfare yet it's services were popular - Clapton was becoming fashionable for the Victorian middle-class.

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At that time the Baptist church was a "hot-house" of non-conformist activity and its first and longest serving pastor was T. Vincent Tymms.

He established a "strong missionary society" sending members to places far and wide such as China and the Congo.

The Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Holly Chant

The Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Holly Chant - Credit: Holly Chant

But Hackney's social fabric began to change at the turn of the century.

Jewish people from Eastern Europe started moving to the area and underground railways pushed further and further into the countryside - working class people moved in.

But as the decades passed the church's congregation dwindled.

They had lived through two world wars and a night bombing which damaged the main chapel of the church considerably. Many servicemen never returned.

The Downs Chapel - now called Open Doors Baptist Church - opening Services [reprinted from the Hack

The Downs Chapel - now called Open Doors Baptist Church - opening Services [reprinted from the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, September 18, 1869] picture: Hackney Archives. - Credit: Hackney Archives

The 1960s brought more change to Hackney as a new wave of immigrants - from the Caribbean and Africa - came to rebuild the country.

These communities make up most of the Open Doors Baptist Church's congregation today.

Samuel told the Gazette: "it's more African Carribean than European - So when it started 150 years ago you can imagine it was all British White - but it's changed over the years."

Nowadays, the church is on a mission to use music to reach people close to home.

The Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Holly Chant

The Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Holly Chant - Credit: Holly Chant

"[Music is] important for the community," Samuel said. "We are in a very deprived area and we think we have a facility that can be a resource centre - to change lives and support people who are less privileged."

He hopes to create a music hub where people of all ages can come to learn music.

Plans to restore the church will bring it back to its former architectural glory allowing the church to put on bigger and better concerts and theatre performances.

The importance of music in the church's history didn't begin with Samuel's ministry, though.

Samuel Ghann, Senior Minister of the Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Simon Dachi

Samuel Ghann, Senior Minister of the Open Doors Baptist Church. Picture: Simon Dachi - Credit: Simon Dachi

The church used to have a music society and once hosted the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1873.

The Tennessee singers were a group of freed slaves who stopped in Hackney on a world-wide mission to raise funds for the first Black university in America after emancipation.

They famously fought to give all African Americans the right to an education.

The church stood against injustice again in 1994 when it gave refuge to the Ogunwobi family - Nigerian nationals threatened with deportation by the home office after living in Britain for more than a decade.

The church band. Picture: Simon Dachi

The church band. Picture: Simon Dachi - Credit: Simon Dachi

They took up residence by way of holy sanctuary in the chapel building for three years.

Samuel believes in the importance of recording and reflecting upon church's past - as well as planning for it's future.

"[The church] has been through so much," he said.

"It's been through bombings and has a lot of history. Some missionaries and members [from] the First and Second World Wars never came back - and once in a while you have some of their relatives walk in from far away.

The Open Doors Baptist Church was once called the Downs chapel.

The Open Doors Baptist Church was once called the Downs chapel. - Credit: Open Doors Baptist Church

"They go: 'My grandad used to be here. He went to the Congo and he did this in the Congo' .

"And I say: 'Oh yeah, we have the history here. It has sentimental value to families so they know what happened to their ancestors'."

Are you a regular at Open Doors Baptist Church? Contact the Gazette on 020 7433 0123 or email holly.chant@archant.co.uk with your stories

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