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Whose faith follow: Bethany Gospel Hall, Wick

E M Baijal, Wick

Wick is a small town on the north-east coast of Scotland. The town’s main industry has historically been fishing; indeed, Wick was once one of Europe’s principal herring ports. However, the local fishing industry has declined over the last few decades and nowadays the main sources of local employment are a nearby nuclear research establishment which is being decommissioned, and other local government services.

To the writer’s knowledge, the saints that gather in Wick form the most northerly assembly on the United Kingdom mainland. The history of assembly testimony in Wick can be traced back to the 19th Century when a small assembly is reported to have gathered in "The Rifle Hall". Very little is known about that company except that, sometime before the First World War, the members of the assembly had all died apart from three sisters. Those sisters are reported to have continued to "set the table" every Lord’s Day morning. If visiting fishermen arrived, the Breaking of Bread took place. If not, the emblems would be laid away for another occasion.

Sadly, during the war years there appears to have been no assembly testimony in Wick. However, there does seem to have been a general God-fearing spirit within the town, and there was certainly evangelical witness.

God’s hand at work was then evidently seen during 1921. Angus Swanson, whose name and ministry will be known to many readers, told how the "Pilgrim Preachers" visited Wick early that year as part of an evangelistic tour from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. It was shortly after listening to the "Pilgrim Preachers" that Angus was saved. Others were saved during and shortly after this campaign.

The power of God was then seen in a further definite way in Wick. As many readers will know spiritual revival was experienced in the north-east coast of Scotland in autumn, 1921. As usual the Scottish Herring Fleet (perhaps 1,000 drifters, 10,000 men and associated shore staff) migrated to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk for around twelve weeks. There seems to have been a number of weeks when the weather was inclement and unsuitable for fishing. A local minister, Douglas Brown, held Gospel Meetings and scores of men began to get saved.

News filtered back up the east coast to Wick and it is said that after a number of weeks the townspeople began to gather together in the Market Square each evening to hear who else had been "converted". It is said that often men would fall under deep conviction of sin as they talked together in the market square, and many were saved.

By the end of 1921 there seems to have been a group of about ten young believers saved who had a particular interest in the spread of the gospel. Angus Swanson was one of them. He noted that this little band all had different gathering places they called home, but gradually they began to become exercised about where they should gather. In time, disillusionment turned to God-given conviction, firstly in relation to baptism by immersion. One by one the little band saw from the Scriptures that they should be baptised. The only place they knew in Wick that carried out baptism by immersion was the Baptist church. However, they did not want to become Baptists so were not baptized.

While these converts were considering how they should gather, two evangelists arrived in Wick who were not connected with any denomination. They were Walter Anderson from Motherwell, and Charles Reid from Aberdeen. Their preaching was clear and powerful and very soon the group approached them to find out their mind about what the Scriptures taught regarding baptism.

On discovering that they believed in baptism by immersion the new converts had another question; they had been studying in the Acts and wondered what the Breaking of Bread was really all about. This opened the door for the two evangelists to provide teaching about the local church.

The new believers were quick to obey the Word of God. A series of baptismal services was held, the first being at the sands of Reiss a few miles outside Wick.

The newly baptized believers were now concerned about the need to separate from any denomination. They were particularly convicted about not associating with any name, creed, or "ism", but in gathering only unto the name of the Lord Jesus. They secured the hire of a hall connected to the Bredalbane Cinema, and on a Lord’s Day in 1923 broke bread for the first time. Angus Swanson later said that that first occasion "was heaven on earth".

The new assembly might have appeared isolated to men, the next nearest assembly of saints being over one hundred miles away in Dingwall. In the 1920s that was a considerable distance and some of the saints never visited any other company before they were called home. However, that isolation had benefits and the company was wholly shut up to God for resource and support.

It should be noted that there was a thirst for the Word of God throughout the young assembly. Walter Anderson brought a portable hall to Wick (this was then used for the assembly gatherings) and meetings were held for the teaching of the Word of God each night for a year!

The new assembly faced persecution. They were criticised not only by the world, but by believers round about. Other Christians had been exercised about gathering on a Scriptural basis, but for many of them the stigma of gathering with no name, no clergy, and no creed, but relying only on the Spirit of God, was too high a price to pay. The persecution was accepted by the saints; they had "bought the truth".

In the goodness of God it was possible for these believers to purchase land and erect a hall (where the assembly still meets today) in 1925. When the assembly was formed there were eleven saints in fellowship. The company has never been big in natural terms, but the testimony has been preserved by the grace of God and today there are eighteen saints in fellowship.

Looking back, the assembly feels the challenge of events in 1923. Do we gather on the basis of conviction or convenience? The assembly at Wick was a work of God, formed in sacrifice. The saints lived as "epistles known and read" before the people of the town, and were marked by their likeness to Christ. We give God thanks for the example of godly assembly testimony (Heb 13.7).

The writer is indebted to a recording of the late Angus Swanson relating the history of the assembly at Wick. This recording was taken in Wick in August, 1986.

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