Our story begins with Mr James Edward Walker, the second son of an Anglican minister in Cheltenham. He was a student of Divinity at Oxford and known for his excellent knowledge of the Scriptures. In 1877, aged just 27, Mr James Edward Walker returned to his home town Cheltenham and began the ministry for which his father had destined him – but not in the Church of England. He appears to have been ordained in the Church of Scotland during his time at Oxford, and it was as a minister of this denomination that he leased a plot of land and then opened a new church building at his own expense on the junction of Prestbury Road and Whaddon Lane (as it was then). Author of various books (one of which was commended by CH Spurgeon as a volume from which he had “derived great solace”), a constant and faithful visitor of his flock and others, a renowned and gifted preacher, he served the Lord faithfully on this site for 34 years until he was called home in May 1911.
His death, however, left the church fellowship on Whaddon Lane in a somewhat difficult situation. Mr Walker had been described in another obituary as a “devoted minister and kindly autocrat”, and therefore on his death there were no “rules” written down anywhere and no constitution. It will be of interest to those gathered here today that the doctrinal statement which Mr Walker had drawn up (and under which the church still operates) had been based on the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, although it deliberately left open such matters as church government, and the subjects and mode of baptism.
A trust deed was drawn up based on Mr Walker’s doctrinal summary, and the church was named “the Walker Memorial Church” – which title was retained until 1977, the church centenary, when the name was changed to “Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church”.
Ten years later, in 1987, the original church buildings were not in a good state, so an agreement was reached with a local builder who built the church we enjoy today – but in exchange he was allowed to build the flats on the frontage of the plot, thereby hiding the church from public view!
Following Mr Walker’s death, the search for a new minister was begun, and in November 1913 FW Davis was called to serve as the Pastor of the church. Although an ardent dispensationalist, and despite personally rejecting water baptism entirely, Mr Davis’ ministry at the church was a source of much blessing to many people for the next 13 years. It is interesting to note that, during his time, the church had to be enlarged in 1922, and again between 1924 and 1925.
But then in November 1926, with hundreds of adults in the services, and hundreds of children in the Sunday School, the Lord ordained a strange providence. Mr Davis went to assist at the funeral of his former vicar in Hull, and was killed in a railway accident on his return journey.
Sadly that led to a period of decline. The well-known AW Pink ministered for just a week in the autumn of 1928 before being told by the Committee that “his services were no longer required”. The following year (1929) another well-known man, EJ Poole-Connor, was called to the pastorate, but only stayed about 18 months before returning to London. Jonathan Hunt’s excellent little book gives more details, but suffice to say that after Mr Poole-Connor’s departure a number of short pastorates followed; 8 men were called to the pastorate between 1932 and 1965. The last three pastorates were slightly longer; John Roberts served for 10 years 1969-1979, John Carrick (then a Baptist, but now a professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in South Carolina) served for about 13 years 1979-1992, and finally Mark Gladwell served for about 8 years 1994-2002.
For the next few years the church was reliant on a supply of local lay preachers, faithfully co-ordinated by elder Don Ingles. That continued until Jonathan Hunt was asked to serve as “preaching elder”, a task he faithfully fulfilled until called to the pastorate of Morton Baptist Church near Bristol in the autumn of 2011. Once more the church had to rely on local brethren – and numbers attending the services dropped. In 2012 it was a rare thing to get more than 20 people at the services, and by early 2013 (for various reasons) we were down to just 5 church members with an approximate average age of 77!
But then a significant development took place in the autumn of 2013. The fellowship at Whaddon Road had enjoyed a good relationship for a number of years with the friends at Naunton Lane Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and brethren from there had been to preach at CEFC. Courtenay Harris had been many times over the years, but one day in July Stephen Johnson came for the morning and David Pfeiffer in the evening, then David came again one Sunday evening in August.
The church had been praying for a pastor for some time. An inquiry was made by the church to the elders of Naunton Lane about David’s availability and they decided to offer some practical support and provide preachers for both services one Sunday and one Wednesday a month for three months from September to December 2013 (later renewed for January to March 2014).
Meanwhile conversations between the leadership of the two churches continued, and developed into discussions about the possibility and desirability of David becoming the pastor at CEFC – which (by the start of February 2014) the members of CEFC had agreed they wanted to explore.
Of course we accepted that if David agreed to “come over and help us”, it would inevitably have major implications, in terms of CEFC in due course becoming a Presbyterian church. But if we had been praying for a pastor, and the Lord sends a Presbyterian, who were we to argue?
And so a letter dated 23rd February 2014, signed by all 5 church members and 12 attenders, was sent to David Pfeiffer formally inviting him to come and pastor the flock here at CEFC, which he gladly accepted.
by David Price
(with acknowledgement to Jonathan Hunt for his book on the history of the church).