Grace Community Church grew from the merger of two congregations the senior of which was Princes End Baptist Church. The origin of the latter is often given as 1846 but the church actually predates this year in the way that living congregations predate their buildings. Zion Chapel was indeed opened in 1846 but the original church was formed in the 1820s through the preaching of Samuel Yardley. It seems that he walked from Cradley Heath to Princes End every Sunday to preach the gospel, and it was from this ministry that a church grew.
The first recorded baptism was in 1829. It is not now clear how this early start relates to the association with Coppice Chapel, Coseley, but there is evidence that the involvement of members of that congregation resulted in the formation of Summerhill Church in 1833 using a room hired from a family named Underhill. (Summerhill is immediately adjacent to the Princes End area of Tipton.) We are told that one David Taylor was 'father of the church' and that under his leadership land was purchased for a building from the Moat Colliery Company - 'the site of an old stable' - and that 'they commenced to build'. (It is also noted that they 'resorted to the canal for baptisms'. In view of their depth a somewhat risky enterprise; however, no losses were reported!)
A later, well-respected minister, Rev J Cecil Whittaker, testified to the character of these first believers: 'the sterling worth, their strength of character, and the fervent piety of not a few in the little band, who were trained up into a life of faith and practical godliness.' The opening of Zion Chapel seems to have involved a merger of the original Summerhill congregation with 'some influential members of the Darkhouse' - the Baptist church in neighbouring Coseley.
The new church called a pastor in 1846 - a brave step since the membership amounted to just 42 persons. Thus, John Stent arrived in Tipton but he was to serve the church for only two years. He left in July 1848 for reasons that were not fully explained.
The church's second pastor was James Voller. He was appointed on the same stipend as his predecessor - £100 per annum. Although virtually unknown in this country he was later acquire a reputation as a pioneer Baptist minister in Australia. His five-year ministry resulted in a growing congregation which subsequently called Richard Nightingale (1853-1869) and J C Whitaker (1870-1898).
During these years two unusual events stand out in the life of the growing church: James Voller's shipwreck en route to Australia and the unexpected relocation of Zion Chapel in 1872. These are the subjects of the next two articles in this series.