History of Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church

The Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church (CGBC) will celebrate its 200th anniversary on Sunday the 20th October 2013.

This church is located in the heart of Colombo at the piazza or square where six roads converge, variously referred to as Lipton’s Circus, De Soysa Circus and Eye Hospital Junction (as wattuwa). These names are appropriate enough in view of the circus-like antics of those participating in the many demonstrations (udgoshanayas) launched by various political parties and trade unions in the square, as well as the subsequent, desperate rush for treatment to the Eye Hospital by demonstrators suffering from the effects of tear gas used by the police to disperse them!

This church building is one of the best-known landmarks in the city, not only because most people have to pass by it almost daily to get from one part of the city to another, but also because it provides the backdrop to newspaper pictures and TV images of the demonstrations that take place in its vicinity. They say that if you stand long enough in front of this church, you will see everybody in Sri Lanka pass by at one time or another. What many people do not know is that this church they pass nearly every day has a fascinating history spanning 194 years and that many of the pioneers who participated in the establishment and development of this church were well known figures in their day.

The Early Years (1813-1851)
In 1812 Rev. James Charter, accompanied by his wife and four children, sailed into Colombo harbour from Burma, where he had been sent by the Baptist Missionary Society to do evangelistic work. His wife's ill health had forced him to abandon his work in Burma and move to Ceylon where he hoped she would find the conditions more congenial.

The following year, 1813, Charter started preaching in English in a warehouse somewhere in the Pettah. His audience was a small group of Christians, mainly English soldiers and Burghers. The exact location of this warehouse is uncertain. The Pettah was then no more than a verdant rural village. But the street plan was much the same as we know it today and it is likely that the warehouse was at the site of the Pettah Chapel, which was built in 1851. If this was so, the place is on Prince Street, next to the present Post Office. An alley called Chapel Lane is still there today.

This little group of Christians met regularly every Sunday in the warehouse. Among the Burghers who attended the services was Hendrick Siers, who after his baptism took up preaching to other Burghers in Slave Island. He was the first of many lay preachers of this church, just as James Charter was the first of a long line of ordained pastors. However, the small Pettah congregation was not Charter's sole charge. He had been learning Sinhala and in 1818 he started preaching at Grandpass, founding one Sinhala congregation there and later another one at Hanwella.

With the initial objective of his mission accomplished, Charter handed over the pastorate to Rev. Ebeneezer Daniel who arrived from England in 1826 and left Colombo to preach the gospel in country areas. Ebenezer Daniel had been minister of a Baptist Church in Luton, Bedfordshire for 18 years before leaving for Ceylon with his wife Maria and daughter. In his diary of that year he makes occasional comments on the Pettah congregation. For example:

(a)September 5 - Preached in the Pettah meeting in English at 11 o'clock but very few persons present. I thought of Brother Ward's experience in his account of his early labours in Calcutta. "How hard it is to preach to about 8 people."

(b)September 16 - Preached in the Pettah in English from Psalm 27:5. It was a wet evening; the people here are afraid of rain; therefore the congregation was small.

But by this time, the church was well established, though still quite small. It met for worship every Sunday morning and evening. The evening congregation was always the larger one and was made up entirely of Europeans and Burghers in about equal proportions. It was English speaking and remained so for almost a century. Only an occasional Sinhala name appears in the membership list. A small Sunday School was begun by Maria Daniel and her daughter. The Charters returned to England in December1828, Rev. James Charter himself dying on board ship on the way.

A number of pastors followed Ebenezer Daniel, after his resignation to do evangelistic work in the countryside. It is interesting to note that many of the Baptist missionaries spent the first few years of their stay in Colombo until they had gained a knowledge of Sinhala and then moved to outstation areas. The Baptist Church still has the practice of rotating its pastors among the churches in different parts of the country. One Sunday evening, Rev. Ebenezer Daniel was preaching when he was taken ill. He died the next Sunday. Large crowds of Christians and non-Christians attended his funeral. His wife then sailed for England but she herself died at sea. There seems to have been a high mortality rate among missionaries in those days. Among other pastors who served the church during this period, Jacob Davies and James Allen made noteworthy contributions.

In 1950, it was felt that the membership of the church was unsatisfactory and drastic measures were called for. It was therefore decided to annul the membership and "reconstitute" the Church with those holding "the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel" to form the Baptised Church of Jesus Christ. The initial membership of the reconstituted church comprised sixteen people. James Allen was elected as Elder. The number of members steadily increased. In addition to the two regular Sunday services, a meeting was held on Monday evenings for prayer and Bible study. The enrolment at the Sunday School grew to 60 persons. The church also started a fund to build a proper place of worship. The new chapel was built in Prince Street and opened in 1851 with a membership of 37.

The Chapel in the Pettah (1851 - 1877)
The church, which gathered in the new Prince Street Chapel under the pastorship of Rev. James Allen, was forward-looking and attracted many good leaders. Noteworthy among these were:

·Christopher Elliott M.D., who later became Principal Civil Medical Officer;

·A. M. Ferguson C.M.G., first Editor of the Ceylon Observer and a deacon of the church for 32 years; the existing Ferguson Hall was built in his memory;

·John Ferguson C.M.G., nephew of A.M. Ferguson, who helped his uncle with the Ceylon Observer and later also became its Editor, took great interest in the Sunday School and in evangelism. He was also instrumental in getting the railway exetended. The Mannar line and ferry link to Dhanushkodi in S. India were the results of his efforts.

In 1866 Rev. James Allen died after serving the church for 17 years. Rev. H.R. Piggot and Rev. F.D. Waldock were joint pastors of the church until 1874. Mr. P.D. de Silva was elected a deacon, the first Ceylonese name appearing in the church records. In that year, thanks to the generous support of G.B. Leechman and the Fergusons, the church became financially independent and self-supporting.

Rev. T.R. Stevenson arrived from England in 1874 to take charge of the pastorate of the church at this turning point in its history. The Pettah, which was originally in a pleasant rural setting, was rapidly transforming into the noisy honky-tonk commercial centre that we know today. Many of the church members were moving to quieter localities three or four miles away. It was therefore decided to move the church to a site nearer their homes and in 1875 a plot of land was found in the solitude of Cinnamon Gardens. This sounds amusing now, when preachers have to shout to make themselves heard above the noise of the traffic, but old photographs of the present building indicate how secluded it was, surrounded by gardens full of large trees. The land was bought from the government for Rs. 4,181 and the foundation stone laid on 4 April 1876.

Rev. F.D. Waldock is mentioned as the architect. He must have been a man with many talents and prodigious energy to care for the flock, open new schools and design churches. The church was completed the following year 1877 at a cost of Rs. 22,126. There are no accounts of any opening ceremony or dedication service. The Pettah Chapel was retained for a number of years but it is not known for what purpose it was used. The Asiatic Trading Agency now occupies the chapel building.

Cinnamon Gardens: The First Twenty Years (1878 -1899)
Cinnamon Gardens was a fast-growing residential suburb of Colombo and housed many important officials and businessmen. With its wide tree-lined roads it became the most fashionable area of Colombo to live in and was home to a great number of English families as well as to many educated and affluent Ceylonese families. The congregation was drawn largely from the English speaking population of Cinnamon Gardens and naturally the language of the church services remained exclusively English until a few decades ago, when a Sinhala and Tamil service was formally introduced. However, in the 1870s a group calling itself the Sinahalese Baptist Church had been conducting regular worship services in Sinhala at the Pettah Church, with the permission of the pastor. They moved with the church when it shifted to Cinnamon Gardens. They are thought to have been converts from Grandpass and were pastored by Rev. James Silva, but their existence was hardly noticed by most church members even after worshipping under the same roof for almost a century!

Rev. T. R. Stevenson returned to England in 1881 and the church went through a period of six years during which two gifted laymen, one a civil servant and the other an army man, were responsible for its pastoral oversight, doing an excellent job. In 1887, Rev F. Durbin of the famous Spurgeon's College in England arrived to take over the pastorate. The Manse was built in 1891 to house the Pastor on the premises and the architect was once again Waldock. Rev. Durbin had a successful ministry of six years and was succeeded by Rev. T. I. Stockley from 1893 to 1899. He was responsible for breaking new ground in evangelistic work, first at Mabodala and later at Alutgama, where the little church built at that time may still be seen. Ferguson Hall was built in 1896 in memory of A. M. Ferguson from a donation by his family, to house the growing Sunday School. This hall still serves the Sunday School and is used for functions and social activities of the church as well. By the turn of the century, when Stockley left for England, the membership of the congregation had risen to 201.

The New Century (1900 - 1939)
Rev. W. R. Peacock arrived from England in 1900 and served as pastor of the church for ten years. Rev. R. O. Price (1910 - 1913) was forced to return to England due to illness. Rev. E. B. Woods (1913 - 1916) replaced him. These were very eventful times for the church. The Christian Endeavour Society (CE) was founded in 1910 as the church's youth movement. It was very active until the late nineties, but went into a state of dormancy for some years, until its revivification last year. In keeping with common Baptist practice elsewhere, the church changed from having a Church Committee to a Diaconate as its main decision making body. The first deacons of the church elected in 1913 were J. Ferguson, G. B. Leechman, Peter de Silva, Ronald Ferguson, J. L. Fonseka, W. Geddes and Samuel Van Hoff. An organ was donated to the church by Mrs. R. F. Raymond. With Mervyn Fonseka as organist and H. M. Richards and Charles Pate a choir leaders, the choir developed into a very good one and remained so for a number of years.

Rev. H. J. Charter served the church as interim pastor during the First World War and after, till 1920. After the war ended, the church invited Rev. Fred Bennet to come down from England to take over the pastorate. The ministry of Fred Bennet and his wife was greatly appreciated by the parishioners and they were requested to return for a second term. They finally left in 1930. During this period, the congregation subscribed Rs. 16,000 to buy a superb pipe organ that matched the acoustics of the church perfectly. Mervyn Fonseka, who was also the organist, led the choir, which was reputed to be one of the best in the country at that time. Many members of today's congregation will remember this beautiful organ. It was donated to another church only a few years ago, as the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church did not have the funds to carry out a comprehensive overhaul of the instrument, which was found to be necessary. In 1930 Rev. Fred Bennet resigned and the church invited Rev. G. H. P. Leembruggen a converted Presbyterian minister to the pastorate. He was the pastor of the church from 1931 to 1939. The first edition of the Newsletter appeared in 1932.

A member of the church who did outstanding service to the community during this period was Dr. Mary Rutnam who died in 1962. Her service was mostly outside the church, particularly among village women. She came to Ceylon in 1898 and married Dr. Rutnam shortly thereafter. She trained the first women doctors in Ceylon, a great need since Moslem women could not be examined by men doctors at that time. She started two maternity hospitals in Colombo and went on village lecture tours instructing village women in child welfare and maternity. She also started several schools for poor children and a movement, better known as the Mahila Samitya, to teach village women home industries and better crop production methods. She did not have the time or the inclination to preach sermons, letting her life be a witness to her deeply held Christian values. Some members of our church still remember her with affection, as did the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was among the people who stood at her burial in the pouring rain.

The Second World War and After (1939 – 1963)
The Second World War began quietly enough for Ceylon but with Pearl Harbour and the Japanese menace Ceylon became an important centre for operations of the Allied Armed Forces. They were stationed all over the island including Colombo itself. They certainly “invaded” the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church, an invasion nobody – neither the visitors nor the hosts – will forget. It gave members of the church many opportunities to exercise Christian hospitality and many in the armed forces took back happy memories of the fellowship and hospitality they had enjoyed both in the church and in the homes of church members. A canteen that was run in the Ferguson Hall was greatly appreciated. The young forces personnel flooded the church and took the Christian Endeavour movement by storm. They swelled the choir and occupied the pulpit; lay preachers such as Wallace, Wood, Lieut. Lawrence Brown and others are still remembered. Of course all this had to come to an end when the war ended; the forces returned to England and our Church returned to a state of rather empty normalcy.

Besides being suddenly brought down to earth by the departure of these enthusiastic military personnel, other more gradual changes were taking place in the nature of the church as well. Although its congregation remained English speaking, it was no longer a church for Europeans and Burghers. The majority of the congregation now comprised English speaking Sinhalese and Tamils. This transformation had been going on since the beginning of the century, but became more evident as more and more Europeans (and Burghers) left the country after the war and following Independence. Although the membership now represented a better cross-section of the educated population, it remained quite exclusive, as the uneducated rural population had not yet been reached. This held true also for the other Protestant churches in Ceylon as well.

In 1940, Rev. J. B. Bradley who was Field Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society accepted a call to be the Minister of CGBC but unfortunately died before long, in 1942. Thereafter, Rev. H. J. Charter served until the end of the war. A number of ministers served in the post-war period up to December 1947, when Rev.Charles Bullock came in as pastor until 1949 when he had to leave owing to his wife’s ill-heath in 1949. Rev.Collin Weller commenced his ministry in December of the same year. He gave strong spiritual leadership to the congregation and was a very wise pastor. It is perhaps for this pastoral care for the flock, through prayer and guidance given in the homes of the people, that he was most deeply valued. He organized prayer groups in the homes of members and directed two citywide missions. He revived and re-invigorated the Christian Endeavour movement and got a number of young people trained as lay preachers. His inability to accept a second five-year term as pastor was greatly regretted by the church.

In 1953, Ms. Winifred Kariapperuma (nee Turney) came to the Island as a Missionary and was later appointed as Field Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society in Ceylon. She held the positions of Deacon and Treasurer in the church for many years. She has been, and still is, a great source of strength and encouragement to the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church. The present constitution of the church owes itself largely to her efforts.

Rev. Reginald Croshaw was called to the pastorate in 1955 but was unable to complete his full term. He resigned and returned to England in 1957. In April 1959 Rev. Eric Sutton-Smith accepted the call to the pastorate and arrived in Ceylon in November of that year as a missionary of the B.M.S. He had already served in China, the land of his birth. He had undergone many hardships there, including imprisonment for his beliefs, after the Communist government came to power. He was an outstanding pastor and being a bachelor was able to devote most of his time and energies to church activities. Rev. George and Betsy Lee assisted him from time to time. Eric Sutton-Smith was a real blessing to the church and was unanimously invited by the church membership to accept a second term of five years.

40 Years on – 1963 to 2003
In 1965, Rev. Eric Sutton-Smith commenced his second pastorate, which lasted until 1970. He subsequently came back for a shorter third term from 1971 to 1974. His was the longest pastorate in the CGBC in the twentieth century. He was greatly loved and respected by all those who came in contact with him. He was also a great evangelist, taking the message to the people of the area through open-air dramatic programmes not only in the garden of the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church, but also in the environs of rural churches, hospitals and prisons. He also introduced the Wayside Pulpit, sermons illustrated with his own drawings, and a unique Harvest Service based on the Mahaweli Development Project. Rev. Eric Sutton Smith went on to pastor the Kandy Baptist Church for a while and then returned to England, where he passed away not long after. The Sutton-Smith Memorial Chapel was dedicated to his memory.

Rev. A. H. Swanson was inducted as Pastor of CGBC in 1975 and continued till 1979, when he returned to Scotland, where he still resides. In January 1980, Rev. Peter M. Goodall commenced his ministry, which lasted seven years. During this time, much emphasis was placed on using the media, with telecasts of Easter services from the church, as well as studio services. Independence Day services with the hoisting of the national flag, celebration of the Sinhala-Tamil New Year with special cultural activities, May Day services with a procession and dedication of workers, and out-door Nativity scenes with illuminations were other features of this period. With a widely scattered membership, pastors were finding it difficult to visit the homes of church members regularly and various schemes were tried out to fill this gap. During Rev. Goodall’s pastorate, area house groups were formed and later, the auxiliaries held house meetings.

For the first time since its establishment, the CGBC got a Sri Lankan pastor when Rev. Kingsley Perera was appointed to the position in 1988. He continued as pastor until 1997. In view of the growing Sinhala-Tamil congregation and the need for evangelical work to be conducted in the local languages, the appointment of a local Pastor was very timely. He instituted the concept of a Team Ministry in which Deacons, Committee Members and elders of the church took over part of the responsibilities of pastoral visits. During his tenure, work on the new building for the Dev Piya Sevana Community Service Centre (DPS) was completed. It has facilities for vocational training, English teaching, a restaurant for the supply of cheap, wholesome meals to less-well-off people in the vicinity, and overnight accommodation for immediate family members of poor patients visiting them in the General Hospital nearby. The community service activities of the church, such as feeding the poor and providing schoolbooks and stationery to needy children, also grew during that period. When Rev. Kingsley Perera was transferred, the church ran itself with the assistance of Rev. Peter Goodall, who had been recalled to Sri Lanka by the SLBS as Moderator.

The present pastor of the church, Rev. Heshan de Silva took over the pastorate in 1999. In recent years, the Sinhala-Tamil congregation has grown in strength while the English language congregation has got depleted, mainly due to the exodus of young people for study and employment abroad. Consequently, more emphasis has been placed on uniting the two congregations in as many activities as possible, including joint tri-lingual services on important occasions, church camps, and activities of the auxiliaries such as the Women’s Fellowship, the Men’s Fellowship, the Young Adults, CE and the Youth Groups. Although the building of the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church is a historical landmark of great value and is worth preserving, the church itself is much more than a mere building. The church is the gathering of God’s people. The CGBC continues to go from strength to strength and is now engaged in increasing its outreach activities by helping the evangelical efforts of churches in the outstations. With God, nothing is impossible and we look forward to the next 10 years with great hope and the anticipation of serving Him in the great traditions laid down by the early leaders of the church.