Samuel Chapman: A little bit of Hollywood!

Samuel Chapman (1877-1899)

‘He looks like a strong warehouseman, a master of a hundred forges, or a keen-eyed shipowner. Imagination is taxed to realize this man is a clergyman.’

I’d like to imagine they said this about me on my appointment to the role, but when I suggested this to my daughter she said … well, you don’t need to know.

In fact, this was how The Southern Baptist described the Reverend Samuel Chapman, the ‘rugged’ and ‘manly’ Scotsman appointed in 1877 to succeed James Martin as the fourth pastor of Collins Street. There’s no doubt, Chapman made a big impression and one that would lead the church into its ‘golden age’. He stayed until he death 22 years later.

Born in Sheffield, Chapman was more than a Charlton Heston look-a-like. He was also a well-educated and erudite man, a natural and wise leader, and a dad. When he arrived in Melbourne he did so with his wife and eight children. Already established in the UK as very successful minister, it’s unlikely Chapman would have come to Melbourne at all were not for his wife’s ill-health and prolonged grief upon the death of their son Arnold, an event from which she never recovered. Unlike Mrs Martin, Chapman’s wife was rarely sighted in the church.

Chapman was man of many strengths, but most of all he was a compelling preacher. In 1885, the story goes, the church agreed to install a new organ. It was a major undertaking as the instrument was to be built slap bang at the front of the sanctuary. Chapman used the opportunity to move Sunday services to the Theatre Royal where on Sunday nights he attracted an audience of some 2,000 people for months at a time. Due in large part to this greater accessibility and his willingness to tackle the hot issues of the day, Chapman’s popularity as a preacher grew rapidly, not only in the city but throughout the state. This was confirmed by a poll conducted by the Daily Telegraph in which Chapman was voted ‘the most original preacher in Victoria’ and the most popular. And this despite the fact that he has ‘rather high, peculiar voice and, unlike most preachers of the times who declaimed their sermons, Chapman tended to chat with his congregation.’  They must have been quality chats, because during Chapman’s tenure church membership passed all previous records.

Chapman also became a denominational leader of significant influence. In fact he was known affectionately as ‘Archbishop of the denomination’. According to historian Mervyn Himbury, ‘the church library became a waiting room for those wanting to consult him,’ such was the respect in which he was held far and wide. He played key roles in the Baptist Association, in the establishment of the Baptist College, the growth of the Home and Foreign Mission work, and in various non-denominational mission agencies.

Inevitably, with the weight of a growing church and his involvement in so many other spheres, Chapman’s health began to deteriorate in the early 90s. Though the deacons granted generous periods of leave and appointed competent associates to assist him in his work, Chapman never fully recovered. He died in 1899.

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