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Salem Chapel Part 1: History - Beliefs and Life in the Congregation
East Budleigh

Salem Chapel and Schoolroom June 2007 photo: Dr Jennifer Freeman  


The neat white box of Salem Chapel (the name being a shortening of Jerusalem) stands with its schoolroom and former stable building in a diminutive roadside graveyard entered through a gate with a handsome wrought-iron overthrow.  The location of the chapel, on the periphery of the village, looking out across the valley to Otterton, is indicative of its independent history.  Salem Chapel was constructed to house a community of 18th century religious dissenters who wished to worship independently from the Church of England.  The freedom to do this was still relatively new in the early 18th century. 

There was some hope after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 that religious tolerance would increase, but a series of Parliamentary Acts, culminating in the 1662 Act of Uniformity, left this looking increasingly unlikely.  The Act of Uniformity reiterated an earlier act imposing exclusive use of the Book of Common Prayer and went further by removing from their positions all ministers not ordained by a bishop.  

At this time somewhere in the region of two thousand Presbyterian ministers, previously ministering in the established church, refused to conform and lost their livings (1).  But no evidence of organised dissent in East Budleigh has been traced before the end of the 17th century.  Only later may Presbyterian sympathies have been aroused.  The first known minister, Roger Beadon, ordained in 1709, probably arrived at a time when the local vicar was no longer accepted by a sizeable proportion of the local population. 

The general atmosphere after the turbulence of the Civil War and the Common¬wealth seems to have been one of suspicion at any departure from orthodoxy (2).  There is unfortunately no record of how any early dissenting congregation at East Budleigh fared, if one existed, as a result of the religious and political changes of the 17th century.  An account of the Independent congregation less than twenty miles away in Axminster describes worship taking place for a while in a cave in an earth bank; possibly conditions were similarly uncomfortable for any congregation at East Budleigh (3).  We simply do not know. 

It was thus with considerable enthusiasm that dissenters embraced new freedoms.  These came with the Act of Toleration in 1689 which, with certain conditions and exceptions, granted dissenters the free¬dom to worship.  Tolerance further increased after the death of Queen Anne in 1714.  The significance of the new freedoms for the congregation at East Budleigh is perhaps most evident in the very local, idiosyncratic nature of their building (4), with its datestone of 1719.

Beliefs and Life in the Congregation

From 1662 the organised presbyteries and synods of the Presbyterians, now outside the Established Church, faced the same problems as Independent congregations.  These problems brought Presbyterians and Independents together in Devon at the “Exeter Assembly”.  The assembly approved and ordained ministers and rendered financial assistance to poor congregations.  The East Budleigh congregation was originally Presbyterian and is mentioned in the Exeter records in 1708 before Salem was built “desiring the Assembly to recommend a Minister to them”.  Mr Roger Beadon was recommended to them (5).  East Budleigh continues to crop up in the Assembly minutes and is involved in the Non¬conformity's wider debates. 

National debates about such issues as predestination and the Trinity impacted upon the congregation at Salem.  An early church history records that the mid-18th century ministry of Mr Clark was terminated due to Clark “being either a Socinian in sentiment, or whose preaching was tainted with the principles of Arianism (6).”  After Clark's dismissal it seems that ministers were taken from the Western Academy.  The Academy was theologically orthodox and provided independent ministers; it is likely that it was at this point that the congregation at Salem changed from Presbyterian to Independent (7). 

By 1809 the congregation again felt it necessary to assert their beliefs, this time by making a statement of doctrine and a list of rules.  Their statement, recorded in the Church Book in 1809, gives us a valuable insight into the ideals and values of the congregation (8). 

As many dangerous errors have been broached in the Christian Church, under the pretext of receiving countenance from the scriptures it is to be observed that the Doctrine of this church is formed upon what is usually styled Calvinistic Principles as we believe them to be most agreeable to the scriptures of truth, and lest any should be at a loss particularly to define this term, the meaning will be more fully explained by entering into a brief detail of [what] are generally termed the peculiar Doctrines of Grace. 

The doctrine of the sacred Trinity in Unity being of so great importance, and so clearly revealed and maintained throughout the scriptures, this church most joyfully retains the same as a fundamental article of its creed, having not the least hesitation in confessing (tho' with the utmost reverence and humility) that the Father is God the Son is God and the Holy Ghost is God and yet there are not three Gods but one God (9). 

Calvinism, mentioned in the first paragraph of this extract, is generally thought to have been the main theological position at this time, both in the established church and among dissenters (10).  

Interestingly, the statement of doctrine was entered into the church books after the resignation, in quick succession, of two ministers, Reverend Leat (or Leatt) and John Stoat.  Leat had been the minister at Salem for at least 39 years and was not paid by the congregation.  Though he had had longevity it seems he was not universally approved.  It was reported that though he was a good if eccentric man and generally well liked, there were “some strange and painful exceptions (11).  In contrast to Leat, Stoat was minister for only three short months in 1808, the year before the statement of doctrine was drawn up.  All of this points to a very stormy period in the chapel's history (12). 

There have long been rumours in East Budleigh that the undercurrents in Leat's ministry were not the result of doctrine but of smuggling.  In the late 18th and early 19th century smuggling was a lucrative and an often violent reality on the Devon coast and had a significant presence in the lives of the people of East Budleigh.  In 1806, the year before Leat resigned, the records of the Old Bailey in London show that William Bastin and Robert Prescott were charged with smuggling.  They had been caught in 1804 by an excise officer stationed in East Budleigh.  After he discovered their kegs he was beaten with “a stick or a bludgeon” but survived to testify against them (13). 

Most histories of East Budleigh will also tell you that the parish church was a hotbed of smuggling activity with the Vicar Ambrose Stapleton at the centre of a very successful operation from the late 18th century until 1852 (14).  It is little wonder, given his mysterious and abrupt departure from Salem, that Samuel Leat has also fallen under suspicion.  There are certainly some, somewhat shady, circumstances surrounding Samuel Leat.  His wealth on his death in 1817 was significant, but whether he amassed his land holdings through smuggling or as an inheritance is unknown; this enabled him to preach at Salem with what seems to have been only tepid appreciation from the congregation.  Speculation about a possible relationship to Salem's prominent Leatt family would appear to be well justified.  On his death Samuel Leat's goods went to William Leat, Mariner of East Budleigh.  Most shockingly, shortly after his death Samuel Leat's grave at Otterton was opened and, as the Truemans Exeter Flying Post reported it, “the corpse mangled, the shroud torn to pieces and the cloth which covered the outer coffin carried away (15).” 

The case of Revd Leat was exceptional and it is impossible to say without further evidence whether or not he was involved with storing smuggled goods in Salem's roof or in posing lookouts in the roof's central cavity.  Smuggling may have resulted in the violent dislike he seems to have inspired.  On the other hand it could be that this dislike was caused by something quite different, and that the rumours of smuggling that survive to this day, were, like his mangled grave, an attempt to discredit his memory.  The running of an Independent congregation with strong ideals was certainly not always smooth or inclusive and the relational dramas inherent in any human activity come through in the congregation's church books.  An extract from 1821 gives an interesting glimpse into the governance of the chapel. 

1821 March 20th - A Church meeting was held this evening at which time the conduct of W. Mardon was brought before the church and the following resolution determined - Resolved -That the late conduct of Mr Mardon is deemed highly unbecoming a man professing Godliness, and, that until he shall discover signs of repentance, he shall be deemed unfit to enjoy the advantages of a member of this church: and he is therefore, and by this resolution declared to be separated from this Church (16). 

Just what Mr Mardon's godless behaviour consisted of is not recorded but it was obviously the cause of much scandal.  Records of such unusual events punctuate the rhythmic cycles of birth, marriage and death, the enrolment of new members, the Ordination of the Last Supper and the collection of fees.  This juxtaposition of the everyday and the unusual, the ritual and the mundane, gives us a glimpse into the lives of strong-minded people, played out in and around the chapel buildings, buildings which were a social hub as well as a religious house.

Interior after renovation. Photo: Rod Thomas 

Tetley’s History 

A great deal of what we know about the early history of Salem Chapel comes from William M. Tetley, Minister at Salem, 1841-1878.  He wrote a history of the Chapel in 1851 and copied it into the church book.  The history comprises oral history and documentary evidence that would otherwise be lost to us; he intended it as a talk to be given at a tea to celebrate the completion of the new schoolroom. Walking out of the chapel and turning left you can enter the schoolroom. 

Tetley proclaimed that, “by the Blessing of God upon our feeble efforts, the present neat and commodious Schoolroom has been built and a considerable sum of money laid out in necessary repairs of the Chapel - Incurring liabilities, for work done, to the Chapel and School Room conjointly amounting to a little more than £100 in all, every farthing of which has been liquidated and we appear before you this evening out of debt and out of danger (17).” 

As the Trustees bore personal responsibility for the chapel debts and would, if they were foreclosed, have to meet them personally or sell the chapel this would have been a considerable relief (18).  When Tetley retired as minister he gave a number of books to the congregation and the church minutes of 14th April 1880 record the congregation's intention to have the books “form the nucleus of a Library for the use of the congregation and the School (19).” 

The schoolroom served as a Sunday school and a venue for social occasions. In 1894 it seems that further renovations had taken place with the chapel being “re-coloured and painted” and the schoolroom “provided with comfortable seats”.  The church books also record that the workmen worked free of charge after hours.  The new and comfortable seating was tested when “a meeting of the Congregation to celebrate the completion of the renovation of the Chapel was held on July 10th.  Tea was provided in the Schoolroom at 5 o'clock when over 100 sat down. The public Meeting was held in the Chapel at 7 o'clock (20).” 

Chapel records for 1884 show that the Lord's Day began with a 7.00am Prayer Meeting, Sunday School followed at 9.30am and morning service at 10.45am.  Lunch would be a shared family event with general schooling for children in the afternoon.  Evening Service followed at 6pm.  At its height the school taught 60 children and had twelve teachers. 

Link to Salem Chapel Part 2: Ahitecture and Restoration.

Author: Victoria, Nutt MA, © Victoria Nutt: Historic Chapels Trust, 2008

Author's Acknowledgement

In the course of writing this guidebook I have had cause to be grateful to a number of people. I owe a particular debt to a previous work by Roger Thorne FSA on Salem Chapel.  I must also thank Dr Jennifer Freeman and Steve Pilcher at the Historic Chapels Trust for all their help and Mr Polson for the kind loan of deeds in his possession. My gratitude also to Kathy Moyle and Marg Crone-Smith who helped point me in the direction of some of the more colourful episodes in the chapel's history; Salem's revival is a fitting tribute to their passion and drive. Neil Burton provided some editorial assistance, with additional comments made by Christopher Stell. 

Extracted and Reproduced from “Salem Chapel, A History and Guide” by kind permission of the Historic Chapels Trust www.hct.org.uk 

The Chapel, Reg Charity No 1017321, is available for weddings, funerals, concerts, exhibitions, talks etc.  

Events and open days are published in www.hct.org.uk and the local Tourist Information Bureau http://www.visitbudleigh.com/ 


1.Thorne, Roger Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (Unpublished, 2005) pp. 2-3; and ed. E. Livingstone, The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1996) p. 527

2.Mullet, Charles 'Toleration and Persecution in England, 1660-89' Church History Vol. 18, No. 1 (1949) pp. 19-20

3.Thorne Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (2005), p. 13; and Mullet 'Toleration and Persecution in England, 1660-89' Church History Vol. 18, No. 1 (1949) p. 21

4.Thorne Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (2005), p. 13

5.Church Records, The Historic Chapels Trust, 1851 Tetley History (hereafter CR, HCT)

6.Thorne Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (2005), p. 3

7.Trust Deeds on loan to HCT; Indenture, 1735; and CR, HCT, 1851 Tetley

8.Trust Deeds

9.Keystone Report K710/2 The Front Wall of The Salem Chapel, East Budleigh Devon (Commissioned for HCT, 2005), p. 5

10.Keystone, Report K710/2 Front Wall. (2005), p. 5

11.Keystone, Report K701 The Roof of The Salem Chapel East Budleigh (commissioned for HCT, 2005) p. 3

12.Keystone, Report K701 Roof (2005), p. 4

13.Keystone, Report K701 Roof (2005)

14.Church Records, The Historic Chapels Trust, 1851 Tetley History (hereafter CR, HCT)

15.Thorne Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (2005), p. 3

16.Trust Deeds on loan to HCT; Indenture, 1735; and CR, HCT, 1851 Tetley

17.Trust Deeds

18.Keystone Report K710/2 The Front Wall of The Salem Chapel, East Budleigh Devon (Commissioned for HCT, 2005), p. 5

19.Keystone, Report K710/2 Front Wall. (2005), p. 5

20.Keystone, Report K701 The Roof of The Salem Chapel East Budleigh (commissioned for HCT, 2005) p. 3

21.Keystone, Report K701 Roof (2005), p. 4

22.Keystone, Report K701 Roof (2005)

23.Thorne Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (2005)

24.CR, HCT, Tetley 1851

25.Thorne Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon Appendix 'The Ministerial Succession' (Draft, 2001)

26.CR, HCT, 1851 Tetley

27.Thorne Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (2005); and Deeds

28.CR, HCT, 1880

29.CR, HCT, 1895


Primary and manuscript sources

Exeter Records Office, Truemans Exeter Flying Post

Old Bailey records ref. t18060702-69; http.//www.hironline.ac.uk

Trust Deeds for 1735,1771,1795,1824,1861 and 1885, now in the care of the Historic Chapels Trust.

Salem's Church Records from 1794 onwards held by the Historic Chapels Trust.

Other sources

Coxhead Smuggling Days in Devon (Raleigh Press, 1956) 

ed. E. Livingstone, The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1996)

Exeter Museum Conservation Service Report (2006, for HCT)

Keystone Report K710/2 The Front Wall of The Salem Chapel, East Budleigh Devon (Commissioned for HCT, 2005)

Keystone, Report K701 The Roof of The Salem Chapel East Budleigh (Commissioned for HCT, 2005)

Mullet, Charles 'Toleration and Persecution in England, 1660-89' Church History Vol. 18, No. 1 (1949) pp. 19-20

Peter D. Watkinson FBHI, Report on Gallery Clock Salem East Budleigh (For HCT, 2006)

Thorne, Roger, Salem Chapel, East Budleigh, Devon (Unpublished, 2005)


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