What's in a name? Chapel names

If your church meets in a chapel, does it have a name? I have belonged to two or three Baptist churches in my time, each named after its location. However, many chapels do have names, especially where there is more than one in a town. Some have quietly dropped these names in recent times, feeling their work is not helped by issuing invitations to ‘Come to Ebenezer’ or ‘Join us at Zion’. Most, however, continue to use these ancient, and often well loved, names. Some new churches have even incorporated a name into the title of the church itself, such as Cornerstone, Immanuel, Gateway, Grace, Lifeline, Trinity, Vineyard or Church of the Good Shepherd. Meanwhile, Rehoboths, Hopes and Providences continue to abound.
Until 1689 Baptists had no chapels as such. Before the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 they had made use of parish churches and other public buildings where possible and then, under threat of persecution, had resorted to using private homes. This arrangement created its own difficulties and so where possible, like other Nonconformists, they built or bought chapels in which to meet. Sometimes congregations would share facilities but more often each church became identified with one specific building. From the 1740s at least the practice began of identifying these buildings with names. As Nonconformity flourished in the 19th Century so each new chapel erected often bore a particular name to distinguish it from others. Soon, potentially confusing phrases such as ‘I belong to Hope’ or ‘I’m going to Emmaus’ became common place.
Parish churches have for long ages been traditionally connected with the names of saints, as in St Luke’s, St Philip and St James’s St Michael and All Angels or All Saints. At least one church in Wales bears Peter’s Aramaic name (Cephas) but most Nonconformists in England and Wales eschewed this practice and struck out on different paths. In America they, unimaginatively, speak usually of First Baptist, Second Baptist, Ninth Presbyterian, Tenth. Here names were chosen, mainly from the Bible, for usually obvious reasons. Bethel is ‘House of God’; Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. Providence acknowledges God’s provision of a meeting place; Jireh is ‘The Lord will provide’ and Ebenezer ‘Up until now the Lord has helped us’.
In some instances you learn something about a chapel from its name. Enon has to be a Baptist church. Enon you recall was where John the Baptist baptised because there was much water there. Tabernacles, like God’s house in the Old Testament, are relatively large as are the rarer Temples. Babell Apostolic in Aberdare, South Wales, gets its name from the Welsh word for tent not the place where the tower was built! Bethel means house of God and Zoar (meaning ‘Little place’) should be smaller, just as Rehoboth should be larger, or an extension work, as the name means Room. It was the name given to a well by Isaac following a time of strife. Perhaps in some instances that thought is in the background. Zoar is, of course, where Lot fled from Sodom and Gomorrah and so suggests a place of refuge from wickedness.
The idea of refuge is also there in the popular Elim, Place of rest, and the unusual Cave of Adullam, where all in distress, debt or despair resorted to David. The Ark clearly suggests a welcome for all creatures great and small. The name Lighthouse or Beacon, like The Bridge, though not directly from Scripture, make similar points. The name Hebron was probably selected with a similar thought. It was a city of refuge. City of Refuge spells out the point. Gilead, of course, is the place for soothing balm. Welsh Noddfa, like the French L’Abri (used by Francis Schaeffer), both mean shelter or refuge. The name Elim, the name of an oasis where Israel stayed in the desert, is one of many examples where biblical place names have been adopted. Use has been made of Bethany, where Jesus loved to stay; Bethlehem, perhaps with the thought of its meaning, house of bread; Calvary, Latin for the place of the skull, where Christ died; Emmaus, where after his resurrection he broke bread and Jerusalem, Caersalem (in Wales) or Salem, which means peace. Galilee and Gethsemane also exist. Gilgal, interestingly, is where the Israelites rededicated themselves to God in Joshua’s time. Peniel is where Jacob met God face to face yet lived. Nazareth and Goshen are understandable choices too, as is Eden for there Adam and Eve met with God. Why Ramah or Shiloh should be chosen is not immediately clear, though the latter was where the Tabernacle used to be.
Then there are the mountains: Ararat, Carmel, Hermon, Moriah, Nebo, Olivet, Pisgah, Tabor, Zion, even Horeb or Sinai. Bethesda and Siloam were pools in Jerusalem connected with healing miracles of Jesus. Antioch is inspired by the New Testament church of that name. Of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, only Sardis and Smyrna are usually used, for obvious reasons. (Philadelphia is known as it means brotherly love). The story is told, however, of a church in the southern states of America that left a great deal to be desired and was a great discouragement to its faithful pastor. They decided they wanted to give a name to their chapel but could not fix on one until some mischievous or ignorant soul suggested Laodicea. When they came to the pastor for his opinion he had to admit that it was a most appropriate name for that particular church to choose! And so it was given the name Laodicea.
There is evidence that as the 19th Century wore on our Victorian fathers tired of this naming game. They would sometimes resort to the practice of calling chapels after influential figures of the near or distant past, as in Latimer Memorial, Chalmers Memorial, Martyrs Memorial, Carey Baptist or Kensit Evangelical.
Others simply looked for more unusual names. Some went to Isaiah for Hephzibah and Beulah. Galeed means ‘Heap of witness’. Lebanon looks like a topographical reference but refers more to the cedar of Lebanon, symbolic of God’s strength. Similarly, Sharon refers to the Rose of Sharon mentioned in Song of Solomon and long accepted as a title for the Lord Jesus. Some common names today among the more conservative are Grace and Christ Church. Trinity continues to be used too. Church on the rock is an attractive name. Some people can get hot under the collar on this subject but it is not really one to get het up about. Provided we remember that the church and the building are two different things and that there is nothing in the New Testament about chapels as such, we should not go too far wrong.
Meanwhile let us not forget this largely incidental but interesting part of evangelical and Nonconformist culture which has its own lessons to teach. May each of our Bethels and Zions and Temples truly be the houses of God; may the prophets of Baal be challenged at Carmel; may we not forget the Lord’s past help at Ebenezer. And if your chapel does not have a specific name remember that he who walks among the candlesticks has a white stone with a secret new name for all who come to him. The names of all his churches are indelibly written on the palms of his hands.
This article first appeared in Grace Magazine