Orange Street Congregational Church is located in the heart of London, between Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square, and west of St Martin’s in the Field, and stands on the site of a Huguenot chapel, established in 1693. This Huguenot-founded church was opened and dedicated on Easter Eve 1693 by its first minister Daniel Chamier. It was then known as the Temple Of Leicester Fields, the name by which the Huguenots called their meeting houses, as in those days the Leicester Square district was indeed a "district of fields."
It was there, and at Spitalfields, that a large number of Huguenots settled after fleeing the terrible persecutions of Protestants in France. From the reign of Francis I to that of the opulent Louis XIV, these French Christians, mainly Calvinists, had endured tortures of every conceivable kind. Many escaped, as best they could, to such places as England, Holland, Prussia, Switzerland and the bright new world – the United States of America.
France thus lost a host of fine men and women of piety, industry and ability, and England gained many. The refugee communities were composed of nobles, clergy, physicians, soldiers, manufacturers and artisans, the latter of whom taught their English brothers the arts and crafts they had learned in their forsaken France.
The records show that Jean Pierre Stehelin, minister of the Orange Street Church from 1736 to 1753, "made himself a perfect master of the seventeen languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, French, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, Chaldean Gothic, Old Tudesco or Druid, Anglo-Saxon, besides Spanish, Portuguese and Welsh."
Charles de la Guiffardierre, an able minister, was a great favourite at court, and read French to the Princesses and to Queen Charlotte.
It is believed that Jacques Saurin, the famous French Calvinist and scholar, preached in the church many times. Saurin was born in Nîmes, Jan. 6, 1677, died at the young age of almost 54 at the Hague on Dec. 30, 1730. His family went to Geneva after the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685. In 1694 he entered the English service as a cadet under Lord Galway, afterward served in Piedmont, and then returned to Geneva and studied theology. In 1701 he became pastor of the Walloon church in London. He remained there four years, and passed the rest of his life at the Hague, acquiring a great reputation as a preacher. When hearing him preaching, Dean Jacques Abbadie asked, "Is it a man speaking or an angel?" "To tell the truth", said Weiss, "no preacher among the Catholics or the Protestants could be compared to this sublime genius, whose inspiration is equalled only by that of the ancient prophets, and of the most illustrious among the Fathers of the Church." It was in all likelihood that it was during this time that he preached in Orange Street church. What an accolade to be paid to any man.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the famous scientist whose house was adjacent to and possessed by, the church, where he settled in 1696, and attended the services and heard Saurin regularly. So did Newton's niece, Catherine Barton, a close acquaintance of Dean Swift. It has been said of the preacher, who was young and singularly handsome, that as he warmed to his subject the silence of the intent congregation was "almost painful."
At the time of the revival under the John and Charles Wesley, the Orange Street Church passed from French to English Protestantism, when the friends of the Rev. Augustus M. Toplady secured the chapel for the evening services. The building was licensed by Dr. Terrick, Bishop of London, and a new era began.
After preaching at various London churches, Toplady became minister at Orange Street. About this time, he published many hymns, the best known of which is Rock of Ages, first sung in Orange Street.
In 1787, being badly in need of repair, Orange Street Church was closed and the congregation migrated elsewhere. Later the same year it passed from the Church of England into the hands of the Nonconformists, becoming a Congregational Church, with the Rev. John Townsend as its pastor.
This enduring Huguenot foundation has had many well-loved ministers, including Samuel Luke, whose wife, Jemima, wrote that delightful children's hymn, I think when I read that sweet story of old. So at least two of our best-known hymns are associated with the church as well as the list of illustrious Huguenot preachers who donned the pulpit there.