The founder of the Peculiar People, James Banyard, was a ploughman’s son born on the 31st January 1800 in the small market town of Rochford, in Southeast Essex. This part of Essex was given over to agriculture, and was, with other parts of the eastern counties, the corn garner of England. Its politics were conservative, its religion earnestly non-conformist, a bastion of the Puritan cause from Elizabethan times.
The Peculiar People were to prove that, even in the nineteenth century, Puritanism and religious controversy were not dead there. He married one Susan Garnish but his habits continued and he was the despair of his wife. At length in his early thirties he saw the error of his ways. A sudden change came over him. After visiting a local fair he promised his wife that he would attend the local Wesleyan church on Sunday. This he did, and impressed with what he heard, he joined the Wesleyan body, soon becoming a zealous local preacher. At the same time, he turned decisively from alcohol and became a strict teetotaller.
He then met a Mr William Bridges who invited him to hear Robert Aitken, a powerful preacher from the North of England. Banyard then knew that Bridges and Aitken had something more than he. So prior to leaving Bridges home in London he went into an upstairs room, fell on his knees, and there, according to all accounts, was ‘born again’. Banyard returned to Rochford a new man took his place among the Wesleyans. He then commenced meetings in his cottage and also in the open air. They then obtained premises in Union Lane (Rochford), which had been erected in 1837 as an old workhouse and it was here that the Peculiar People’s work commenced.
By 1842 the church had moved to better accommodation in a large house called the Barracks and it was here that Banyard was persuaded to call for divine healing on a man ill with consumption (tuberculosis). The man had been convinced that the words of James 5:14-15 were for him and that the prayer of faith would heal. He was healed and after this there were many instances of dramatic healing such that the Banyardites gained a reputation for being a special people, given special powers by God himself.
Gradually, more chapels sprung up and were established in the Essex, Kent and East London and by 1852 a constitution was established with bishops, elders and other helps. The name ‘The Peculiar People’ from 1 Peter 2:9 was decided upon.
At the height of the Peculiar’s popularity there were 43 chapels, all giving emphasis to strict Bible teaching, personal testimonies and divine healing without medical intervention. Most of the congregations came from farming and labouring communities. They met together for united meetings at central venues, such as Chelmsford, when large numbers joined together for worship and fellowship.
On 27th April 1956 Supplemental Deed Poll Number 2 was signed; this was to change the name of ‘The Peculiar People’ to the ‘Union of Evangelical Churches’, as the denomination is now known. Divine healing does not now have such prominence but strict and literal interpretation of the Bible still forms the main basis of church teaching. Today, fifteen churches remain open within the UEC with some having large and other having small numbers in membership.