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IV - Monumentalization and the Act of Writing

Writing “things ecclesiastical”: the literary Acts of the gathered Churches

Anne Dunan-Page


Les activités des Églises considérées comme dissidentes, séparées de l’Église anglicane et constituées par de petits groupes de saints convertis, sont surtout connues au travers de la littérature pamphlétaire et polémique du second XVIIe siècle. Or les archives britanniques, les bibliothèques privées et même quelques Églises évangéliques, possèdent des manuscrits à ce jour quasiment inexploités pour rendre compte de la variété du discours littéraire dissident. Ces manuscrits, souvent considérés, à tort, comme uniquement constitués des minutes des assemblées, se révèlent d’une extrême richesse littéraire, mêlant correspondances, testaments spirituels, biographies, autobiographies et récits de controverses. Ils représentent autant d’actes de foi, censés ériger des “monuments” à la gloire de la Providence divine et peuvent être considérées comme des maillons essentiels dans une entreprise d’écriture de l’histoire dissidente. Sont ici évoqués les modèles ayant présidé à leur composition, des Actes des Apôtres aux Actes and Monuments de John Foxe, en passant par la littérature populaire, et les conséquences à en tirer pour un rééxamen de la littérature congrégationnaliste comme lieu de tension entre des discours et des actes d’écriture collectifs et personnels.

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1In the summer of 1874, a manuscript entitled Ecclesiastica, Or a Book of Remembrance was published “by Order & Appoyntment” of a Church meeting at Axminster, in Devonshire. Begun by an anonymous scribe on 26th October 1687, it chronicled events from 1660 to 1698, that is to say from the foundation of the Church in the village of Weycroft to the erection of a new meeting-house in Chard Street, Axminster. Soon after the publication of the edition the manuscript disappeared and was therefore not available to be consulted when the edition was reissued and annotated in 1976 by K. W. H. Howard. This is how the text begins, as modernised by its Victorian editor:

  • 1 The Axminster Ecclesiastica (1660-1698), ed. K. W. H. Howard, Ossett, Gospel Tidings Publications, (...)

It hath been the laudable practice of the saints to preserve the memory of divine dispensations. This they did sundry ways: viz., by composing Eucharistical songs (Exod. 15, Iudg. 5), and teaching them to their children; by imposing significant names on the places where they received signal mercies; by writing them on the names of their children; by erecting memorial stones and pillars; by appointing anniversary feasts of rememberance; and by committing them to writing that they be read by posterity. So careful were they to keep in remembrance the providences of God towards them. This practice is recommended to us also by the wisdom of God.1

2The passage focuses on the acts of the Saints. They compose and sing songs, they teach, they name their children, they build monuments, establish commemorative feasts and commit events to writing. By these means they created a mental but also a geographical landscape where education, architecture, music and writing – the fruits of their intellectual, spiritual and artistic efforts – charted the intervention of the divine in their lives.

  • 2 Allan Brockett, Nonconformity in Exeter, 1650-1875, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1962, (...)

3In 1687, when the Ecclesiastica opens, Devonshire already had a long history of dissent, with Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers scattered from the wharves of Plymouth and Dartmouth to the trading centres of Tiverton and Exeter, and further east towards rural Lupitt and Loughwood – where the thatched Baptist chapel still stands – and the banks of the unassuming river Axe. With the return of the Anglican clergy, 121 ministers were ejected between 1660 and 1662, more than in any other county.2

  • 3 Brokett, op. cit., p. 11-14, 19.
  • 4 Susanna Parr, Susanna’s Apologie Against the Elders, London, 1659. On Parr, see Patricia Crawford, (...)

4In Exeter cathedral, a tall partition wall was built in 1658 thanks to a subscription that raised £800 (it was demolished at the beginning of the Restoration). This barrier allowed the Presbyterians, led by Thomas Ford and Robert Atkins, to worship in the choir, while the Congregationalist Church of Lewis Stucley and Thomas Mall congregated in the nave.3 This reveals an Interregnum effort to institute “Congregational parochialism”, a system in which those destined to become dissenters after the Restoration could share a place of worship without an Anglican bishop. The wall was nevertheless a physical reminder of their inability to unite; the year before, Stucley and Mall had excommunicated Mary Allein and Susannah Parr for attending Presbyterian services, the latter bitterly retaliating in one of the most famous public invectives by any female member of a gathered Church.4

5Ford, Mall, Stucley and Parr are best known for their part in the pamphlet literature of the 1650s, but theirs was a culture in which printed texts (most of which survive in the Thomason collection) were shaped by, and co-existed alongside sophisticated and extensive acts of writing: I mean the manuscript Church books of the dissenting Congregations of which Ecclesiastica, Or a Book of Remembrance is one of the most important from an area of England rich in traditions of dissent. Far from containing only documentary evidence pertaining to the routine administration of Churches, these manuscripts represent a major and highly diversified body of dissenting prose which it is time to recuperate and ponder. Sometimes misunderstood, and often underestimated, these texts need to be reexamined as ways of writing history, letters, biography and autobiography, and especially as sources of narrative. They are communal and personal acts of faith from which a providential history of British dissent can be built.

Defining Church books

  • 5 Records of the Churches of Christ, Gathered at Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, 1644-1720, ed. Edwa (...)

6The diversity of seventeenth-century manuscripts generally referred to as “Church books” or “Church records” is impressive. Scholars attempting to make sense of these documents are not helped by the fact that they are scattered across Britain in public and private archives. Only six have been edited, and none of them is currently in print, with the result that the breadth of the material has generally been minimised.5 It is widely assumed that such records contain only humdrum entries concerning Church organisation and the leaden minutes of monthly assemblies. To be sure, this is not entirely mistaken; there is much in these books that is purely administrative. The Axminster volume provides a useful point of entry:

  • 6 Axminster, op. cit., p. 2.

Shall kingdoms and commonwealths have their chronicles, civil courts their rolls and records? Shall tradesmen keep their books of accounts, lawyers their books of precedents, physicians their collections of experiments, and travellers their journals? And shall not the churches of Christ have their registers and books of remembrance wherein they may record their church transactions and the various dealings of God with them?6

  • 7 Very selectively, for science and literature, see Brian Vickers, “The Royal Society and English Pro (...)

7The Axminster chronicler certainly does wish his writing to be a text of record, resembling documents generated by the highly literate professions of civil society; and yet, the passage from “transactions” to the “various dealings of God” signals a shift: from what is mundane and can perhaps be simply reviewed to what may be miraculous and certainly demands to be recounted. For the Axminster chronicler this is an easy transition, and it should be one we can follow; the kinds of writing to which he refers, including chronicles, the records of trials, accounts of scientific experiments, and travellers’ journals, have long been the domain of literature specialists who have patiently revealed the subtle interplay between fact, fiction and literary self-consciousness in these genres.7 This makes it all the more surprising that Church records, almost alone among the forms of writing that the chronicler names, have rarely been read as literary texts. They can be considered, individually and collectively, as acts of writing an ecclesiological history of dissent meant to build a lasting testimony of God’s mercy towards the Elect. The “transactions” that have for so long been the most conspicuous part of these books are inseparably compounded with writing about transcendent and ecclesiological concerns.

8In addition to “transactions”, the Church Books often contain complex and extended narratives that the members of the Churches clearly regarded as constitutive elements of their foundation and growth. These “narratives”, “narrations” or “accounts” could take many forms. In the Axminster volume these include a chronological history of the Church from the Restoration to Toleration, biographies of pastors, deathbed scenes, “sacramental scenes” and descriptions of political events; in the book from Cripplegate (London), the narratives encompass the legal proceedings against a pastor accused of lying, drinking and “immodest behaviour towards women”; in the Ilston volume, there is a series of epistles showing how the Welsh Churches developed a network of correspondence with their English, Irish and Scottish counterparts; in the Bristol book, there is a detailed history of the Church by Edward Terrill, one of the elders, while from Cambridge there is the “private” Church book of Joseph Hussey. This diversity should not discourage us from attempting a comparative analysis. Firstly, because these documents share many formal elements, including a foundation narrative, a record of major controversies, narratives of remarkable events in the history of the Church, biographies of pastors and a tally of the growth (or decrease) of membership. Secondly, because they were all intended to build “monuments” of divine mercy in at least four ways: by presenting record-keeping as a necessary act in the growth of a Church, by writing collective histories, by establishing networks of correspondence, and by offering examples of saintly lives through biographies and even autobiographies.

Foundation acts

  • 8 Elizabeth Clarke, “‘The Glorious Lover’: Baptist Literature and the Bride of Christ”, Baptist Quart (...)

9Most Church records open with an account of the beginnings of the Church and of the day when it “gathered”. Many Biblical images were available to illustrate the relationship between Christ and His Church, chief among them the spouse and bridegroom,8 but Church records generally favoured an architectural imagery owing much to I Pet. 2:5 (“Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house”) and the cornerstone imagery of Ps. 118:22. Thus the visible Saints forming “living stones” of the divine mansion:

  • 9 Axminster, op.cit., p. 11.

Thus were a few living, lively stones that lay here and there scattered in the wilderness brought and cemented together and laid upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, and so were built up a spiritual house or temple for the Lord to dwell in, and to have pure instituted worship given unto Him.9

10In Hexham, Thomas Tillam opened the records by emphasizing his own role as builder of Churches:

  • 10 Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, op. cit., p. 289.

In the name of the Lord Christ, I came to hexham the 27th day of the 10th month, 1651, and so wonderfully hath God appeared in this dark corner, that upon the 21st day of the 5th month, 1652 (that is, the 7th month following), after serious consideration and some gospel preparation, a living temple began of these living stones:—The Church of Christ in Hexham.10

11There were, of course, more militant discourses designed to legitimate separation from the Church of England, as in Bury St Edmunds where the original 1646 covenanters (approved by Samuel and Katherine Chidley) plainly recorded their distaste for a National Church:

  • 11 “First Minute Book, Congregational Church, Whiting Street, 1646-1801”, Suffolk County Record Office (...)

And wee being conuinced in Conscience of the euill of ye Church of England, and of all other states wch are contrary to Christs institution. And being (according to Christes institutions and comandements) fully Separated not only from them, but also from those who Comunicate with them either publickly or priuately, Wee resolue by the grace of God, not to returne vnto their vaine inuentions their human deuices, their abominable Idolatries, or superstitious high places, which were built and dedicated to Idolatry. And wee seing not only the necesity of this Separation, but also the great need of continuing in Christian fellowship, and society, and that to be of ye visible particular Church of Christ is most needfull for the Saints edification in this life [...]11

12These Congregations plainly believed that they lived in a time of extensive Church building, following a providential act of God. It was now the task of all true Christians to build churches, and to undertake acts of writing, that were spiritual monuments to the mercy God showed to a depraved Mankind.

13Foundation narratives often sound triumphalist because they claim divine inspiration:

  • 12 Axminster, op. cit., p. 8.

The Lord blessed the ministry of His servant [Bartholomew Ashwood] through the powerful and effectual operations of the Holy Spirit accompanying the same to the awakening, enlightening, converting and effectually drawing over some souls to close in with Jesus Christ, and whose hearts were engaged and made willing to be the Lord’s covenant people. […] They were waiting for an opportunity and capacity to form themselves into a church of Christ according to Gospel rule and the pure institution of the Lord Jesus Christ after the order of the primitive churches at the first publication of the gospel by the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ [...]12

14In East Anglia, the Church meeting at the Fenland village of Warboys added a millenarian tone:

  • 13 Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, op. cit., p. 267-268.

Mystery, Babylon, or the great whore, spoken of by the blessed Apostle John in the Revelation, with whom the inhabitants of the earth have committed fornication, had so deceived the nations of the world, that although something had been done in this nation by way of reformation, yet so great was the darkness, that few knew in what manner churches ought to be gathered and governed, according [to] the scriptures and practice of the holy apostles and churches in their time. It pleased God about this time to stir up some in this town to search the scriptures; and by the Lord’s providence, one Henry Denn, an able and learned teacher, did by preaching and writing, manifest the great love of God the father to mankind [...] and by the preaching of the said Henry Denn, many in this county received the faith, of whom some were of this town [...]13

15These passages encapsulate most of the standard features of foundation narratives, such as the private and formal gathering of parishioners being drawn, little by little, to more formal “inchurching” (their word) and the “instrument” used by God, generally their first pastor like Bartholomew Ashwood or Henry Denne. Finally, God’s glory was magnified by the Congregations’ marginality:

  • 14 Ilston, op. cit., p. 31.

Wee cannot chuse but admire att the vnsearchable wisdom, power, and love of God in bringing about his own designes far above the capacity and vnderstanding off the wiesest of men. Thus, to the glory off his owne great name, hath he dealt with vs, for where there had beene noe companies or society of people houlding forth and practiseing the doctrine, worshipp, order, and disipline of the Gospell according to primitive institution that ever wee heard off in all Walles since the apostacy, it pleased the Lord to chuse this darke corner to place his name heere [...] and to gather heere the first church of baptized beleevers. It is wonderfull to consider how this was brought to pass considering the manifould oppositions [...] God hath truly blessed improbable meanes.14

  • 15 Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, op. cit., p. 267.
  • 16 Ilston, op. cit., p. 31.

16The delay that intervened between the foundation of a Church and the beginning of its records allowed many recurrent motifs to crystallize around the contingent details of the foundation. They include the importance of a seminal figure (“an able and learned teacher”15), the model of the early Church and occasionally the motif of the divine light shining in an unexpected place (“this darke corner”16). All these elements shape the details of individual Church histories into the common form of a grateful and enlightened people coming together into a Christian community. The maintenance of such records marked a certain spiritual, communal, and ecclesiological maturity in a Church, and was by no means deemed to be a sign of infancy; there could be no minutes of monthly meetings, and no records of the members received or excommunicated, until there were established Church officers to compile them, just as there could be no transcripts of letters testifying to the Church’s place in a network of contacts and no record of providential events for posterity.

Records as acts

  • 17 Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D828, fol. 3.
  • 18 “The Church Book att Covent Garden Anno: 1691 to Anno: 1699”, Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, (...)
  • 19 The Church Book of Bunyan Meeting 1650-1821, facsimile ed. by G. B. Harrison, London, Dent, 1928 [f (...)
  • 20 Oxford English Dictionary, sv Act, n. sense 5a.

17Some Congregations explicitly called their records “act(s)”. Thus the short-lived Lothbury Square Congregation of John More and Peter Chamberlen opened its volume with an ominous “Acts of the Church. Delivery to Satan” (of which more below).17 The Covent Garden volume records that brother Price did “buy a booke to enter therein the Act of the Churches and all matters & p[ro]ceedings relating to the said meeting.”18 The Congregation at Bedford entitled its records “A Booke Containing a Record of the Acts of A Congregation of Christ, in, and about Bedford”.19 This is all in accordance with a long-established and Latinate usage of “act”, both in the singular and the plural, to mean “A record of transactions, actions, or decrees; a document which verifies facts”.20 For seventeenth-century Congregationalists, however, the term “acts” had a range of different meanings, some spiritual (“acts of faith”), some Biblical and some ecclesiological or historical.

18The Congregationalist Churches modelled their government upon what they believed to be the usage of the early Christian communities, as presented in the Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament Letters. The Acts provided an immensely persuasive model for the domestic setting of early dissent and for its success in gaining converts. In 1672, Edward Terrill expressed the admission of an entire adult household in such Apostolic terms:

  • 21 Bristol, op. cit., p. 138. For an interpretation of the early Christian household as such “a comple (...)

Br NATHANEEL SNEED, and S. SNEED, his wife, and S. RACHEL CLARK their Servant, were Proposed to ye Congregation, as their desire to Joyne [...] they made their declaration before ye Congregation of their Conversion or worke of God upon their soules; with which ye Church being Satisfied, they were BAPTIZED upon ye 10th day of ye 3d Month, 1672. Soe that when we saw (and had experience of), A WHOLE HOUSEHOLD was BAPTIZED at one time together: namely, himselfe, his wife, and Maid, which was all ye family. Soe that it may be said (according to ye Judgment of Charity, they having declared their Conversion, their faith, and repentance), as it was said of ye JAYLOR, Acts xvi.34, He believed in God will all his house. SO THAT HERE IS A LIVEING PRESIDENT, that a man and all his (or a whole) Household may be Baptized, and have no Child in it; As many more may be, if ye Lord please to Change them, and grace them with Faith, Repentance, and desires of ye Ordinance, as these Did, According to ye practice of Christ and ye Apostles.21

19Earlier, and in better times when the Baptist Hanserd Knollys had answered the Presbyterian John Bastwick, Knollys had also modelled his history of the Baptist movement, with its narrative of preaching and conversion in temples and private houses, upon Acts:

  • 22 Hanserd Knollys, A Moderate Answer vnto Dr Bastvvicks Book; Called Independency not Gods Ordinancy, (...)

Some godly and learned men of approved guifts and abilities for the Ministerie, being driven out of the Countries, where they lived by the persecution of the Prelates, came to sojourn in this great City, and preached the Word of God both publikely, and from house to house, and daily in the Temples and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ: and some of them have dwelt in their own hired houses, and received all that came in unto them, preaching the Kingdome of God, and teaching those things, which concern the Lord Jesus Christ. And when many sinners were converted by their preaching of the Gospell, some of them that beleeved, consorted with them, and of professors a great many, and of the chief women not a few.22

20The Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Paul, with their frequent references to house churches, provided a model for the domesticity of dissenting culture and for the resilience of Churches under the Cross, when persecuted by the state. The gathered Churches of the seventeenth century began with small groups of Jacobean parishioners who met in private to discuss the Bible or sermon notes, and to share table fellowship. Their worship was particularly suited to such informal meetings, which helps to explain how they survived the Restoration. The “acts” of the gathered Church testified to the Churches’ activities and a prosperity that magnified God’s providential scheme, the success of gathered Churches throughout Britain and the conversion of parishioners through public and private preaching. The Bible provided a potent model when the time came to set down accounts of persecution, when the Congregations felt the “heavie hand of God” upon His Elect.

21A second meaning of the word “Acts” on the opening folios of Church records, is ecclesiological. Each individual Congregation (and not the minister only) was invested with the “power of the keys”, which here means the ability to receive and excommunicate members by communal consent. Hence the collective decisions of a Church regarding the admission and expulsion of its members were called “Church-acts”. That is why the Lothbury book, mentioned above, says “Delivery to Satan”, these being the words pronounced in the sentence of excommunication. The business of a Church was generally conducted with both gestural and textual markers, as in the case of a conversion narrative being delivered or the call, or ordination, of a new minister. In 1671, for example, the Church at Bristol, following the death of its pastor Thomas Ewins, “gave a call” to Thomas Hardcastle, creating a long-lasting dispute with his London Church. This “act” was signed by 98 brothers and sisters and was presented to him, but there was a sense that “ye Church’s Call under their hands” was not enough. They needed an even more potent sign: an act in the most physical sense:

  • 23 Bristol, op. cit., p. 132.

And, that withall, to lett him see Visibly that what ye Church had Subscribed and delivered him was their Very Act and deed, ye Church was desired (by one of ye Elders, our Br. Ellis,) to Manifest their Earnest desire by Every Member’s lifting up their Right Hand to ye Lord; Which immediately was done. And that very Act, to see so many score hands lifted up together in a Roome at once, in that Solemne manner to ye Lord, Struck some impress upon Mr. Hardcastle’s Spirit [...]23

22It seems that no effort was spared in this case to convince a reluctant preacher that he should leave his prestigious metropolitan Congregation for the provinces. A Church act was drafted, signed, copied at least twice, and presented to the future pastor. It took effect when the names were signed at the end of the document, testifying to the unanimous consent of the Church, and the decision recorded in the Church book. But in accord with the needs of a society where a common action was still the best testament to a common resolve, the written document was supplemented by a corporate gesture to “impress” and give more visibility to the traces of ink on the page. In this case it succeeded; Hardcastle did come to Bristol, although he was perhaps also encouraged in his decision by a maintenance allowance of £80 per annum. The Church would follow, and even improve upon, the same procedure when calling George Fownes in 1679:

  • 24 Bristol, op. cit, p. 210.

And then [...] that hee might know it was all our unanimous consent and Act, Hee should see ye signe of ye Church which was this:—Every Member presently lift up theire right hands to ye Lord. And soe, ye room being thronged, as it were a Cloud of Naked Hands were Erected towards ye Ceiling of ye Room.24

Historical acts

23The dissenting acts were historical, for generations of Puritans had been raised on John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, whose title recalled how history and biography combined to create a permanent reminder of Christian persecution. Most Church records begin by saying that their acts constitute a “book of rememberance” that will serve generations to come, thus establishing a direct link betwen record-keeping and the writing of history. None put the matter more accurately than the believers in Reading, whose book was “A Book of Remembrance toe kepe in Memory of the things of god that are acted among those that have taken upon ye profession of his name: so yt they may Be able to give an account off all things yt are acted in there”.

  • 25 Bristol, op. cit., p. 92.
  • 26 Bristol, op. cit., p. 139-141, p. 120, 148, 189, 121-122, 124, 181-182.

24Building Church history, however, was more problematic than it seemed when it came to judging which information was best representative of divine providence. With Edward Terrill, at Bristol, we have what is perhaps the best instance of a self-conscious historian engaged in a dialogue with his readers and compelled to select relevant material. His history of Bristol Broadmead Church opens with the Reformation and continues, year by year, from the gathering of the Church in 1640 to 1687. A separate study might well be devoted to Terrill’s digressions, his insertions and his very particular conception of what was deemed worthy of inclusion. Terrill is aware that history proceeding in a chronological manner should be supplemented by personal commentaries, hence his many “Memoranda” necessiting a return to the main narrative: “But to return to our Narrative of ye Lord’s carrying on ye Truth of Separation.”25 Terrill is torn between his aim, which is to produce an objective “demonstration” of events, and his experience as an insider. His account of the persecuted Church in the Restoration shows how the community interacted with the wider world and reveals the pervasive influence of a belief in miracles. There are miraculous cures like the case of John Fry, a “distracted” and raving brother who recovered his wits by the prayer of the Church when “physicall means were used, but all in vaine”. There are also natural phenomena that often seem to lean over into the supernatural, such as shooting stars, an unexpectedly long frost, fire, plague and earthquakes. This is the information that Terril selected to build his history of “God’s leading this Church” and which was deemed as relevant for posterity as the proper mode of ordination of ministers.26

25Other concerns about the matters that a Church book should include are suggested by Isaac Garner, the pastor of Hamsterley and Cold Knowley (County Durham):

  • 27 “1651-1832. Records and Letters Relative to the Baptist Church at Hexham, from Oct 1651 to July 168 (...)

N.B. This Book Came to my hand soon after Bror [William] Carrs Death & I find their has been Omitted writeing any remarkable passages in it, since ye year. 1731./2. It belongs to ye Church of Christ, Baptised on ye Profession of Faith, meeting at Hamsterly & Coldrowly in the County of Durham: & is Desighned for ye Churches Book, wherein ye Minister or Ruleing Elder or Pastor is to set downe some of ye most remarkable Occurrances & Transactions of ye Church, not only for ye more Orderly Observeing of ye things Concluded on for ye time present, but also for ye Direction and Comfort of ye Generations to Come, into whose hands, thro’ ye providence of God, it may fall. Isaac Garner.27

26The collective ownership of the Church book is stressed but history writing was, in the last instance, the responsibility of a single individual who might prove negligent in the performance of his duties. Without exactly blaming his predecessor, Garner recognised that the book he had inherited was incomplete. He wished the Church book to record “remarkable Occurrances & Transactions” and not just the minutes of the monthly meetings. This is because he identified at least two functions for the book: the observation of the Church rule (or “order”) which was all the more necessary since (at least in theory) every Congregation could follow its own practice, and the “Direction and Comfort” of generations to come. Garner’s Church book not only created a precedent for ecclesiastical government, it also assumed a pastoral role. Here is reiterated the dual nature of Church records where the mundane and utilitarian management of Church affairs coexisted with the writing of narratives about the exceptional status and fortunes of the Churches of Christ. The one would have made little sense without the other: there could be no disquisition on a benevolent Providence when the register of members did not show an increase in the number of conversions.

27In his very last sentence, Garner alerts us to the preservation of the Church book into the future through his reference to providence and the use of the modal “it may fall”. Keeping the book was essential in cases of schisms, or indeed any time of crisis, since the pastor, or the faction, who was able to retain the original records could then claim that they were the true Church and that those who had seceded were schismatics. When Thomas Bland of Cambridge seceded from the Church of Joseph Hussey, who had adopted Congregational principles, the latter was able to write his opponent’s death into the Church book using the conventions of popular judgement stories:

  • 28 “Joseph Hussey’s Church Book”, Cambridgeshire Archives, R107/109, n. fol.

[Bland] died speechless, on this Day, Septemb. 25th 1701. his mouth having not been at Liberty for a Day or Two to utter one Word, so this hapned on Thursday our Church-meeting Day, when, as near as cou’d be guess’d, at the Hour of his Departure, we were all taken up in hearing how Choicely God open’d the mouths of about 5 of the six last [people], who spake to our Extraordinary Satisfaction touching God’s saving work upon their souls.28

  • 29 Ilston, op. cit., p. ix.

28The physical ownership of the book was also crucial in times of persecution because its survival testified to the continuing existence of the Church as an entity when the assemblies were broken and the members could not meet. This is the case with the Ilston (Wales) Church book. John Myles, the minister, moved with the Church Book to Plymouth in 1663, suspecting that the Welsh Congregation would not survive the penal legislation and that a new Church would be born in its stead on the more welcoming shores of Massachusetts.29 Here we have a unique case of the physical and spiritual testimony that a book gave, not so much of individual believers as to a “Church” whose existence transcended geographical and temporal boundaries. Where there was a pastor with a book, the spirit survived and could be rekindled.


  • 30 See Davies, op. cit.
  • 31 Anne Dunan-Page, “Letters and records of the dissenting congregations: David Crosley, Cripplegate a (...)

29One way to ensure that records were preserved – and disseminated – was to develop a network of correspondence.30 The Ilston book, to cite only one example, has many letters copied into its “narration”, woven in the fabric of the text, where they add further authority to a particular point. Letters, as I have argued elsewhere, were inserted into Church books because they informed the Churches of the state of the fellowship of believers elsewhere – one of the reasons why the letters of Paul and others survive in the New Testament.31 In 1653, three Baptist Churches wrote to London, hungry for spiritual news, and asked to establish an epistolary network of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Baptist churches. They wished:

  • 32 Ilston, op. cit., p. 67.

to keepe a more revived correspondency with each other by letteres and loveing epistles, the which wee acquainte you with, haueing in the practice heerof found great advantage, not only weakning Satan’s suggestions and jealousyes but it hath begott a close vnion and knitting vpp of heart, and, which is not inferior to the rest, wee are enabled therby feelingly and knowingly to present each other’s wants and conditions before our god in the sence therof, and that wee might bee therby the better enabled to answer our duty towards you, and you towards vs, and beare each other’s burdens, and so fulfilling the righteouse law of Christ in our great and neere relation.32

30This “knitting up of heart” is realised, a few lines later, in a miniature dialogue evoking the internal divisions and losses of children that the godly had to bear, in an echo of popular ballads or “penny merriments”:

  • 33 Ilston, op. cit., p. 69.

Alsoe that [God] would be gratiouse to vs [...] in knowing the sad condition of hearts searching, the heart breakings because of the sore and vncomfortable divisions amongst the redeemed ones, which have their lamentable effects, to the joy and puffing vp of the vncircumcised which cry ‘Ha, ha, soe would wee haue it, did we not say this it would come to ? and ‘Tarry a litle, you shall see these divisions come amongst them all’. Alsoe that the Lord would be gratiouse to vs in acquainting vs with what he speakes to vs in his sore snatching and removeing from vs not only vsefull members in Syon but even our eyes, our hands and our hearts, never to be forgotten young Drapes, deare Consett, pretious Peck, vsefull Saffry, and that in the midst of their dayes and begining of wonderous woorks.33

31This is a kind of writing that conventional accounts of Church books would not lead us to expect, but it is neither anecdotal nor peripheral to the main concerns. It reveals the “comforting” action of dissenting correspondence, first for the benefit of Churches as collective bodies but also for parents, spouses and neighbours who might lose not only the spiritual unity of their godly fellowship but also the physical unity of their family group.

Biographical acts

32It would be wrong to suppose that Church books reveal only collective acts of writing. For the most part, they were compiled by the minister or an elder of the Church, so there is an interplay between personal and collective history, as between personal and collective ownership of the book. Indeed, the books are a site of competition between the Church and the minister as “cornerstones” of the volume as providential monument.

  • 34 Axminster, op. cit., p. 43.
  • 35 Axminster, op. cit, p. 49.

33A substantial portion of the Axminster book, for example, is dedicated to its first pastor, Bartholomew Ashwood, and especially to his bouts of illness. These provided occasions to instruct and caution the Church, his teaching being “Written from [his] mouth” by dictation to an elder “who used frequently to write for him”. In 1672, Ashwood fell seriously ill again and “received a message from the Lord […] for he was like a vessel full, ready to vent itself.”34 On that occasion, he dictated eleven paragraphs urging his Church to repent and ask pardon for the calamities then befalling them. Ashwood also took this opportunity to rewrite a version of the Church Covenant. His outpourings were accompanied by immediate action: the message was first imparted to members of the Church who were waiting in an adjacent room, then sent to Axminster where the elders convened a Church assembly to read the epistle and renew the Covenant, “All which was performed accordingly, and managed with great solemnity, in the meeting house at WYKECROFT [Weycroft].”35 The Church book here not only evokes the literary conventions of early-modern death-bed scenes but records acts of speaking, dictating, copying and transmitting until the words are finally acted upon and sealed by the assembled Church, each member putting his or her signature or mark on the renewed Covenant.

  • 36 “Coningsby and Tattershall, 1654-1728”, Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, fol. 13.
  • 37 See the doctoral thesis of Ana Paula Barros, “Les vivants à l’épreuve du deuil. Discours théoriques (...)

34Eulogies are not rare in Church books, especially those compiled during the Restoration when the courage of the ministers was deemed to be exemplary and (shades of Fox) a testament to the endurance of nonconformity and its martyrs. In Lincolnshire, in 1670, upon the death of John Lupton, a short elegiac poem was inserted in the Church Book.36 Other eulogies were turned into miniature biographies reminiscent of Puritan funeral sermons, emphasising the spiritual worth of the deceased while encouraging the mourners to be steadfast and wary that overwhelming grief had its dangers.37 This is how the Church at Wattisfield remembered its minister, Edmund Whincop, after his death in 1687:

  • 38 « Wattisfield Church Book”, “Wattisfield United Reformed Church 1654-2004”, Suffolk County Record O (...)

[having] served in humility of spirit, wth tears & temptations, in contending for the faith [he] at length entred into rest and receives the Crown from the Chief Shepherd He died at Norton in Norflc whether he removed his Dwelling to avoid Persecution Having been often sum[m]oned to Assizes and sessions, and under the Bond of the Behaviour, and exposed to other Inconveniencies much prejudicial to his health and the free exercise of his Ministry He retired anot into another County, abt 4 miles distant, in Norton aforenamed where he resided abt 4 years for the better safety of his person yet failed not by night & day to attend the work of his Ministry wherein he spent his strength and ended his days, beloved & respected of all endeared to his Church, whose loss is so much the greater as there Harvest is great and the Labourers are few [...]38

  • 39 Bristol, op. cit., p. 126, 203.
  • 40 Bristol, op. cit., p. 101, 197. See also for short elegies, Bury St Edmunds, op.cit., fol. 5r (Henr (...)

35Edward Terrill was also keen to write death-bed scenes and obituaries, accompanied by the choice sayings of the dying including not only ministers, such as Thomas Ewins in 1670 and Thomas Hardcastle in 1678,39 but also notable members of the Congregation. They include “a Blackymore maide, named Francis” and even a Brother Robert Simpson whose main achievement, previous to an exemplary death, seems to have been that “Hee could read ye smallest printed Bibles without spectacles.”40 The seventeenth-century Church records imitate the exemplary lives and deaths of saints that had been the staple of Puritan literature since the Reformation. Writers such as Terrill did not renew generic conventions, but they were determined to pack their records with a variety of literary and godly discourses with which their readers would be familiar. In doing so, they created multifarious documents, often strikingly original in their negotiations with both Biblical and Reformed precedents.

36Another recorder attentive to biography was the above-mentioned Isaac Garner, who recorded spiritual accounts of his predecessors, William Carr and Michael Wharton:

  • 41 Hamsterly, op.cit., fol. 23.

Michael Wharton was brought up in ye National Way & as I have heard him speak when ye Lord first began to work in his soul he went from place to place in ye Church of England (as ‘tis Called) to try if he could find any satisfaction from yt Ministry but all in Vain. By providence he met with a book of John Bunyans Publishing He enquired of ye Person with whome it was if he knew where there were any such preachers as he had been who had writ yt Book. Ye person replyed at Bichburn there were some people of ye same Denomination with ye Writer of yt Book—ye enquirer soon repaire’d thither. At first time he was disspointed there being no Meeting there on yt Day: but ye next Opportunity, he found his own Case described, heard ye Doctrine of Christ, and received a Blessing […]41

37Garner clearly believed his role was not only to record the monthly proceedings of the Church but also to chronicle the developments of Baptist principles in his village. His story follows the exemplary pattern of many conversion narratives: a parishioner is first awakened, the Lord “working” on his soul; he then experiences a period of spiritual and sometimes geographical and social exile, then finally lights “by providence” on God’s instruments which may take the form of a meeting, a sermon or in this case an unamed book by John Bunyan. This prompts him to seek a nearby gathered Church in which he could immediately recognise his own story: “he found his own Case described”. Such biographical fragments, of which they are many in the manuscript Church books, are part of a rich contemporary culture of life-writing. They may seem rather formulaic, and yet the very pattern they describe was necessary to instil that sense of “recognition” among believers whose doubts had led to denominational confusion and a misleading sense of spiritual isolation.

  • 42 See A. G. Matthews, Diary of a Cambridge Minister, Cambridge, Emmanuel Congregational Church, 1937, (...)

38My last example is Joseph Hussey, from Cambridge, with whom we move from biography to autobiography. Commentators have failed to reflect upon the nature of his so-called “diary”42 which was only recently deposited in the Cambridgeshire Archives by Emmanuel United Reformed Church:

  • 43 Hussey, op. cit., n. fol.

A Church-Book kept for my own Private Use, to register many Incidental Things; and especially my Preaching, Baptizing, and administering the Lord’s Supper: together with a Register of the Names of my Pastoral Flock in Cambridge, from the year 1691. when they first called me to office, and on to the year 1719. written with my own Hand: and attested by Me Joseph Hussey.43

  • 44 Elizabeth W. Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre, Baltimore an (...)

39Material such as this, mostly little known, is of prime value for the history of early-modern biographical writing. We find Church records under the form of “notebooks” or “diaries”, kept for the “Own Private Use” of ministers, in which the collective history of a Congregation and the biography of its pastor combine to create a hybrid document or “autobiographical act”, to paraphrase a title by Elizabeth Bruss who long ago drew attention to autobiography as act rather than form.44 These writings reveal the generic complexity of life-writing in this period and encourage us us to reassess some basic assumptions about Congregationalism.

40In Hussey’s Congregation, the minister was allowed to enter the records unsupervised, to keep the book in his private study and to weave into it elements that traditionally belonged to a spiritual diary. The lack of any clear conceptual distinction between private and collective ownership of a Church book is one indication, among others, that the relationship between the laity and the ministry in gathered Churches could profitably be reappraised in the light of manuscript evidence.

41In 1719, Hussey’s personal rule suffered a blow. The announcement that he was about to leave Cambridge for London caused an uproar in the Church:

  • 45 Hussey, op. cit., n. fol.

In the Afternoon One was so bold & disorderly as to appoint an Open and mix’d meeting [i.e. open to non-members of the Church] the Thurday next: I immediately forbad it, and told the People I should not be there. upon that half a Dozen loudly proclaim’d it; one of the Deacons charg’d the People to come, & ye rest of yr Party roar’d out tumultuously, a Meeting! a Meeting! I was silent, descended the Pulpit and withdrew.45

42The passage pitches the impassionate deacons against the sober minister, the shouting congregation against the silent and solitary pastor draped in his ministerial dignity. But victory was on the side of the writer, for Hussey was the sole guardian of the records. The people remain as silent as poor Thomas Bland who, as seen above, had been struck dumb in Cambridge by the hand of God.


43The writing of Church records was a potent act for the compilers who modelled their writings on many literary forms, from the gospels to the Protestant martyrologists, from the Calvinist divines to the Puritan diarists, from the popular writers of judgement stories to biographers, autobiographers and letter writers. Through personal and communal histories, these men attempted to create a physical and permanent “monument” that traced the fortunes of the Churches of Christ, their missionary successes and the dire times of persecution, imitating the Apostles, whose Acts served as models for Congregationalism. 44. Since believers were convinced that the acts of God and the acts of the children of God should not pass unnoticed, theirs was a culture where the maintenance of the Church book became an act of faith akin to the keeping of a spiritual diary. It was one in which at least four duties were interwoven: a duty towards God; towards one’s Church and its members; towards the fellowship of the gathered Churches, and towards the generations to come. The results are hardly homogenous, with account books, registers of members and minutes at one end of the spectrum and spiritual correspondence, narratives of controversies, and biographies at the other. I have argued that this juxtaposition of different genres within the same document was part of a self-conscious reflection on the writing of Church history. This history combined lists of members, decisions, dates, elections and ordinations to build a providential monument, materialising the increase of the Church and giving proofs on which narratives could subsequently be built. For reasons linked to varying fortunes of denominational history in Britain, scholars have tended to separate the many constitutive elements of the Church records along the lines of modern academic specialisms, often implying that there is nothing in the books but the dry exposition of Congregational ecclesiology. These biased acts of reading have prevented access to an untapped wealth of writing that is just beginning to emerge in the study of early modern dissenting literary culture.

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1 The Axminster Ecclesiastica (1660-1698), ed. K. W. H. Howard, Ossett, Gospel Tidings Publications, 1976, p. 1. For extracts from the 1874 edition, see W. MacDonald Wigfield, “Ecclesiastica, The Book of Remembrance of the Independent Congregation of Axminster and Chard, and their part in the Monmouth Rebellion”, Somerset Archaeology and Natural History, 119, 1974-1975, p. 51-55.

2 Allan Brockett, Nonconformity in Exeter, 1650-1875, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1962, p. 21. The figure is from A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised (1934).

3 Brokett, op. cit., p. 11-14, 19.

4 Susanna Parr, Susanna’s Apologie Against the Elders, London, 1659. On Parr, see Patricia Crawford, Women and Religion in England 1500-1720, 1993, London and New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 152-159, Karen O’Dell Bullock, “Parr, Susanna (fl. 1650-1659)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. [, accessed 22 Nov 2011].

5 Records of the Churches of Christ, Gathered at Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, 1644-1720, ed. Edward Bean Underhill, London, The Hanserd Knollys Society, 1854, Some Early Nonconformist Church Books, ed. H.G. Tibbutt, Bedfordshire Historical Society, 1972, The Minutes of the First Independent Church (now Bunyan Meeting) at Bedford, 1656-1766, ed. H. G. Tibbutt, Bedfordshire Historical Society, 1976, The Records of a Church of Christ Meeting in Bristol, 1640-1687, ed. Roger Hayden, Bristol Record Society, 1974, The Ilston Book: Earliest Register of Welsh Baptists, ed. B. G. Owens, Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, 1996. For an excellent recent study, see Joel Halcomb, “A Social History of Congregational Religious Practice during the Puritan Revolution”, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2010. See also Susan Hardman Moore, Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007 and Michael Davies’s seminal article, “Spirit in the Letters: John Bunyan’s Congregational Epistles”, Seventeenth Century, 25 (2), 2009, p. 323-360. For Church books in colonial America, see James Cooper, Tenacious of their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

6 Axminster, op. cit., p. 2.

7 Very selectively, for science and literature, see Brian Vickers, “The Royal Society and English Prose Style”, in Brian Vickers and Nancy S. Struever, Rhetoric and the Pursuit of Truth: Language Change in the Seventeenth and Eghteenth Centuries, Los Angeles, The University of California Press, 1985, Peter Dear, “Totius in verba: Rhetoric and Authority in the Early Royal Society”, Isis, 76 (2), 1985, p. 145-161, Elizabeth Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580-1670, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, Claire Preston, Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, and for travel narratives, Jean Viviès, English Travel Narratives in the Eighteenth Century, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2002.

8 Elizabeth Clarke, “‘The Glorious Lover’: Baptist Literature and the Bride of Christ”, Baptist Quarterly, 43, 2010, p. 452-472.

9 Axminster, op.cit., p. 11.

10 Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, op. cit., p. 289.

11 “First Minute Book, Congregational Church, Whiting Street, 1646-1801”, Suffolk County Record Office, Bury St Edmunds, FK3502/1, fol. 170v-171v.

12 Axminster, op. cit., p. 8.

13 Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, op. cit., p. 267-268.

14 Ilston, op. cit., p. 31.

15 Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, op. cit., p. 267.

16 Ilston, op. cit., p. 31.

17 Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D828, fol. 3.

18 “The Church Book att Covent Garden Anno: 1691 to Anno: 1699”, Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, fol. 4.

19 The Church Book of Bunyan Meeting 1650-1821, facsimile ed. by G. B. Harrison, London, Dent, 1928 [fol. 1A].

20 Oxford English Dictionary, sv Act, n. sense 5a.

21 Bristol, op. cit., p. 138. For an interpretation of the early Christian household as such “a complex amalgam of spaces and lives”, see Christopher Page, The Christian West and Its Singers. The First Thousand Years, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2010, p. 34-37.

22 Hanserd Knollys, A Moderate Answer vnto Dr Bastvvicks Book; Called Independency not Gods Ordinancy, London, 1645, p. 19-20.

23 Bristol, op. cit., p. 132.

24 Bristol, op. cit, p. 210.

25 Bristol, op. cit., p. 92.

26 Bristol, op. cit., p. 139-141, p. 120, 148, 189, 121-122, 124, 181-182.

27 “1651-1832. Records and Letters Relative to the Baptist Church at Hexham, from Oct 1651 to July 1680. Followed by Records of the Church at Hamsterly in the County of Durham”, Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, fol. 17.

28 “Joseph Hussey’s Church Book”, Cambridgeshire Archives, R107/109, n. fol.

29 Ilston, op. cit., p. ix.

30 See Davies, op. cit.

31 Anne Dunan-Page, “Letters and records of the dissenting congregations: David Crosley, Cripplegate and Baptist Church life”, in Anne Dunan-Page and Clotilde Prunier (eds), Debating the Faith: Religion and Letter Writing in Great Britain, 1550-1800, International Archives of the History of Ideas, Dordrecht, Springer, 2012, forthcoming.

32 Ilston, op. cit., p. 67.

33 Ilston, op. cit., p. 69.

34 Axminster, op. cit., p. 43.

35 Axminster, op. cit, p. 49.

36 “Coningsby and Tattershall, 1654-1728”, Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, fol. 13.

37 See the doctoral thesis of Ana Paula Barros, “Les vivants à l’épreuve du deuil. Discours théoriques et écrits de circonstance en Angleterre, c.1550-1640”, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier III, 2007.

38 « Wattisfield Church Book”, “Wattisfield United Reformed Church 1654-2004”, Suffolk County Record Office (Bury St Edmunds) 13465/FK3519, fol. 20.

39 Bristol, op. cit., p. 126, 203.

40 Bristol, op. cit., p. 101, 197. See also for short elegies, Bury St Edmunds, op.cit., fol. 5r (Henry Farrow), 65r (John Bowers), 66r (James Grundey), 67v (Martha Watey), 82r (John Head).

41 Hamsterly, op.cit., fol. 23.

42 See A. G. Matthews, Diary of a Cambridge Minister, Cambridge, Emmanuel Congregational Church, 1937, Peter Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, 1689-1797, London, Olive Tree, 1976, p. 70-85 and Geoffrey Nuttall, “Cambridge Nonconformity, 1660-1710: From Holcroft to Hussey”, Journal of The United Reformed Church History Society, 1 (9), 1977, p. 241-258.

43 Hussey, op. cit., n. fol.

44 Elizabeth W. Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre, Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. See especially p. 1-32.

45 Hussey, op. cit., n. fol.

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Anne Dunan-Page, « Writing “things ecclesiastical”: the literary Acts of the gathered Churches », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 21 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2012, consulté le 15 septembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.417

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Anne Dunan-Page

Anne Dunan-Page est Professeur de littérature et de civilisation britanniques à Aix-Marseille Université, membre de l’Institut Universitaire de France, et directrice adjointe du Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone (E.A. 853). Elle est l’auteur de Grace Overwhelming: John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Extremes of the Baptist Mind (2006) et a notamment dirigé Roger L’Estrange and the Making of Restoration Culture (2008, avec Beth Lynch) et The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan (2010). Elle co-édite actuellement avec Andrew Zurcher la correspondance de Sir Thomas Browne dans le cadre des œuvres complètes à paraître chez Oxford University Press.

Anne Dunan-Page is Professor of Early-Modern Studies at Aix-Marseille University, where is is Vice-Director of the Research Centre on the English-Speaking World, and a Fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. She is the author of Grace Overwhelming: John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Extremes of the Baptist Mind (2006) and has recently edited Roger L’Estrange and Restoration Culture (2008, with Beth Lynch) and The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan (2010). She is currently co-editing, with Andrew Zurcher, the correspondence of Sir Thomas Browne for the complete works contracted by Oxford University Press.

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