Major research projects such as the Dissenting Academies Project at the Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, and the Reading Experience Database, have recently alerted us to the importance of book owership and book circulation in dissenting circles. It may be surprising to find information in the records and minutes of gathered Churches, but these manuscripts contain evidence relevant to scholars of literature, and they can afford a glimpse of the reading habits, the intellectual horizons, and the spare funds of the dissenting communities. There are at least four possible areas for investigation, as illustrated by the following four short examples:
1- Distribution of books
Baptist Churches purchased books thanks to donations from members, benefactors, and their common funds. In the Barbican Church, in Paul’s Alley, there was a ‘Library’, a multi-purposed room where not only books, but also important documents (such as letters of the Associations) were kept, where auditing the yearly accounts was conducted, as well as ‘exercising’ of gifts (Paul’s Alley, fol. 106, 147, 163, 173). In October 1706, the Church decided that there should be a committee ‘to Examine ye Deacons Accounts & also whether all ye Bookes are in ye Library’ (Paul’s Alley, fol. 120). When, in November 1709, the Baptist ministers meeting at Norwich Coffee House, in Threadneedle Street, announced their intention to ‘erect a publick Library out of ye Fund design’d for bringing up Persons for ye Ministry', Paul’s Alley immediately proposed the use of its building to that effect (Paul’s Alley, fol. 142).
Books were often distributed to targeted members of the community, most of whom candidates to the Baptist ministry. On 28th June 1692, the first Church book of the congregation meeting in Old Gravel (1676-1711) states ‘Att the same time ther was three pounds worthe of books disposed unto seuerall younge bretheren in the congregation and aboute 12 months agoe ther was six pound giuen to other bretheren for books’ (Wapping CB, fol. 53), and the respective lists are given.
2- Churches' Libraries and Catalogues
As far as I amaware, not many lists of books have survived in the records of smaller, non-metropolitan congregation. Wapping is one example, and another one is to be found in the Church records of Hexham and Hamsterley, at the Angus Library and Archive, Regent’s Park College, Oxford. ‘Aug. 26. 1717. A Catalouge of books given me by Jo. Ward of Calffall’ is an annotated (and truncated) list of 34 books which does not seem to have been examined and does require an exhaustive enquiry.
3- Churches’ sale of books
Not content with owning and distributing books, the Baptists also organised book sales in their meeting houses. In the 1690s, in White’s Alley (General) Baptist congregation, in Moorfield, it was the practice to display books, on the communion table, for sale to members and hearers. It seems that the titles first had to be approved by the then minister, Joseph Taylor, before being put out for sale. Some titles are more easily identified than others, but they reflect a broad range of interest: conduct books for parents and children, funeral sermons, and the ubiquitous anti-Quaker and anti-Catholic propaganda. The ones identified below are short publications, quartos of between 8 and 28 pages. The sale might have been a popular practice in the mid-1690s since the first Church book (1681-1700) records it happening on four separate occasions, about once a year:
- in November 1695 ‘Bro. Cooper Book of Kent his Book of Advice to Parents & Children may be laid vpon ye Table in order to ye sale of them’ (White’s Alley CB, Fol. 133r), the plural suggesting there might have been more than one copy;
- in November 1696 were sold ‘som of those Bookes written by Bro: Stanly being a funerall discourse on occasion of [deleted word Reve ? replaced with] the Death of Bro: Will: Reve’ (White’s Alley CB, Fol. 149r), that is, A sermon preach’d at the funeral of Mr. William Reeve, a minister of Christ and servant to the churches...London, 1696, Wing S5235. Again, the plural might indicate several copies;
- in April 1698 were sold two titles, ‘a litle book of Baptisme...likewise a book ag[ain]st ye Quakers writt by a country friend’ (White’s Alley CB, Fol. 169r), the latter perhaps being W. D., A Letter from a gentleman in the country to his friend at London concerning a conference between some clergy-men...and some Quakers [London], 1698, Wing D97;
- in June 1699 ‘a Booke Called Mr pillkintons Recantation’ (White’s Alley CB, fol. 186r), that is John Piggott, An Account of Mr. John Pilkington’s public recantation of the errors of the Romish Church, London, 1699, Wing P220.
4- The Churches as Publishing Sponsors