4. What Did Seventeenth-Century Dissenters Call Themselves? (Mark Burden)

At the Dissenting Experience conference on ‘Scandal, Controversy, Persecution: Shaping Dissenting Identities’ at Dr Williams’s Library (14 November 2015), John Coffey delivered a paper in which he examined why seventeenth-century Baptists appear to have used the label ‘Baptist’ so rarely (‘Names, Sects, Parties: The Problem of Denominational Labelling 1640-1672’). The paper produced some lively conversation, during which the panellists and audience discussed the difficulty all nonconformists and dissenters faced when adopting labels (such as ‘Puritan’ and ‘Baptist’) which, when used by their enemies, were intended as insults. Much more work is required before we can gain a clear sense of the self-fashioning of dissenting congregations in the later Stuart period, although there is no doubting the frequency with which dissenters used the phrases ‘the church of Christ’ and ‘Baptized Believers’ to describe congregations which we would now consider to be ‘Baptists’. Nevertheless, it has become something of a truism in recent studies of late seventeenth-century dissent to speak of the ‘fluidity’ of church governance or the ‘mixed’ communion of gathered churches. The danger of this view is that it can sometimes tread perilously close to the absurd position that there were no differences between rival dissenting congregations on matters of government or theology; less absurd, but equally perplexing, would be to speak as if the members of these churches were not aware of the differences at stake, or just did not really care very much about these differences. Such assertions obviously cannot be made purely on the basis of the names the churches gave themselves. Perhaps we should not only be asking whether all so-called ‘moderate’ Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist churches were essentially the same, or even whether the ‘moderates’ were ‘moderate’; instead, perhaps we could follow Coffey in asking, more simply, what did late seventeenth-century congregations call themselves?

Some evidence on this question has recently come to light following a survey which I have undertaken of 103 dissenting church books and registers in The National Archives; all of these manuscripts contain at least some materials dated 1714 or earlier. Of the 26 manuscripts which name the congregation on the cover, title page, or first heading of the text, only one uses the word ‘Congregational’ in its title (referring to ‘the Congregational Church in Norwich’), and only one church is labelled ‘Baptist’ at the front of the book (‘the Baptist Congregation in Cirencester’); the Eignbrook church in Herefordshire is the only one to feature the designation ‘Independent’, and the word ‘Presbyterian’ does not feature once in manuscript titles or early headings. Instead, one of the most popular terms to describe the association of worshippers was simply ‘Congregation’, a word which appears at or near the start of 8 of the 26 manuscripts selected. Two congregations in Sheffield and Debenham chose the label ‘Protestant Dissenters’, and the Portsmouth Presbyterians later described themselves as the ‘Dissenting Congregation’, although this title was probably added to the manuscript c.1779. Another designation (featured in 5 titles) was ‘Meeting’ (referring to a congregation), ‘meeting Place’ (referring to a site of worship) or the more formal term ‘Meeting-House’, which had a clearer basis in law following the Toleration Act. The congregations at Salisbury, Tavistock, Whitchurch, and Eignbrook all chose to refer to their ‘Chapel’ in the manuscript title, while the congregations at Rookwood Hall, Deal, Orpington, Norwich, Rowell, and Haverfordwest were content to use the word ‘Church’; the dissenters of Romansgate and Ipswich called themselves ‘the Christian Society’ and ‘the Society’ respectively. The designation ‘Church of Christ’ appears in the title of the Rookwood Hall document, and the Orpington church used a more complicated variant: ‘the Church or Congregation of the Saintes of god in Jesus Christ’. One group at Gosberton used the common designation ‘Congregation of Baptised Belevers’, but many other congregations gave no indication of their denomination in the titles given to their church books and registers. The most common means to describe the church was according to its location, which could be a named chapel (such as the later designation ‘Pauls Meeting Taunton’), a town or city (such as Portsmouth or Sheffield), or an area within a city (such as ‘the Fryers in Canterbury’ or ‘ye Congregation At Bethnal Green’). Another popular identifying phrase was the name of the pastor (‘M.r Hughes his Congregation’), who sometimes possessed the manuscript and might simply refer to ‘ye Congregation to w.ch I stand related’.

Despite this wealth of evidence, looking at the titles of manuscripts alone is an inadequate way to ascertain how churches described themselves. For reasons of space I shall not now consider Presbyterian and Congregational manuscripts in detail, but I shall briefly examine the contents of thirteen later Stuart Baptist church books in the Angus Library at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. In several of these church books, the members clearly preferred to use particular forms of words to describe themselves. In some cases, this form reflected ongoing debates about their identity, but in other cases it was probably little more than a customary shorthand. The Baptists at Cripplegate most frequently just called themselves ‘the Church’, a phrase which functions perfectly adequately in a private book of minutes of church meetings. The Tattershall Baptists preferred the phrase ‘Baptized Beleivers’, while the Maze Pond church became known as simply ‘The Church at the Maze Pond’. Frequent changes in the location of the Porton/Broughton Baptists led to the syntactically ambiguous phrase ‘the Church meeting at . . .’ becoming their chosen self-identifier, although they were also happy to be known as ‘Saints according to ye Gospell of or Lord’. A similar phrase appears frequently in the church book of the Hexham Baptists, and another variation was adopted intermittently by the Tottlebank Baptists, who saw themselves as ‘a com~union of saints in the world not onlly as united to Christ’. Church officials could also address their congregations in familial terms: the pastor at Hexham addressed his followers as ‘my best beloved Brethren in ye Lord’, and ‘my wellbeloved Brethren’. Other correspondence was addressed to ‘our dearly beloved Brethren & Sisters walking in Communion’, or to ‘those Holy Societys walking in Brotherly Communion, under ye vigilant guide of faithfull overseers’.

Evidence of Baptist self-definition, very often retrospective, may also be found in the Regent’s Park Church books, which record several narratives Baptist congregations told each other about their origins. The Bampton Baptists, upon their formal organisation into a church, wrote that their purpose was ‘to meantain his worship in its order and purity as may be aggreable to his Will and acceptable in his sight which is the thing aimed att by a remnent of his people in assuming to themselves the name of a Church of Christ’. They also called themselves ‘the People of God’ and ‘the Company of Christs ffreinds’. The Hexham Baptists stated poetically that upon their formation ‘A living Temple began of these Living stones’. One group of Lincolnshire Baptists, upon purchasing a blank church book, described its function as ‘to kepe in memory such thinges as are of much Consernment and of spetiall note hapninge to the baptised people and Churchis in Lincolneshire and in spectiall for and belonginge to the Congregation at Consby and Tattershall’. Taken together, these three examples suggest that a sense of being separate and special (two closely related words in the seventeenth century) was very important to early Baptist identity.

It was in their communion with Christ that Baptists, like many other nonconformists, saw their separateness, and they often contrasted this to the perceived prevalence of legal preachers and worshippers in the Church of England. In their letters to each other, Baptist churches commonly adopted the phrase ‘the Church of Christ’ or a slight variant, such as ‘The Church of jesus Christ’, the ‘Church of our blessed Lord’, or ‘ye Church of ye Gospell [of] christ’. The plural was also possible, either to refer to a group of ‘Churches of Christ’, or even ‘all the Churches of Christ’. On other occasions, letters were simply addressed to or from the ‘Church’. When dissenting correspondents wished to convey a sense of collaboration they could use the phrase ‘Sister Church’; when, as in London, there was perceived to be a close network of congregations, the plural ‘Sister Churches’ could be adopted. On several occasions, the same page of a Baptist minute book mentions both the ‘Church of Christ’ and the ‘Church of England’, and in such circumstances the sharpness of the implied distinction between a congregation of believers and an institution of the state is particularly hard to ignore. Sometimes, however, it was also necessary for Baptists to indicate sympathy with another church’s principles of theology or church government; for this purpose the Baptist church at Cripplegate used the phrases ‘Churches yt are sound in faith’, churches ‘of ye same faith & order’, or a church of ‘ye same body wth you of wch Christ is ye head’. If the Cripplegate church wished to be more precise about points of agreement, they referred to churches ‘ow^neing Beleivers baptisme’, churches ‘baptized on ye profession of faith’, or ‘ye baptized Ch of Christ’. The Smarden Baptists drew on much of this shared language when they described themselves (without any concern for brevity) as ‘the Church of Jesus Christ Meeting in and about Smarden and Staplehurst owning and believing the Doctrine of believers Baptism as absolutly Necessary to Church Communion according to the Scripture’. However, other terms with a wide currency in 21st-century scholarship, such as ‘Particular Baptist’ and ‘General Baptist’, do not appear with any frequency in the records. Instead of using the phrase ‘Particular Baptist’, the Cripplegate church sought to recommend its members ‘To any of or Sister Churches in london of ye baptized persuasion holding ye doctrine of election ^and the Saints final perseverance’. Alternatively, churches which we could now tend to describe as General Baptist are referred to in the Smarden church book as ‘Churches who own [the] Doctrine of universall Redemtion’.

However, it would be wrong to assume that the word ‘Baptist’ was never used by self-styled ‘baptized believers’. There are at least three unambiguous example of the word ‘Baptist’ appearing in the thirteen church books surveyed for this blog. One such case dates from 1704, when the Paul’s Alley church recorded a discussion in which the London Association (here also described as an ‘Assembly’) was informed that ‘there are several persons who call themselves Baptists and meet at Winchester House near St Mary Overy’s Dock in Southwark who pretend to have form’d themselves into a Church of Ch.t different from ye baptiz’d Chs of London’. These Winchester House Baptists were, according to the Paul’s Alley church record, ‘compos’d chiefly (if not only) of persons who [received] the Censure or dealing of some Ch.s or after a disorderly Manner with[drew them]selves from sundry Ch.s in this Association and from other Baptiz’d Ch.s’; in the opinion of the Paul’s Alley church, and probably of the Association, ‘ye persons meeting at Winchester House are not, nor ought to be esteem[ed or] own’d as a Ch. of Christ.’ It is tempting to dismiss this choice of language as merely a further instance of the term ‘Baptist’ being used as a derogatory term, albeit by one ‘Baptist’ church in relation to another. However, on the very next page, written in the same year, the book also refers in less inflammatory terms to ‘ye Associated Baptist Ch.s at Bristol’. Furthermore, the first church book of the Lincoln’s Inn congregation reveals that London Baptists were discussing ‘Proposalls for the Settleing of a Baptist Meeting in the westerne parts of the Suburbs of London’ as early as 1691. It is, then, quite conceivable that – at the same time that they were developing a complex and sophisticated collegiate language with which to describe themselves – late seventeenth-century dissenters were not averse to using their enemies’ titles and slogans, both as informal shorthand descriptors and (more rarely) in official minutes. Also suggestive is the obvious similarity in spelling and sound between the (generally preferred) word ‘baptized’ and the (much riskier) term ‘Baptist’. As time drew on, this thin shade of orthographic difference belied what had once been a very significant semantic opposition. We are left, then, with a paradox – dissenters did understand (and they did care about) the significance of rival terms which could be used to describe their congregations; but they were also aware of the instability of these terms, and increasingly came to recognise that the choice of any form of words could be separated from the intent (spiritual or otherwise) with which those words were used.

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