6. Sabbatarianism, Literary Form, and the Lothbury Square Church Book, 1652-4 (Mark Burden)

Debates about the relationship between Baptist doctrines, church practices, and literary forms have tended to centre around key texts such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and have often been expressed in rather blunt and monolithic terms, as if all Baptists had the same views on allegory, plan speech, and Scriptural language. By contrast, it has been assumed that Baptist church books largely lack literary merit, and are better viewed as documents integral to the process of denominational formation, be that for Particular Baptists, General Baptists, or Sabbatarian (seventh-day) churches. The church book of the Lothbury Square congregation in Moorgate, London, 1652-4 (Bodleian Library Rawlinson MS D.828) provides a challenge to both views. In modern scholarship it is usually described as the More-Chamberlen church after its successive pastors, John More and Peter Chamberlen; the former is perhaps best known as the author of an incendiary political interpretation of Daniel 7 (A Trumpet Sounded, 1654), whereas the latter was a distinguished royal physician, a Sabbatarian, and a writer of several pamphlets on medicine and religion. The congregation also had close connections with other Calvinist Congregational and Baptist churches, including Nathaniel Robinson’s church in Southampton and Henry Jessey’s church in London.

The origins of the Lothbury Square congregation are unknown, but by 1653 it was meeting on a regular basis and had adopted doctrines which we would now describe as Particular Baptist. As was the case for several other churches of the period, the intensity of debate among members over positions of doctrine and church government made the congregation prone to splits. By the end of 1653 it had already divided into two churches, one headed by More and Chamberlen and the other by Thomas Roswell, who was later the author of a short anti-Quaker tract, An Answer unto Thirty Quæries (1656). In January 1654 the More-Chamberlen faction was again on the verge of splitting, and among the formal proposals discussed at that time was the withdrawal of Chamberlen from the church. In the end, however, after a series of acrimonious disputes between More and Chamberlen, it was More who withdrew, and a note near the back of the church book records that by 30 April he and his chief ally (the French Protestant and Doctor of Medicine Theodore Naudin) had ‘falne away’ for the congregation completely. Chamberlen’s irascibility and the entrenched and colliding dogmatism of several other church members caused a further series of departures from the church at around the same time, and the church appears to have folded by late 1654. Chamberlen nevertheless remained active as a Baptist pastor in London in connection with other churches until his death in 1683; Bryan Ball has also noted resemblances between the membership role of the More-Chamberlen congregation in 1653 and the Sabbatarian congregation at Mill Yard, London in 1673, connections which he attributes in part to Chamberlen’s influence (Ball, Seventh-Day Men, p. 81).

The Lothbury Square church has been the object of considerable scholarly discussion since a series of essays on its members and records were published in the Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society (TBHS) between 1910 and 1913. The debate started when J. W. Thirtle published pair of articles in which he assumed that the church, like Chamberlen, was Sabbatarian; this claim was also revived by Ball in 1994, but is not convincing. The main piece of evidence which Thirtle used for his argument is a statement on Chamberlen’s tombstone that he kept ‘ye 7th day for ye saboth above 32 years’, i.e. since before December 1651 (TBHS 2:1-30, 110-17). However, the reliability of this claim was swiftly cast in doubt by his fellow Baptist historian Champlin Burrage, who substantially increased scholars’ knowledge of Chamberlen’s religious activities by printing a partial transcript of the Lothbury Square church book (TBHS 2:129-60). Burrage found no evidence that the church held any meetings on Saturdays, and plenty of evidence that they were held on other days. Close study of the church book confirms Burrage’s counter-claim: eighteen recorded meetings occurred on Sunday, while there are records of two meetings on Monday, six meetings on Tuesday, one on a Wednesday, two on a Thursday, one on a Friday, and none on a Saturday. Given the intellectual headiness and fluidity of the early 1650s, it would hardly be surprising if this church’s practices did not follow the Sabbatarian proclivities of its pastor; the Lothbury Square congregation had enough problems holding together without Chamberlen attempting to persuade them of the necessity of Sabbatarian practices. Regrettably for historians of seventh-day worship, the earliest records of Sabbatarian beliefs must be sought elsewhere.

The misguided critical attempts to view the Lothbury Square congregation as one of the earliest records of a Sabbatarian church have led to several other striking misconceptions and lacunae in our knowledge of the church book. Burrage’s partial transcript of the manuscript provided an important contribution to early twentieth-century scholarship about the development of Chamberlen’s thought and the history of the congregation, but it left much to be desired by the standards of twenty-first century diplomatic transcription. Burrage’s particular interest was in the disputes between More and Chamberlen and – as his editorial title suggests, referring to the writings of the early separatist Robert Browne – his edition of the church manuscript is primarily designed to tell the story of ‘the Gathering and Ioining Together of Certain Persons . . . and also of the lamentable breach and division which fell amongst them’ (TBHS 2:129). As a consequence, Burrage was less interested in aspects of the records which would now strike many historians as being of equal value, including its manifold references to the words and acts of women, and its complicated and uneasy dealings with Christianised Jews. For this reason, a new description and analysis of the manuscript is necessary. In this blog I shall present a summary of the contents of the church book and re-examine its literary significance; in a future blog I shall explore what the manuscript can tell us about the lives of some of its less well-known members, including women and reformed Jews.

Firstly, I present a brief calendar of the book, as follows:

MS page numbers(Bod. Lib. Rawl. MS D.828) Description Printed page numbers in Burrage’s transcription, TBHS 2 (1910): 129-60
p. 3 Page headed ‘1652 | London | [Sunday] Aug~ ye 22.th | Acts of the Church.’ but actually containing biblical references on various topics Omitted
p. 5 Acts of [Wednesday] 15 and [Thursday] 16 December 1652 pp. 132-3
pp. 7-8 Document (1): Letter from Nath: Robinson, Hampshire, 19 June 1653, to Hen: Jesse[y] at his house in Swan Alley Court in Colemanstreet; forwarded with a note by Jessey to John Moor Omitted
p. 9 Acts of [Thursday] 16 December 1652 pp. 133-4
p. 11 Acts of [Tuesday] 10 May 1653 p. 134
p. 13 Acts of [Sunday] 5 June 1653 pp. 134-5
pp. 13-14 Acts of [Sunday] 19 June 1653 pp. 135-6
p. 16 Acts of [Sunday] 26 June 1653 p. 136
p. 16 Acts of [Sunday] 25 December 1653 p. 136
p. 16 Acts of [Monday] 26 December 1653 pp. 136-7
pp. 17-18 Acts of Sunday 1 January 1654, headed ‘Acts of the Church’, being a list of names of members, and a further list of names of ‘ye Separated Assembly’ pp. 137-9
pp. 19-22 Acts of 8 Sunday January 1654 pp. 139-42 [missing final biblical verses]
pp. 23-4 Document (2): ‘The severall requestes of mee Jn.o More, wch I humblie desier of the Chirch’, 15 January 1654, with note in another hand that ‘He was demaunded whom he could accuse, & he could accuse none’; reverse of sheet addresses the requests ‘To the Bretheren’ pp. 142-4
pp. 25-6 Acts of [Sunday] 15 January 1654 pp. 144-5 [some passages omitted]
p. 27 Acts of Tuesday 17 January 1654 Omitted
p. 27 Acts of Thursday 19 January 1654 Omitted
p. 27 Acts of Tuesday 31 January 1654 Omitted
pp. 28-32 Acts of Sunday 22 January 1654, including dialogue between brothers Naudin, Chamberlen, More, Davis, and Smith, about whether women may speak pp. 145-6 [mostly omitted]
pp. 33a-b Document (3): slip of paper, 7 February 1654, asking ‘Whethr we have a call from God to resit[?] ye L[ord’s]: Pr[ayer]?’, with scripture references in a second hand on ‘Causes of Unbilef’ and other brief notes on reverse Omitted
pp. 33-4, 39-40 Document (4): Brief treatise, ‘Wo bee to them that Laugh now &[c]. Luke 6.25’ [by John More], addressed ‘To my Loving Brothr Mr Peter Chamberlyn’; annotated in another hand [probably Chamberlen] Omitted
pp. 35-8 Document (5): Draft letter from Chamberlen to More Omitted
pp. 39a-b Document (6): Latin notes, with a diagram concerning laughter on the reverse side Omitted
p. 41 Acts of Sunday 29 January 1654 p. 146 [with passages omitted]
pp. 43-4 Acts of Tuesday 31 January 1654 pp. 146-7 [last paragraph omitted]
p. 45 Acts of Sunday 5 February 1654 Omitted
pp. 47-8 Document (7): Letter from Rebeck Eliazer to her ‘Beloved frends’ at the church, later dated Sunday 19 February 1654 Omitted
pp. 49-50, 53-4, 51-2 Document (8): Draft[?] letter from Peter Chamberlen to Rebecca Hounsell, now wife of Eleazer, with later notes as to how ‘Rebecca Hounsell Justifieth her self’, no date: February 1654? Omitted
pp. 57-9 Acts of Tuesday 21 February 1654 pp. 147-50
pp. 60-2 Acts of Sunday 26 February 1654 pp. 150-1 [omitting pp. 61-2]
pp. 63-6 Document (9): Letter dated 26 February 1654 but received Sunday 12 March 1654 from John More to the ‘Brethren’, with note ?in another hand concerning Brother Naudin, and a list of queries, possibly by Chamberlen? Omitted
pp. 67-9 Acts of Sunday 12 March 1654 pp. 151-3
p. 69 Acts of Sunday 19 March 1654 Omitted
p. 70 Acts of Sunday 2 April 1654 Omitted
pp. 71-80 Document (10): Letter from Theodore Naudin to his brethren, 2 April 1654, with marginal annotations in another hand; includes a summary [p. 79] and a draft or copied response from Chamberlen dated Friday 7 April 1654 and ‘Delivered by my son Paul’ on Tuesday 18 April 1654 pp. 153-5 [sections only]
pp. 81-2 Document (11): Brief treatise from John More to Peter Chamberlen and the rest meeting with him, 29 March 1654 Omitted
p. 83 Draft or copy of a letter from Peter Chamberlen to John More, Friday 7 April 1654 Omitted
p. 84 ‘The Sum~ of all yis last Contention’ Omitted
pp. 85-7 Draft of a letter (not sent) from Peter Chamberlen to Theodore Naudin, undated [April 1654?] Omitted
p. 88 Acts of Sunday 9 April 1654 Omitted
pp. 89-90 Document (12): ‘The Second Epistell of Jn:o More’, 9 April 1654 Omitted
pp. 91-2 Acts of Tuesday 11 April 1654 Omitted
pp. 93-4 Document (13): ‘Theodor Naudin, an vnworthy Seruant of God, vnto Peter Chamberlen, D.r of Physick’, 11 April 1654, with draft or copy of response from Peter Chamberlen, 12 April 1654 Omitted
pp. 95-111 Draft of a letter (not sent) from Peter Chamberlen to Theodore Naudin, undated [April 1654?] pp. 156-7 [sections only]
pp. 113-16 Document (14): ‘The third Epistell of Jn.o More’, 15 April 1654, including (p. 116) draft response from Peter Chamberlen, 18 April 1654 Omitted
pp. 117-18 Document (15): ‘The fovrth Epistell of Jno More’, including (p. 118) draft or copy of response from Chamberlen, 23 April 1654, and further notes dated 7 May 1654 Omitted
p. 119 Acts of Sunday 30 April 1654 p. 157 [last paragraph omitted]
pp. 121-4 Document (16): Letter from Elizabeth More to her ‘Frindes’, Sunday 30 April 1654, followed (p. 122) by ‘The 5th Epistell of Jn.o More’, 7 May 1654 pp. 157-8 [sections only]
pp. 125-8 Document (17) Brief treatise from John More to Peter Chamberlen, 9 May 1654, followed (p. 127) by brief note by Chamberlen Omitted
p. 129 Acts of Friday 12 May 1654 pp. 158-9
p. 130 Acts of Sunday 14 May 1654 p. 159
pp. 130-1 Acts of Monday 15 May 1654 Omitted
p. 131 Acts of Tuesday 23 May 1654 pp. 159-60

As will be seen from this list, the church book consists primarily of records of church acts between 22 August 1652 and 23 May 1654. These acts relate to church membership, marriages, debates, and disciplinary proceedings. Bound in with these records are seventeen separate documents, written on paper with different watermarks and usually different sizes, consisting of letters, brief treatises, and rough notes. Of these seventeen documents added to the church book Burrage omits fourteen and prints only portions of another two. These documents include the six epistles from John More to Chamberlen and his church dated 29 March, 9, 15 and c.23 April, and 7 and 9 May, as well as earlier documents by More on laughter (early 1654) and a letter from 26 February. Theodore Naudin’s words and writings also suffer heavily: his long letter to the church dated 2 April 1654 is severely cut, and his letter to Chamberlen of 11 April is omitted completely. Burrage’s comparative lack of interest in the documents inserted into the church book also results in the excision of Chamberlen’s draft responses to More and Naudin which he scribbled onto their letters. Nevertheless, the proportion of materials written by Chamberlen which Burrage selected for inclusion is much higher than the proportion of writings by More and Naudin, as might be expected from an edition designed as an intervention in the characterisation of Chamberlen as an irascible but principled church leader.

However, there is much to be said, not least in literary terms, for rehabilitating these omitted documents. For example, close consideration of John More’s writings in particular reveals the church’s ongoing interest in questions of form and style. More presented his very public criticisms of the church’s direction under Chamberlen in a series of open letters; in these brief but often visually attractive ‘treatises’ he attempted (albeit with mixed success) to develop an allusive and elegant style replete with rhetorical devices as well as Pauline references. Particularly eye-catching, both then and now, is a brief sheet in which More insinuates that certain church members were acting like ‘Scribes, Pharisees, Presbiterians, and other formall worshipers’, and then proceeds to develop his critique ‘in parable’. More’s parable on this sheet is of three blind men whose needs are addressed when a bountiful rich man offers to provide them eye-salve and bread. The first and third men are healed, and act as Samaritans to the second, who nevertheless refuses all help; the first man then seeks out those in the byways and highways who will accept his charity, while the third man loses labour and the opportunity of doing good by continuing to offer help to the second. More’s point, that it is better to withdraw from a failed cause than to continue hopelessly on, was a none-too-subtle self-justificatory attack on the blindness of Chamberlen and his followers. In response, a furious Chamberlen branded More ‘an Accusor of ye Brethren’. While Chamberlen claimed that the church would give More ‘Libertie to expound yor own Parables, All parables being subject to many Constructions’, he ventured his own interpretation: that More was ‘not onely the True Samaritan, but ye Rest also’ (p. 83). In the postscript to his next letter to the church, More ironically thanked the church for the ‘liberty to expound my parable’, while pointing out that ‘I might in love haive don that and asked no leave’, and requesting from the church ‘but two words in answer’ to his tale, ‘and I shall expound it’ (p. 89).

More’s third letter to the church repeated this request for two words in explication, and asserted boldly that his opponents ‘know not what is raysed up in the parable I first sent you wherin is indeed, boath the substanse, explanation, and aplication, of the whole first epistell, boath in referense to the sines and persons conserned in it’ (pp. 113-15). In his draft response, Chamberlen declined to interpret More’s parable for fear that to do so would be in some sense to approve it; he pointed out that in the Gospels none but Christ spoke in parables, whereas the Apostles used the ‘plainest of Speech’. Instead, he reinterpreted More’s words to indicate that More himselfe was ‘neither . . . strengthned, nor Refreshed, but deluded & seduced’; More was thus unable to heal others but provided a ‘stumbling block for those that are entring in’ by ‘Rent[ing] away’ from the church (p. 116). In return, More professed that he was in no doubt that Christ spoke to his disciples in parables; accusing Chamberlen and his followers of ‘selfeconseated divitions’, he asserted that he had the same occasion as Christ to speak in parables, but was not asking to be acknowledged as an alternative Jesus (p. 117). Chamberlen’s somewhat surprising response was to assert that Christ’s tales of the virgins and the talents were nowhere described as parables, but should rather be considered ‘Illustrations & similitudes’ (p. 118). More, in evident bafflement, claimed in response that parables were so by their ‘nature’, regardless of their ‘name’, as the scriptures themselves demonstrated (p. 123). Chamberlen’s final recorded remarks on the topic were to distinguish between biblical actors (who did not routinely use the word ‘parable’) and commentators (who did), and to remind More that ‘ye end of a Parable was yt seeing they might see & not perceive’ (p. 127). But by this point the debate had descended into virulent acrimony, with Chamberlen describing More as ‘Mad’ and ‘poison[ous]’ by turns, and More calling Chamberlen ‘a false prophet’ of ‘rash Prognostications’ (pp. 123-7).

This episode provides important evidence that the principle of sola scriptura was forcing Baptists to challenge their preconceptions about the nature of literary forms, including not just allegory, but also parable, epistle, and exegesis. Even more interestingly, it reveals quite how fraught with practical consequences these debates between church members about genre and style could be. More’s adoption of parable as a form appropriate for criticising his former associates is perhaps less surprising when we recall the widespread and continuous popularity of the fable as a literary form in seventeenth-century education. However, his particular use of it is also an expression of his self-assumption of the role of inspired prophet. Such expressions of supposedly divinely-sanctioned self-justification through language were foreign to Chamberlen’s more rationalist bent, and must have seemed particularly misplaced to the rest of the congregation after More had effectively withdrawn himself from the church. Perhaps the wider point to be made is that literary language was bound more closely to religious ideas than it was to religious practices, although it could decisively influence the latter through the former. A disputant’s choice of language and style provided markers of their theological views, which collided not merely with persons of different churches, but with persons of differing ideas within the same church. Yet once an individual church member had adopted a controversial or challenging style in a particular piece of correspondence or conversation with the church, it was very difficult for the event to be erased from memory. The consequence of such an intervention could be not merely the withdrawal of oneself from the church, but the unavoidable decline of the whole congregation.

Read more:

Mark Burden, ‘Forgotten Voices from the Lothbury Square Church Book: Baptist Wives and their Jewish Christian Husbands’ (Dissenting Experience, 18 February 2016)