7. Forgotten Voices from the Lothbury Square Church Book: Baptist Wives and their Jewish Christian Husbands (Mark Burden)

In a previous blog, ‘Sabbatarianism, Literary Form, and the Lothbury Square Church Book’, I explored various misconceptions which have arisen from historians’ interpretations of the so-called More-Chamberlen church book of 1652-4 (Bodleian Library Rawlinson MS D.828). Critical readings of the church book have been greatly indebted to the early twentieth-century debate between J. W. Thirtle and Champlin Burrage about the extent to which it provided evidence for the Sabbatarian beliefs of the congregation’s most distinguished member, the Royal physician Peter Chamberlen. Through his abridged edition of the church book, Burrage determined that the church was not Sabbatarian in its practices, and proceeded to transcribe those church acts which seemed to him to provide the most important reasons why the congregation collapsed. Burrage attributed the congregation’s demise to the ongoing doctrinal disputes between Chamberlen and his ministerial rival, John More, but failed to transcribe More’s correspondence with the church over the crucial questions of prophecy and parable. Yet these very questions of literary form and their use helped to tip the balance in the congregation’s dealings with More, ensuring that he was unable to return to the church, and thereby accelerating its decline. Here, as elsewhere, questions of genre and language proved decisive when it came to ordering, regulating, and disciplining Puritan church members.

However, this is very far from the whole story. Burrage assumed that the fortunes of the Lothbury Square church could be most easily surveyed through the prism of the debates between its two successive pastors, More and Chamberlen. His approach, while typical of church histories written in the early twentieth century, is no longer satisfactory, not least because it fails to take account of the crucial roles played by other members of the congregation. For one thing, Burrage’s reading conforms to the nineteenth and twentieth century assumption that women’s roles in early Baptist churches were at best peripheral to the central business of the church and at worst inconsequential. These are particularly dangerous assumptions for editors of dissenting records, since the omission of women’s writings from an edition on account of their marginal status becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for future readers. Through the process of rehabilitating these texts by and about women in the so-called More-Chamberlen church book we can develop a much more interesting narrative than the clumsy (on both sides) arguments that women were either central or peripheral to seventeenth-century Baptist churches; instead, what becomes clear is that churches were sites of struggle for women quite literally desiring their voices to be heard.

For the Lothbury Square congregation, debates over the roles of women within the church reached their climax in January 1654, when a debate (mostly omitted by Burrage) was conducted about whether women were permitted to speak during meetings (pp. 28-32). The dispute was sparked by Naudin’s remarks that he ‘would not walk with such as gave libertie to woemen to speak in ye Church’; his comments caused church member Anne Harriman to declare ‘she could not walk where she had not libertie to speak’. The three questions posed to the church were ‘Whether Woemen may speak in ye Church?’, ‘What [i.e. which] Woemen may speak?’ and ‘What they may speak?’ However, the ensuing discussion appears to have been dominated by Naudin and More (who were reluctant to permit church sisters to speak), and Chamberlen (who argued that some unmarried women were permitted to speak if they wore a veil). Women themselves do not seem to have participated in the discussion. The key texts invoked by Naudin and More were 1 Corinthians 14:34 (‘Let your women keep silence in the churches . . .’) and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (‘Let the woman learn in silence’), whereas their opponents pointed to the references to prophetesses in Acts 2:17, 18:26 and 21:9, 1 Corinthians 11:5, Luke 2:36, Revelation 2:20, and Romans 16:3-4.

The discussion quickly centred on the possible shades of meaning of four words from the Greek New Testament: γυνή/γυναίκα (signifying woman or wife), προφήτις (prophetess), ὑμῶν (your), and παντί (all/every). If γυναῖκας ὑμῶν (Matthew 19:8) signified the wives of church brethren only, then Paul’s injunctions in 1 Corinthians 5:12 (‘For what have I to do to judge them also that are without?’) could be interpreted as excepting women outside the church from church rule: in other words, women who were not church members would be permitted by Scripture to speak to the church, whereas church sisters and the wives of brethren were not. On the other hand, the word παντί (1 Peter 3:15) seemed to Chamberlen to permit anyone to ask questions of the church, and did not exclude church sisters or wives; when combined with the frequent references to προφήτισσες it seemed clear that some female members of the church were permitted to speak, given certain conditions. Naudin responded that general rules in scripture were frequently superadded by particular rules, and that while παντί did in a general sense imply everyone, ὑμῶν implied a distinction between church members and non-members. Chamberlen’s evident frustration with More and Naudin is evident from a note he later scribbled into the church book: 1 Peter 3:15, he asserted, held ‘no distinction at all’ because it ‘speaketh not of a Church but of a condition of suffering’ and ‘excludes neithr Beleevers nor Unbeleevers’; as for the evidence of 1 Corinthians 5:12, he wrote in the same note that the argument was ‘not upon the point of Judging but rather propheseeing’. Indeed, Chamberlen was so insistent on this point that he later wrote in the church book a detailed exposition of 1 Corinthians 14:34. It was clear to him that the phrase γυναῖκας ὑμῶν at Matthew 19:8 (‘Moses . . . suffered you to put away your wives . . .’) could only mean the wives of brethren; this made sense of the ‘word of appropriation’ (‘your’) used by the translators at 1 Corinthians 14:34. Therefore, ‘the force of this Text [14:34] is to bring Order among the Married Woemen’, in case ‘boldnes should make them presumptuous agst their Husbands’; wives of the brethren did not need to ask questions in church, because they could ‘ask their husbands at home’ and avoid the ‘shame for a Married woeman . . . to show before all these infirmities of the Tongue’. Nevertheless, Chamberlen argued that the word γυναίκα could in general signify ‘All Widdowes & Maydes that are not Prophetesses. Becaus the Male hath naturally Dominion over the Female’. He concluded that ‘a Woeman (Mayd, Wife, or Widdow) being a Prophetess . . . may speake, Prophesie, Pray, wth a Vayl’, but that ‘Others May not’.

The More-Naudin-Chamberlen debate about the role of church sisters helps to explain the complex negotiation of agency and submission which many women faced when joining a gathered church. It was not always the case that membership provided greater opportunities for a woman’s voice to be heard: rather, it might imply a renewal and intensification of pre-existing vows of submission to church and family. Given the extent of such patriarchal authority, it made sense for sisters with scruples, such as Harriman, to challenge the principle of quietude by withdrawing from the church and provoking a dispute, rather than attending and being silenced. On a more local level, the episode reveals that the fortunes of the Lothbury Square church were determined to a considerable extent by the actions of its female members, which laid bare the rift between More and Naudin on the one hand and Chamberlen on the other. These differences over the role of women surfaced again after More’s departure from the church a few weeks later. On 30 April 1654 the church wrote to More’s wife Elizabeth to ‘desire one word undr yr hand of ye reason of yr absences that we may be sure not accuse any for an other bodys fault or disobedience’ (p. 119). In response, Elizabeth More wrote of her ‘grefe’ at her absence and urged the church to ‘amend your Wayes and the euell of your doeing’. She recalled the ‘confustion falling out and Ralling’ that she had encountered at previous church meetings, urged church members to ‘Examen your soules and try your wayes’, and warned them against followers who ‘haue keept most wicked and Liturgeous company’ or who have ‘a mallisyous sperit’ (pp. 121-2). Such strong words cut against the enforcedly arcane Biblical scholarship which informed the church’s previous debates about the role of women. The bluntness of Elizabeth More’s critique was, admittedly, made easier by her distance from the church, but it must have seemed particularly inapt and inept to many of its members, given the rigidity of her husband’s expressed views on women’s speech. In writing this letter, Elizabeth More was, in effect, declaring herself no longer a member of the church, and therefore a woman with licence to speak. In making this virulent attack, she received the support of her husband John, who appended to Elizabeth’s text a letter of his own, informing the church of his ‘approbation’ of her words, since ‘my thoughts, are her thoughts’. Here, then, we see the practical consequences of More’s distinction between women inside and outside the church, as well as the position (apparently common to More and Chamberlen) that women should seek the advice of their husbands at home on matters of doctrine and religion. Such views frequently gave women the uncomfortable choice of deciding between the authority of their husbands and the authority of their church, and at times forced them to mediate between these two rival sources of power.

One final example from the church book, also largely omitted by Burrage, demonstrates how women’s enforced negotiation between various forms of patriarchal authority could also spill over into societal prejudices against minority groups. One of the earliest recorded controversies of the church related to the behaviour of the widow Rebecca Hounsell and her future husband Eliezer Barisaie. Two church acts of 16 December 1652 record their marriage (p. 9). Yet the presence of a Christianised Jew in the congregation was apparently causing friction by the middle of 1653. In a letter to Henry Jessey at the Swan Alley church dated 19 June that year, the Southampton Congregationalist Nathaniel Robinson sought advice about a financial dispute involving two Jews connected with the Southampton church; he confessed that ‘notwithstanding I should much reioyce in the conversion of that blind & Hardned Nation; and . . . to due any office for such a lost sheepe, yett haue my many occasions of charity att hand and by experience found or selues much abused by travellers’ (p. 7). The letter was forwarded to More with a note from Henry Jessey, claiming that ‘Abra~ is to blame’ and asking him to ‘Speak to Eleazar’ (p. 8). There was further friction by 17 January 1654, when the church was asked to settle a dispute over £7 2s 4d owed to ‘Brothr Eleasar’ by ‘Sistr Covenay (p. 27). However, of more long-term consequence was Eliezer’s decision to baptize his child, presumably with another congregation, since baptism was ‘no Ordinance’ of Chamberlen’s church (p. 51). On the morning of the proposed baptism the Chamberlen church sent two brethren to advise Rebecca to bring the child to them, but she refused, justifying her disobedience on the grounds that she owed subjection to her husband. In a letter written by Rebecca to the church after they had withdrawn her from communion, she told them that she had never concealed her husband’s design, had not (as they claimed) dressed the child in baptismal clothes, and had often desired that church officials speak to Eliezer to change his mind (p. 47).

In a robust response, Chamberlen told Rebecca that her sin was ‘not onely in putting the Duty to a Husband in Competition of ye Duty to a Church’ but in ‘preferring it also before obedience to a Church’, in contravention of Luke 14:26. Not only had she refused the church’s counsel, but she had actively furthered her husband’s ‘publick . . . affront . . . to the Gospel’, and therefore the church had no option but to withdraw from her, as commanded by 2 Thessalonians 3:6 (p. 49). Of equal interest, however, are the subsidiary Bible passages which Chamberlen invoked to reinforce the seriousness of Rebecca’s fault. By citing 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18:17 he appeared to equate her misdeeds with the behaviour of fornicators and heathens; the underlying antisemitism in Chamberlen’s comments was made doubly uncomfortable by her forced withdrawal from the church which had overseen her second marriage. Later on in his letter, Chamberlen sought to demonstrate that Rebecca’s duty to the church overrode the obedience due to her husband, by citing Ephesians 5:3 (the abomination of living with men other than your husband); he reminded her that ‘if a Husband (being a Jew) should com~and his Christian wife to Blasphem against Jesus Christ & the Holy Ghost, they were Sins unpardonable in this world & the world to com’. Although Chamberlen conceded that there were many aspects of family religion with which the church could not interfere, he believed that the church did have the right to offer advice if the woman had separated herself or made herself ‘unclean’ (p. 50). If, as in Rebecca’s case, the advice was not followed, Chamberlen held the view that ‘to comfort any in Sin is to Flatter Sin & maintain it’ (p. 54). Indeed, in its subsequent notes on the dispute, the church referred to her as Rebecca Hounsell, as if to challenge the legitimacy of her second marriage, although they still referred to Eliezer Barisaie as her ‘husband’. More menacingly, they warned her of their duty to ensure ‘yt she might have no Com~union wth the unfrutefull works of darknes’. These scriptural injunctions have a particularly unsavoury taste when coupled with the underlying suspicion of reformed Jews which had been present in the congregation from its very earliest records.

Throughout this blog and its predecessor I have sought to explore the limits of a purely denominational approach to the study of church books. The interest of Sabbatarian scholars in the Lothbury Square church book is entirely reasonable, since it has for a long time been (mistakenly) thought by many to be the earliest detailed record of a Sabbatarian church. However, this narrative has occluded many aspects of the church book which are now of interest to scholars in other fields, such as women’s studies, Jewish studies, the history of ideas and scholarship, or the history of emotions. In exploring some of these alternative areas I have also tried to articulate a warning against the view that nonconformist churches necessarily empowered women, or anyone else: they were, in my view, rather alternative sites of struggle which had both material and discursive elements. The literary value of the documents bound into the church book may be greater than has been recognised previously, but of far greater importance for church members themselves was the ability of the church, however briefly it operated, to change the direction of their lives and afterlives for better or for worse.