Despite having been almost completely ignored by historians, the records of the General Baptist church at White’s Alley in London, 1681-1714 provide one of the fullest sets of disciplinary cases surviving for a dissenting church of the period. They also allow scholars to explore the relation between theological discussion and the Realpolitik of church government in almost unparalleled detail. Between 1681 and 1761, and again from 1797 to 1841, the church recorded minutes of its meetings in four lengthy folio volumes, usually writing on the recto side of the page, with extra notes or relevant documents copied onto the facing verso sheets. The minutes for 1681 to 1714 alone occupy two and a half volumes, making them one of the most comprehensive sets of minutes of a dissenting church in the period. The church kept other records also which have since been lost: the surviving minutes suggest that there were three ‘old church books’ in evidence by 1707, although the only ones known to have survived up to this date are the two volumes 1681-1700 and 1700-8. A very considerable proportion of the first three extant minute books relate to disciplinary cases, detailing the processes by which members who were considered negligent in their attendance or scandalous in their behaviour were sanctioned. These disciplinary cases will be studied in both quantitative and qualitative terms in my next blog. The purpose of the following introductory essay is to consider my other claim: that we can use dissenting church records to show the relation between theology and church practices. In the first part of the discussion I outline some of the general areas and principles which provoked discussion at White’s Alley, as indeed they did at many other churches during the period, dissenting or otherwise. In the second part of the blog, I explore the impact of some of these ideas on the changing fortunes of the church’s ministers.
The Principles and Practices of Dissenting Churches
Any discussion of the interaction between dissenting principles and practices should be alert to the connections between churches as well as within the membership of each individual church. One way to identify such connections is to map out the locations from and to which the church sent and received letters; this process of cultural geography may then enable us to identify the interactions which give rise to cultures of knowledge and experience. When applied to dissenting records, this method tends to provide supporting evidence for the argument that churches tended to communicate most comfortably and extensively with other churches of similar views. In the case of White’s Alley, the congregation was in frequent dialogue with other Baptist churches, particularly those believing in general redemption; it was furthermore one of the self-styled ‘five parts’ (later six) of the London General Baptist community, the others being Glasshouse Yard (Goswell Street), Goodman’s Fields (Mill Yard), Shad Thames (Dockhead), Southwark (‘The Park’), and – from 12 April 1692 – Covent Garden (Hart Street). The church provided advice to the Goswell Street congregation during its merger with the Bell Lane Baptists in 1681 and again when it sought to elect deacons in 1686. Within London, the church also had extensive dealings with the 7 Baptist congregations at Barbican, Virginia Street, Horsleydown (Fair Street), Deptford, West Smithfield (High Hall, Cow Lane), and Dunning’s Alley. It exchanged letters with at least 12 Baptist churches in southern England, including those at Cirencester, Salisbury, Westbury, Newbury, Berkshire, Maidenhead, Buckingham, Stony Stratford, High Wycombe, Portsmouth, Arundel, Chichester; 11 churches in the east of England, including those at Burnham, Rainham, Berkhamsted, Oxney, Brabourne, Canterbury, Ashford, Chatham, Norwich, and Smallburgh, and a church in Bedfordshire; 10 churches from the midlands and north, including Leicester, Wymeswold, Weston and Weedon, Nantwich, Leominster, Lichfield, Coventry, Warwick, Worcester, and Sheffield; and 2 churches in Ireland (at Dublin and Cork).
Another means of plotting the intellectual culture of a congregation is to consider the regional and national bodies to which it belonged. From the late 1680s the White’s Alley church sent messengers to several different Baptist associations and assemblies, including the General Assembly in London. From the early 1690s it also sent representatives to the Aylesbury Baptist Association. However, when in 1696 a crisis hit the General Assembly over its leaders’ failure to condemn the supposed Arian views of Matthew Caffyn, the White’s Alley church was one of the most prominent congregations to leave the Assembly and set up a rival General Association. In subsequent years, meetings of the Association were quite frequently held at White’s Alley, and the minutes of some of its meetings were recorded in the church book. These minutes demonstrate the importance of both printed and manuscript culture to effect continuity and change within Baptist communities. It was customary at the start of the Association minutes to restate that the members stood by their actions at the General Assembly in 1696 and would not receive as members or preachers any that were in communion with the rival Assembly until they ‘purge themselves from the said heresy for which we made our separation’. This statement elegantly solved the problem of encouraging the Association members to subscribe to an anti-subscription tenet, since it protected the churches from that which they were not (i.e. defenders of Caffyn and his followers). Furthermore, when discussions over unity took place in the early eighteenth century between the Association (meeting at White’s Alley) and the Assembly (meeting in Goodman’s Fields), they focused once again over a mutually-agreeable text: a pamphlet titled A Vindication of the Ancient General Assembly. The two groups agreed that they would ‘make good the overtures of peace and unity’ contained within the book, and would ‘consider of proper methods for the uniting the said assembly and association’. At the talks that ensued between the Assembly and the Association, articles of union were drawn up, including a theological statement respecting the nature and persons of God and Christ, the discipline of disorderly members, and most interestingly, the order that ‘all books and papers whatsoever . . . relating to the difference’ between the assembly and the association ‘be wholly suppressed’, especially those in which ‘personal reflections’ were made. Efforts were also made to print the articles of union. The book of the former Association was then committed into the custody of two of the White’s Alley deacons. In another clear case of the perceived importance of the written word, it was not until they received a set of printed proposals from the Baptist Fund in January 1709 that the White’s Alley church were prepared to state unequivocally that the design was ‘a good work’ and that its subscribers were to be praised.
As might be expected, some of the most intense and prolonged discussions within Baptist churches concerned the meaning, implementation and flexibility of their articles of faith. One of the defining aspects of the White’s Alley church confession was the practice of laying on hands during a believer’s baptism, justified in the eyes of churches members by Hebrews 6:2. On one hand, the church acquired members from other churches on account of its decision to uphold this ordinance. However, by May 1692 the church was losing members to the new congregation at Covent Garden for the opposite reason. In February 1693 minister Joseph Jennings, his assistant Joseph Taylor and the deacon James Morris were required to visit the departing members and make them sensible of their error in ‘sitting down with those not under the 4th principle of the doctrine of Christ namely laying on of hands’. The issue resurfaced in February 1704, when persons ‘dissatisfied . . . that two lay on hands on one person’ had to be reminded that ‘the church denied that one person may lay on hand upon one person at a time’.
The church’s promotion and sale of printed texts provided another arena within which principles of church government interacted with the perceived need for theological unity and moral rectitude. The earliest example of the congregation’s direct support for printed literature is the agreement in 1689 to provide 10s to the Baptist printer Francis Smith upon consideration of his ‘necessitous condition’. In November 1696 the church sold copies of Francis Stanley’s A Sermon Preach’d at the Funeral of Mr. William Reeve, a Minister of Christ (1696), and in 1702 it was agreed to sell the prominent printer Charles Doe’s books about baptism in the meetinghouse. On one occasion when the General Baptist Association was held in White’s Alley (1703) it was agreed to print 250 copies a text (unidentified) explaining why the Northampton and Lincolnshire churches had separated from the old Assembly. Also permitted for sale in the meetinghouse were John Piggott’s An Account of Mr Pilkington’s Publick Recantation of the Errors of the Romish Church (1699) and Joseph Jenkins’s sermon book, A Discourse of Brotherly Love (1706). In September 1708, the church agreed to sell Edward Elliott’s Plain Scripture-proof, that the Christian Church is under no Obligation to Keep the Jewish Sabbath (1708). In 1709 and 1710 it was agreed to sell Samuel Acton of Nantwich’s books in the church, including Dying Infants Sav’d by Grace (1699); later the church also sold copies of Acton’s A Sermon proving Slowness to Anger, the Truest Gallantry (c.1713) and Acton’s ‘three sermons’ (unidentified: sold 1714). Across 1712 and 1713, two ‘fifth of November’ sermons by Joseph Burroughs and John Gale were also sold, and in January 1714 the church added Benjamin Stinton’s A Sermon preach’d the 27th of November, 1713. in Commemoration of the Great and Dreadful Storm in November 1703 (c.1713).
Despite their constant cries of conscience and calling, steady finances often proved crucial if a church was to maintain both its practical obligations (the meetinghouse) and its intellectual responsibilities (adequate preachers). Like many dissenting churches of the later Stuart period, the White’s Alley congregation had to manage its unstable income very carefully to pay the meetinghouse rent, reward the various preachers for their duties, and provide financial support to the poorer members of the congregation. Without a fully centralised system of payment, ministers were prone to the same laws of supply and demand as any other rare private commodity. They were also expected to give notice from the pulpit of the church’s debts in an attempt to garner subscriptions. By May 1689 the White’s Alley church was behind in its rent payments, and an urgent collection was initiated in an attempt to forestall the imposition of subscriptions for that purpose. The church book records that in January 1690 two quarters’ rent was due and further subscriptions were required. Rent payments were still behind schedule in July 1694. Meanwhile in October 1690 it was noted that repairs were required to the meetinghouse and the church had to raise further money to defray the cost. Subscriptions for a project to build a new room for the church meeting in 1697-8 also fell short: in March 1698 the church’s messengers were asked to ‘use their utmost endeavours to collect the residue’. In June 1695 the subscriptions ‘to satisfy the debts due to the ministry’ were insufficient, and the church messengers were required to ‘press’ subscribers into giving their money or advancing more. On 9 April 1705 the church committee noted that subscriptions were necessary to cover the ‘debt remaining on this church for repair and other things’. The debts to be settled in January 1706 were £21 4s 7 1/4d and in June 1706 the committee noted that further subscriptions were required to defray the cost of repairing the meetinghouse roof. The outstanding debts on 11 May 1707 were £12 4s 2d, falling only slightly £10 14s 11 1/4d by 2 April 1711; it is hardly surprising that at this time the church messengers made enquiries about the possibility of exempting the meetinghouse from window tax. Also in April 1711 Goodson, the meetinghouse landlord, demanded payment of another £50 for a 6 year extension of the lease; in December of that year the church considered this to be ‘too large a fine’, but when they attempted to negotiate the terms further in December 1712 they were still forced to pay Goodson £45 plus two broad pieces.
Another of the minister’s responsibilities was to use his pulpit powers of persuasion to exhort church members to subscribe to collections for the poor. At White’s Alley it was a common complaint across the early 1690s that insufficient money had been raised to assist needy members and in June 1693 the minister was ordered to ‘stir up’ the congregation every fortnight to increase their subscriptions. Again in February 1698 the deacons were asked to ‘take peculiar observation who of the congregation are negligent in their duty to the poor’. The inadequacy of the subscriptions provoked a long-running debate about the best way to garner subscriptions. In September 1698 the church voted to take quarterly subscriptions for ‘rent and taxes only’, and not for the poor. However in July 1710 the church was forced to ‘alter the collections for the rent and taxes’ and ensure that the extra money raised be applied ‘to supply the deficiency of the poor money’. In October 1712 the collection for the poor was ‘laid aside’ for at least five weeks in the expectation that ‘subscriptions be made general’, and then in February 1713 a list of defaulting subscribers was drawn up and the persons were admonished. In March 1714 the church brethren despairingly reported a deficiency of £40, ‘most of which is not likely to be got in’.
Partly as a consequence of the church’s continual financial shortfall, there were discussions throughout the church’s early history on what constituted appropriate and inappropriate use of the meetinghouse. In general, daughter organisations which supported the church’s religious aims and views were permitted. In July 1689, for example, a proposal was discussed favourably for keeping a school in the meetinghouse, although no further information about this venture is available in the minutes. However, when the proposed event or organisation challenged the church’s doctrinal creeds the persons concerned were swiftly blacklisted. For example, on 18 December 1704 the church messengers observed that the preacher David Duncan, notwithstanding an earlier judgement against him by the Baptist Assembly, had delivered offensive sermons on Wednesday evenings at the White’s Alley lecture; the church’s elder, Abraham Mulliner, was immediately called upon to ensure that the lecture only employed persons in full communion with the church. Furthermore, in September 1705 the church refused to grant permission to a Presbyterian minister, Mr Roberts, to set up a Sunday evening lecture in the meetinghouse, but they did establish a new Sunday evening lecture of their own in March 1710.
The White’s Alley Ministers: From Crisis to Quarrel
The debates at White’s Alley over everything from attendance at ministerial assemblies to the correct means of raising subscriptions inevitably took their toll on the church’s succession of ministers. The complexities of the regular business of delivering sermons and providing pastoral care to a large and diffuse congregation were compounded by the frequently fierce disagreements between the church’s pastor, deacons, and messengers. The first hint of the trouble to come was an explosive row between the preacher Joseph Jennings and the influential deacons James Morris and Robert Hore. When in October 1691 Morris and Hore accused Jennings’s son of fraud in contriving a false bill, the rest of the church committee declined to sanction them. Jennings’s son died shortly after, and his father’s intense grief spilled over into an accusation that the death had been caused by the actions of Morris and Hore; the matter had to be reconciled at a meeting of the six congregations, which conceded minor faults on all sides. Nevertheless, the damage to Jennings’s authority was severe. From 1692 the church insisted that he was assisted in the ministry by a younger member of the congregation, Joseph Taylor: while Jennings was paid £60 per annum for the year to March, Taylor was paid £30 per for the same period. The official reason given for diminishing Jennings’s duties was his declining health, but there can be no doubt that the decision was triggered by the earlier fractious debates, which also caused a shortfall in the ‘maintenance for the supply of the ministry’ in 1693.
Jennings’s decline in authority and health led to an increase in the influence exerted by Robert Hore. In 1693 Hore and Jennings were required to go to the annual Aylesbury Baptist association meeting, while Hore and Taylor were the representatives at the Baptist General Assembly. Furthermore, when the White’s Alley congregation decided to leave the Assembly it was Hore and Morris, not Jennings or even Taylor, who formalised the ‘protest against the said errors and the countenancing of the same’. It was Hore, Morris and their fellow preacher Joseph Walker who were required to licence the meetinghouse ‘without fail’ after a rather edgy meeting of the church messengers in July 1693. Nevertheless, with Hore’s rise in influence came the risk of further splits within the church. By September 1693 Hore’s behaviour at the Aylesbury association (details of which are not known) led to accusations that he was a ‘religious cheat or an ill-designing person’. Furthermore, there are signs that wider dissatisfaction with the White’s Alley ministry continued. In 1693 Taylor muddied the waters further by nominating Mark Keyes to be ‘equally concerned with him in the work of the ministry’ and to be paid accordingly. The church book minutes for July 1694 report that some persons had by this point withdrawn their subscriptions for the ministry, whereas others had never made any contribution at all. Furthermore, Jennings’s infirmity, combined with an imperfect account of the names and places of abode of the congregation, led to complaints of neglect in visiting and caring for members.
After Jennings’s death in October 1694 Taylor gradually emerged as the most powerful member of the church. Although he was by no means the church’s first choice, it eventually fell to Taylor to deliver Jennings’s funeral sermon, which the church subsequently ordered him to publish. From that moment, Taylor supplied the lion’s share of the preaching, although Keyes continued to preach on some occasions in the morning. The church went through the motions of an election for its new elder on 11 November 1694; Taylor, Keyes, and William Browne were all nominated, but the church sent a circular to members recommending Taylor as ‘the most fit person’ and he was ‘unanimously elected’ at a meeting on 20 November. Taylor’s authority had always been vested in his intellectual capacity rather than his personal conduct, and when other church members began to question his preaching, rumours about his personal life and motivations began to make his position untenable. In March 1695 brother Atkins sent to the church messengers a ‘scandalous letter’ wherein ‘several reproachful things’ were charged against members of the congregation, including Browne and Hore. Taylor came in for specific criticism from Atkins for using ‘sinful expression’ at the Lord’s table and displaying ‘covetousness’ in accepting the office of elder; Atkins was summarily excluded from communion, but on the same day Keyes asked to be relieved of his duties, ostensibly on health grounds, and made overtures to join a rival church. Although Taylor made efforts to restore regular visits to church members and hearers, by the middle of 1696 his ministry was in severe trouble: the minutes of 27 July record that ‘none of our deacons or elderly brethren’ had been at the church meeting, and from 1697 even Hore took a step back from his duties, refusing to provide the church with the supply preachers which it regularly required.
The attempts of the church to shore up its intellectual foundations at this juncture may be glimpsed through the efforts of a younger member, Benjamin Cooper, to establish himself as a preacher. On 26 July 1697 the church messengers refused to allow Cooper to preach publicly, on the grounds that ‘at present he is not qualified for it’. Cooper was given a trial of his preaching in late July 1698, alongside another church brother, Jos Jenkins. However, on 12 June 1699 Taylor publicly charged Cooper with ‘sowing discord amongst brethren’, ‘endeavouring to disturb the peace of the church’, ‘lying’, and ‘grievously reflecting on the church’. Cooper was excluded from communion on 26 June but immediately appealed to the Baptist church at High Hall (its pastor was the prominent disputant William Russell) for arbitration, arguing that Taylor had exhibited the initial charges ‘without private admonition, contrary to . . . Matthew 18:15’ and explaining that other church members had also made very harsh reflections against him. Following a meeting between the two churches’ representatives on Wednesday 16 August, Cooper was received into communion again, an event which represented an embarrassing humiliation for the beleaguered minister.
Cooper was not the only church member to challenge Taylor’s authority at this time. On 18 October 1697 the church meeting was adjourned, ‘Several officers and diverse members neglecting their duty’. On 23 May 1698 it was agreed to hold a day of fasting and prayer the following month ‘to lament the divisions that are among us’ and ask God ‘to heal them, and grant a spirit of love and unity, of holy zeal and fervency, that we may as one man carry on the interest of Christ and work of God amongst us’. In February 1699 the congregation agreed ‘for the mutual peace of the brethren and comfort and good of this congregation that brother Dean, brother Stenett, brother Piggot and brother Masters may be employed in the work of the ministry, amongst us for the ease of brother Taylor and that he take care to provide as he shall think fit never the less it is unanimously agreed that nothing in the abovementioned agreement is intended to abridge brother Taylor of his right in bringing any other person to preach here but he is desired to bring any person that he shall think fit’. Nevertheless, the ‘very small appearance at our Friday’s lecture before breaking of bread’ was described in April 1699 as ‘discouraging to the minister’. As well as this falling-off in support for Taylor, there were theological divisions within the church: in September 1699 sister Gregory and sister [Mary] Miller were excluded for asserting that the doctrine of Christ dying for all (i.e. general redemption) was a devilish doctrine.
Later in September 1699 Taylor finally precipitated the inevitable schism when he ‘grievously reflected’ on the congregation during his Sunday preaching, and then invited the church’s members and hearers to move their worship to Devonshire Square where he intended to set up a new congregation. According to the official account copied into the White’s Alley church book and signed by 35 church members, the church rejected Taylor’s call, voted to remain ‘in this place’ (White’s Alley), and started looking for new preachers. However, around 26 members were prepared to sign their names under the subscribers, to ‘bear our testimony against the proceedings of this present meeting’. Several of these rebels were on to join Taylor’s breakaway congregation at Devonshire Square, which promptly moved to Loriner’s Hall.
One of the first duties of Taylor’s successor in the ministry, Abraham Mulliner, was to ensure that Taylor’s reputation was crushed beyond repair. Unsurprisingly, Taylor initially refused to appear before the church to explain himself. On 21 November 1699 the church’s messengers reported that they had been with Taylor to admonish him, but that he did ‘not own us to be a church’ and ‘would not appear to answer to this admonition’. At this point, the long-running grumblings of the White’s Alley members against their former minister surfaced into direct accusations of drinking and whoring. The church swiftly took the line that Taylor had left his charge not for reasons of conscience but because ‘he was afraid of being charged with several immoralities’. On 30 October the church appealed for advice to the churches of Richard Allen at Barbican, John Piggot at Hart Street Covent Garden and William Russell at High Hall. On 6 November the church accused him of having ‘picked up’ at least six women in the previous five years. He was also formally charged with schism, preaching a sermon containing several gross reflections upon the church, inviting members and hearers to follow him to Devonshire Square, and refusing to acknowledge this action as a rent but as a removal of the true church from White’s Alley. The responses of the churches at Barbican, Hart Street and High Hall were copied into the minute book following the meeting minutes for 20 November 1699. The Hart Street church concluded that Taylor’s actions amounted to ‘a wicked and sinful rent and separation’. The High Hall church stated that he was ‘guilty of schism and by that we intend a sinful separation’; Taylor was guilty of ‘sowing discord’ and ‘endeavouring to draw off a party’ and the church needed to ‘suspend him from his office, but also to exclude him their communion as a member’. The Barbican church also judged Taylor ‘guilty of a very greatly aggravated schism’ worsened by ‘his so grossly reflecting upon the said church’; Taylor’s crimes required ‘a public satisfaction and repentance’ with ‘his utmost endeavour to restore to the church those members he has thereby drawn off’, without which his repentance could not be accepted as sincere. Given these conclusions, it is unsurprising that the White’s Alley church resolved that Taylor was guilty of ‘making a wicked and sinful rent and schism’, as well as ‘several gross immoralities’; he was excluded from communion and the words of the exclusion were copied into the church book.
Once Taylor had been excluded, the White’s Alley church was able to start proceedings against the members who had been to hear him preach at Devonshire Square and Loriner’s Hall. Having refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new congregation, the White’s Alley church summoned their former members to appear and be admonished. In order to reach the most authoritative possible judgement, they once again requested assistance from High Hall, Hart Street and Barbican to assist in the ensuing examinations. Persuading the schismatics to stand trial was far from easy: at a meeting in December between the White’s Alley messengers and the defectors, the latter left the discussions early and refused to ‘make any defence’. Nevertheless, the judgement to emerge from the proceedings was never in doubt. The church at High Hall recommended that the White’s Alley church give ‘due admonition’ to the schismatic members ‘to endeavour their conviction’ and exclude them if they did not return to their duty. Representatives from the Hart Street church recorded that whereas some of the schismatic members had ‘declared the sense of their evil therein and desired to return and were received’, the rest ‘could not be persuaded’. Their conclusion was that the people who had departed with Taylor were ‘rash and disorderly’: those who had confessed should be admonished ‘with all tenderness’, but withdrawn from if they refused to return to the church. The church at Barbican urged the White’s Alley members not only to ‘pray to God for [the schismatics] but in the spirit of meekness . . . admonish them to repent and forsake the evil into which they are fallen’. Following this plethora of advice, the church convicted their former members of ‘a wicked, sinful rent and schism’, resolved that if they continued to condemn the authority of the church they would be excluded, and promptly excluded 19 members, one of whom immediately reacted by describing it as ‘devilish censure’. On 19 February 1700 the proceedings continued; the church elders ordered the messengers to ‘bring in an account of those members that are gone off to those persons meeting at Loriners Hall in order that they be admonished’, sent Mulliner and two other preachers to Taylor to admonish him ‘to repent of those horrid crimes and immoralities’, and sent the same persons to admonish ‘sister Taylor’ (presumably a close relation of the minister). By June 1700 the collapse of his incipient congregation forced an apparently contrite Taylor to appear before the White’s Alley messengers, to whom he ‘made acknowledgement of his great crimes’, and said ‘he did abhor them and him self for committing of them’; the church replied ‘his crimes were so great that they must take longer time’ to consider whether to take off his exclusion. At around the same time, several of the members who followed Taylor appeared before the church, manifested repentance, and were received into communion. The final mention of Taylor in the church book occurs in the minutes for 30 December 1700; Taylor had applied to become a member of the church of Christ in Petticoat Lane, but when the Petticoat Lane sent a message to White’s Alley, the latter replied that they had ‘not yet received satisfaction of his sincere repentance’ and that therefore they did not suppose themselves ‘accountable to any other church or people for those proceedings’. However, Taylor’s fellow schismatics continued to be brought before the church authorities in 1701 and disciplined, while in February 1704 a ‘sister Vavell (formerly Tayler)’, described as a ‘delinquent for several years’, applied to be readmitted to communion, and was received on 20 March.
After Taylor’s departure, the church went through a period of comparative stability. In March 1702 Mulliner and Jenkins were confirmed as the church’s preachers, and in January 1703 Mulliner also took up Jenkins’s duties; he was ordained as elder on 18 May 1703. Nevertheless, a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the internal machinations of the church’s messengers continued. On 24 August 1702 Jos Wellch, Thomas Sturrop and Benjamin Masters invoked their right to appeal to a sister church, ‘declaring themselves aggrieved’ following a dispute with another church brother, John Reeve, whom they accused of lying. An attempt at resolving the dispute, details of which remain unclear, was resolved on 26 September, when the representatives of both parties recommended mutual forgiveness. The church messengers also wrote to Wellch, Sturrop and Masters, asking them ‘not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together’ and observing that it was ‘impossible that any Christian community in the world should hold together where love is wanting’; the church desired the three members to appear at the next church meeting and ‘there in the spirit of meekness to let us know your grievance and not in a rough, illegal or uncommon way’. In another letter to the three brethren, the church noted that ‘the breach between [you] and us is not so great’, defended Reeves’s acquittal from the charge of lying, conceded that Sturrop’s complaint was driven not ‘to palliate his own fault’, and encouraged them to ‘be at peace’ with the church by acknowledging their sorrow and taking up their place once again. By January 1703 Sturrop had given the church satisfaction, but another 5 disaffected brethren were ‘still persisting to reject the church’s overtures of peace’. As a consequence, there was another day of fasting and prayer on Wednesday 24 January 1703 ‘to humble ourselves for those differences there has been amongst us’.
The longstanding controversy about laying on of hands also continued to simmer away. On 26 March 1704 Thomas Dean, one of the congregation’s preachers, made a speech to the church, arguing that the church’s desire respecting laying on of hands ‘did arise from the animosities and newly received opinions of some particular brethren’; his words resulted in the church withdrawing his right to preach among them, on the basis that he had ‘openly incensed the minds of the members of this church and consequently the spectators also’. Dean was sufficiently irked to raise the matter at the general association meeting in June 1704, although his complaint about his dismissal was rejected; furthermore, the general association determined that it was ‘lawful’ either for one administrator or two to lay hands upon baptized believers. By July 1706 Dean was preaching to the Baptists at Rainham, although he remained a member of the White’s Alley church; nevertheless, the dissatisfaction of the Rainham congregation with Dean’s preaching forced Mulliner to take steps to endeavour their reconciliation. As late as September 1707 Dean reportedly considered himself ‘excluded’ from the White’s Alley pulpit, prompting the church to ‘let him know that we have nothing against him’; in November 1707 he was present at a church meeting and ‘does acknowledge himself satisfied with the church and . . . with brother Mulliner’. However, he remained a divisive figure: in 1710 he was ‘in place’ as a preacher at the High Hall Baptist church, which nevertheless continued to request that Mulliner attend their meetings instead.
The church also continued to suffer the gradual dropping-off of disenchanted members. In August 1707 Wellch was desired to forbear communion for complaining that Mulliner had been ‘preaching one thing in the pulpit and practising another in discipline’. When Wellch challenged this judgement, the churches at Horsleydown and Dunning’s Alley were called in to determine the matter, and they concluded in April 1708 that ‘the church at Whites Alley have dealt very tenderly and Christianly with brother Wellch.’ However, Wellch had still not reconciled himself to the church in December 1708. Early in 1708 Sturrop, who was still one of the church’s deacons, was visited by the church’s messengers for neglecting his office; he replied that he did not consider himself ‘chosen by the church as such’ and looked upon himself to be ‘discharged by the same [divine] power that called him’. Across the Autumn of 1709 the church was in discussion with brother Thomas Cox, who also sought to be discharged from his office as a deacon; the church felt that ‘there is no rule in the scriptures by which brother Cox may be discharged’, but agreed to leave him ‘to his liberty to use his office or desist’. In reaching this moderate conclusion, the church was finally beginning to recognise that the goals of doctrinal purity could sometimes intensify rather than eliminate controversy.
This introduction to the White’s Alley church records has attempted to achieve two objectives. In the first section, I have examined how theology and church government were interlinked not only in theoretical but also in deeply practical ways for dissenting churches. The material business of church government, whether collecting subscriptions, attending association meetings, or selling pamphlets was never simply mundane for dissenters in the later Stuart period. Each aspect of this business provided the church with a reminder of the precise reasons why it dissented from the established Church of England, and required a continual process of self-definition which was enforced and reinforced through the written as well as the oral word. In the second section, we have seen quite how dependent each of the White’s Alley ministers was on the smooth functioning of this relationship between church business and church ideas. Once the ideas started to come into conflict, the church business could swiftly grind to a halt, or (in the case of Taylor) be forced into different channels. Sound finances, in and of themselves, were not enough for a church to survive. Sound ideas, whatever that might mean, were also required.