By Mark Burden
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).
Continue reading InvenCaP Blog – The church records of White’s Alley, London – (1) – Principles and Pastors