Tag Archives: General Baptists

InvenCaP Blog – The Church Records of White’s Alley, London – (2) – Disciplinary Cases and the Interpretation of Non-Attendance Figures

By Mark Burden

In recent times, historians have quite correctly expressed reservations about the wide–spread assumption that a family’s non–attendance at a parish church might indicate their support for dissent. However, little attention has been paid to the opposite premise: that increasing levels of non–attendance at a dissenting church might indicate a falling–off of support for that church. It is certainly the case that non–attendance figures, whether relating to the Church of England or a dissenting congregation, should not always be interpreted in relation to national political events. In the absence of traceable links between those events and the figures themselves, and in response to the danger of making a category error by comparing numbers and events, it might seem safer to desist from attributing any such connections. Yet for many scholars, perhaps particularly those with a background in literary studies, it is equally counter-intuitive to deny any link between church attendance and political ideas, given the obvious point that people’s actions are affected by their beliefs. For scholars adopting this alternative set of assumptions, it would hardly be surprising if church books, which were conceived primarily as practical documents, did not attribute declining attendance to political events and ideas; yet to rule out any such connections is to overlook a number of important factors. Firstly, to be a dissenter in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was, by definition, to be at the centre of a number of political arguments and events, and to be very much aware of the fact. While not impossible, it would have been extremely difficult to be a covenanted member of a Congregational or Baptist church and not to have recognised that to do so was to participate in an organisation in competition with the state church. Furthermore, for researchers who think of politics not only in terms of legislature and executive but in terms of people (polis as well as polity), there are further reasons for viewing church attendance figures as political: informed by the debates which sometimes simmered and sometimes raged about them, a dissenter’s decision to stop attending chapel – whatever the trigger might be – was in and of itself a political act.

In this blog, I would like to explore the issue of non–attendance by analysing the disciplinary cases brought by the White’s Alley General Baptist Church in London against its members, 1681-1714. A brief history of the church and its ministers is provided in my previous blog. The reason for using this church to comment upon church attendance and discipline is primarily pragmatic: the church books contain an almost unparalleled level of detail relating to proceedings against recalcitrant members for the period under question. They also enable us to distinguish between the number of cases opened against church members, and the number of times they were cited in the minutes. By ‘case’ I mean the complete set of proceedings against a member for a particular misdemeanour or group of connected misdemeanours. By ‘citation’ I mean an entry in the church book recording either the misdemeanour, the church’s action, or some combination of the two. Thus it is possible to be cited many times for the same misdemeanour, and all of the citations collectively constitute one case. It will therefore be noted that the term ‘citation’ is used rather differently in this blog than in most accounts of seventeenth-century dissent, where it refers to the accused being summoned to appear in front of the quarter sessions, manorial, or church courts. In its conventional usage, then, the term implies that the accused was considered by officialdom to be too much of a dissenter; in this blog, the term carries the implication that the White’s Alley church considered the accused to be too little of a dissenter, in that they were insufficiently Godly. The following analysis consists of two elements: a discussion of reasons for the fluctuations in the number of disciplinary citations, and an account of the disciplinary cases brought against women.

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InvenCaP Blog – The church records of White’s Alley, London – (1) – Principles and Pastors

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).

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Baptist Churches and their Books

Major research projects such as the Dissenting Academies Project at the Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, and the Reading Experience Database, have recently alerted us to the importance of book owership and book circulation in dissenting circles. It may be surprising to find information in the records and minutes of gathered Churches, but these manuscripts contain evidence relevant to scholars of literature, and they can afford a glimpse of the reading habits, the intellectual horizons, and the spare funds of the dissenting communities. There are at least three possible areas for investigation, as illustrated by the following four short examples:

Monksthorpe Baptist Chapel, http://www.flickr.com/photos/79727841@N00/2181337664
Monksthorpe Baptist Chapel, Monksthorpe, Lincolnshire, by Brian,http://www.flickr.com/photos/79727841@N00/2181337664 

 

1- Churches’ Libraries and Catalogues

Baptist Churches purchased books thanks to donations from members, benefactors, and their common funds. In the Barbican Church, in Paul’s Alley, there was a ‘Library’, a multi-purposed room where not only books, but also important documents (such as letters of the Associations) were kept, where auditing the yearly accounts was conducted, as well as ‘exercising’ of gifts (Paul’s Alley, fol. 106, 147, 163, 173).

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