By 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.