InvenCaP Blog – What is a Dissenting Church Book?
By Mark Burden
On 27 December 1821 the dissenting antiquarian Benjamin Hanbury supplemented his recent transcription of the eighteenth-century register of Isaac Watts’s church with a description of the original manuscript. This source text had been placed into his hands in a ‘mutilated state’, having been ‘lately bought for waste paper’; indeed, Hanbury feared that the ‘major part of the original MS. is therefore entirely lost’, although ‘what is here preserved must be exceedingly valuable to the inquirer into Church History among the Dissenters’. Few historians of early eighteenth-century British dissent would now deny the importance of such a large collection of records relating to Watts’s church, not least since the original text appears to contain interlineations by the prominent dissenting academy tutor Samuel Morton Savage. We may also share Hanbury’s regret at the lost leaves and mutilated state of the manuscript, although incompleteness, messiness, and imperfection can often be seen as interesting if not positively virtuous characteristics of a document.
Perhaps Hanbury’s remarks should also encourage us to reconsider our preconceptions about the nature of dissenting church books, registers, and records. Later Stuart dissenters certainly used the term ‘church book’ in several different ways. In a general sense, it meant a writing book owned by the church, or bought for the church – this is the sense given by a note from a manuscript formerly belonging to Slapton Baptist Church: ‘Memorandum this Church book was dellivered to Thomas Lovell Aprill the 4 1705’. Although this book does contain a few early notes on church acts and members scribbled into the back of the volume, the main series of memoranda prior to 1705 are receipts recorded by one of the church officers, ‘Jos: Goodman’. The early Baptist church books, then, could often function as financial accounts, often scribbled into small octavo volumes, rather than the hefty folios which grew in popularity as the eighteenth century progressed.
Another distinction which can only be maintained with care is that between a church book and a church register. The difference is perhaps in part ideological – InvenCaP’s initial survey of county record offices suggests that the term ‘church book’ is more frequently used of the records of Baptist and Congregational or Independent churches, whereas the records of Presbyterians are more commonly described as registers. Whether this difference in terminology reflects any cut-and-dried material difference between Presbyterian and Congregational records will require further investigation. Another factor to add into the mix is a difference in provenance between documents in national and regional archives. In the early nineteenth century, the national Registration Commission requested that all documents relating to dissenting births, marriages, and deaths be sent to its offices in Downing Street, London. Some dissenting churches sent original records, whereas others provided specially-produced copies. All of these documents, regardless of age, provenance, or function, were then categorised as registers, and are now listed as such by The National Archives and other internet genealogical finding aids. Yet these records include church minutes, financial accounts, journals, sermon notes, and even ministerial commonplace books. Unsurprisingly, most churches wished to keep their own copies of these documents, which have for the most part now found their way into county archives; here they are now frequently described as church books rather than registers.
Finally, we should consider that manuscripts which have been bound or rebound at a much later date than originally written are often labelled ‘church books’, even if the contents were not originally in the form of a book. In this category come nineteenth-century guard books with pasted-in deeds, licences, and original letters. Other manuscripts with a late seventeenth-century date may purport to contain copies of documents from the Commonwealth or even earlier, alongside church histories and other apologetical writings. At this point even the distinction between an ‘original’ manuscript and a ‘copy’ starts to break down. It is these issues, among many others, which InvenCaP hopes to address over the coming months.