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,

Monksthorpe Baptist Chapel, Monksthorpe, Lincolnshire, by Brian, 


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).

In October 1706, the Church decided that there should be a committee ‘to Examine ye Deacons Accounts & also whether all ye Bookes are in ye Library’ (Paul’s Alley, fol. 120). When, in November 1709, the Baptist ministers meeting at Norwich Coffee House, in Threadneedle Street, announced their intention to ‘erect a publick Library out of ye Fund design’d for bringing up Persons for ye Ministry’, Paul’s Alley immediately proposed the use of its building to that effect (Paul’s Alley, fol. 142).

Books were often distributed to targeted members of the community, most of whom candidates to the Baptist ministry.  On 28th June 1692, the first Church book of the congregation meeting in Old Gravel (1676-1711) states ‘Att the same time ther was three pounds worthe of books disposed unto seuerall younge bretheren in the congregation and aboute 12 months agoe ther was six pound giuen to other bretheren for books’ (Wapping CB, fol. 53). The two lists do not appear alongside the entry but were inserted at the beginning of the manuscript, just after the register of members. In the earlier 1691 list of books distributed to ‘other brethren’ we find, among others, Stephen Charnock, Richard Baxter ‘on Witches’ and John Bunyan’s Holy War, as well as ‘one English Dictionary’, ‘One book Logic and Retoric’, an unspecified confession of faith and ‘one scholars Library’, this last valued at 12 shillings. In the 1692 list, specifically intended for ‘younge bretheren’, there is considerable overlap with the previous one, but we also find five copies of the confession of faith, instead of just one, three copies of William Ames’s The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, and ‘one Newtons Logic’.

Another one is to be found in the Church records of Hexham and Hamsterley, at the Angus Library and Archive, Regent’s Park College, Oxford. ‘Aug. 26. 1717. A Catalouge of books given me by Jo. Ward of Calffall’ is an annotated (and truncated) list of 34 books which does not seem to have been examined and requires closer examination.

3- Churches’ sale of books

Not content with owning and distributing books, the Baptists also organised book sales in their meeting houses. In the 1690s, in White’s Alley (General) Baptist congregation, in Moorfield, it was the practice to display books, on the communion table, for sale to members and hearers. It seems that the titles first had to be approved by the then minister, Joseph Taylor, before being put out for sale. Some titles are more easily identified than others, but they reflect a broad range of interest: conduct books for parents and children, funeral sermons, and the ubiquitous anti-Quaker and anti-Catholic propaganda. The ones identified below are short publications, quartos of between 8 and 28 pages. The sale might have been a popular practice in the mid-1690s since the first Church book (1681-1700) records it happening on four separate occasions, about once a year:

– in November 1695 ‘Bro. Cooper Book of Kent his Book of Advice to Parents & Children may be laid vpon ye Table in order to ye sale of them’ (White’s Alley CB, Fol. 133r), the plural suggesting there might have been more than one copy;

– in November 1696 were sold ‘som of those Bookes written by Bro: Stanly being a funerall discourse on occasion of [deleted word Reve ? replaced with] the Death of Bro: Will: Reve’ (White’s Alley CB, Fol. 149r), that is, A sermon preach’d at the funeral of Mr. William Reeve, a minister of Christ and servant to the churches…London, 1696, Wing S5235. Again, the plural might indicate several copies;

– in April 1698 were sold two titles, ‘a litle book of Baptisme…likewise a book ag[ain]st ye Quakers writt by a country friend’ (White’s Alley CB, Fol. 169r), the latter perhaps being W. D., A Letter from a gentleman in the country to his friend at London concerning a conference between some clergy-men…and some Quakers [London], 1698, Wing D97;

– in June 1699 ‘a Booke Called Mr pillkintons Recantation’ (White’s Alley CB, fol. 186r), that is John Piggott, An Account of Mr. John Pilkington’s public recantation of the errors of the Romish Church, London, 1699, Wing P220.

3- The Churches as Publishing Sponsors

Earlier on, but still in White’s Alley, the Church meeting of 11 March 1688/9 reveals that one of the deacons, Joseph Walker, had been approached by the printer Francis Smith, by then almost entirely ruined, for financial relief. The whole entry is not often quoted:

 Agreed that wheras Mr ffr: Smith has this day Informed vs By Bro. Jos: walker ye [sic] he did sevarall years past at ye Request of Divers Bretheren of ye Babtized p[er]swation as well p[er]ticulars as genaralls print severall papers which were Iudged to be for ye Intrest of ye Babtized Churches in Generall, and did give away severall of them <for> which as he sayes he was never yet fulley satisfyed and therefore Altho we doe not find or selves Concerned to Reimburse him yet Considering his necesetus Condidcon it is ordered yt Bro Jos: walker give him ten shillings (White’s Alley CB, fol. 38r).

 Smith was a shrewd observer of the General Baptist London life for White’s Alley, with Glasshouse Yard, was the richest of the five London Churches (White’s Alley, Glasshouse Yard, Goodman’s Fields, Shad Thames/Dock Head and Winchester Park). White’s Alley had a long tradition of assisting the poor, having up to eight deacons at a given time, and made a point of offering financial assistance to members of other congregations, among which were members of the Goswell Street congregation to which Smith preached (White’s Alley CB, fol. 41r).

There were other ways to further the interests of godly publishing. On 18 April 1693, the General Baptist Church meeting at Hart Street, Covent Garden, decided to organise a special collection the following Sunday ‘towards the pmoteing the printing of a booke in the Welsh Language relating to the trueths of the Gospell’ (Covent Garden CB, n. fol.). On 21st August 1694 Wapping also decided to ‘raise twenty shillings for printing Bro. Norcotts booke of baptism into Welsh’, perhaps the same book as before (Wapping CB, fol. 64). This is probably the third (posthumous) edition of John Norcott’s Baptism Discovered Plainly & Faithfully (Wing N1227A) a fairly popular treatise whose Welsh translation did indeed appear in 1694. In November 1702 (just after the death of their pastor, Hercules Collins), they pledged to ‘promote’ Joseph Stennett’s forthcoming answer to David Russen’s ‘scandelous book Lately published’ (Wapping CB, fol. 102), that is Fondamentals without Foundation: Or, A True Picture of the Anabaptists, In their Rise, Progress, and Practice (dated 1703 on the title-page). A few folios later, we learn that ‘promoting’ meant raising a subscription to support the printing of 100 copies of Stennett’s pamphlet, finally published in 1704 (Wapping CB, fol. 106, 109). The Stennett subscription also appears in the Bampton Church book, which managed to find 50 subscribers among its membership (Bampton CB, fol. 40). This was perhaps no coincidence since James Murch, of Bampton was, at the very same time, approached by Wapping to replace Hercules Collins.

The manuscript records of dissenting Churches are not usually considered fit material to gather such information about printers, book sales, or book distribution and yet they reveal the extent of their collective support both inside and outside the congregations. Those documents certainly do not yield as rich a crop as libraries’ or booksellers’ catalogues, or advertisements. And yet, if put together and enlarged with information from other records, and if properly investigated, they could nicely complement other sources of evidence for larger studies of dissenting book culture.

Manuscript references

Dunstable, Strict Baptist Historical Society/Church Hill Baptist Church, Walthamstow

Wapping Minute Book (1676-1711).

London, London Metropolitan Archives

CLC/186/MS00592/001, Baptist Church (White’s Alley) Church Book, Minutes of Church Meeting of the General Baptist Church, 1681-1700.

Oxford, Regent’s Park College, Angus Library and Archive

ALA MS Bampton (Devon), Church Book, 1690-1832

ALA MS London, ‘The Church Book att Covent Garden Anno : 1691 to Anno : 1699’

ALA MS London, Glasshouse Yard (Goswell Street), minutes, 1680-1740

ALA MS London, [Paul’s Alley], Barbican Church Minute Book, August 1699 to September 1739

ALA MS ‘Records & Letters Relative to the Baptist Church at Hexham, from Oct. 1651–to July 1680 Followed by Records of the Church at Hamsterly in the County of Durham’.

Cite this blog post
Anne Page (2015, January 29). Baptist Churches and their Books. Dissenting Experience. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

Anne Page

Anne Dunan-Page is Professor of early modern British studies at Aix-Marseille University

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