On 14 February 1654 the Baptist church that would later meet regularly at Loughwood, East Devon, gathered at nearby Kilmington and recorded the first entry in what is now known and catalogued in the Devon Heritage Centre as a ‘proceedings book’. These earliest records reveal the gathered church’s immediate concerns: strengthening their local church community (which extended to Honiton and Ottery St Mary in the west, Colyton in the south, and Axminster to the east), and building links with other Baptist communities in Britain and Ireland. As indicated by the records, many members had expressed a ‘greivance’ that the church was without a pastor, and James Hitt, one of the congregation’s elders, was instructed to ‘draw upp an Epistle’ (DHCE 3700D/M/1, p. 7) to send to John Pendarves, a Particular Baptist minister who had successfully set up the Abingdon Association of Berkshire churches in 1652, and would continue to share millenarian views with many of the Baptists in the West Country region where he was born. It is not hard to see why the church wanted Pendarves as their minister: he was a popular, if controversial, preacher, shared a preoccupation with millenarianism with some of its leading members (of which more below), and had proven organisational abilities. Pendarves was to turn down the church’s request, visiting and corresponding the with church and their brethren at Lyme Regis but remaining in Abingdon until he died in 1656, but it remained clear to the members gathering at Kilmington that they needed to reform their practices: they concluded that they would follow 1 Corinthians 14:29 (‘Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge’) and thereby ‘try’ doctrine in the church, and cure the ‘deadness uppon the spirits of the membrs in generall’ by establishing an extra monthly fast day for ‘weighty causes laid before us by our Brethren of Ireland’ (DHCE 3700D/M/1, p. 7).
‘Deadness’ in spirit, manifesting itself in neglect of office and attendance, was to become a particular focus in the church’s efforts to strengthen and reform their church: in the following September, they more formally set out the ‘p[ar]ticular evills’ they wanted to address, which included ‘gen[er]all lukwarmenesse which hath seized the spiritts of many of us’ (DHCE 3700D/M/1, p. 11), ‘want of love to, and care of each othr in the Lord’, neglect of scripture, ‘sinfull complyance yt is with ye world’, the ‘greate neglect’ of assembling together, and ‘greate backwardnesse’ in charitable activities. For the rest of the decade, the church gathering at Loughwood would use their ‘proceedings book’ to record the measures taken to address attendance, charitable activities (members of the church continued to raise money for their meeting house – still in existence, picture below – and for members facing particular economic trials), and the substance of meetings, but it may also be understood as a way of formalising and demarcating this godly community in difficult times.
Figure 1: Loughwood Meeting House, near Axminister, dating from the 1650s and cared for by the National Trust. (Picture credit: Rachel Adcock.)
In the earliest published scholarly material relating to the Baptist church gathering at Loughwood in the 1650s, the historian W. T. Whitley observed that when the church began their ‘proceedings book’, the ‘Baptists and Fifth-Monarchy men were at the zenith of their political influence, so that it was safe, and it became usual, to keep records of church affairs’ (Whitley, ‘Loughwood’, 129). As Whitley was aware, many gathered churches began keeping record books in the early 1650s, as did the various Baptist Associations of churches: the records of the Western Association that Geoffrey Nuttall re-discovered, for instance, begin in 1653. The freedom to keep these records was certainly a factor in their proliferation, but the political position of the Fifth Monarchists, many of whom were Baptists, was less certain than Whitley suggests. Indeed, Bernard Capp, author of a seminal study on the fifth monarchists, writes that the period following the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament in December 1653, produced a movement that ‘emerged as a reaction to fading, not rising expectations’ (Capp, Fifth Monarchy Men, 54). This state of affairs also prompted Anna Trapnel’s prophetic outpourings in early 1654 and later, in 1657/8. In June 1653, roughly a year earlier than Trapnel’s prophecies and the first entry in the proceedings book, one of the Loughwood church’s possible founders and later elder, Captain John Vernon, had carried a letter signed at Waterford, Ireland which the London churches circulated, deploring the ‘worldly’ content of existing communications instead of focusing on ‘the condition, increase, growth and decrease of the commonwealth of Israell’. In response, the epistle, signed by Particular Baptist ministers Christopher Blackwood and Thomas Patient, called for congregations to ‘put on the whole armoure of God that wee may be able to stand in this day, and, having done all, to stand’ (White, ‘Irish Correspondence’, II, 114).
The meeting at Kilmington acknowledged these ‘weighty causes’, and began to record lists of members (the earliest seems to date from c. 1654 and continued to be updated until a later version was made in 1658 and continually updated until 1659), and the proceedings of church meetings, in order to keep a track of membership, and ensure that absent members received a visit from an elder. What was produced was a textual demarcation of the East Devon Baptist community; a way of recording the ‘condition’ and ‘increase’ of the church, as well as justifying the ‘decrease’ when members went astray on grounds of dissension or neglect. The neglect of any member (or of the church in general) in terms of attendance, worship, or official duties, could no longer be tolerated: it is perhaps no surprise that ‘neglect’ is the most prevalent term mentioned by the proceedings book in cases requiring admonition or excommunication.
The national concerns of the more millenarian Baptists, and the examples of record keeping provided and urged by other congregations, undoubtedly contributed to the Loughwood church’s new practice of record keeping, but they were also still reeling from a split in the church on 15 December 1653 that occurred just two months before the first entry. About 70 members of the church meeting in and surrounding Kilmington who lived at Lyme Regis, split for reasons of distance (Lyme is 7 miles to the south east of Kilmington), leaving 92 members to continue meetings in and around Kilmington. The proceedings book contains no mention of this, but the records of the Lyme Regis Baptist Church indicate that detailed discussions took place before the church was allowed to gather separately. The Loughwood Church deplored their state in a letter to the Lyme Church asking: ‘whether ye most & best gifts be not with you & the greatest need with us’ (DHC NB.6/CM/1/1, p. 23).
A similar request to divide the church from the members at Honiton (further from Kilmington, at around 8 miles) on 27 September 1654 was met with reluctance: instead, the church promised to help members reach Kilmington once a month, and, despite earlier worries on this account, to provide elders ‘with gifts’ to preach at Honiton, and Ottery St Mary for the other three weeks. Due to the large distances involved, absence and neglect were common accusations levelled at disciplined members, and the church continued to do all it could to strengthen and encourage its existing membership. In the summer season, in particular, members would meet monthly to ‘seeke god togeather and communicate there experiences; and inquire into one anothrs condition’ (DHCE 3700D/M/1, p. 16). By 31 March 1657, the church spent 9am until 3pm (with an hour’s break for sustenance) listening to the ‘publique exercise’ of one of the elders, then spent 1-2 hours discussing non-members, communicating their experiences, inquiring after absent members, and discussing the things they had heard (DHCE 3700D/M/1, p. 21). It was common practice for Baptist churches to prevent women from speaking in church in order to debate doctrinal issues according to 1 Corinthians 14:24 (‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak…’) (though the sharing of experiences was allowed, of which more below), but the church encouraged sisters to be ‘diligent’ in exhorting each other to their duty in a separate women’s meeting (DHCE 3700D/M/1, p. 16). This gave women an important role in maintaining the wellbeing of the church where there could be a danger of their feeling undervalued. Encouraging such meetings, where the whole church was not present, provided a space for women to take vital roles in church affairs, while also abiding by scriptural precedents.
A clearer sense of the value placed on the experiences and trials of individual members can be gained by considering The Captive taken from the Strong: or, A True Relation of the Gratious Release of Mistrisse Deborah Huish, a text published by the Loughwood congregation and addressed ‘to every true Mourner over his own, and Zion’s sins and sorrows; especially to such in the Churches of Christ in Ireland’ (True Relation, sig. A8). The text was printed in 1658 for Livewell Chapman, a well-known bookseller of radical material, bearing several prefaces by the church’s current elders: former New Model Army officers, Adjutant General William Allen and Captain John Vernon; fellow army man Robert Doyly; and the three other church elders, Henry Parsons, John Owen, and James Hitt. A list of brethren with ‘gifts’ dating from 1658/9 has been added to the page opposite the 1658 list of members: this members’ list includes the names of Vernon and his wife, Allen, and the newly baptised Deborah Huish of nearby Sand, Sidbury (picture above), whose experiences are recorded in the body of the work. Huish’s experiences ‘heard out of her own mouth, in the midst of the Congregation’ (True Relation, sig. b6) and transcribed by Allen, express her ‘wonderful deliverance’ from acute religious despondency (she considers taking her own life), and her justification for practising believers’ baptism is set out. Allen and Vernon had a particularly strong connection to Huish because they had married her two elder sisters, Mary and Anne. Their father, James Huish, a member of the landed gentry, had sided with Charles I during the Civil War on the opposite side to Allen and Vernon who were part of Fairfax’s regiment that won Exeter back from Royalist control in 1646. By the time of their marriage, probably in the early 1650s, it is possible that James was looking for a way to prove his loyalty to the commonwealth. Allen, Vernon, their wives, and Deborah, all travelled to Ireland in June 1654 and Vernon, in particular, travelled around proselytising and appears frequently in reports sent to Cromwell’s intelligencer, John Thurloe. Both men resigned their official posts in 1656, disillusioned with Cromwell’s cause and his persecution of the saints, and returned to Loughwood in the October of 1657 where they became brethren appointed to ‘exercise their gifts’. Huish’s experiences were, Allen wrote, a ‘signal mercy’ for the people of God and a ‘pledge and pattern of what God will yet do, not onely for poor disconsolate souls in like conditions; but also for the recovery and raising his publicke works, so far gone back in these Nations’ (True Relation, sig. A5v). If their Baptist community was faithful and taking all measures to prepare themselves (as Huish had done), the elders believed they would be rewarded: in language characteristic of Fifth Monarchist publications, Parsons, Owen, and Hitt declared that they valued each member’s experience of Christ and his ‘appearing with that glorious Kingdom, we desire to be dayly better prepared’ (True Relation, sig. A8v).
The publication of Huish’s experiences sometime after 2 March 1658 coincided with an increase in dated entries starting from 29 April (14 entries for 1658 compared to 8 entries in 1654, see table below), and renewed attempts by the Fifth Monarchists to secure the support of the Baptist associations (including the churches in London) in putting pressure on the government.
|Year||No. of entries||Dates of entries|
|1654||8||14 February; 25 April; 13 September; 27 September; 31 October; 8 November; 24 October; 27 December|
|1655||9||10 January; 21 January; 24 January; February; 3 May; 9 May; 10 August; 16 November; 28 December|
|1656||3 (+1 date and no entry)||14 February; 20 February; 9 August; 26 November [no entry]|
|1657||6||13 January; 31 March; 28 April; 3 June; 12 August; 13 November|
|1658||14||21 April; 21 July; 11 August; 25 August; 1 September; 8 September; 22 September; 29 September; 6 October; 13 October; 1 December; 15 December; 19 December; 29 December|
|1659||10||5 January; 26 January; 30 January; 16 February; 2 March; 16 March; 30 March; 10 April; 4 May; 1 June|
Still under surveillance by Cromwell’s spies, Allen and Vernon attended a meeting of the Baptist Western Association on 12-15 May at Dorchester where it was discussed that these were ‘time[s] of Syon’s affliction’, where, in the evening of the first day they gathered a private meeting where a ‘greate contest ar[o]se aboute [the Baptists’] joyneinge with the fifth-monarchy-men’ (State Papers of John Thurloe, VII, 139). The London Baptist leader, William Kiffin, opposed this proposal and continued to lead the Baptists away from the radicals, but members of the Loughwood Church continued to urge reform in preparation for Christ’s imminent arrival, and remained critical of the government. The last entry in the proceedings book before the Restoration on 1 June 1659 declares that the church will hold a day of thanksgiving for God’s ‘late Publique blessinge in changinge the Governmt and streame of Affaires in the Nation’, the recalling of the Rump Parliament on 7 May. The elder, Robert Doyly, was sent as a messenger to ‘Sarum’ (Salisbury) to contribute to a joint petition from ‘the Churches and diverse well affected p[er]sons’ (DHCE 3700D/M/1, p. 34) to the new parliament, which was probably The Humble Petition of many Well-affected Persons of Somerset, Wilts, and some Parts of Devon, Dorset and Hampshire . . . against Tythes (printed for Livewell Chapman with parliament’s answer on 14 June 1659). The petition deplored the ‘some years unhappie diversion from a Free State to a Single Person’, and restated arguments against the ‘heavie and unequal Burthen’ of tithes, and pleaded for the cause of the godly in the nation: they asked that the parliament protect them ‘in our Persons, Liberties and Estates, in the peaceable preaching & practising the truths we profess’ (Humble Petition, 4). In September 1659, Vernon and Allen also signed the broadside plea, An Essay toward Settlement upon a Sure Foundation, being a Humble Testimony for God in this Perillous Time, along with John Owen, James Hitt, and Henry Parsons, the elders who signed Huish’s testimony, and leading Fifth Monarchists Hugh Courtney, Henry Danvers, Henry Jessey, and Vavasor Powell among others. Here, the signatories prayed that there be no ‘King’, ‘chiefe Magistrate’, or ‘House of Lords’, as the ‘late single Person (in professed pursuit of Reformation)’ was ‘of an haughty and abusive spirit’, but the country should be governed by godly men qualified as ministers and liberty of conscience allowed. Soon after this, however, the republic collapsed; Vernon and Allen were arrested and subsequently fined and banished, though Vernon still remained in London administering to plague victims and did not return to Loughwood; Deborah Huish died in 1662; and the Loughwood Church provided only four entries for the 1660s (all after the conventicle act was relaxed), only resuming the book again in 1696. But, contrary to the picture of a struggling congregation that this hints at, the minister Abraham Cheare, imprisoned in Exeter gaol, reported in a letter to Abraham Punchard on 17 September 1662 that ‘they at Dalwood have a very large and increasing meeting, where the Lord is present as a covert to them’ (Ivimey, Baptists, II, 107). Evidently, the church managed to withstand these changes in fortune having established church order in the 1650s.
Given that the Loughwood ‘proceedings book’ only provides a detailed account of six years of its seventeenth-century history, these records can tell us a lot about why a congregation would choose to keep such a book and what one could be used for. Writing this book was a way to demarcate and strengthen a community under threat, because of practical concerns like geographical separateness, or from spiritual neglect caused by fading hopes in the ‘good old cause’. The day-to-day order and discipline of the church ensured that the members were ready and prepared for Christ’s imminent arrival: the list of members acted as a list of the hopeful elect ready to receive the kingdom. A church book, like other publications signed by members of the congregation, was a textual representation of a separate godly community that was concerned both about its own health, but the health of its fellow congregations across the nation.
Church books cited:
‘Lyme Regis Baptist Church: Minutes’, Dorset History Centre (DHC), NB.6/CM/1/1.
‘Proceedings book of Meetings in East Devon, chiefly at Loughwood Baptist Chapel in Dalwood parish, 1653-1795’, Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter (DHCE), 3700D/M/1.
Allen, William, John Vernon, et al., The Captive taken from the Strong (1658).
An Essay toward Settlement (1659).
Birch, J. T. (ed.), A Collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe (1742).
Capp, Bernard, The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Millenarianism (London, 1972).
The Humble Petition of many Well-affected Persons (1659).
Ivimey, Joseph, A History of the English Baptists (London, 1814), II.
White, B. R. (ed.), ‘The Irish Correspondence of 1653’, in Association Records of the Particular Baptists of England, Wales, and Ireland to 1660 (London, 1971-4), II.
Whitley, W. T., ‘Loughwood and Honiton, 1650-1800’, Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society, IV (1914-15), 129-44.