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.
The Number and Nature of Disciplinary Citations, 1681-1714
Around 900 citations relating to disciplinary cases were recorded in the church book between 1681 and 1714:
These figures indicate that the number of recorded citations per year rose considerably across the period. This growth in citations was the consequence of several interlocking factors: the church’s growing sense of its role as an arbiter of moral and theological debate, concurrent developments in national politics, and changes in the manner of recording church minutes.
A further breakdown of the citations is provided below:
|year||citations||total citations||citations for neglect||citations with no reason given||cases started||female cases started||citations / cases|
Explaining the fluctuations in the number of citations and cases on the basis of political developments alone is problematic. While it is true that few cases were recorded in the troubled period of the early 1680s, there is no simple way of mapping the number of cases onto the changing intensity of state opposition to dissent. For example, whereas 233 citations were written into the church book for the period 1689 to 1701 (a period often seen as a relative quietus in the prosecution of dissenters), 613 citations were recorded for the much more politically difficult years from 1702 to 1714. During this period, the White’s Alley disciplinary cases buck the trend observable in other dissenting records such as academy enrolment lists and minutes of church meetings, which tend to show decreasing levels of activity as persecution intensified. Indeed, the number of recorded citations actually peaked in 1709, 1710 and 1712, a period when dissenters were under increased political pressure as a result of the Sacheverell affair, the vociferous High Church cries that they had placed ‘the church in danger’, and the beginnings of the Tory push towards a schism bill.
So is there an alternative thesis? Is it the case that as the national mood began to swing away from support for dissent, incidences of non-attendance caused by fear or disillusion increased, leading to a greater number of disciplinary measures being taken by dissenting churches to combat perceived recalcitrance? Unfortunately, the evidence gathered so far provides only limited support to this idea. The key word used in the citations to signal non-attendance is ‘neglect’, and this word occurs in at least 120 of the 900 citations, with peaks in 1688 (12), 1696 (12), 1704 (7), 1709 (9) and 1712 (7). On the one hand, these peaks are consistent with the years in which the largest number of disciplinary citations were recorded; on the other hand, the numbers are too small to explain the surge in recorded cases in these years, and the suggestion that they reflect increased persecution would require the substantial caveat that the church in 1688 might well have been seeking to deal retrospectively with problems of non-attendance through the troubled 1680s. While there is some merit in each of these arguments, collectively they are unconvincing as an explanation for patterns of church non-attendance and do not account for the substantial rise in records across the period.
It is clear from a close study of the minutes that the fluctuations in recorded citations were also affected by changes in the methods used to record church meetings. These changes were themselves products of alterations in the political and cultural fabric of the country. The surviving records for the majority of dissenting churches are sparse in their coverage of the early 1680s, even taking into account the likelihood that congregations met considerably less frequently. Given that the White’s Alley church was convening illegally during these years, the logistics of organising gatherings and maintaining spiritual and emotional connections may have taken priority over the recording of disciplinary cases; furthermore, the systematic recording of meetings, including matters of church government, may have been seen as a hostage to fortune during a period when informers could be handsomely rewarded by the authorities for uncovering supposedly seditious conventicles. It is clearly significant that a large number of disciplinary cases (21) were recorded for 1687, which is the point at which the church’s minutes suddenly become more detailed and extensive, as well as being the year that James II promised a second royal Indulgence towards dissenters. The records of this year include three cases of drunkenness (Mew, Washburn, and Stiles), and several cases of brothers neglecting their position in the church (Painter, Hagare, Glading, Welch, the last of whom claimed to object to brother Allen’s preaching style). However, in the majority of instances, no reason is provided for the citation of an individual. Evidence from elsewhere in the church book suggests that most of these citations without reason were prompted by non-attendance, and that a reason was only provided if there were other charges. If this analysis is correct, it indicates that a large number of citations from the 1680s were the consequence of non-attendance, which is perhaps what might be expected during a period of persecution. At the same time, combined political and logistical factors were limiting the church’s ability to keep a full record of members’ attendance, with the result that non-attendance was under-recorded in the early minutes.
Further evidence that the frequency of recorded citations was affected by changes in the nature of the records is provided by the ratio of citations to cases. In the early records, most of the accused persons were cited only once, whereas in the later minutes there tended to be several citations for the most problematic cases. However, we know that this difference reflects changes in recording rather than disciplinary process because we can point to a few cases even in the earlier period where persons considered to be particularly refractory were reported upon over a number of months or even years. A certain ‘brother Washborne’, for instance, was summoned for drunken and scandalous life and conversation on 29 November 1686, 6 June 1687, and 1 August 1687; on 24 October 1687 the church recorded that he had been several times admonished and excluded him, and he was not restored until 9 April 1694. As time passed, the same family might become embroiled in a number of moral and more overtly theological controversies, resulting in several disciplinary cases being opened against them, and a large number of citations appearing in the minutes. On 3 November 1707 the church ordered the admonition of Goodwin Washbourne, presumably a relation if not the same man; his case was deferred (‘referred’) on 17 November 1707 and 15 December 1707 and on 5 April 1708 the church agreed to withdraw from him if he did not make good his place. On 3 May, 31 May and 23 August 1708 the church repeatedly deferred taking action against Washbourne because it was waiting for a report on his case by the church elders Samuel Keeling and brother Ellis; on 8 November 1708 it was reported that Washbourne still had nothing to say to the church, but it was not until 6 December 1708 that he was finally excluded for neglect and contempt of the church’s authority.
One perhaps surprising implication of this finding is that disciplinary cases could rumble on without resolution for a long period of time. There were many reasons why the church might delay its action, and in some cases it is possible to sense the presence of family dynamics and internal church politics as well as the use of the disciplinary structure as a means to correct turpitude. One such case, which gave rise to an unusually large number of citations, was the dispute between Thomas Bastin and his mother-in-law, sister Bottly. On 3 May 1708 Bastin accused Bottly of lying, slandering, and endeavouring to defraud him; he was called to prove the charges on 16 May, on which date he explained that Bottly accused him of courting another woman while his wife was living, maliciously called him ‘Bite’, said he had ‘bilked’ (i.e. defrauded) her, and accused him of leaving his wife in want during her illness; furthermore, he claimed that she had borrowed £10 from him without informing her husband and now refused to acknowledge the debt. The case was deferred, and they were both required to bring evidence, but Bottly was nevertheless suspended until she provided a written defence of her actions to the church on 2 June. On 27 July the church refused to provide a copy of that defence to Bastin, who then proceeded to be as disruptive as he could. The case was deferred again at Bastin’s request on 23 August, but he did not appear when the issue was raised again on 29 September, at which point the church elders promised to pass judgment in one month. On 8 November it was agreed to let brother Bastin know of a charge against him of endeavouring to defraud, and sister Bottly’s willingness to pay his just due; the church ordered them to settle the matter between themselves, or choose indifferent persons, or appear before the church. They were summoned again after the 6 December meeting, and ordered at the meeting of 3 January 1709 to reconcile each other, although Bastin refused to do so. On 17 January the church decided that sister Bottly was not guilty of belying and slandering Bastin; however two weeks later Bastin brought a further charge against his mother-in-law that she used rash and ill-advised expressions: both were reproved and again exhorted to be reconciled. This was not the end of the matter for Bastin: he had to be ‘put in mind of former advice’ on 20 June 1709, was reported on 18 July to have been ‘admonished’, and accused on 9 July of not making good his place at the church. Following this last accusation, he was accused on 31 October of ‘unchristian behaviour’ towards the church’s messengers and slighting their admonitions; on 28 November the church reported that he had been ‘admonished but not summonsed’ and agreed to withdraw from him if he did not appear at future church meetings. On 26 December he was said to have been ‘reproved and exhorted but refuses to hear the church’, and the church renewed its promise to withdraw from him if he would not repent. The final mention of him is in a minute for 23 January 1710, by which point he had applied to the church at High Hall; they contacted White’s Alley to know if the church had anything against him, but the White’s Alley church, knowing that High Hall was split on theological grounds, returned answer that they would ‘meddle not’ in its controversy.
The level of detail provided in the Bastin-Bottly case is exceptional, although it does indicate how much effort the church had to expend in order to pursue disciplinary cases to their full conclusion. Although most of the early cases are recorded in only one or two citations, this circumstance does not mean that the church was able to deal with them swiftly; rather, it is another indication that the patterns of record-keeping changed over time. Perhaps the most obvious interpretive problem to result from this difficulty is to establish the nature of the charges brought in a large number of the cases recorded. Almost exactly one quarter of the records (225) provide no reason for the citation of an individual. This should not be surprising, since the purpose of the church minutes was usually to record the course of action to be undertaken by the church in relation to an individual, rather than the nature of their misdemeanour. Fortunately, in many cases the accompanying records are sufficiently complete to trace the original grievance. For around 60 of the individuals mentioned (the exact number is difficult to measure) the original grievance was non-attendance; this equates to almost exactly 50% of the individuals in the ‘no reason’ category. By contrast, citations with no reason given which can be shown to relate to swearing, drunkenness, fornication, gaming and lying are very small in number: merely 13 in total. A further 9 individuals in the ‘no reason given’ category were cited for their participation in the ‘rent and schism’ which engulfed the church in 1700. Of the remaining 38 individuals in this category, 9 were cited in relation to the broad charges of scandalous or disorderly walking and practices. The most interesting of the remaining citations relate to communion with the Church of England (2 individuals), or infant baptism (2 individuals).
The finding that around half of the citations with ‘no reason given’ were on account of non-attendance enables us to provide a fuller picture of the reasons for fluctuating numbers of citations. As the chart above demonstrates, figures for citations ‘without reason’ tend to peak in the same years when the number of citations is particularly high. However, unlike the raw data for ‘neglect’, the figures for citations ‘without reason’ are sufficiently high and variable to explain a considerable portion of the variation in the total figure. In other words, the cases of neglect hidden within the citations ‘without reason’ are a contributory factor to the variation in the number of cases. Finally, to reiterate a previous point, many of the cases of neglect (whether expressed or hidden) were caused by a combination of political factors and internal matters of church politics, including the congregation’s frequent changes of minister.
Of the 471 persons cited, 52% (246) were women (these figures double-count persons who were cited for more than one reason). Leaving aside the years 1681-6 for which there is inadequate data, women were cited for between 40% and 60% of the cases in 14 of the 28 years between 1687 and 1714. The data falls conveniently into two equal sets of years, 1687-1700 and 1701-14. For the first set of years, women’s cases fall in the 40%-60% bracket for 7 of the 14 years, and in the 60% or lower bracket for 13 of the 14 years. The only one of these years to include a surprisingly large percentage of cases relating to women is 1689 (7/9 = 78%). Of the women cited in this year, two (sister Barker and sister Tomlins) were cited alongside their husbands, perhaps for non-attendance (although no reason is stated). Another woman, sister Scoldfield, was applying to have her communion restored, perhaps after an unrecorded earlier misdemeanour. Three other sisters were accused of evil or scandalous lives and conversation (Ann Rosaman, sister Coburn and sister Marchent). The remaining woman, sister Broughton, had absented herself on conscientious grounds, being unable to take communion until the church resolved not to give the bread and wine more than once to a communicant. The highest number of women’s cases in a single year prior to 1700 occurred in 1693 (8 cases); four women feature only under their husbands’ names in cases of non-attendance (wife Hether, wife Hunt, wife Hauks, and wife Whittecor); Elizabeth Borros and Mary Howard were reported to be of bad or scandalous life and conversation; Joanah Finch was cited for cursing and swearing, and sister Marshall for having a bastard child. There is no evidence in either of these years to suggest a change in gender attitudes or roles within the church following the 1688 revolution; rather, these citations suggest a somewhat predictable mixture of cases of women punished for their own perceived scandalous behaviour or for accompanying their husbands’ neglect and non-attendance.
Across the period 1701-14, women’s cases increased, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total cases. As for the earlier period, women’s cases fall in the 40%-60% bracket for 7 of the 14 years. However, there are no years for which women occupy less than 40% of the total cases, a situation which is nearly an exact mirror image of the period 1687-1700. The first reason for the rise in citations for women was the church’s decision to cite their minister Joseph Taylor in 1699 for picking up bawdy women and drinking with them. The women cited were supporters of Taylor, although they were clearly not the ‘bawdy’ women mentioned in the church book. The accusations against Taylor were part of a much larger dispute between him and some of the most powerful church members which resulted in Taylor setting up an alternative meeting in Loriner’s Hall and being convicted of schism by the majority of the church’s elders. At about the time that the dispute was intensifying, two women (sister Gregory and sister Miller) were excluded from communion for asserting that the doctrine of Christ dying for all (i.e. the church’s central creed of general redemption) was a ‘devilish’ belief. It is hard to know whether they were emboldened to express their beliefs as a consequence of the fall-out between Taylor and the church, but the timing is suggestive. In November 1699 the church issued a general citation relating to the brethren and sisters who went off with Taylor, and further citations relating to the members that ‘rent off’ from the church. Among the women cited for non-attendance in 1700 were sister Masters, sister Green, and ‘sister Taylor’, the latter presumably a close relation of the minister; another woman (Mrs Hays) applied to leave the church, and a further two women (sister Farmer and sister Barker) were cited without reason alongside their husbands.
However, it was not until 1701 that the church managed to issue citations mentioning each of the schismatic individuals by name, and this helps to explain the spike in cases relating to female members in this year. In February 1701, 20 women were cited without reason, of whom 6 were listed alongside their husbands and a further 14 in their own right. Later in the year, 5 of these women were specifically cited as schismatics, and the manner in which the other citations appear on the page of the manuscript makes it highly likely that the church viewed most if not all of the other 15 women in the same light. Two other women (sister Hyate and sister Hore) were cited with their husbands for absence, as was (in her own right) sister Green, while Mary Gibbons was also cited for schism a few months later, and sister Ashly was recorded as desiring to leave the church. Thus it seems that a large proportion of Taylor’s supporters were women, many of whom made their own decision to leave the church, although others may have been influenced, persuaded, or coerced by their husbands.
The next time the number of women’s cases rose to 20 was in 1710, before dropping to 12 in 1711 and rising further to 24 in 1712. Once again, this peak reflects the spike in over-all cases to 37 in 1710 and a further 37 in 1712; however of equal statistical interest is the high proportion of cases relating to women in 1711 (80%) in a year where only 15 cases were recorded. One immediate reason for the increased number of cases in 1710 and 1712 is that the church seems to have been attempting a crackdown on non-attendance during these years. Not only were more persons cited in 1710 than previously, but they were cited more frequently and more systematically; serial non-attenders were chased up and disciplined with increasing levels of rigour until it was felt appropriate to suspend or withdraw from them. This was a period of considerable flux in the church’s membership. In 1710, perhaps as many as 10 women were disciplined for non-attendance, while a further four expressed their desire to leave the church. Yet at the same time, the church made enquiries relating to three women who wished to join the congregation. In 1711, 7 women desired to leave the church and proceedings for negligence were initiated against a further two women; however, 2 women sought restoration to their previous status as communicants. In 1712 proceedings against 3 women were labelled explicitly as being on account of negligence; however, a further 15 citations without reason can also be identified as relating to the same cause, and another woman indicated her desire to remove from communion. In one of these cases, the person involved (sister Lewin) stopped attending because she had been persuaded of the doctrine of transubstantiation; another woman (Mary Messman) excluded herself on account of sins apparently revealed during a period of mental illness; another woman withdrew herself on account of being personally offended by members of the church; two others claimed that their bodily infirmities prevented them from attending. However, there is once again very little evidence from the church records that apathy was either caused by or tipping over into disagreements about issues of theology, church government, or politics. Rather, it seems as though the church’s attempts to discipline its negligent women resulted in a considerable number of them promising (in some cases rather half-heartedly) to make good their place in the future.
At this point we can begin to unpick another aspect of the hitherto dominant narrative concerning dissenting churches – the assumption, often unspoken and unobserved, that churches were correct to discipline members who did not attend meetings. To accept this narrative is to concede that non-attendance was a sin, an error, or a moral fault which needed correcting, rather than an act operating within a political arena (= polis) which the actor (female as well as male) might consider legitimate and justifiable. In other words, what has often seemed to matter about disciplinary cases is the very fact that they are disciplinary (providing information on how and why people were punished), rather than that they are responses to the actions of church members. It is, of course, in the nature of the sources that they provide clearer information regarding the sanction than the sanctioned: the main purpose of compiling citations was to record the church’s acts, not to itemise the discussions contributing to those acts. Perhaps what is required is not so much an increase in historical imagination as a change in perspective: as scholars, we need to look into the minutes of church meetings in order to ascertain the wider causes of a church’s acts, as well as working on those acts in order to observe their consequences. This shift in emphasis is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this blog, but the main caveat remains – a healthy scepticism about the motives and legitimacy of any system of discipline is essential to any serious investigation into its history. To dissent from dissent is in itself a questionable form of self-discipline, but as a disciplinary strategy, it remains an inescapable and thereby necessary form of engagement.