By Mark Burden
At the Dissenting Experience conference on ‘Scandal, Controversy, Persecution: Shaping Dissenting Identities’ at Dr Williams’s Library (14 November 2015), John Coffey delivered a paper in which he examined why seventeenth-century Baptists appear to have used the label ‘Baptist’ so rarely (‘Names, Sects, Parties: The Problem of Denominational Labelling 1640-1672’). The paper produced some lively conversation, during which the panellists and audience discussed the difficulty all nonconformists and dissenters faced when adopting labels (such as ‘Puritan’ and ‘Baptist’) which, when used by their enemies, were intended as insults. Much more work is required before we can gain a clear sense of the self-fashioning of dissenting congregations in the later Stuart period, although there is no doubting the frequency with which dissenters used the phrases ‘the church of Christ’ and ‘Baptized Believers’ to describe congregations which we would now consider to be ‘Baptists’. Nevertheless, it has become something of a truism in recent studies of late seventeenth-century dissent to speak of the ‘fluidity’ of church governance or the ‘mixed’ communion of gathered churches. The danger of this view is that it can sometimes tread perilously close to the absurd position that there were no differences between rival dissenting congregations on matters of government or theology; less absurd, but equally perplexing, would be to speak as if the members of these churches were not aware of the differences at stake, or just did not really care very much about these differences. Such assertions obviously cannot be made purely on the basis of the names the churches gave themselves. Perhaps we should not only be asking whether all so-called ‘moderate’ Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist churches were essentially the same, or even whether the ‘moderates’ were ‘moderate’; instead, perhaps we could follow Coffey in asking, more simply, what did late seventeenth-century congregations call themselves?
Some evidence on this question has recently come to light following a survey which I have undertaken of 103 dissenting church books and registers in The National Archives; all of these manuscripts contain at least some materials dated 1714 or earlier. Of the 26 manuscripts which name the congregation on the cover, title page, or first heading of the text, only one uses the word ‘Congregational’ in its title (referring to ‘the Congregational Church in Norwich’), and only one church is labelled ‘Baptist’ at the front of the book (‘the Baptist Congregation in Cirencester’); the Eignbrook church in Herefordshire is the only one to feature the designation ‘Independent’, and the word ‘Presbyterian’ does not feature once in manuscript titles or early headings. Instead, one of the most popular terms to describe the association of worshippers was simply ‘Congregation’, a word which appears at or near the start of 8 of the 26 manuscripts selected. Two congregations in Sheffield and Debenham chose the label ‘Protestant Dissenters’, and the Portsmouth Presbyterians later described themselves as the ‘Dissenting Congregation’, although this title was probably added to the manuscript c.1779. Another designation (featured in 5 titles) was ‘Meeting’ (referring to a congregation), ‘meeting Place’ (referring to a site of worship) or the more formal term ‘Meeting-House’, which had a clearer basis in law following the Toleration Act. The congregations at Salisbury, Tavistock, Whitchurch, and Eignbrook all chose to refer to their ‘Chapel’ in the manuscript title, while the congregations at Rookwood Hall, Deal, Orpington, Norwich, Rowell, and Haverfordwest were content to use the word ‘Church’; the dissenters of Romansgate and Ipswich called themselves ‘the Christian Society’ and ‘the Society’ respectively. The designation ‘Church of Christ’ appears in the title of the Rookwood Hall document, and the Orpington church used a more complicated variant: ‘the Church or Congregation of the Saintes of god in Jesus Christ’. One group at Gosberton used the common designation ‘Congregation of Baptised Belevers’, but many other congregations gave no indication of their denomination in the titles given to their church books and registers. The most common means to describe the church was according to its location, which could be a named chapel (such as the later designation ‘Pauls Meeting Taunton’), a town or city (such as Portsmouth or Sheffield), or an area within a city (such as ‘the Fryers in Canterbury’ or ‘ye Congregation At Bethnal Green’). Another popular identifying phrase was the name of the pastor (‘M.r Hughes his Congregation’), who sometimes possessed the manuscript and might simply refer to ‘ye Congregation to w.ch I stand related’.