Tag Archives: Church records

InvenCaP Blog – Reformation Principles and the Puritan Church Books of the 1650s

By Mark Burden

Although they have been widely consulted by church historians and historians of religion, the role played by Puritan church records of the 1650s in the furtherance of personal, church, and national reformation has rarely been assessed. The following account has been compiled in response to a highly productive conference on the 1650s convened by Fiona McCall at the University of Portsmouth. The conference discussed, among many other matters, the nature and extent of Episcopalian and Puritan church records during the 1650s, the importance of the national surveys of religion undertaken by the Protectorate, and the need for an adequate catalogue of manuscripts and other material objects dating from the period. In response to that conversation, this post is intended to provide nothing more than a very preliminary sketch of the material available for studying the Puritan churches, and its potential uses for understanding the highly elastic concept of ‘reformation’ as it developed across the decade. As will be immediately evident, very substantial research needs to be carried out on these records before any wider conclusions may be drawn.

The Dissenting Experience Inventory of Puritan records indicates that there are approximately 70 surviving church books and registers containing material relating to the 1640s and 1650s. This figure is open to the usual caveats: it would be substantially smaller if all copy records were excluded, but would be substantially higher if it were possible to include every copy of every 1650s document located in nineteenth and twentieth-century church books. The materials contained in the church records already listed in the Inventory include church histories, chronological registers and alphabet books (births, baptisms, church membership, marriages, deaths, burials), family trees, covenants, confessions, rules, orders, acts, disciplinary cases, minutes of church meetings, minutes of regional assemblies, letters, testimonials, cases of conscience, propositions, queries, admissions, dismissals, and countless examples of marginalia and corrections. Most of these records can be categorised into four types: histories, registers, covenants and confessions, and minutes of meetings. Each of these genres contributed to the church’s sense of itself as a reformed collective, and each genre exposed the different pressures, whether external or internal, which emerged as an inevitable consequence of the congregation’s self-representation as a church of Christ.

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InvenCaP Blog – What Did Seventeenth-Century Dissenters Call Themselves? Evidence from Early Church Books

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’.

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InvenCaP Blog – Church Books and their Copies

By Mark Burden

I am pleased to report that InvenCaP’s initial survey of dissenting records in national and local record offices is now complete. During this early stage of the project it has been important to consider in some detail the relationship between original documents and later copies. As well as locating approximately 250 original church books, registers, and financial account books from the period 1640-1714, we have now compiled an inventory of over 100 significant manuscript copies of these documents. These copies, which currently only include complete or near-complete transcriptions of church books and registers, have often been relied on by historians, and are sometimes assumed to be the earliest documents of their kind. Such confusion must undoubtedly have led to mistakes in genealogies and church chronologies for several centuries, and it seems highly probably that the ideological assumptions of these later copies have also had an impact upon both diachronic and synchronic histories of dissent more broadly. Of equal significance to the Puritan Experience project would be a detailed consideration of the changes in narrative emphasis and structure between each source and its copies. Such changes can manifest themselves in the reordering and retitling of material, as well as in the rewording of key documents; more subtly, the changed function of information within a document can be affected by the identity and orthographic choices of the scribe, the quality of the paper and binding, and the slippage between autograph signatures and copies.

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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.

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New England Church Records make front page of NY Times

The New York Times recently gave pride of place on its front page to an ongoing search to recover New England’s colonial church records. (You can view the article here.) The effort is led by James F. Cooper, Jr of Oklahoma State University and Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and is part of their larger ‘New England’s Hidden Histories’ project.

Unlike most British dissenting records, which were brought into various archives over time or into county record offices during the 1960s, many of New England’s colonial-era church records remain in the hands of local churches. They were famously cataloged in the 1960s by Harold F. Worthley, former librarian and executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston. After three years and 28,000 miles of travel he produced his famous 716-page ‘Worthley Inventory’ of early congregational church records. But now, over 50 years on, many have gone missing.

Drs Bendroth and Cooper are recreating Worthley’s travels and rummaging through church closets, file cabinets, drawers, and safety deposit boxes in hopes of finding and preserving these valuable records. Their aim is to persuade churches to protect their past by permanently loaning these records to the Congregational Library in Boston, where they can be protected and restored.

They are also making the records available to the public. Increasing numbers of these records can be found digitized and transcribed on the Library’s ‘New England’s Hidden Histories’ website. The website (found here) is an invaluable source for exploring colonial religion.

It is a fascinating project that is drawing considerable attention (the Washington Post covered the story last year). But it also provides an interesting look into some of the challenges and opportunities historians have in collecting and publishing non-state records.

A New Edition of the Bunyan Church Book, 1656-1710

By Michael Davies, University of Liverpool

The purpose of this edition (currently in preparation, and forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2015) is to provide literary scholars and historians, as well as students and general readers, with a scholarly yet accessible annotated edition of A Booke Containing a Record of the Acts of a Congregation of Christ in and about Bedford: the manuscript record of the Bedford congregation’s life during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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Who the congregation’s members were, how they were received and disciplined, how they survived strife and harassment, and what defined their ecclesiological principles and practices are all revealed in fascinating detail by this remarkable document.  This edition will include the Church Book’s record of meetings from 1656, when they begin to be noted, to 1710, when an off-shoot congregation was formed out of the Bedford church and established – on good terms – at Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire.  During this period, John Bunyan famously served as the congregation’s preacher and pastor, witnessing significant crises and developments both within the Bedford church and for Restoration Nonconformity more generally.

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