Puritans, Dissenters, and their Church Books: Recording and Representing Experience

Mark Burden, Anne Dunan-Page

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On 27 December 1821 the Dissenting antiquarian Benjamin Hanbury prefaced his recent transcription of the eighteenth-century records of Isaac Watts’s church with a description of the source text. This manuscript, dating in part from the ministry of the tutor Samuel Morton Savage, 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’. In fact, Hanbury was only partly correct in his analysis: it is now known that several copies of the early register of Watts’s church had already been made, beginning with Watts’s ministerial successor Samuel Price, whose version extended back to the register of Watts’s predecessor, the minister and tutor Isaac
Chauncey. This story of loss, re-emergence, partial transcription and misunderstanding is so typical of the history of Church Books and registers from Puritan congregations and their Dissenting successors that readers could be forgiven for dismissing such texts as too scarce in number and too problematic in content to merit serious investigation. It is our contention that the reverse is true: Puritan and Dissenting church records exist in surprisingly large numbers from the 1640s onwards, and Church Books – the most materially and intellectually substantial subset of those records – are the key documents for understanding the beliefs and organization of these congregations. On the one hand, Church Books were engines of social discrimination and hierarchy between church officers and other members, members and hearers, the obedient and the disorderly, the obstreperous and the penitent. Yet they were also repositories of collective wisdom, in which the equality of members in the eyes of God (however conditional its worldly manifestation) was embodied in the act of signing the members’ register, or subscribing to a mutual covenant. Church Books are sites of individual stories, portrayed in letters, testimonies, church acts and orders. They are also vital sources for reconstructing the social history of families, transforming temporal disjunct into spatial conjunct through registers and family trees, or revealing in their rules, debates and cases of conscience the underlying assumptions governing the position of women and children in religious life.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-32
Number of pages19
JournalBunyan Studies
Early online date24 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

Co-authored with Anne Dunan-Page


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