Social Engineering in Early Modern England: Masters, Servants, and the Godly Discipline

By Richardson, R. C. | CLIO, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Social Engineering in Early Modern England: Masters, Servants, and the Godly Discipline


Richardson, R. C., CLIO


Let not the Christian servant murmur nor grudge at suffering if it be laid upon him.

Thomas Fosset, The Servants Dutie or the Calling and Condition of Servants (1613), 21.

Good servitudes are those colleges of sobriety that checks in the giddy and wild-headed youth from his uneven course of life by a limited constrainment.

G. Alsop, A Character of the Province of Maryland (1666), 28.

How grievous a sin the disobedience of servants is. 'Tis a downright contempt of God's revealed word ... a violation of the law of nature.

Richard Lucas, The Duty of Servants (1685), 88.

Deep-seated anxieties and convictions, such as those embodied in the quotations above, frequently give rise to attempts at social engineering. This article examines one such long-lasting example of the correlation. In England from the 1590s-a troubled, disjointed decade in which inflation, harvest failures, enclosure riots, and the destabilizing effects of war all featured-and for over a hundred years thereafter, an uninterrupted succession of manuals for the well-ordering of households appeared in print. (1) Invariably written by clergymen, many of them London-based, these books blended doctrine with the fruits of practical experience gained in particular ministries. The pre-English Civil War decades produced the largest single crop of such publications. A significant sub-group appeared in the 1650s under the Republic. A larger number followed in the later decades of the seventeenth century intended to confront the looser morals of the new post-Restoration age. The genre was still flourishing in the early eighteenth century and, indeed, Edmund Gibson's Family Devotion (1726), one of the most successful of all these manuals, was still being reprinted in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Puritans were in the vanguard of the authors of such texts and, unquestionably, William Perkins's Christian Oeconomie (1590) and Robert Cleaver's Godly Forme of Household Government (1598) did much to define the characteristics of this kind of writing in the first place. William Gouge's Of Domesticall Duties (1622), Thomas Carter's Christian Commonwealth (1627), Philip Goodwin's Family Religion Revived (1655), and Richard Baxter's The Poor Man's Family Book (1675) were later landmarks in the tradition. Though puritan writers predominated and set the pace, however, they did not monopolize such publications. Bethel, or a Forme for Families (1633) was written by Matthew Griffith (1599?-1665), a royalist who was sequestered of his London living in 1642 and later involved in the stubborn and protracted defence of the besieged Basing House in Hampshire (home of the Marquis of Winchester) in 1645. (2) Much later, Edmund Gibson, author of the hugely popular Family Devotion (1726), was successively Bishop of Lincoln and London. (3)

The post-Reformation spiritualization of the household, to which Louis B. Wright, Christopher Hill, and other historians have drawn attention, was indeed one of the hallmarks of early modern England. (4) At its most basic level puritan organization rested on a molecular network of family cells that also provided the setting for the exercise of the puritans' godly discipline. Therefore, the family, declared John Downame in A Guide to Godlynesse (1629), is like "a particular church ... and the master of the family representeth the minister and the rest of the house the people in the congregation." (5) In the larger picture godly families underpinned both church and state. If only the godly discipline were practiced in all households, Lewis Bayly insisted in 1613, churches would be filled to capacity, the number of lawsuits would plummet, prisons would be empty, and the streets would be cleared of drunkards, swearers, whoremongers, and other undesirables. (6) "A household is, as it were, a little commonwealth," declared Robert Cleaver in his influential treatise mentioned above, "by the good government whereof God's glory may be advanced.

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