English Baptist Women under Persecution (1660-1688): A Study of Social Conformity and Dissent: The Baptist Denomination in England Experienced Tremendous Growth during the Seventeenth Century despite Much Opposition (1)

By Timmer, Kirsten Thea | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

English Baptist Women under Persecution (1660-1688): A Study of Social Conformity and Dissent: The Baptist Denomination in England Experienced Tremendous Growth during the Seventeenth Century despite Much Opposition (1)


Timmer, Kirsten Thea, Baptist History and Heritage


The Baptist denomination in England experienced tremendous growth during the seventeenth century despite much opposition. Persecution of Baptists and other dissenting groups reached its height between 1660 and 1688, the period known as the Great Persecution and the Restoration of the Monarchy. Most of the scholars who have written about this persecution and the growth that Baptists experienced during those years have done so from a male perspective or with an emphasis on contributions made by Baptist men. The attention to Baptist women during this period has been rather minimal. Why is that so? Perhaps a majority of scholars gleaned their insights from works written by men because of the lack of primary sources from the hands of women. (2) Or perhaps, as Leon McBeth noted, "Most [Baptist] history is written by men, about men." (3) Karen Smith, on the other hand, suggested that "not simply the lack of sources, but the type of sources," which scholars have examined, attributes to the lack of attention paid to Baptist women. (4)

The need for a specific study of the roles and functions of English Baptist women in English society, in the family, and in Baptist congregations during the Restoration still exists. (5) This article, then, both seeks to fulfill the society and family aspects of this need and contends that English Baptist women during the Restoration period assumed both conforming and dissenting roles and functions in English society.

Belonging mostly to the lower and middle classes of society, Baptist women performed roles and functions within society, many of which were identical to those of conforming women in the Restoration period. (6) Some of these roles and functions, however, were unique to Baptist women's circumstances. In many cases, the differences in how women perceived and responded to their societal expectations were due to the Baptist women's religious persuasions. One needs to study these women's functions and roles against the backdrop of the patriarchal structure of English society as this formed the context in which these women lived.

Biblical injunctions such as "wives, be subject to your own husbands" (Eph 5:22-23) located the power over the family with the husband and father. (7) Taking patriarchy from the family level to the political level, one understood the king to be the father. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, according to S. D. Amussen: "Royalist contract theorists added to [this image] the analogy between the relationship of king and people to that between husband and wife: once the marriage had been entered into, it was indissoluble, as was the contract between king and subjects. [This analogy] thus often supported an authoritarian-absolutist, and usually a divine right, theory of monarchy." (8)

Although women from different sectors of society challenged the patriarchal aspects of society during the Civil War and the Interregnum and played roles in the public sphere, the Restoration of the Monarchy connoted the return to patriarchy and the suppression of agitators. (9) At this point, society viewed women in the three main stages of their lives-feme sole, feme coven, and widow. (10)

Daughters and Feme Sole

Except for the poor, all English girls received some type of formal education. In general, however, a moral and social curriculum, rather than an academic one, educated girls for marriage. (11) The majority of the daughters in each class of society received informal education from the mothers. Until their daughters were about fourteen years old, mothers taught that in order for their daughters to be wives and mothers, they needed to excel in housewifery, which contemporaries considered "a quintessentially female skill." (12) As Amy Louise Erickson noted, a woman's "excellence in housewifery was a measure by which to judge every woman from the cottager's wife to the great lady." (13) Along with housewifery, reading, but not writing, was apparently a basic skill for women as mothers often trained their daughters simultaneously in piety and in reading. …

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