Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

What Isn't in the Church Books: Evidence of Lay Empowerment in the Transatlantic Puritan Community

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

What Isn't in the Church Books: Evidence of Lay Empowerment in the Transatlantic Puritan Community

Article excerpt

There is no doubt that the official records of Congregational churches can shed considerable light on the nature of religion in the Atlantic world of the seventeenth century. In writing about American Puritanism, Jeff Cooper noted that such records 'revealed a major gap between the congregational practices described by histories based on published ministerial tracts and treatises, and those practices recorded in manuscript church record books'.1 Joel Halcomb has pointed out that 'Congregationalists often kept detailed accounts of church meetings, recording admissions, dismissions and baptisms, disciplinary proceedings, letters of correspondence, church officer elections and ordinations, and church debates on a wide range of topics'.2 Halcomb, however, also acknowledges that the record found in the Church Books is incomplete, and reminds us that

Much more ... could be written about Congregational spirituality. The confessions of faith given by new members that have proven so fruitful for historians of puritan spirituality are not recorded in any extant Church Books. Congregational home life is hinted at in some anecdotal evidence in Church Books, but far more is available in printed works and personal paper collections.3

In seeking to explore the connections between private religiosity and organized religion I was struck by what Diarmaid MacCulloch observed in his recent study of Silence: A Christian History. He reminded us that religious institutions 'create their own silences, by exclusions and by shared assumptions, which ... silences are often at the expense of many of the people who could be thought of as actually constituting the Church'.4 One such silence is the substantial omission of the role played by countless named and unnamed men and women in the actual shaping of Puritan belief and practice.

One explanation for this omission is that the earliest histories of Puritanism were written by clergymen at a time when the movement had begun to become institutionalized in the form of religious denominations. These authors had a vested interest in highlighting the role of the clergy and downplaying that of the laity. Clerical authors such as Cotton Mather in New England and Samuel Clarke in England downplayed the role of the laity in the churches, and focused on the role of prominent clergy in their accounts. Later writers, many writing from an institutional perspective, followed their lead, though not all exclusion of the laity was the result of institutional bias. The fact that the vast proportion of surviving Puritan writings were composed by ministers reinforced this perspective, as did the accessibility of church records.

In the earliest days of the English Reformation and continuing through much of the seventeenth century, it was an objective of reformers to make the Bible accessible to all English men and women. We have all heard of William Tyndale's desire to enable 'the boy who drives the plow to know more of the scriptures' than the clergy, arguing that 'there are many found among the laymen which are as wise as their officers'. But what would the clerical role be if the laity knew more than their ministers?

One consequence was the exploration of matters of faith and practice by men and women gathered together in what were referred to by Puritans as 'conferences', and by their opponents as 'conventicles'. Reformers urged individuals not only to read their Bibles, but to listen to sermons, and reach their own understanding of the messages therein. Recognizing that the understanding and perception even of the elect were corrupted with the remnants of sin, they were wary of the dangers of spiritual anarchy if each individual was guided only by his or her understanding of God's message. God's truth was single - there was only one real answer to the questions that might be asked. In seeking to discern that truth individuals were to discuss the insights they believed they had received from the spirit with friends and family. …

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