Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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To follow the lambe

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben

Ian Birch, To follow the lambe wheresoever he goeth: The ecclesial polity of the English Calvinistic Baptists, 1640-1660 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), ISBN 9781498209014, xxii+228 pp., £18.50.

Rachel Adcock, Baptist women’s writings in revolutionary culture, 1640-1680 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), ISBN 9781472457066, xv+218 pp., £70.00.

[1] The radical religious movements of the mid-seventeenth century British and Irish civil wars have long attracted attention, initially from within the religious communities that include these movements within their spiritual ancestry, and increasingly from theologians, historians and literary scholars whose approaches to these movements have proposed a new agenda for the study of the distinctive religious cultures of the later and Northern Renaissance. Two recent monographs illustrate the kinds of work that this field is attracting, and the ways in which the approaches adopted in this work are becoming sensitive to new research questions and the intellectual possibilities they suggest.

[2] Based upon his St Andrews PhD, Ian Birch’s account of the ecclesial polity of English Calvinistic Baptists in the revolutionary decades of the mid-seventeenth century offers a detailed reading of church books from the 1650 and a patient reconstruction of the ecclesiastical mechanisms they contain. Birch’s book focuses on the period before that examined in James Renihan’s study, Edification and beauty: The practical ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (2008), and so considers the decades in which the new religious movement was settling upon its distinctive practice of baptism and working out what might be the implications of that practice for other areas of church life and for the construction of community identity. Birch’s work develops a logical and coherent description of the emergence of the Particular Baptist community, the ecclesiology it nurtured, its aspiration for and practice of church discipline, its theology of ministry, and its habit of establishing ecclesiastical associations, by which individual congregations bonded in voluntary networks through which to pursue closer unity of faith and practice and a more thorough reformation of the church. Birch’s approach is to offer a theologically informed historical reconstruction of early Baptist practice, and some of the questions he raises reflect his role as principal of the Scottish Baptist College: the reasons for Birch’s emphasis on the Christological structures of early Baptist faith and practice won’t be self-evident to readers who will nevertheless benefit a great deal from the insights that he offers into the cultures in which the new movement emerged and the kinds of challenges that were presented to those who sought to define and then enforce its orthodoxy (while theologically attuned readers will realise that his use of “Christology” is idiosyncratic, as Birch explains in p. 65 n 3). One of Birch’s key arguments is that the faith and practice of the Particular Baptist movement varied by region. Recognising the centrality of the London churches, he notes variety in theology in the west country and in habits of dress and political engagement in Ireland. This variety sustained the movement’s proclivity for communal introspection, the very high expectations for godly behaviour that were monitored among members of Particular Baptist churches but that nevertheless could not prevent examples of moral attrition that ranged from absence from worship to such prohibited activities as fellowship with Quakers, drunkenness, homosexuality and attempted suicide. But with all this variation, Birch observes, the Particular Baptist churches negated the ministry of women, which was “not regarded in priestly terms, and their role in the congregation was limited to assisting deacons. From a modern perspective this policy appears inconsistent at best, a capricious outworking of the doctrine of the universal priesthood” (p. 143).

[3] This view, widely held among historians of the Baptist denomination, is challenged in Rachel Adcock’s study of Baptist women’s writings in revolutionary culture. Weighted in the same period, while also considering post-Restoration contexts, Adcock’s account documents the quite extraordinary range of opportunities that were presented to women in new religious movements like that of the Particular Baptists. Building on the work of a generation of feminist readings of the mid-seventeenth century crisis, Adcock describes how Baptist women integrated with revolutionary culture, as that culture developed, evolved and coped with the failure of the revolution. Adcock’s book illustrates the situations of women within revolutionary culture, the representations of religiously radical women in cheap print, how women participated vocally in Particular Baptist congregations, and how they contributed to and responded to the prophetic narratives of the Fifth Monarchists. This is a long and detailed work, an important and sophisticated intervention in the literary study of the English revolution that qualifies assumptions about women and about Baptists and that will certainly suggest a new research agenda in this field. Adcock’s book begins by noting how regularly the antagonists of the Particular Baptists dismissed the movement as promoting the irregular participation of women. Her account notes instances in which women used print to construct a narrative of conversion, to debate doctrine, to defend themselves against church leaders, and to prophesy. Like Birch, Adcock notes regional variety within the Particular Baptist movement, and suggests, for example, that the large number of women members of the church in Bristol could be explained by their being the wives or widows of sailors. Adcock describes processes by which women participated in the founding of Particular Baptist churches, and their frustrations at being shut out of leadership positions as these congregations formalised their structures, as well as these church’s permission for women to become members without their husbands following suit, and the difficulties faced by church leaders in promoting traditional models of family structure as a consequence of that move. Not for nothing does Adcock conclude that Particular Baptist congregations could be both “constraining and liberating” for women. Adcock notes in passing the circulation of Milton’s work among Baptists, observing that only a very small number of women followed his suggestion that the godly could divorce their spiritually incompatible spouses (p. 5; though this phenomenon is also observed by Birch, p. 189, n. 158). More frequently, Particular Baptist women were given roles as deaconesses, or in an order of widows that was developed from readings of the New Testament epistles, and those who turned to prophecy sometimes found an audience, and even patronage, outside the movement with which they were identified. Adcock’s reading of work by Anna Trapnel and other Particular Baptist authors renders their publications more complex than we might have recognised. Adcock’s work is ambitious and enterprising, a sophisticated contribution to a growing and increasingly complex field.

[4] These publications illustrate in different ways the growing quality of writing across disciplines on the subject of the mid-century crisis and its religious implications. Birch’s theological perspective identifies telling tensions and missed opportunities in early Baptist ecclesial writings, and Adcock’s concern to discover the situation of women within these communities will provide a foundation for future work in the rhetorical and discursive fields that make distinctive the Northern Renaissance.

Queen’s University Belfast, March 2018

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