There is plenty of evidence about the religious beliefs of the ‘plain man’ in early modern England, but it tells us more about the devout and the learned than it does about the lukewarm, the ignorant, the sceptical, or those who muddled through. We know a lot about godly ministers, in their own words and in those of their detractors; we know less about their parishioners. We know about the martyred Jesuit Edmund Campion; we know less about the silent majority of English Catholics who lived without incident, many continuing to attend their now Protestant parish churches and being buried in now Protestant churchyards.
Books of popular homiletics such as George Gifford’s Country Divinity (1581), Arthur Dent’s The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven (1601) and Lewis Bayley’s The Practice of Piety (1611) aimed to set forth the rudiments of soul-saving doctrine in plain English. Their authors were Puritan ministers, who drew on their own experience in addressing parishioners’ spiritual concerns, and their books help us understand what those concerns were. These books sold well, none better than Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway, which went through 25 editions by 1640. His book takes the form of a wide-ranging discussion about religion between four characters: ‘Theologus, a divine’, ‘Philagathus, an honest man’, ‘Asunetus, an ignorant man’ and ‘Antilegon, a caviller’. Theologus, Dent’s mouthpiece, is given the winning arguments, while the pious layman Philagathus feeds him useful questions; but the two non-Puritan characters give them a run for their money, responding with serious objections, scornful jibes and, at times, real indignation. Anyone who picks up The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven today might well be surprised by its liveliness.
As you’d expect, Theologus and Philagathus are keen on preaching, church attendance and private devotion, and take a hard line on ignorance and sin. Theologus preaches a standard predestinarian Calvinism, which at the turn of the 17th century had not yet taken on the anti-establishment associations it would acquire in the 1620s. Dent’s godly characters allow us to see what mattered most to late Elizabethan Puritans, and why. Take the doctrine of assurance, the Calvinist principle that the elect know with perfect certainty that they are bound for heaven. Many found this idea hard to swallow. ‘I will never beleeve,’ Asunetus objects, ‘that any man can certtainely know in this World, whether hee shall bee saved, or damned: but all men must hope well, and be of a good beliefe.’ ‘Nay, we must go further than hope well,’ Theologus replies. ‘We may not venture our salvation upon uncertaine hopes. As, if a man should hope it would be a faire day tomorrow; but he cannot certainly tell. No, no. We must in this case, being of such infinite importance as it is, grow to some certainty and full resolution.’ Without this,
what comfort can he have in any thing? Besides this, the perswasion of Gods love towards us, is the root of all our love and cheerefull obedience towards him. For therefore wee love him and obey him, because we know he hath loved us first, and written our names in the booke of life. But on the contrary, the doctrine of the Papists, which would have men alwaies doubt and feare in a servile sort, is most hellish and uncomfortable. For so long as a man holds that, what encouragement can he have to serve God? What love to his Majesty? What hope in the promises? What comfort in trouble? What patience in adversity?
This passage shows very clearly the psychological divide between Puritans and others: for the former it was not enough to do as Asunetus says, to ‘hope well, and be of a good beliefe’. With their belief in God’s vengeance fortified by continual Bible study, and their consciences pricked by sermons about the depravity of man and the terrors of hell, Puritans needed to feel certain of their own salvation because anything less opened the door to despair. The doctrine of assurance was divisive because non-Puritans resented the implication that anyone who merely ‘hoped well’ was probably going to hell, and among the godly there were no doubt some Holy Willie types who relished it for just that reason; but a model minister like Theologus preached assurance despite its divisiveness, not because of it. He preached it not to scourge the unsanctified, but to comfort his fellow saints in the face of what would otherwise be a crushing anxiety and horror of their sovereign God. Susceptibility to these emotions was one thing that made you a Puritan. We grasp this point more readily from reading Dent than from a dozen theological treatises of the period.
The most spirited exchanges in The Plain Man’s Pathway are between Theologus and the caviller Antilegon. Theologus calls Antilegon an atheist, although not in the modern sense. ‘Atheist’ in this period was an insult used of someone whose religious views you found scandalous; that is why accusations of atheism are common, while professions of atheism are extremely hard to find. Antilegon is, by his own lights, a Christian. He knows he is a sinner, but since he knows too that Christ died for our sins, he is confident he will go to heaven: ‘I hope to be saved as well as the best of them all. I am out of feare for that.’ Antilegon is tolerant about sex (‘Tush, whoredome is but a trick of youth’), sees no harm when good fellows meet at the alehouse, and has no use for godly preachers with their tedious meddling sermons. He refuses to believe that God is going to damn everybody but the Puritans. In fact, he doesn’t think God is going to damn anyone: ‘For mine own part, I beleeve there is no hell at all, but only the hell of a mans conscience.’ When pushed, he will say that ‘the Scriptures are but mens inventions: and they made the Scriptures.’ To this a shocked Theologus splutters: ‘It is blasphemy once to think it: and you are worthie to receive your answer at Tiburne.’ This exchange should give pause to anyone who assumes that such scepticism was hardly to be found before the 18th century.
While Antilegon is a lost cause for the evangelists, there is hope for Asunetus. He is the plainest of plain men, a simple good fellow, carefree and illiterate. He does not hold godly living in contempt, but needs much convincing to see that all the effort is necessary. Reading the Bible is for the learned, and all those sermons go over his head; if a man lives honestly among his neighbours, won’t God find that sufficient? Asunetus is sure that he keeps all ten commandments, until Theologus cross-examines him. Have you ever had by-thoughts while praying? Have you ever said ‘by St Mary’ or other oaths? Have you travelled to fairs, or conducted other business on the Sabbath? Have you ever lied, been angry, looked on a woman lustfully, or desired something that was your neighbour’s? Have you ever pilfered conies or apples? Theologus wins over Asunetus at last with that homiletic staple, the lurid description of hell: ‘I feel great terror in my conscience, I am afraid I shall be damned … For though outwardly I have lived honestly to the worldward, yet inwardly I have not lived religiously to Godward.’ Asunetus rejects Antilegon’s suggestion that he should snap out of this God-fearing mood by hearing merry tales, and thanks the minister for leading him to amend his life.
Books like Dent’s show us the plain man as his minister would have seen him. How accurate was the reflection? In a new study of English popular religion based on ecclesiastical court records, Christopher Haigh finds that Dent’s four characters represent widely held attitudes. While Dent invented them as useful stereotypes, his book succeeded because people recognised them and the things he had them say. Court records and books like Dent’s can be used to corroborate each other: if an attitude or sentiment shows up regularly in both sources, odds are it was typical. On these grounds Haigh organises his study around Dent’s four characters, plus a fifth imported from another homiletic dialogue: the ‘Papist’ from George Gifford’s 1582 Dialogue between a Papist and Protestant.
Ecclesiastical courts enforced church attendance, Sabbath observance, the payment of tithes and sexual morality. In their records we overhear the voices of hundreds of ordinary men and women. A Somerset churchgoer in 1632 complains that ‘there was nothing done at prayer time in the said church of West Lidford but tooting upon the organs, and that it delighteth him as much to hear his horse fart as to hear the said organs go.’ In an argument with the parson of Dogmerfield in Hampshire over a tithe in 1581, Rowland Bowrer declares: ‘Thou art a covetous man … Go take Mother Canning by the cunt again!’ Haigh spends several pages on the insults suffered by clergymen, such as ‘stinking knave priest’, ‘scurvy, stinking, shitten boy’, ‘totter legged and pilled priest’, ‘Scottish jack’, ‘jack sauce and Welsh rogue’, ‘a runagately rogue and a prick-eared rogue’, ‘polled, scurvy, forward, wrangling priest’, ‘wrangler and prattler’, ‘black-coat knave’, ‘drunken-faced knave’ and ‘copper-nose priest’. But the courts get involved when things go wrong – so we have a catalogue of insults without an analogous catalogue of praise.
Haigh draws on ‘more than 700 court books from 15 different courts, from Somerset across to Essex and from Hampshire north to Lincolnshire’, covering seven decades, which show the friction that existed between pastors and parishioners, between the godly and their neighbours, between Catholics and a Protestant establishment. Sabbath-breaking was a common offence. People skipped church, and shopkeepers and alehouse-keepers were cited for doing business on Sunday; they must have had enough customers to justify the risk of getting caught. There are many presentments for misbehaviour in church: drunkenness, brawling, gossiping, vomiting, scoffing at the minister, pissing in another man’s hat (Leigh, Essex, 1627), or ‘extreme sleeping’ (Fering, Sussex, 1613). Sex offences were common: fornication, adultery, bastard children, cross-dressing, lewd talk. In theory everyone was supposed to attend their own parish church, but the godly especially might avoid a minister who preached the wrong kind of sermons, gadding off to hear ‘soul-saving’ preachers elsewhere. Ministers who preached too zealously about particular sins were liable to anger parishioners who felt singled out. Some objected if the minister wore his surplice or baptised children with the sign of the cross; others objected if he didn’t. Some ministers were more popular than others, but there was no pleasing everyone.
Papists were always part of the picture, though their numbers are hard to estimate. ‘Church Papists’, or privately professing Roman Catholics who showed up in church often enough to avoid trouble, may well have outnumbered recusants proper. Those charged with recusancy might subsequently conform, or give evasive answers – ‘I may go to 20 places or churches, can you swear I go to none?’ – or take a stand as conscientious objectors and face the consequences. Fines for recusancy were stiff but irregularly enforced. Parishioners, it appears, were often reluctant to help the authorities crack down: ‘There is no man will become an accuser of his neighbours unless he be very malicious or be charged upon his oath by authority,’ the Bishop of Lincoln observed in 1605. For some zealous Protestants, any Papist was a traitor, but others saw their Catholic neighbours less as enemies than as oddballs, or even as friends. Only when there were political scares would all Catholics be viewed with suspicion.
Haigh’s book depicts the English religious landscape as divided between the godly and the profane, with Catholics an uneasily tolerated minority. What this leaves out is the conformist middle ground: devout Protestants who weren’t Puritans but lived comfortably within the established church. Dent’s Theologus represents one type of ideal minister, but we find quite a different one in George Herbert’s Country Parson. Like Theologus, Herbert’s parson is learned, morally upright and dutiful. Unlike Theologus, he is glad to take part in old customs like the Rogationtide blessing of crops in the fields. At baptism he ‘willingly and cheerfully crosseth the child, and thinketh the ceremony not only innocent but reverend’. He keeps his church well ornamented not ‘out of necessity or as putting a holiness in the things, but as desiring to keep the middle way between superstition and slovenliness’, and he keeps his sermons to under an hour. Haigh ignores ministers like Herbert’s (and their lay counterparts) not because he is unaware they existed but as a result of borrowing Dent’s organisational scheme. Therefore, without meaning to, he ends up replicating the Puritan perspective, according to which non-Puritans appear as either worldlings or Papists. Dent’s Theologus would have seen Herbert’s parson as one short step from a Catholic priest, but neither Herbert’s parson nor a Catholic priest would have agreed. The godly were wont to describe anything they disliked as ‘popery’; but, as Peter Lake has observed, that doesn’t mean they were right. Their use of the label was often inaccurate – a phenomenon that my graduate students at a Catholic university notice with amusement.
The Plain Man’s Pathways to Heaven leaves local and regional differences aside, and steers clear of arguments with other historians. Its last chapters, however, contribute to the two great debates in early modern English historiography: how did England become a nation of Protestants? How did this nation of Protestants come to blows in 1642? Towards the first question, Haigh notes the changing targets of godly polemic. In the early 1580s, when George Gifford wrote his dialogue, ‘traces of the Catholic past were all around.’ Gifford had his minister worry that superstitious villagers were little better than Papists, and remained vulnerable to conversion by clandestine missionary priests. For Dent, 20 years later, the main enemy was not popery but worldliness. Antilegon and Asunetus may be hostile to or ignorant of right religion, but they ‘did not mouth a watered-down Catholicism … they mouthed a watered-down Protestantism’. By the 1620s Puritan authors increasingly aimed their fire at an ecclesiastical establishment they saw as hostile to their values – a conflict that intensified in the lead-up to civil war.
Whether, how and to what extent the quarrels between the godly and their neighbours led to war are questions of interpretation. Were they surface manifestations of a deepening divide in English society that would break the country apart in 1642? Or were they just examples of the sort of friction present in any society? Haigh tends towards the latter view: as he points out, the church court records didn’t change much during the period he discusses. But national political events probably did intensify local antagonisms. When, in the 1630s, Archbishop Laud required that the communion table in every church be moved to the eastern end of the building and surrounded by railings, and when King Charles’s decision to impose an English-style prayer book in Scotland led to the disastrous Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40, rumours of popish plots proliferated, and Philagathus had much to be angry about. But when the godly petitioned for ‘root and branch’ reform, challenged episcopacy and the prayer book, smashed church windows and soiled surplices, that was going too far for Antilegon. If the mutual dislike between Philagathus and Antilegon did not lead inevitably to civil war, it nevertheless helps to explain why both Crown and Parliament found willing recruits once the two sides had reached the point of raising armies. ‘Political failures in London had made a war likely,’ Haigh says. ‘Religious antagonisms in the counties made a war possible.’
One implication of his book, though he doesn’t put it quite this way, is that differences in doctrine among ordinary people may have mattered less than differences in religious temperature: how strongly you insisted on imposing your views on others, and how strongly you reacted to contrary views. Remonstrant and Calvinist opponents on predestination may have felt closer to one another than either felt towards those like Antilegon and Asunetus who thought the subject best avoided. Haigh’s book is valuable not only because it lets us hear the voices of plain men and women, but because it reminds us that the period’s intense religious controversies and persecutions were only part of the picture. Some people were ferreting priests out of priest-holes, or arguing about free will and free grace, or scrutinising their consciences with fear and trembling, or denouncing their neighbours as church Papists or hypocritical Puritan knaves, but many others were unconcerned with such matters. Religion divided communities, but not all was strife, and not all strife was irresolvable.