St Neots Parish Library

(This article, for publication by the Town Museum, was written by the Revd Dr Stephen Hampton, now Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge and formerly assistant curate of St. Neots Parish Church)

I Introduction

The parish library is one of the hidden treasures of St. Neots parish church. It contains not only several service books of interest (including one copy of the Book of Common Prayer printed in 1754 with a fine print of St. Paul’s cathedral as its frontispiece) but also a collection of theological works from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

These can be divided into two sorts: those written in Latin, all given to the parish by the Rev’d William Cole in 1785, and those written in English, some of which may have come from the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge shortly after it was founded in 1698.

II ‘The Gift of the Rev’d William Cole’

William Cole was the Rector of Eynesbury during the latter part of the 18th century. It is from his library that all the Latin works originally came. In fact until fairly recently all clergy in the Church of England were required to read Latin, and until the late 17th century most serious theology would have been written in that language. These books are the oldest in the collection, the earliest dated work being a copy of Brentio’s (Brentz?) Homilies on Luke’s Gospel published in Frankfurt in 1557. The latest work is a copy of Prideaux’s Sermons published in 1626. What is interesting about them is that they show William Cole to have been a man of unusual theological tastes for the late 18th century. The majority of the books were written by the great European reformers of the 16th century, Bullinger, Calvin, Beza and the like.

The works written by Englishmen (by Prideaux and Whitaker) come from that party within the Anglican church which had most in common with the continental Reformers such as Calvin. By 1785 such works would have been relatively hard to find, and almost certainly out of print. Whether Mr Cole had them because they had been passed down to him, or because, with the growth of Evangelical revival in the English Church at the time, he had been moved to rediscover these examples of high reformed theology we will not know. After all, it is quite possible that he gave them to St. Neots parish because he didn’t think they were much use to him any more!

III The English Works

There is actually quite a broad range of 17th-18th century English theology to be found in the library. Some works were the staple fare of any ecclesiastical library of the time (Archbishop Tillotson’s sermons, all fourteen volumes of them, for example), some are rather more recherché (More’s or Jackson’s works, for example). Many are controversial or apologetic works directed against atheists or Roman Catholics. Many are practical guides to good living. To explain what sort of books they were, and why a parish library might possess such things, it is necessary to give a brief account of the historical background to them.

The English Church at the turn of the 17th. century

All of the books in this section of the library were published after the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and most during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). In fact, some were written some time before that, but were simply republished around that time (the works of Chillingworth, Jackson and More would come into this category).

To understand their significance it is necessary to look into the history of the Church and the Nation during the 17th century. In England, the history of this period was heavily marked by religious controversy and conflict. To put things extremely simply, the reign of Charles I (1626-1649) was marked by increasing hostility between puritans” (those Christians who, broadly speaking, favoured the doctrines of the continental reformers and aimed for an austere simplicity in worship) and “Laudians” (those Christians seeking to move away from the more dogmatic reformed theology and who were prepared to see embellishment of Church buildings and services). This growing hostility was a significant factor in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. During the Commonwealth, the “puritans” had the upper hand. The Church of England was radically reorganised (some would say abolished) with the official abolition of the episcopacy, of the Prayer Book and of Cathedrals. In fact, there was really no centralised organisation you could call the Church of England during this period: religion was organised locally, with only sporadic and ineffective efforts from the government to regulate things. Even in London, we know, outlawed Anglican services still went on in private houses.

But with the return of Charles II in 1660, things changed. The Laudian party had consistently supported the exiled monarch, as well as engaging in constant literary controversy with their opponents. So they were in a very strong position at the Restoration. Skilfully guided by Gilbert Sheldon (Archbishop of Canterbury 1663-1677), the “Laudians” comprehensively outmanoeuvred the “puritans”, and with the firm backing of the House of Commons and important royal ministers, reimposed the traditional order of the English Church across the board. Furthermore with the steady enactment of the Clarendon Code from 1661 to 1665, dissent was outlawed and the puritan party effectively thrown out of the Church of England.

Things changed once more with the Glorious Revolution. Charles II died without legitimate heirs in 1685, and was succeeded by his brother James II, a notorious Roman Catholic. He soon angered the English people by his attempt to grant equal rights to his fellow Catholics (Catholicism had been outlawed in England since the reign of Elizabeth I and was perceived as a pernicious public menace). He was replaced without bloodshed by William III (reigned 1689-1702) and his wife Mary II. They in fact soon granted effective toleration to English dissenters (non-Anglican protestants such as Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers), a toleration which many members of the Church of England violently opposed, and attempted to reverse during the reign of Anne In fact, despite James II’s Catholicism, some Anglicans still held to their oaths of allegiance, and would not recognise William and Mary. They were removed from the Church of England, and became known as Non-Jurors (since they could not swear the oath to the new monarchs).

Another factor in the life of the Church after the Civil War was the growth of new learning and science. The Royal Society was founded in 1660, the likes of Newton and Boyle were making exciting discoveries which changed the way people looked at the World. Although many of the scientists were in fact clergymen, and the Church of England was united in encouraging their work, some philosophers began to use the new rational and scientific method to attack the traditional beliefs of Christianity, and it became rather trendy to be an atheist. It was also a time when immorality and licentiousness were perceived to be a growing problem (and it must be said that the court of Charles II did not set a shining example in this regard).

It was into this situation that the authors represented in the parish library were writing. Most were conforming members of the Church of England, a couple of them (Hickes and Kettlewell) were Non-Jurors. Staunchly loyal, they perceived the Anglican church to be under threat from Roman Catholicism on one side, and from dissenting protestants on ‘the other, and many of their works are therefore directed against these opponents. But they were conscious too of the dangers of atheism lurking in secular philosophy, and sought to defend Christianity as a whole against those who claimed it was irrational or contradictory.

But the prime focus of their writing is not really to be found in their controversial works but in what was known as “practical” divinity: urging people to reform their lives, and to live more closely following the pattern of Christ. Many of the works are about nothing more complicated than being good. Many are about prayer and the sacraments, and reveal a distinct and inspiring kind of piety which still has much to recommend it in our own day.

The Controversial and Apologetic Works

Anglicanism at the close of the 17th century was distinct from both Catholicism (in that it was fiercely and avowedly protestant, and radically opposed to much Catholic practice and doctrine) and English Dissent (in that it preserved an episcopal Church order, set forms of prayer, and some ceremonies which derived from the early Church). Anglican writers felt that their church embodied most purely the faith of apostolic Christianity, and argued this on the grounds of scripture (literally interpreted) and the writings of the Christians of the first few centuries (biblical commentaries and collections of patristic works can be found in the library). They also believed that Christianity, as the Church of England had received it was the most rational and sensible way of looking at the world. The controversial literature in St. Neots parish library reflects this. Titles like “A Confutation of Popery” and “An Answer to the Dissenters Pleas for Separation” indicate clearly what the authors were setting out to achieve. Books written against Roman Catholicism followed the long-established pattern of Anglican thinking, attacking papal supremacy, transubstantiation, worship of the saints, the cult of relics, the doctrine of purgatory etc. Some attempt to deal with every issue in one book. Others, like Hickes’ “An Apologetical Vindication of the Church of England”, deal with just one argument (the criticism that there being so many offshoots of the Church of England, it could not possibly be the true universal Church) in more detail. There is little to be found here that had not been said many times before.

In opposition to the Dissenters, the authors tend to be slightly more conciliatory in tone. They were after all, fellow protestants. The arguments here seek to prove that differences of opinion over ceremonies or bishops are not sufficient grounds for splitting from the Church. They also point out how damaging such divisions are to the protestant cause as a whole. Other areas of argument were the indispensability of episcopal ordination (the implication being that dissenting ministers were not really able to perform the sacraments) and the appropriateness of set forms of prayer (the implication being that dissenters were not really praying as God intended them to).

It is easy to deplore such hostility shown being to other Christians, and it is certainly true that the Anglican apologetic represented in the library does not make very appetising reading to the modern man. But it is a testimony to how important the people of the time felt their faith to be, and a testimony to how loyal they felt to the Church of England in particular.

Religion really mattered, and so it really mattered that you got it absolutely right. The authors whose works are here firmly believed that the Church of England had a faith and a tradition which it was worth defending, and which it was worth converting people for.

Perhaps more understandable to the modern mind are the works directed against philosophy hostile to the Christian faith. These include such classics as Chillingworth’s “The Religion of Protestants” (contained in the 1704 edition of his works, but first published in 1638), as well as the then more recent works of Edward Stillingfleet (“A Discourse in Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity”, 1697 edition). In an intellectual climate which was increasingly exalting the power of human reason, these works were designed to defend traditional Christian doctrines like that of the Trinity or the Incarnation from accusations that they were irrational. They sought to argue that the mysteries of the faith were not in fact irrational, but above reason. They also set out to prove that the reasonable man would in fact assent to the truths of Christianity when he duly considered all the evidence provided by nature and the scriptures. It is not clear whether the controversial works in the library were intended for ordinary parishioners or for the local clergy. After all the early 18th century was a time of increasing literacy. Certainly, some would have been beyond the grasp of all but the most learned members of the parish, whereas others seem to have been with the common man in mind (“A Short and Easy Method with the Deists” published in 1709 for example). What is clear is that, by the standards of the time, anyone familiar with the works in the St. Neots parish library would have been amply equipped to defend the intellectual reputation of the established Church against her many opponents.

The Works of Moral and Pastoral Theology

The Restoration Church of England was characterised by a strong emphasis on practical theology, on the day to day business of being good and living out the tenets of the Christian faith. This emphasis was partly born in reaction to the more speculative preaching and divinity which had been popular under the Commonwealth, and partly from a fear of the rising tide of immorality. The first weapon of the Church was her preaching, and foremost amongst her preachers was John Tillotson (Archbishop of Canterbury 1689-1694) whose sermons became the gold standard of Anglicanism for most of the 18th Century. There are fifty-four of his sermons in the library, some of which might well have been read to the congregation in place of the Vicar’s own. His sermon style was plain, direct and practical. He avoided allusion and excessive metaphor, and concentrated on the ordinary business of Christian living. The preaching in St. Neots for most of the 18th century would have sounded a lot like his. The Church also urged her sons and daughters to follow a strict regime of daily prayer and regular communion. Some of the works are specifically devotional (Beveridge’s “Private Thoughts Upon Religion”, or Hamilton’s “The Exemplary Life and Character of James Bonnell Esq”), many contain prayers connected with the theme of the writing (Lucas’s Practical Christianity”). Others are designed to urge prayer and communion of the reader in a more argumentative way (Beveridge’s “The Necessity and Advantage of Public Prayer and Frequent Communion”). There is even a selection of historic prayers based on the Roman Catholic Book of Hours (Hickes’s “Devotions in the Ancient Way of Offices”).

What emerges from these works is a keen sense that the true business of Christianity is to make people better. That bare faith without a change of life is useless. As Lucas says, the end of religion was “only to implant goodness and charity amongst us, to make us holy and like God, and kind and beneficial one to another”. As Beveridge says “As obedience without faith is impossible, so faith without obedience is vain and unprofitable”. These authors urged their readers to keep a constant watch over their thoughts, their actions and their relationships with other people, convinced as they were that the Christian faith touched every aspect of human life. Their aim was, as Beveridge resolved “to make Christ the pattern of my life”.