Donald A. Spaeth. The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners, 1660-1740. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiii + 279 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-35313-7.
Reviewed by James E. Bradley (Fuller Theological Seminary)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2002)
This book, a revised Brown University dissertation, provides a richly detailed and balanced account of the local religious life of Anglican clergy and laity in the diocese of Salisbury that reaches from the Restoration to the eve of the Anglican Evangelical awakening. Although the book concentrates on the disputes between priests and their parishioners in only one of England's twenty-six dioceses and is thereby limited to a specific geographic locale, Spaeth's overall evaluation of the Anglican church in this period is largely positive, and it invites comparison with other recent revisionist accounts by W. M. Jacob (Lay People and Religion in the Early Eighteenth Century, Cambridge, 1996) and Jeremy Gregory (Restoration, Reformation and Reform, 1660-1832: Archbishops of Canterbury and Their Diocese, Oxford, 2000). The research is grounded in a comprehensive range of sources, including the records of some thirty parishes (about one-tenth of the whole diocese), with particular attention given to legal records, such as presentments or reports, testimonies of witnesses, lists of charges, texts of depositions, petitions, and correspondence. Clergymen's diaries are also examined, and Spaeth develops three biographical case studies of representative clergymen and then combines these sketches with painstaking, detailed archival work that reflects a penchant for quantifying data. For example, we find a flesh and blood portrait of Robert Randall, an impoverished Wiltshire clergyman, who took to the alehouse to ease his woes, combined with, and framed by, the context of a statistically significant and rigorously constructed analysis of clerical incomes in general. The author engages other county studies, such as Leicestershire and Warwickshire, and other dioceses, such as Chester, where useful comparisons can be drawn.
Spaeth questions previous theoretical frameworks that tended to pit popular culture against elite culture and specifically those accounts that aligned "popular" religion against "official" religion. Restoration Anglicanism was, after all, both popular and official. To be sure, his interest lies in the cultural interaction between elite and popular social groups, but he remains chary of models that stress either the polarization of groups or the hegemony of the Anglican elite. On the one hand, he finds new evidence for the vitality of Anglicanism in this period, and indeed, he documents a widespread belief in the abiding value of a unified church knitting together all members of society. But the ideal was under pressure, and the pressure arose more from within the church than from without, originating from the conflicts between the clergy and the laity, and in this respect it is certainly plausible to speak of decline of the ideal. Nevertheless, the picture that emerges of the clerical estate shows impressively high levels of clerical commitment to the good of the people and comparatively high levels of lay religious participation.
The chapters are organized around the issues that provoked conflict, and these contests are handled in a consistently sympathetic manner that helpfully contextualizes the structural problems faced by both clergy and laity. The question of clerical income and tithes is a case in point. Spaeth's research confirms the generalization that many clergy lived in poverty and that their penurious condition invited the contempt of the laity. At the turn of the century, about one in four of the livings produced incomes below the poverty level, and the trend was one of general decline in value. Indeed, when non-beneficed clergy are added to the totals, as many as thirty percent of the clergy in Wiltshire were living in poverty. Poverty, in turn, drove some vicars to use the courts to obtain the tithes that were due them, but this rendered them even more unpopular and hence unable to carry out their pastoral duties. Clergy were thus often faced with the difficult task of attempting to fulfill two contradictory roles: those of pastor and tax collector. Lay ownership of tithes exacerbated an already troublesome problem. However, Wiltshire clergy brought more suits relative to the ownership of tithes than did lay impropriators, and the suits of clergymen were characteristically more rancorous. Poverty sometimes took a mental toll, driving some priests to drink, a behavior that often led in turn to conflict with vestrymen and other laity. On the other hand, the laity's reluctance to pay tithes is understood in the context of the ever increasing taxes of the reign of William and Mary. There is a measurable positive correlation between rising taxes, difficult economic circumstances, and the degree of clerical litigiousness.
The principal arena of conflict was the courts, and the author discusses clerical disputes in the broad framework of a shift from church or consistory courts to their secular counterparts. While the number of cases in both church and equity courts declined in the period under review, this fact is not thought to be a reliable index of a decline in conflict between clergy and laity. Equally surprising is the author's claim that a loss of the church's exercise of authority in church courts did not entail a lessening of the authority of the clergy. University education and social status continued to set the clergy apart, and indeed, Spaeth detects a moderate rise in the social status of the clergy in the period based on a careful analysis of clergymen's social origins and an increase in the number of clerical magistrates. Always alert to the social relation between gentry, clergy, and parish elite, the author shows how religion was related to the negotiation of social conflict, and with a constant eye to the possibilities of quantifying data, such as the frequency of the social contacts of the clergy derived from their diaries, he is able to add a new element of rigor to his analysis. But the author's reach extends down the social scale as well as up. By studying the number of petitioners that supported action against the clergy, Spaeth demonstrates that opinion about the clergy reached far below the parish elite, often involving at least one in five of the male adults of a parish, and sometimes engaging as many as forty percent of the adult male population. The evidence suggests that there was a broadly shared concern about the quality of worship that embraced rich and poor alike.
Presbyterians and Quakers were particularly strong in Wiltshire, and Spaeth's handling of Nonconformity is as judicious as his treatment of the establishment. The clergy were the leaders in prosecutions against the Nonconformists, and while their motives were various and their tactics diverse, these clerical actions were evidently uniformly unpopular with the Anglican laity, who were generally on friendly terms with their Nonconformist neighbors. Even Justices of the Peace and Assize judges were unenthusiastic about prosecuting Nonconformists, as were church wardens. By comparing the number of licences granted for meeting houses before and after the Act of Toleration, Spaeth concludes that prosecution was a failure: conformity was not enforceable, and few Nonconformists were in fact reclaimed by the church.
In addition to the subject of conflict, the book provides a richly textured portrait of religious observance and pastoral practice. The laity valued Sunday services, good preaching, and the Lord's Supper, even though they rarely received communion more than once a year. (Spaeth actually quantifies the frequency of communion through studying the records of churchwardens' purchases of bread and wine.) He convincingly argues that the relative infrequency of lay communication cannot be used as in index of indifference and thus rejects contemporary clerical opinion regarding the prevalence of irreligion. Clerical inflexibility on such matters as clandestine marriages (i.e., without banns or licence, but still valid) and funerals did the church considerable harm, often leading to resentment by laymen. On the other hand, evidence creatively teased out of documents such as wills suggests that the clergy were conscientious in the visitation of the sick. The book concludes with a fascinating chapter on clerical support for psalmody, singing, and the building of galleries for choirs before 1730, followed by a startling volte face right on the eve of the Evangelical Awakening. The attempt to control choirs and congregational singing could not have been more ill-timed, and the clergy's defensive posture in this regard contrasts remarkably with the innovative approach to worship found among Evangelicals. Spaeth bases his conclusions in part on a creative use of records of purchases of choral and instrumental music.
If there is a single worry in this reviewer's mind about the book it would center around the preponderance of the use of legal records and the concentration on local matters. By their very nature, court records are bound to render only one side of the story of clergy-lay relations. Spaeth helpfully adjusts for this problem by corroborating legal records with evidence such as clerical diaries. One is left, however, with questions about the extent of conflict relative to the many cordial and peaceful relations that were never recorded. The local focus of the study raises a second concern. One might have thought that the danger to the church would have arisen from the attack of Deists, or that it might have been connected to Enlightened skepticism construed more broadly. But the near absence of such issues from the pages of this book makes one ponder the relation between popular religion and elite thought, or perhaps between urban and rural sensibilities. Anti-clericalism in this study is not the anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment, but that of local jealousies and family and community conflict. We are also left to ponder why the laity, who were consistently less well educated than the clergy, were more tolerant of Nonconformists. Clearly, a community of interests at the local level bore directly on such matters. Still, much further work is needed to integrate the complex history and interactions of elite conceptions, national movements, and popular religious practices.
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James E. Bradley. Review of Spaeth, Donald A., The Church in an Age of Danger: Parsons and Parishioners, 1660-1740.
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