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Tessa Whitehouse

Letters between friends are a rich source for developing our understanding of the ways in which religion was enmeshed with and yet apart from everyday life for people of strong faith. This chapter introduces three pairs of correspondents whose letters collectively span the 1720s to the earliest years of the nineteenth century. In some cases, the friends were from different Protestant denominations. Sharing life-cycle events was one way of reaffirming similarities and overcoming difference in doctrines or the institutions of religion. Religious and everyday topics are not necessarily distinct for these writers, who use what Susan Whyman calls ‘epistolary literacy’ to manage complex materials in order to sustain relationships and to articulate beliefs in ways that complicate Konstantin Dierks’s thesis that epistolary competence was prized primarily as a tool for displaying refinement and facilitating social mobility. Letter-writing was an important channel for the circulation of informal literature that thematised faith and domesticity. This chapter establishes and analyses widespread practices of letter-writing that enabled correspondents to position their faith within everyday life and extraordinary life-cycle events to enable prayer, comfort and community-building.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England
Lauren Cantos

This chapter analyses attitudes towards maternal breastfeeding and wet-nursing in early modern sermons, domestic guidebooks and prescriptive literature printed between 1591 and 1622. It explores the commonalities across these texts, particularly in their representations of breastfeeding as a physiological, social and spiritual bond between mother and child, and also between child and God. It argues that ‘Puritan’ writers use biblical precedent and the theology of providence in order to characterise maternal breastfeeding as a ‘natural’ and divine practice. Providential language is also evident in their explanations about the formation of breast milk as well as their thinking about women’s capacity to breastfeed. The chapter explores how the Geneva Bible (1560) is crucial for their advocacy of maternal breastfeeding, evidenced in the way these writers draw upon certain verses and annotations to support their case. This is significant because they interpreted these verses as literally referring to breastfeeding and maternal nurture. The alternative, wet-nursing, is depicted as morally, physically and spiritually dangerous to the child through their receiving of ‘unnatural’ milk. Effectively, mothers who use wet-nurses are depicted as denying providence and risking their child’s spiritual development. These representations underscore a dichotomy between the godly breastfeeding mother and the immoral wet-nurse.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England
Rebecca Whiteley

Claude Mellan’s engraving of the Holy Face and François Mauriceau’s engraving of the foetus in the uterine membranes might, initially, seem to have little in common beyond their use of the same spiralling engraving technique. However, by taking a closer look at the culture of image use in seventeenth-century Europe, this chapter shows how these two prints were interlinked through a shared engagement in the life-cycle event of pregnancy and childbirth. In the early modern period, the epistemologies of religion and medicine both held strong sway over understandings of generation, pregnancy and childbirth. While historians today tend to treat these different realms of knowledge separately, this chapter employs a close study of two prints, one from each side of the divide, to show how fundamentally interlinked they were. By exploring how each image pointed to the other, how each could inform the viewer’s understanding of the generative body, and how each could become an object of prayer, this chapter explores what wider conclusions we can draw about the medico-religious culture of early modern childbirth, and the role of the printed image in negotiating meaning and providing agency.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England

Religion and life cycles in early modern England examines intersections between religion and all stages of the life course. It considers rites of passage that shaped an individual’s life, such as birth, death, marriage and childbirth. It investigates everyday lived experiences including attending school and church, going to work, praying, writing letters and singing hymns. It sets examples from different contexts alongside each other and traces how different religious confessions were impacted by the religious and political changes that occurred in the two centuries following the Reformation. These approaches demonstrate the existence of multiple and overlapping understandings of the life cycle in early modern England. The collection is structured around three phases: birth, childhood and youth; adulthood and everyday life; and the dying and the dead. Coexisting with the bodily life cycle were experiences which formed the social life cycle such as schooling, joining a profession, embarking on travel abroad, marriage, parenthood and widowhood. Woven through these occurrences, an individual’s religious life cycle can be seen: the occasions when they were welcomed into a particular faith; when they were tempted to convert; when they joined the ministry or a convent. Early modern individuals often reflected on times they personally acknowledged to have transformed their life or events which instigated their spiritual awakening. They did so creatively in diaries, letters, plays, portraits, diagrams, sermons, poetry and hymns. In this interdisciplinary collection, the complex meanings of life-cycle events for early modern people are shown to be shaped by religious belief and experience.

Mary Clare Martin

Despite the revision of the historiography of the eighteenth-century Church of England, little attention has been paid to the religious experiences and rites of passage of the young, especially from a cross-denominational perspective. Indeed, the historiography of childhood has frequently represented the eighteenth century as a period of increasing secularisation. Drawing on personal memoirs from members of different religious denominations and social strata, this chapter will focus on the ways children and young people experienced religious practice and co-constructed meaning about religion, in the contexts of personal relationships and worshipping communities. While recognising the methodological issues of using autobiographies and conversion narratives as sources about children’s experiences, these sources do nevertheless yield significant insights into patterns of pedagogy, the acquisition of belief and the conduct of rites of passage across denominations. Formerly neglected groups such as High Church Anglicans and evangelical Congregationalists are studied. This chapter draws on the concept of the ‘social worlds’ of children to explore how they could play an active part in co-creating religious understanding through interaction with others. Furthermore, it shows how the young might affect their respective worshipping communities collectively through practices such as catechising and singing, as well as unorthodox behaviour.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England
Alexandra Walsham

This chapter explores perceptions of the spiritual life cycle in Protestant England. It examines how the rhetoric and language of the human life cycle and reproduction was deployed to describe personal religious growth and considers the complex relationship between biological and spiritual conceptions of age in the post-Reformation context. Drawing on the biblical idea of casting off the old man and taking on the new, godly Protestant piety increasingly placed emphasis on experiences of conversion, regeneration and rebirth. At the same time the reformers were eager to resist the perennial charge that Protestantism was a ‘new’ religion and to prove that it had ancient apostolic roots. The essay teases out this paradox. It pays particular attention to the Restoration divine Ralph Venning’s Christs School (posthumously published in 1675), which described the four classes of Christians he had encountered in the course of his ministry: babes, little children, young men and fathers. These were categories that did not neatly correlate with those based on biological age. Instead, they denoted degrees of spiritual attainment.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England
Bernard Capp

This chapter explores the many secular factors that might accompany or outweigh the spiritual in shaping religious identities throughout the life cycle in early modern England. For adolescents and young adults, religious identity was often influenced by tensions with their fathers. Ambitious men might be ready to abandon the faith in which they had been raised for the sake of an advantageous marriage or to advance a career at court, in the law or even in the Church. A wife might be prepared to submit her judgement to her husband’s for the sake of marital harmony. The practice of subordinating religious commitment to worldly self-interest can be found at every level of society, from Charles II suppressing his Catholic beliefs until his deathbed, to felons in Newgate feigning a conversion to Anglicanism in the hope of a last-minute reprieve. A final strand of the chapter addresses the phenomenon of English captives enslaved in Barbary ‘turning Turk’ – adopting Islam in the hope of securing more lenient treatment, or in order to join the corsairs themselves. Even in an ‘age of faith’, the power of material self-interest was ever-present.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England
Nancy Jiwon Cho

This chapter explores changes in theological teaching about temporality and the eternal afterlife in three significant hymnbooks for children published during the long eighteenth century: Isaac Watts’s Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715), Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), and Ann and Jane Taylor’s Hymns for Infant Minds (1809). While the first collection used the threat of hell as the primary means of persuading children to live morally upright, productive lives in continuum with earlier Puritan writings for children, subsequent writers revised this pattern by offering consolation about death and the afterlife by presenting heaven as an ideal place where family bonds and friendships might resume in an ideal version of earthly community, and stressing God’s benevolence. The essay suggests that, as accessible texts encountered ubiquitously throughout childhood at church or chapel, in the schoolroom and in the home, which were habitually read, sung, memorised and recited, children’s hymns not only provided memorable pedagogic vehicles, but allowed for familiar ritual performance to help navigate the gradually unfolding cycle of life.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England
Elaine Hobby

The range of under-explored resources available to anyone interested in how early modern women experienced and understood key life-cycle events such as birth, marriage and death is immense. This chapter samples collections of spiritual autobiographies from the mid-seventeenth century, a female-authored midwifery manual (1671), and an extraordinary later story by Aphra Behn, The History of the Nun (1689), to evidence that richness. Demonstrating that ‘non-literary’ materials often neglected by literary critics are especially important, it also argues that a close-reading method is essential if texts are to be understood. Equally important to life-cycle research, however, is Behn’s demonstration that a writer can creatively explode her culture’s dominant conceptions.

in Religion and life cycles in early modern England
Elliot Vernon

This chapter explores the role of London’s presbyterians in the formation of the parliamentarian ‘political presbyterian’ alliance. It analyses the presbyterian clergy’s dispute with Parliament in 1645 over the authority and jurisdiction of the projected settlement of the church. This dispute triggered the London clergy to mobilise a campaign for presbyterianism and, in so doing, mobilised a body of pro-presbyterian, ‘Covenant-engaged’ London citizens to seize key city institutions. The purpose of this was to pressurise Parliament into establishing presbyterian church polity. This campaign would ultimately end in disappointment and compromise. However, the London presbyterians’ sophisticated campaigning network and control of important city institutions would prove critical for the rest of the period.

in London presbyterians and the British revolutions, 1638–64