The Evangelical Tradition in Olney in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

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Nonconformist beginnings East Anglia and the East Midlands took to the Reformation and the new ideas of religion very easily; perhaps their proximity to the printing presses of The Hague and the rest of Northern Europe was a contributing factor. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Puritan faction was well established in the area. Unease with the established church of Charles I and his Archbishop Laud expressed itself quite early in the king’s reign. In 1635 some Olney families emigrated to New England in search of religious freedom; they left in April on board the Hopewell of London, arriving in Boston in June. From Olney itself went John Cooper, Edmund ffarington, William Parryer and their families and from the neighbouring villages of Lavendon and Sherington, George Griggs and his family and two brothers, Philip Kyrtland aged 21 and Nathaniel Kyrtland 19. The oldest emigrant was 49 and the youngest 18 months. Another early migrant to America was the Vicar of Olney, William Worcester, who left in 1639. He was a Puritan and was disenchanted with Archbishop Laud and the way the Church of England was becoming increasingly High Church. He became the first minister of Salisbury, Massachusetts, remaining in that post until his death in 1662. Many families in the neighbourhood are of Huguenot descent and one of the reasons that they settled there was because of its Puritan sympathies. They migrated in three main waves between 1572 and 1685. Since they came from the Continental lacemaking centres of Mechlin, Brussels, Lille, Arras, Chantilly and Alencon to a flax-growing area, they reinforced and expanded the existing lacemaking skills of the countryside. Huguenot names such as Minnard, Raban, Mole are still to be found locally today. A 1637 letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, possibly from the Bishop of

Nonconformist beginnings

East Anglia and the East Midlands took to the Reformation and the new

ideas of religion very easily; perhaps their proximity to the printing

presses of The Hague and the rest of Northern Europe was a contributing

factor. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Puritan faction

was well established in the area. Unease with the established church of

Charles I and his Archbishop Laud expressed itself quite early in the

king’s reign.

In 1635 some Olney families emigrated to New England in search of

religious freedom; they left in April on board the Hopewell of London,

arriving in Boston in June. From Olney itself went John Cooper, Edmund

ffarington, William Parryer and their families and from the neighbouring

villages of Lavendon and Sherington, George Griggs and his family

and two brothers, Philip Kyrtland aged 21 and Nathaniel Kyrtland 19.

The oldest emigrant was 49 and the youngest 18 months. Another early

migrant to America was the Vicar of Olney, William Worcester, who

left in 1639. He was a Puritan and was disenchanted with Archbishop

Laud and the way the Church of England was becoming increasingly

High Church. He became the first minister of Salisbury, Massachusetts,

remaining in that post until his death in 1662.

Many families in the neighbourhood are of Huguenot descent and

one of the reasons that they settled there was because of its Puritan

sympathies. They migrated in three main waves between 1572 and

1685. Since they came from the Continental lacemaking centres of

Mechlin, Brussels, Lille, Arras, Chantilly and Alencon to a flax-growing

area, they reinforced and expanded the existing lacemaking skills of the

countryside. Huguenot names such as Minnard, Raban, Mole are still to

be found locally today. A 1637 letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury,

possibly from the Bishop of Lincoln, states that ‘this corner of the

diocese being most distant is much suspected of Puritanism’.

The Civil War and Restoration

Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, like the rest of

the eastern counties, were predominately Puritan in outlook and therefore

mainly supported Parliament. The road from Oxford to Cambridge

passed through Olney, and a skirmish took place at Olney Bridge on

4 November 1643. Colonel Harvey and his Parliamentary troops, who

were stationed at Olney, came upon Prince Rupert and his cavalry. The

result could be said to be a draw, with Colonel Harvey standing off and

Prince Rupert withdrawing towards Oxford, which was held by the

King.

The curate of Olney from 1616 to 1683 was one Ralph Josselin and

he was ‘a staunch Parliamentarian and worshipper of Cromwell’. John

Bunyan, who was born at Elstow just outside Bedford, was stationed with

the Newport Pagnell garrison during the Civil War, five miles south of

Olney. Following the Restoration, conflict grew between the Dissenters

and the government, which compelled preachers to be licensed. Bunyan

refused to give an undertaking to the magistrates that he would not

preach without a licence. He was committed to Bedford Gaol until he

was prepared to give such an undertaking but remained there for 18

years, during which time he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The 1672 Declaration of Indulgence granted 27 licences to preach and

hold meetings in the area, but such toleration did not last. John Kent’s

barn was raided in 1684 and 40 people were arraigned and fined. Henry

Elliot, Vicar of Olney from 1700 to 1720, declared that 40 per cent of the

parish were Dissenters, that is Congregationalists, Baptists or Quakers.

George Whitefield came to Olney in 1739 and preached in a field to

two thousand people. John Wesley followed him some years later. When

John Newton arrived in 1764 the figure for non-Anglicans had dropped

to 25 per cent. His fellow preachers in the town were John Drake, the

Independent Minister, and the Baptist ministers William Walker and

from 1775 John Sutcliffe.

John Newton’s arrival in Olney

The observation that ‘In the eighteenth century the parish was ruled by

Squire and Parson’ does not apply to Olney. There was a lack of control

by the diocese, Lincoln being too far away. The local resident aristocracy,

the Throckmortons and Digbys, were Catholic and had little influence in

this hotbed of Nonconformity. The principal landowner and Lord of the

Manor of Olney was the Earl of Dartmouth. He had attended Westminster

School with William Cowper. Lord Dartmouth was a politician and spent

most of his time in London. He was Secretary of State for the Colonies

before the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin judged him ‘A truly

good man and wishes sincerely a good understanding with the colonies

but does not seem to have strength equal to his wishes’. Dartmouth was,

through a meeting with Lady Huntingdon, of evangelical persuasion and

had been greatly impressed by Newton’s Authentic Narrative. It was

thanks to his patronage that Newton was finally ordained by the Bishop

of Lincoln. Dartmouth then offered the curacy of Olney to Newton, who

began his ministry at Olney in 1764 aged 39.

Within a year a gallery had to be built in the parish church for the

growing congregation of about two thousand. Newton believed in short

sermons: ‘It is better to feed our people like chickens, a little & often,

than cram them like turkeys.’ Many people travelled from a considerable

distance to hear Newton preach. John Thornton, a rich Nottingham

merchant, became Newton’s patron and gave him £200 a year to cover

entertainment and distribution to the deserving poor. Newton kept open

house on Sunday for anyone who had travelled a distance greater than

six miles; sometimes there were 70 people for dinner. What Mrs Newton

thought of this is not recorded!

The background to Newton’s ministry

Olney had since the Middle Ages been a market town full of poor but

independent artisans and tradespeople. In the eighteenth century 337

men represented 50 occupations in the town. There was only one other

house in the town apart from Newton’s and Cowper’s not linked with

trade. In the eighteenth century the population was about two thousand.

According to Newton, ‘The people here are mostly poor – the country

low and dirty.’ Cowper remarked that ‘Olney is a populous place

inhabited chiefly by the half starved and the ragged of the earth’ and

that there were ‘near 1200 lace makers in this beggarly town’. Newton

was full of plans to help ‘the poor ignorant lace makers’. It was mostly

women who were employed in the lace trade, which gave them a degree

of economic independence. Because the women worked at the lace for

12 hours a day gangs of children roamed around the countryside getting

into all kinds of mischief. Fifteen years before Robert Raikes instituted

Sunday Schools, Newton had begun weekly meetings for children in

The Great House. Upwards of 200 children came at first but the number

settled down to around 70. A Bible and five shillings were given to the

best boy and the best girl annually at Easter.

Another meeting was held mainly for lacemakers on Sundays

at 6 o’clock in the morning. This group often held meetings in each

other’s homes. Sometimes they were without Newton, other times he

would drop in to pray with them. Between 1765 and 1767 Newton

held Ecumenical Meetings in the Great House for up to 130 people.

Visiting Nonconformist Ministers would give sermons and lead prayers.

Foremost among them were the Rev. William Bull, Independent Minister

of Newport Pagnell, and Sam Brewer, an Independent Minister from

London. Brewer preached for Newton at the Parish Church on Tuesday,

on Wednesday for Drake and on Thursday for Walker at the Baptist

Chapel. The four ministers dined at the Vicarage on Thursday evening

before Brewer returned to London.

These monthly meetings of six or seven clergymen eventually evolved

into the Bedfordshire Union of Christians, a forerunner of evangelical

ecumenism. The Anglican clergy would exchange Church services.

Newton, however, had his critics, for although Newton was an Anglican,

the other Church of England clergy were, at first, at odds with him. He

was regarded as a Methodist, his ‘enthusiasm’ was preached against. It

would be 150 years before his ecumenical attitude became acceptable

in the Church of England as a whole. Nevertheless his influence in an

area between Northampton and Bedford was considerable, Dissenters

being the most sympathetic to him. Most of his teaching was, therefore,

‘parlour preaching’. However, despite himself, Newton could not resist

gloating when a long standing Baptist joined the Church of England: she

‘chose to walk with us entirely’.

When Newton first arrived in Olney and moved into the Vicarage,

newly refurbished by Lord Dartmouth, he had painted onto the bare

plaster of his study the following words:

Since thou wast precious in my sight thou has been honourable

Isa. 43 v 4

But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondsman in the land of Egypt

And the Lord thy God redeemed thee Deut. 15 v 15

Both quotations were a personal reminder of his previous life as an

unbeliever and his involvement in the ‘triangular trade’, that is, the slave

trade.

Friendship and ministry of John Newton and William Cowper

Newton’s correspondence greatly increased after the publication of his

autobiography, the Authentic Narrative. He started to go on preaching

tours and continued to do so for the remainder of his life. He was usually

accompanied by his wife Mary, or ‘Polly’, as he called her.

In 1767 some mutual friends suggested that Newton call upon the

Rev. Morley Unwin whose lodger was a cousin of Martin Madan,

an evangelical who had co-written ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

This lodger was none other than William Cowper. Newton arrived in

Huntingdon a few days after Rev. Unwin died as a result of a riding

accident. It was at Newton’s suggestion that his widow, her daughter

Susanna, her household and William Cowper moved to Olney to be

under Newton’s pastorship. This they did in 1768.

Cowper was impressed with the spirit of co-operation between those

of different denominations in Olney. In a letter to his aunt, Judith Madan,

dated 18 June 1768, he wrote of his visit to the Northamptonshire Baptist

Association, which William Walker helped to host. Newton had been

invited to preach to the Baptists on the evening of 16 June. Cowper

wrote in 1769, ‘The Dissenters here, most of them at least who are

serious forget that our Meeting House has a steeple to it and we that

theirs has none.’

The Newtons, Cowper and Mrs Unwin became great friends, meeting

every day. They were of equal social standing in a town composed of

artisans and the lower classes. Both ladies were deeply religious and

the four had a keen sense of humour, although Cowper’s wit was dry

and ironical. Polly Newton and Cowper shared a common interest in

gardening. Cowper helped Newton distribute Thornton’s largesse to the

poor of Olney. Cowper had a great interest in the evangelical movement

prior to meeting Newton, and started parlour meetings on Monday

evenings at Orchard Side. Their great collaborative work, however, was

the Olney Hymns. Published in 1779, this volume consisted of some 300

hymns, 80 being written by Cowper, and the remainder by Newton.

Cowper’s mental health was poor. He suffered what is known today as

bi-polar disorder, but his condition at the time was diagnosed as ‘religious

melancholia’. He was, like so many creative people, a manic-depressive.

He had his first major attack at 22 but was 32 when he made the first suicide

attempt he admitted to. He was placed in Dr Nathaniel Cotton’s care in St

Albans. Thanks to Dr Cotton’s humane treatment and the support of his

brother John and his Methodist cousin Martin Madan he recovered. It was

here that Cowper wrote his first hymns. He dated his religious conversion

to this period with Dr Cotton, when in 1764, he opened his Bible by chance

at Romans 3:25, which speaks of Christ,

Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to

declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the

forbearance of God.

His third major attack occurred when he was 42. It was triggered by

the Easter Cattle Fair in Olney. Cowper couldn’t face the noise and

bustle associated with the fair so he removed himself to the Vicarage

as Newton’s guest. Six months later he was still there when Newton

and his wife were absent on a preaching tour. During this time Cowper

again attempted suicide. Newton returned and used the electro-static

machine in an attempt to alleviate Cowper’s condition. The results were

inconclusive: ‘Prevailed on him to let me make experiment of it today.

But could not observe any sensible effect.’

Cowper’s depression was not helped by gossips who put pressure on

him to marry Mrs Unwin. Her daughter had left Olney – she had married

the Rev. Matthew Powley – and therefore the couple had been living

unchaperoned at Orchard Side. Tongues wagged furiously in the town.

Cowper remained at the Vicarage from 12 April 1773 to 28 May 1774.

Polly Newton is the unsung heroine in all of this, equally with Mary

Unwin who remained to nurse him day and night although he was under

the delusion that she had poisoned his food. It is said that when Cowper

recovered he wrote his great hymn ‘God moves in a mysterious way /

His wonders to perform’.

The end of John Newton’s ministry in Olney

In 1775 John Sutcliff became Baptist Minister at Olney. John Newton

actually went to hear his inaugural address in the Baptist Chapel, much

to his wife’s distress. Polly had a lively mind and a deep faith and she

had no qualms about hearing John Wesley preach but she drew the line

at Baptists. By 1779 Newton was leader of the evangelical clergy. Apart

from Cowper his great friend was the Independent Minister of Newport

Pagnell, the Rev. William Bull. John Thornton gave financial support to

Bull and the Newport Pagnell Academy. This was a Dissenting Academy

for the professional education of Dissenting ministers. When Newton

left Olney in the winter of 1779/1780 Bull became the spiritual support

of Cowper.

The American Revolutionary War had some impact in Olney. As

a result of war taxation the mob attacked a flour cart. Newton was

sympathetic but lectured his congregation from the pulpit against taking

direct action. He also sympathised with the colonists but thought they

should not have taken up arms. He had some connections with America,

although rather tenuous. His father had been Governor of Fort York,

Hudson’s Bay and his stepbrother, Harry, was in the Royal Navy

stationed at Boston. Lord Dartmouth had interests in Georgia, and in

1765 proposed that ‘Mr Whitefield’s orphan-house is to be converted

into a seminary, college or university; and Mr. N. is to be desired to be

the president thereof, with the annexed living of Savannah, the chief

town.’ Newton declined the offer because of his affection for Olney and

his wife’s hatred of travelling by water.

For many people the war was a civil war. Newton wrote to Thornton:

‘Our disunion from America is an event of such importance that it seems

to me like a dream and I can hardly persuade myself it is true.’

By 1779 Newton’s congregation was falling off and his influence in

the town was waning. He had fostered a popular religious culture to

the detriment of ecclesiastical and parochial order. This had bolstered

the local tradition of Calvinist nonconformity in an independent artisan

population. They no longer needed him.

There had always been a lawless element in Olney. In 1773 he had

preached a series of sermons against the sins of the town – whoredom,

adultery, profanity and drunkenness. With over one hundred alehouses

in the town that was not a difficult condition to be in! Poverty and

alcoholism were widespread, nor were suicide and attempted suicide

uncommon. The crunch came when Newton had preached against the

bonfires and excesses of Guy Fawkes Night, partly because of the danger

from fires in the town. A mob of about fifty went around smashing

windows. Newton lost his nerve and sent the mob leader a shilling to

avoid his house, an act of which he was afterwards ashamed.

Bull commented, ‘Mr. Newton trod a path, which no man but himself

could have used so long as he did, and he wore it out long before he

went from Olney. Too much familiarity and condescension cost him

the estimation of his people. He thought he should ensure their love,

to which he had the best possible title, and by those very means he lost

it.’ Ultimately John Thornton offered him the Rectorship of St Mary

Woolnoth Church in the City of London. Newton accepted and preached

his last sermon in Olney Parish Church in January 1780.

This was not the end of the Evangelical tradition in Olney in the

eighteenth century. The Rev. Thomas Scott (1746-1821) was the curate at

Olney from 1781 to 1784. When he had been curate of Stoke Goldington

and Weston Underwood he had encouraged and lent books to a young

William Carey. Later famous for his Commentary, Scott while Vicar

of Buckden had tutored students preparing to work for the Church

Missionary Society.

William Carey (1761-1834) became a Baptist when he was eighteen

and straightway started to preach. From 1785 Carey became involved

with the Baptist Church at Olney. He was one of the students trained

by Sutcliffe at his home, 20 The High Street, Olney. Both men were

involved in the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society. Carey

later took his preaching further afield. In 1793 he went to India, studied

Bengali and translated the Gospels. He remained for the rest of his life in

India. The Evangelical tradition continued to flourish in the nineteenth

century, but that is another story.

Bibliography

Haykin, Michael A.G., One Heart and One Soul, Evangelical Press, 1984.

Hindmarsh, Bruce, John Newton and the Evangelical Tradition, Clarendon Press,

Oxford 1996.

King, James and Ryskamp, Charles (eds.), The Letters and Prose Writings of

William Cowper, 5 vols, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979-86.

Rouse, Marylynn (ed.), Richard Cecil’s Life of John Newton, Christian Focus,

2000.

Various documents, papers, information in the Cowper and Newton Museum

Library including ‘Extracts from the manuscript diaries of the Rev. Joshua

Symonds, Pastor of Bunyan Meeting’, Bedford, 1766-1788.

Copyright

All articles are subject to copyright

Footnotes

The Cowper and Newton Journal includes scholarly articles, notes and reviews on Cowper, Newton and their contemporaries, as well as more general articles from the 18th century.

Joint Editors

Professor Vincent NeweyTony SewardDr William Hutchings

Editorial Board:

Dr Ashley Chantler (University of Chester), Dr Michael Davies (University of Liverpool), Kate Bostock (Museum Trustee), Professor Martha J. Koehler (University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PA), Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire).

Reviews Editor: Tony Seward

The predecessor to The Cowper and Newton Journal was The Cowper and Newton Bulletin.  Published in 8 volumes from 2002-2009, it contained museum news in each issue as well as one or more full-length scholarly articles and shorter notes.

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