The Devil’s Church

Mark Hailwood

Early modern moralists were quick to condemn alehouses as ‘nests of Satan’, or as ‘the Devil’s church’ – places where impiety and irreligion were rife. The reality, as I will be demonstrating in my book, was that alehouse-haunting and godliness were not necessarily incompatible features of early modern life.

Whilst many ministers perceived themselves as locked in a ‘Battle for the Sabbath’, competing with the local alehouse to put bums-on-seats (or rather bums on pews and ale-benches) during Sunday services, the majority of parishioners seem to have found no great problem – or contradiction – in using their Sundays to congregate both at church and at the local drinking hole. Two diaries from relatively devout Christians—the Yorkshire yeoman Adam Eyre, written in the 1640s, and the Lancashire mercer Roger Lowe, written in the 1660s—both detail routine behaviour of stopping off for drinks either on the way to, or the way back from, a sermon or service. When faced with the seemingly existential choice between church and pub, the most common response was… both.

In fact, religion was a common topic of conversation around the ale-bench, and it is a couple of particularly striking examples of such exchanges that I want to share here, and invite your thoughts on.

The first took place on a December morning in 1656, in a Nottingham alehouse. William Bradshaw, a felt-maker, was discoursing with his companions about food and drink, when the conversation turned to what scripture had to say on the issue. Bradshaw said that ‘there was a saying in scripture that our Saviour fed 5000 men with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, which was as arrant a lie as ever was spoken’.

Jumping forward to 1681, and to the Somerset parish of East Pennard, near Glastonbury, the vicar of the parish, Mr Alisbury, was drinking in an alehouse with Joshua Swetnam, a local farmer. Their discussion came on to the subject of the Old and New Testaments, whereupon Alisbury offered his view that ‘they were not good but were both false and that there was not a good book but the common prayer book’.

We have two expressions here of unorthodox religious belief – but how unorthodox were they? Was Bradshaw’s denial of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand an instance of truculent plebeian cynicism, demonstrating a healthy dose of mistrust of authoritative discourses? Or was this felt-maker ‘pushing the envelope’ of Protestant theology, taking the official Protestant distrust of the possibility of contemporary miracles to its extreme, and denying the possibility of any of Christ’s miracles? And what about the vicar Alisbury’s rubbishing of both the Old and New Testaments? Was he just a confused drunkard (he did have a reputation for imbibing) who failed to see the contradictions in his statement, or was he simply a ‘hotter sort’ of ‘Prayer Book Protestant’ who exalted the book above even the Bible itself? Would his view have been shared by some of his parishioners, or were these the ramblings of a lone voice?

I’d love to hear from religious historians here – do these views chime with any of the broader trends in religious debates in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, or are these isolated outbursts of unorthodoxy whose origins will remain obscure?

There is a broader question about popular religion at stake here I think – what we might call, after Ginzburg’s famous ‘The Cheese and the Worms’, the Menocchio question – do discoveries such as these help historians of popular culture to tap into hidden veins of belief held by ordinary people, or do they represent the unrepresentative, and lead us up the garden path?

5 thoughts on “The Devil’s Church

  1. Some interesting examples here. There has been some work on ‘popular scepticism’ (if I remember rightly from scholars working on atheism more generally) – people scoffing at parts of scripture and generally showing an unwillingness to accept puportedly miraculous episodes, but as usual it is difficult to know how to interpret this. It could also be an example of ‘commonsense’ religious belief, or ‘country divinity’, those ordinary folk that showed a lack of awareness of doctrine but who believed in god and tried to act as a good Christian should in a practical, rather than particularly theologically inspired way. Your vicar could also plausibly fall into that category. He is perhaps an antidote to the general impression that the quailty of the clergy was improving in the seventeenth century, or he might be interpreted as a proto-‘Anglican’, in that his expressed desire to stick with the Prayer Book, and try to keep a lid on religious dispute fits with a post-Interregnum Church and state that looked on enthusiasm and religious controversy with distaste and trepidation. Where were the examples from? If court records, there is the usual caveat that we might just be looking at the exception, rather than the rule, of course.

    • Mark Hailwood

      Thanks Laura. Both are from court records: Bradshaw was presented to the Borough authorities in Nottingham, and Alisbury to the consistory courts in Somerset. That they were reported suggests those with whom they were speaking did not share their views, at the least. As you say, we can’t be sure how representative they are, but it seems from your response that these views could be seen as part of broader trends within the religious landscape, and not just as unique outbursts.

      • If I could reopen the debate here, I’m trying to work precisely on these types of religious exchanges in drinking houses. While all of the reported cases of religious discussion I have stem from court records (and while I perhaps have less than 20 examples between 1550 and 1750 for Bristol), they do appear to cluster around particularly important periods. Hugh Latimer’s arrival into Bristol in the 1530s appeared to spark off a series of discussions between drinking house patrons on the legitimacy of Latimer’s views. Again between 1650s-70s, local constables are constantly supervising the discussions that non-conformists are having with fellow members. I think it could be plausible, then, that the discussions of religious ‘news’ was actually relatively common, and that prosecutions centred around high points of potentially problematic religious activity. I’d be interested, Laura, to hear more about the work on ‘popular scepticism’ – do you have any titles to hand that I could look up?


      • That’s really interesting about your cases Matt – it might be then that a spike in dissenting religious attitudes is caused more by the authorities attitudes and anxieties that it is a change in the beliefs of the ordinary folk then?

        On scepticism, I’m afraid I can’t entirely remember exactly there I was reading about it, but I think these would both be useful:

        Michael Hunter, ‘The Problem of “Atheism” in Early Modern England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 35 (1985) 135-57.

        Gerald Aylmer, ‘Unbelief in seventeenth-century England’, in Pennington, D. H.; Thomas, Keith Vivian, Sir, 1933- (ed.), Puritans and revolutionaries: essays in seventeenth-century history presented to Christopher Hill (Oxford, 1978).

  2. Pingback: Monstrous readers | the many-headed monster

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