Woodford’s woes: debt and divine favour in early modern England

Jonathan Willis

Lately I’ve been reading and writing about a large number of godly lives. This is a fascinating genre. Individual stories have always played an important role in Christianity – the gospels themselves, of course, are first and foremost accounts of the life of Christ, written by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Confessions of Augustine; the hagiographical accounts of the lives (and deaths) of saints; the intensely spiritual and personal visions of mystics like Julian of Norwich: all these are examples of how life writing of different kinds has played an important role in shaping religious belief and practice in the millennium and a half following the birth of Christ. However, we see two new and distinctive developments occurring in the early modern period. One is the growth of something which starts to look recognisably like modern autobiography: a warts and all account of the trials and tribulations of an individual life, from start to end.[1] The second is the invention of the so-called ‘spiritual diary’ – that puritan specialism, which combined observations on daily life with deeply personal soul-searching: prayer, godly meditation, and the anatomisation and identification of sin. This is where my interest in these documents primarily lies, because the Ten Commandments (about which I’m currently writing a book) were one of the main tools used by puritan authors to forensically examine their spiritual health.

Augustine - father of the spiritual autobiography?

Augustine – father of the spiritual autobiography?

Thanks to the painstaking efforts of a number of scholars, we have more of these sorts of documents easily available to us than ever before. It surely cannot have escaped the attention of anybody attending a conference recently that Nehemiah Wallington, the gloriously idiosyncratic early seventeenth century wood-turner and prolific scribe, is rapidly becoming the patron saint of early modern studies. Interest in Wallington has been high ever since Paul Seaver’s book, Wallington’s World, hit the bookshelves some thirty years ago.[2] Now, though, we can browse through Wallington’s writings themselves (or at least, some edited highlights), thanks to David Booy’s recent edition of a selection of his surviving manuscripts.[3] The voice of a humble artisan is not one we often hear; neither is that of a young provincial godly gentlewoman. Still, thanks to the ‘Constructing Elizabeth Isham’ project, led by Elizabeth Clarke at Warwick, we now have online access to the working ‘diary’ and longer ‘book of remembrance’ she composed at different stages of her life.[4]

Constructing Elizabeth Isham

Constructing Elizabeth Isham

One of the most recent such publications, and the one I want to talk about here, is John Fielding’s edition of the diary of Robert Woodford (covering the period 1637-1641).[5] This is a brilliant and meticulous achievement, and another boon to scholars and students interested in religion, politics, and indeed all aspects of everyday life in the early seventeenth century. Born in 1606, Woodford was a godly Northampton lawyer and civic official, who witnessed the Laudian reforms to the Church of England with a mixture of outrage and fear.  One of the most striking aspects of Woodford’s life is his impecunious financial situation, despite his professional success, solid social standing, and impressive connections. As Fielding notes, ‘around 1623 Woodford began to suffer from the financial problems that would dog him from for the rest of his life’.[6] These debts, which amounted to several hundreds of pounds by the time of his writing, are ‘the leitmotif of the diary’.[7] His primary response to the situation, aside from practical attempts to pay his creditors (more often than not by borrowing sums from somebody else), was a religious one.

Robert Woodford - crushed by debts

Robert Woodford – crushed by debts

Woodford’s situation exposes very conspicuously a strange contradiction in the experimental Calvinist theology which informed the worldviews of late-sixteenth and early seventeenth century puritans. In a nutshell, the key question was this: should the godly expect to receive signs of divine favour for their elect status (in the form of personal happiness or material prosperity) during the course of their everyday lives? There were good reasons to think that this might indeed be the case. The Decalogue itself implied that God would show mercy ‘unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments’, and also that obedience to the divine precepts would ensure that ‘thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’. Max Weber’s notion of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was famously built upon the assumption that there was an elective affinity between reformed Protestantism and a drive for material success – a seventeenth century prosperity gospel. At the same time, from the earliest days of the reformation, reformers like William Tyndale had described how the godly must expect to be baptised in tribulations, and Catherine Davies has speculated that the Edwardian reformers found it much easier to think of themselves as a ‘poor persecuted little flock’ than as a powerful ecclesiastical establishment.[8] Puritan practical divinity stressed again and again that God would continue to chastise his chosen people, to drive them from the sinful acts that their continued concupiscence caused them to commit.

Max Weber - not the last word on Calvinism and prosperity!

Max Weber – not the last word on Calvinism and prosperity!

How, then, did Woodford view his financial situation, in relation to his puritan religious identity? One of the key duties of the godly was to pray, and in August 1637 he petitioned God, ‘Lord enable me to pay my debts for the Lords sake Amen’.[9] At times, his expectation was clearly that God would look after him as one of his own: in November of the same year, he asked, ‘Lord looke from heaven upon me give me to endure this crosse with much fayth & patience yea cheerfulness, & in thy good time pay my debts for me & blesse me in outward things if thou seest good for the Lords sake Amen’.[10] At other times, though, Woodford saw his debt as something imposed by God, to humble his proud and materialistic servant. ‘Oh my god Looke upon me in mercye’, he cried later that month, ‘I confesse indeed I have not cared for running in debt to thee by dayly strivinge against thee, & therefore it is iust with thee I should Runne in debt to men, I confesse I have bene proud & profuse & therefore this burden is iustly upon me…’[11]

God - judge or saviour?  The answer, of course, is both...

God – judge or saviour? The answer, of course, is both…

To look for a consistent position on this, I would like to suggest, is to miss the point entirely. In a sense, the whole purpose of puritan practical divinity was contradiction. The advice of ministers – written or oral – had to be flexible enough to give hope to the desperate, while at the same time they also needed to be able to humble the proud. Strange as it might seem, this was a form of piety which was designed to be as inclusive as possible, and not to exclude anybody who self-identified as one of the godly, and committed to the strict religious and moral code that this implied. In general, and in particular, people needed to be able to feel as though there was a hope that they could be saved, whether things were going well, or badly, and of course most people experienced both of these states many times over the course of their lives.

Cameron & Osbourne - modern day economic puritans?

Cameron & Osbourne – modern day economic puritans?

Perhaps this is taking things a little far, but it could be argued that there is an interesting resonance here with our attitudes to wealth and dearth in the current time of ‘austerity’. There is a clear sense in political and public discourse that debt is a ‘bad thing’, a punishment visited upon us by the invisible hand of the market in recognition of financial sins past. At the same time, however, there is also a certain political agenda that views debt and austerity as having created an opportunity for moral and social reformation – that we will emerge from the current crisis stronger and better than before. Leaving aside the question of whether debt itself is real or not, it is incumbent upon us to recognise that our attitude to debt is culturally constructed, in the past, the present, and likely also the future.


[1] It has been suggested that the first such ‘modern’ biography was that of the Tudor musician, Thomas Whythorne: The autobiography of Thomas Whythorne, ed. James M. Osborn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961).

[2] Paul Seaver, Wallington’s world: a Puritan artisan in seventeenth-century London (London: Methuen, 1985).

[3] The notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, 1618-1654: a selection, ed. David Booy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

[4] http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ren/projects/isham/ [accessed 06.03.2015].

[5] Robert Woodford, The Diary of Robert Woodford, ed. John Fielding (Camden Fifth Series: Volume 42. Cambridge: CUP, 2012).

[6] Fielding (ed.), Diary of Robert Woodford, p. 4.

[7] Fielding (ed.), Diary of Robert Woodford, p. 16.

[8] Catherine Davies, ‘“Poor Persecuted Little Flock” or “Commonwealth of Christians”: Edwardian Protestant concepts of the Church’, in Peter Lake and Maria Dowling (eds), Protestantism and the National Church in Sixteenth Century England (1987).

[9] Fielding (ed.), Diary of Robert Woodford, p. 103.

[10] Fielding (ed.), Diary of Robert Woodford, p. 132.

[11] Fielding (ed.), Diary of Robert Woodford, pp. 141-2.

8 thoughts on “Woodford’s woes: debt and divine favour in early modern England

  1. Very interesting read and the conclusion was suggestive. When I talk to Americans I get much more of a sense of this survival of the economic heaven and economic hell that you bring upon yourself. However, by now it is so mixed up with cod Darwinism it is hard to make much sense of the discourse.

    • Thanks Jason, that’s really interesting. I was relucant to push the modern parallel too far – I’ll leave that to people who have studied it in more detail than I have (!) – but as a casual observer, it’s interesting to see attitudes present in the early modern period being mirrored in the present, albeit in a much more secular fashion. Still, I would stand by the point that debt is not necessarily a clear cut issue – it’s possibly to frame it in different ways, and of deploying it polemically to support different viewpoints or political agendas. As you say, though, it’s mixed up with so many other ideas that it’s hard to say where one influence stops and another begins…

  2. Woodford’s diary sounds fascinating! As you know, I’m very interested in how post-Reformation Protestantism influenced how people interpreted their economic circumstances. This was famously something that Nehemiah Wallington struggled with and Matthew Kadane has found this tension in the diary of Joseph Ryder (d. 1738) too. I’ve found similar cases in the late seventeenth century.

    Ideas about debt seem to be particularly important. As Craig Muldrew has shown, people were obsessed with debt and credit in this period. This had both practical aspects – such as Woodford’s very real debts – but also took on wider culture and even theological implications. In the late seventeenth century sources that I looked at, I was surprised at how often clergymen and pious laypeople talked about ‘debts’ owed to God which could be ‘repaid’ through charity. It could work the other way too – giving to the (godly) poor was like ‘lending’ to God himself. For example, William Talbot’s 1695 sermon on *The Foolish Abuse and Wise Use of Riches*: ‘He that hath pity on the Poor, lendeth unto the Lord’, and God will ‘repay us with usury … both here and hereafter’. (More examples in my book, pp. 45-6.)

    Does Woodford only talk about credit and debt in a literal sense, or does it bleed into his piety too?

    • Thanks Brodie, I was hoping you would comment on this as I know that it’s something you’ve worked on a lot more than I have! I’m interested in debt mainly from the point of view of sin. It seems that in the late-medieval Church, there was a strong mercantile tone to some aspects of nominalist soteriology, which encouraged the laity to think very much in terms of the payment of debt and the accrual of credit, through the various intricacies of the pentitential cycle and economy of salvation. That’s something which appears to have given way in the reformation to a view of sin as sickness and disease, but the theological notion of debt and credit seems to be starting to reappear by the early seventeenth century in some instances, although in parallel with (rather than displacing) other ideas, even though they are somewhat contradictory.

      Woodford clearly sees debt as a religious trial – something designed to punish him for placing too much emphasis on material goods, and to emphasise his total dependence upon divine grace for salvation. Whether the purpose of that trial is punishment or correction, of course, depends upon whether Woodford is one of the elect or one of the reprobate; something which he can never truly be sure of. It definitely bleeds into his piety, therefore. There’s an interesting link here with Alec Ryrie’s work on vows and covenants in Being Protestant. Woodford knows that, theologically speaking, the point of these debts is to cause him to forsake the empahsis he places on worldly goods, but at the same time, he can’t help but convey through prayer his expectation that his godly behaviour weill be rewarded by material relief. On p. 144 of the diary he writes:

      ‘shew me thy gravious providence this day if it be thy will, & blesse my deare wife my sweete Children & whole family keep us in thy feare under thy protection, let us not by sinne bereave our selves of thy good providence & blessing and Lord I pray thee in thy due time pay my debts for me I hinge uppon thee for I have no other helpe in all the world, (thou art better then all the helpes in the world, blessed be thy name) and Lord make me diligent in my callinge give me more practise & more abilityes for it, & money to follow it if it be thy will for the Lords sake Amen.’

  3. Just a thought from an interested layman. It strikes me that the response to debt problems, individual and societal,is in large part, determined by the cause of the problem. To what degree was it self-inflicted? What was the source of Woodford’s debt problem?

    • Thanks Paul, that’s a really useful point, I think you’re quite right; it makes total sense that how you end up in debt is going to be an important factor in how you respond to your situation. Woodford noted in 1638 that he had been in debt for about 15 years – i.e. since 1623, when he would have been about 17 years old. Fielding has suggested that the cause of these debts was probably the fees paid by Woodford and his parents to the puritan Inner Temple barrister John Reading, who trained Woodford in the law. His debt stemmed from the training which also gave him his livelihood, therefore, so it was quite a tricky situation!

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