Group change within a town: from Dorchester to Heaven

From the historical research available, it would seem that there was no simple expansionist, uniform change in the religious identity of English towns and places, the Protestant "culture of discipline" not always a popular alternative to Catholic traditionalism (Collinson, 2003). There are complicated issues of hierarchical versus horizontal spread and a town/countryside divide, with literacy being an important factor in the spread of Protestantism (Haigh (1995) informs us that in the late sixteenth century, tradesman were five times more likely to be literate than husbandmen and that exposure to regular preaching was more likely in the towns).

The county of Dorset saw the formation of strong Protestant enclaves, such as the port of Poole and the more modest trading town of Dorchester. Underdown's (1992) research on Dorchester follows the fortunes of its inhabitants, from the great fire that wreaked devastation in 1613 (and a much smaller one in 1623), through to the Civil War and the Restoration. Of particular focus are the efforts articulated by its chief minister, John White, to transform an unremarkable, though relatively wealthy town into a leading, Puritan centre, building a reformed, godly community to match, on a tiny scale, Calvin's Geneva. The fire, an event pre-eminently open to eschatological interpretation, was a centring event, Protestants seeing it as a sign of God's displeasure and as prompt for the comprehensive reformation of the town.

White's arrival after 1613, and the message of his subsequent followers, did not meet with universal approval and Underdown uses the example of Matthew Chubb, wealthy town elder, and his circle, as supplying an alternative vision, with an older concept of neighourliness and social order based on traditional alliances and obligations. Chubb and his followers were suspicious of Puritans; "The conflict between Chubb and the reformers was one for the town's very soul: for its entire moral and spiritual character" (Underdown, 1992, p. 38). Although religious life in Dorchester (there were three churches) was shared by Puritan and non-Puritan alike, it was the puritans who were more conscious and actively reflective of their identity; it was they, after all, who sought to rearticulate the social/spiritual realm and it was Chubb's world that was on the defensive.

In the context of an expanding town, reformers were concerned to address its social problems of welfare, discipline, and order in new ways, furthering their campaign for godliness and sobriety. Their collective sense of living not only in dangerous times, but, one might say, in ultimate times, was clear, the period seen as "perhaps the greatest turning point, of history: at the final stage of the eternal conflict between light and darkness, between good and evil, between Christ and anti-Christ" (Underdown, 1992, p. 53). This was conceived within a local, national, and even international context and it is important to link local struggle with wider religious struggle and state doctrine. Underdown details perceived threats to order, ranging from drunkenness to sexual promiscuity, bear-baiting to popular sports and swearing. These were hardly new problems, but in the view of the reformers were not only urgent targets for discipline but emblematic of drift towards vice and ungodliness. "Masterlessness" was a growing worry, a term attached to bands of drifting labourers, vagrants, or unruly, assertive females. In term of everyday language, Underdown notes the frequency with which words of insult such as "rogue", "knave", and "whore" were used; "by punishing swearing the authorities were trying to control the vocabulary as well as the religious, sexual and work habits of their neighbours (Underdown, 1992, p. 77). Hospital, school, and home, as well as church, were central sites of change, White's vision of charity was not so much a contradiction to that of Cobb, but a rearticulation of its basis and rationale.

As conditions worsened in England, the dividing lines of reform and anti-reform grew larger. The Calvinist saws signs of popery and Arminiansm (i.e., the disapproved-of doctrine of the Stuart Church, under Archbishop Laud) everywhere, in the town and beyond. Although most believed their mission was to stay put and ensure the town's Christian future, others set sail to America, intent on creating their vision elsewhere, a New England. Dorchester became, in civil war, an armed camp and site of many horrors, such as the execution of Catholic priest Hugh Green, whose head was kicked around like a football on the green. The Royalists took the town, staying until routed in 1644, and White, old and in temporary exile, returned two years later. In White's retrospective words, "God stepped in between us and our utter ruin" (Underdown, 1992, p. 209).

By the end of the Civil War decade and Restoration, the passions and extremes of republican and sectarian trends dissipated. But what had happened over the course of a few preceding decades illustrates the role of both charismatic individuals and their assemblage groups, who both represent and lead, in an inevitable mix of influence. Each person and each group, as it were, tries to imprint its version of history, either proactively in the case of reformers or defensively in the case of others, more content with older ways, each construing and acting upon different narrative constructions of events and their implications; there are differing emotional communities as well. Beyond the Restoration, Dorchester became friendly to non-conformists, a tribute perhaps to the combined efforts of the previous reformers. Underdown (1992 eloquently summarises the outcome: "the vision of a reformed, godly community which had inspired its leaders since the fire of 1613 gradually faded. The reason in part was generational: great causes are always likely to lose their vitality as the original leaders are supplanted by others who have grown up in a different moral climate" (p. 244).

 
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