Compton Towers Publishing £15.50 (0-9545478-0-2)
IN her introduction to this study of early-19th-century religion, Sibyl
Phillips quotes the great Evangelical figure of the age, William Wilberforce,
who thought that women were more favourably disposed than men to “the feelings
and offices of religion”. But what, in Wilberforce’s time, did they really
think about it? How did it affect their conduct of life? What did they read?
Answers can be found, not in the works of the great and good, but in the
intimate communications of those who rest in unvisited tombs. Sibyl Phillips
has found some of them, and her study is a fascinating contribution to the
study of Evangelical religion and to English local history.
There are three main examples. The first is Anna Maria Lukyn, of Canterbury,
daughter of a clergyman, who wrote letters to Margaret Strong, the wife of an
archdeacon. She writes of Cowper, Byron, and Hannah More; of the Bishop of
Norwich who would ordain “any who offered”; of damp churches; and of “the
terrific views” of the local Methodists.
The second is from the village of Creaton, Northamptonshire, where the
letters speak of love denied; of people becoming “decidedly serious”; of
serving the Lord; of everlasting felicity. Grotesque characters appear, such as
George Bugg, a real-life Mr Slope, and David Owen, whose letter proposing
marriage might have been written by Mr Collins.
The third example is Eliza Westbury, whose
Hymns by a Northamptonshire Village Female was published shortly after
her death in 1828. She died young, after conversion and baptism: her hymns
(ignored until now) speak of the importance of the Bible, the sufferings of
Christ, of repentance, death, and the future life.
The recovery of Westbury’s hymns is a significant achievement. But the whole
book is a fine example of what can be done with local resources. For historians
of Evangelical religion, this is an account of daily lives, of hopes and fears,
of irritations and exaltations, which should be required reading.
J. R. Watson is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Durham.
The book is available from Compton Towers Publishing at 102 Northampton
Road, Roade, Northampton NN7 2PF.