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The Plaine Mans Pastor: Arthur Dent and the Cultivation of Popular Piety in Early Seventeenth-Century England

  • Elizabeth K. Hudson


With the collapse of presbyterian efforts to effect structural change in the Church of England in the 1590s, reformers were forced to realize that only widespread and sustained popular support could bring about further reform of the church. It is in this last decade of Elizabeth's reign that Christopher Hill sees the emergence of what he calls a “new Puritanism” designed to nurture such a broad base of support for further reform. This “new Puritanism,” which emphasized preaching and the cultivation of an individual piety rather than ecclesiastical reorganization, “with the household as its essential unit rather than the parish,” could also be described as a return to earlier values that had characterized Puritanism before the rise of the presbyterian party. Whether one chooses to interpret the trends of the late 1590s as “new” or “old,” what is important is that reformers by 1600 were making extensive use of both pulpit and press as instruments for influencing the hearts and minds of the English laity. An examination of the more frequently reprinted works of practical divinity in the first generation of the seventeenth century (which included much sermon literature) ought to reveal the themes that reformers hoped would strike a responsive chord with English readers.

Surveying such publications from the 1580s into the early 1600s, we may be surprised to find that two of the most popular works were Protestantized versions of Catholic works: Thomas Rogers's translation of De imitatione Christi (1580) and Edmund Bunny's A Booke of Christian exercise, appertaining to Resolution (1584), adapted from Robert Parsons's First Book of the Christian exercise (1582).



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1 Society & Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York, 1964), p. 502. Patrick Collinson has also devoted much attention to the study of popular religion; see, for example, The Religion of Protestants…1559–1625 (Oxford, 1982), chs. 5–6 and selected essays in Godly People (London, 1983).

2 Some remarks on Tymme's A Silver Watch-Bell, the other contemporary work of practical divinity, are included in my English Protestants and the imitatio Christi, 1580–1620,” Sixteenth Century Journal 19, 4 (1988): 551–52.

3 Arthur Dent, Rector of South Shoebury (1553–1603),” The Essex Review 57 (1948): 196201; Arthur Dent's Plaine Mans Path-way to Heaven,” Modern Language Review 44 (1949): 2634.

4 For example, Knappen, M. M., Tudor Puritanism (Chicago, 1939) or William Hunt's recent study of Essex, 1570–1642, The Puritan Moment (Cambridge, Mass., 1983). Dent's name does not appear in Patrick Collinson's magisterial study The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley, 1967).

5 Guildhall Library, London, MS.9535/1: First Book of Ordinations in the Registry of the Bishop of London (1550–1578), f. 154r.

6 The calendar of the voluminous Dent family papers in the Leicestershire Record Office contains no mention of an Arthur Dent among the wills and property transfers, which might suggest he was a younger son, educated for the church. Neither does the well-preserved Melton Mowbray Register of Christenings, Marriages, and Burials, 1547–1641 (DG 36/1) record the baptism of a Dent filius between 1547–1560.

7 Peter Lake regards Thomas Cartwright as the virtual inventor of the moderate Puritan position described in Moderate puritans and the Elizabethan church (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 6, 79. This fine study provides much useful background for understanding Dent's theological development (see chs. 3 and 5).

8 Greater London Record Office: Consistory of London (GL3) S/mic 7, Record of Wills “Sperin” 1592-1609, f. 389r.

9 The Seconde Pane of a Register, ed. Peel, Albert, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1915) 2: 164, 260–61. If Dent was summoned to appear in ecclesiastical court, he might very well have come before Sir Julius Caesar, Bishop Aylmer's commissary, and the man to whom The Plaine Mans Path-way was later to be dedicated.

10 Usher, Roland, The Presbyterian Movement in the Reign of Elizabeth, Camden Society, 3rd ser., vol. 8 (1905), p. 93. It is possible that there was a conference in Rochford deanery (which included South Shoebury parish) to which Dent might have belonged, comparable to the more famous Dedham conference studied by Usher, but no records survive to verify its existence.

11 According to Lake, conformity was the price moderate Puritans paid for “the infusion of the existing forms of the church and state with a puritan content” (Moderate puritans, p. 49).

12 In the dedication Dent alludes to “some alliance” with Sir Julius. Could he have been referring to the fact that Sir Julius had not long before taken as his second wife Alice, widow of John Dent? 1601 edition, A2r.

13 A collection of essays edited by Clark, Peter, The European Crisis of the 1590s (London, 1985), analyzes the European-wide dimensions of the economic depression. See also Palliser's, D. M. socio-economic survey, The Age of Elizabeth (London, 1983), chs. 4–6.

14 Palliser, , Age of Elizabeth, p. 184.

15 Hunt, , The Puritan Moment, pp. 6974.

16 Attacks on the practices of the callous rich were certainly not confined to the Puritan preachers. Robert Parsons, notorious leader of the Jesuit mission, expressed equally forceful opinions in A Memorial of the Reformation of England (1596), pp. 232–36.

17 The Heavenly Contract (Chicago, 1985), pp. 9–10; 128ff.

18 Hunt, , The Puritan Moment, pp. 7983; quote on p. 83.

19 An excellent introduction to the ordo salutis laid out in Perkins' A Golden Chaine can be found in Wallace, Dewey D. Jr., Puritans and Predestination (Chapel Hill, 1982), pp. 4353. See also Muller, Richard, “Perkins' A Golden Chaine: Predestinarian System or Schematized Ordo Salutis?Sixteenth Century Journal 9, 1 (1978): 6981.

20 It should be noted that during Perkins's lifetime (1558–1602), and for at least twenty years thereafter, the doctrine of predestination was not confined to the reforming wing of the English church. Rather, it dominated the mainstream of English Protestant theology, preached by Archbishop Whitgift as well as William Perkins, and vigorously defended by James I's representatives at the Synod of Dort in 1618.

21 A Golden Chaine” is in Perkins' Workes (1612 edition), 1: 11122; the quotation is from his “A Case of Conscience,” ibid., 1: 433.

22 The debate on this very issue at Cambridge in 1S9S, which went to the highest levels of church and state for resolution, may have been on Dent's mind. See Porter, H. C., Reformation & Reaction in Tudor Cambridge (Cambridge, 1958), ch. 15, or Lake, Moderate puritans, ch. 9.

23 Though Dent seems at times to be saying that God simply set up the conditions which made it possible for Adam to choose evil rather than good, he also states unequivocally that God's foreknowledge cannot be separated from his will; what He has foreseen He has ruled according to his will (p. 314).

24 Dent did define the two covenants of works and grace in his catechism A Pastime for Parents published posthumously in 1606, D4r-v. For a full discussion of covenant theology see von Rohr, John, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Atlanta, 1986).

25 God's Caress, The Psychology of the Puritan Religious Experience (Oxford, 1986), ch. 3, especially pp. 9899.

26 Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, ed. Sharrock, Roger (London, 1966), p. 10. Extensive passages from The Plaine Mans Path-way in Nehemiah Wallington's personal papers indicate the work was known among the London artisan class. Wallington may have been unique among his peers in filling fifty notebooks with his reflections, but he surely was not alone in turning to The Path-way for spiritual guidance. See Seaver, Paul, Wallington's World (Stanford, 1985), pp. 6, 133–35.

27 John Bunyan, (London, 1954), pp. 9798. Bunyan's most recent biographer, Christopher Hill, refers frequently to Dent's influence on Bunyan in A Tinker and a Poor Man (New York, 1990), pp. 161–62.

28 The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, ed. Forrest, and Sharrock, (Oxford, 1988), pp. 100–14.

29 Poor Man's Family Book” in The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, 4 vols. (London, 1854), 4: 165289.

30 Ibid., p. 217.


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