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Arguing for Peace: Giles Firmin on New England and Godly Unity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Susan Hardman Moore
King’s College London


Richard Baxter admired the qualities Giles Firmin brought to religious controversy: ‘Candor, Ingenuitie, Moderation, Love and Peace’. Firmin, Vicar of Shalford, Essex, 1648–62, argued for peace during the Interregnum, at a time when disputes fractured the churches of his county. Factions of Presbyterians and Independents still fought about the right path to religious reform, in terms dictated by polemic of the 1640s, while sects like the Quakers rattled confidence in a united Church. Firmin devised arguments that crossed party lines, to unite against sectarianism. He wrote from an unusual perspective. He had been to Massachusetts and come home. He had taken part in the colony’s bold experiment in Congregationalist church order, which inspired English Independents, but came back into parish ministry in Essex without repudiating his colonial experience. Modern historians, like seventeenth-century Presbyterians, struggle to explain why New England’s churches claimed unity with England, but acted differently. Firmin’s outlook sets contemporary polemic in a fresh light. Nowadays, he is better known for his anecdotes than for his views, because he scattered his tracts with stories about people he had known in colony and homeland. His opinions tend to escape notice. Yet Firmin used his experience in Old and New England to make a distinctive appeal for unity.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1996

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1 Baxter, Richard, Rich. Baxter’s Apology (London, 1654), 1, p. 107.Google Scholar

2 For Firmin (c.1614-97), see Matthews, A. G., Calamy Revised (Oxford, 1934, reissued 1988)Google Scholar [hereafter CR], p. 197; DNB; Davids, T. W., Annals of Evangelical Nonconformity in Essex (London, 1863), pp. 45761 Google Scholar; Dean, J. W., A Brief Memoir of Rev. Giles Firmin (Boston, Mass., 1866).Google Scholar

3 Edwards, Thomas, Gangraena (London, 1646), 1, p. 69 Google Scholar; for ‘Mr. F.’ as Firmin, Gangraena, 2, pp. 54-5, 63, 99.

4 Giles Firmin, A Serious Question Stated (London, 1651), ‘To the Courteous Reader’; idem, The Answer of Giles Firmin (London, 1689), p. 6. Modern writers tend to classify Firmin as a Presbyterian: see, most recently, Knight, Janice, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Mass., 1994)Google Scholar; Bremer, Francis J., Congregational Communion: Clerical Friendship in the Anglo- American Puritan Community, 1610-1692 (Boston, Mass., 1994)Google Scholar. He was licensed as a Presbyterian preacher in 1672, but licences often gave inaccurate ascriptions. To borrow a phrase from Nathaniel Ward (DNB), Firmin’s father-in-law, he was not ‘presbyterian nor plebsbyterian but interpendent’: Ward, , The Simple Cobler of Agawam in America (London, 1647)Google Scholar, ed. P. M. Zall (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1969), p. 35. Geoffrey Nuttall describes Firmin as ‘no more a Classical Divine than he was one of the Congregational Brethren; nor yet was he a new-style Episcopalian’: Nuttall, Geoffrey F., ‘The Essex Classes (1648)’, United Reformed Church History Society Journal, 3 (1983), p. 199.Google Scholar

5 Marshall, Stephen (ed. Giles Firmin), The Power of the Civil Magistrate in Matters of Religion Vindicated (London, 1657), pp. 223.Google Scholar

6 Nuttall, Geoffrey F., Richard Baxter (London and Edinburgh, 1965), pp. 6770 Google Scholar, discusses the Worcestershire Voluntary Association and other county Voluntary Associations of the 1650s. For the Essex Agreement, see note 30. Firmin read Baxter’s account of the Worcestershire venture, Christian Concord (London, 1653): Firmin to Baxter, 24 July 1654, Keeble, N. H. and Nuttall, Geoffrey F., Calendar of the Correspondence of Richard Baxter, 2 vols (Oxford, 1991)Google Scholar, 1, letter 192 [hereafter Baxter Calendar]. Firmin’s first call for peace was Separation Examined (London, 1652), a response to A Vindication of the Presbyteriall-Government… Published by the Ministers and Elders met Together in a Provinciall Assembly, Novemb. 2nd, 1649 (London, 1650). His views on church order are summarized in Separation Examined, ‘To the … Ministers of London’, and ‘To the Reader’.

7 Firmin, y, The Real Christian (London, 1670), p. 270.Google Scholar

8 See, for example, references to the Barrington family, and to the Elizabethan preacher Richard Rogers of Wethersfield and his family, in Firmin, Real Christian, ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ and pp. 67-8, 75-6.

9 Such as John Wilson, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Stephen Marshall, Daniel Rogers and John Norton, who all figure later in his career. For an excellent discussion of this clerical network, see Webster, Tom, ‘The Godly of Goshen scattered: an Essex clerical conference in the 1620s and its diaspora’ (Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, 1992).Google Scholar

10 R. D. Pierce, ed.. The Records of the First Church in Boston 1630-1868, Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 39 (Boston, 1961), p. 15; Giles Firmin, Пανουργια: A Brief Review of Mr. Davis’s Vindication (London, 1693), ‘To the Reader’. Firmin lived with Governor John Winthrop (to whom he was related), and joined the Boston church before John Cotton arrived. Wilson emigrated in 1630, but had returned home to recruit settlers. Firmin’s parents probably came from Sudbury, and also emigrated. Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts, reassesses the Antinomian Controversy.

11 For Ipswich settlers’ origins, see Allen, D. G., In English Ways (Chapel Hill, NC, 1981), pp. 26979 Google Scholar. The ministers of Ipswich, Massachusetts, were Nathaniel Rogers (DNB), son of John Rogers of Dedham, Essex (DNB), and John Norton (DNB), born in Essex but an emigrant from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire. Nathaniel Ward (see note 4), formerly minister of Stondon Massey, Essex, lived in Ipswich ‘out of office’. Firmin’s marriage to Nathaniel’s daughter, Susanna, made him a kinsman of Nathaniel Rogers in New England, and of Daniel Rogers (DNB) of Wethersfield, Essex, in England. Susanna and Nathaniel followed Firmin to Essex in 1646.

12 Jones, R. Tudor, ‘Union with Christ: the existential nerve of puritan piety’. Tyndale Bulletin, 41 (1990), pp. 186208 Google Scholar; Brauer, J. C., ‘Types of puritan piety’, ChH, 56 (1987), pp. 489 Google Scholar; Todd, Margo, ‘Puritan self-fashioning: the diary of Samuel WardJBS, 31 (1992), p. 254 Google Scholar; Lake, Peter, ‘William Bradshaw, Antichrist and the community of the godly’, JEH, 36 (1985), pp. 57089 Google Scholar. Puritan interest in Antichrist and union with Christ shows in commentaries written on Revelation and the Song of Songs. Covenants among the godly illustrate the desire for ‘embodied’ unity: see note 26.

13 For different readings of the dilemmas emigration posed, see Bremer, Congregational Communion; Foster, Stephen, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1510-1700 (Chapel Hill, NC, and London, 1991)Google Scholar; Moore, Susan Hardman, ‘Popery, purity and Providence: deciphering the New England experiment’, in Fletcher, Anthony and Roberts, Peter, eds, Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 25789 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schneider, Carol Geary, ‘Godly order in a church half-reformed: the disciplinarian legacy, 1570-1641’ (Harvard Ph.D. thesis, 1986), pp. 337407 Google Scholar; Webster, , ‘Godly of Goshen scatteredZakai, Avihu, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America (Cambridge, 1992).Google Scholar

14 Diary of Samuel Rogers, 1 April [1636], Belfast, Queen’s University Library, MS Percy 7, fol. 217; Rogers, Daniel, Naaman the Syrian (London, 1642), p. 885 Google Scholar. See Webster, ‘Godly of Goshen scattered’, pp. 336-44, and Kenneth W. Shipps, ‘The puritan emigration to New England: a new source on motivation’, New England Historical and Genealogical Register [hereafter NEHGR], 135 (1981), pp. 83-97. For the Rogers family, see note 11. Samuel was encouraged to emigrate by John Wilson, with whom Firmin sailed over; however, he stayed in England and died c.1643, before Firmin’s return.

15 Marshall’s part in the development of competing factions is discussed by Webster, ‘Godly of Goshen scattered’, pp. 386-409; Bradley, y, ‘The failure of accommodation’, Journal of Religious History, 12 (1982-3), pp. 2347 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schneider, ‘Godly order’, pp. 408-95.

16 Ames, William, Conscience and the Cases Thereof (np, 1639), v, 12, p. 140 Google Scholar. Colonial ministers protested that the godly in England were still ‘bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh in Christ, nearer by farre then friends and kindred’, but felt shut out of the ‘bosomes and inmost affections of their brethren’: Hooke, William, New Englands Teares (London, 1641), p. 17 Google Scholar; Allin, John and Shepard, Thomas, A Defence of the Answer unto the Nine Questions (London, 1648), p. 15.Google Scholar

17 Edwards, Gangraena, 1, p. 69. Firmin claimed Edwards attacked him because he challenged Edwards’ reports of New England: Separation Examined, pp. 101-2.

18 Ann Hughes illuminates the relation between print and pulpit controversies in ‘The pulpit guarded: confrontations between orthodox and radicals in revolutionary England’, in Laurence, Ann, Owens, W. R. and Sim, S., eds,John Bunyan and his England (London, 1990), pp. 3150.Google Scholar

19 He turned most often to Hooker, Thomas, A Survey of the Summe of Church-Discipline (London, 1648)Google Scholar; Norton, John, The Answer to the Whole Set of Questions of… Mr. William Apollonius [London, 1648]Google Scholar, trans. Douglas Horton (Cambridge, Mass., 1958); Cotton, John, The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (London, 1644)Google Scholar; Cotton, John, The Way of the Churches of Christ in New-England (London, 1645)Google Scholar; [Richard Mather], Church-Government and Church-Covenant Discussed (London, 1643); and the ‘Cambridge Platform’ agreed at a synod in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1648, and first published as A Platforme of Church Discipline (Cambridge, Mass., 1649). Firmin wrote against Owen (CR) in 1658: see note 30. After his return to England he corresponded with Thomas Shepard, Cotton, Norton and John Winthrop: Firmin, Real Christian, p. 214; idem, Separation Examined, ‘To the Reader’; idem, Of Schism, ‘To the … Associated Ministers in the County of Essex’; The Winthrop Papers, 1489-1649, ed. Allyn B. Forbes, 5 vols (Boston, Mass., 1929-47), 5, pp. 88-9.

20 Hall, David D., The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century, 2nd edn (New York, 1974), pp. 97105, 11011 Google Scholar; Tipson, y, ‘Samuel Stone’s “Discourse” against requiring Church relations’, William and Mary Quarterly, ser. 3, 46 (1989), pp. 78695.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 Firmin, Separation Examined, p. 80. Cotton Mather wrote of’our most Richardsonian Hooker’: Magnalia Christi Americana, 2 vols (Hartford, Conn., 1853), 1, pp. 336-7. For Richardson’s influence in Essex and beyond, see Webster, ‘Godly of Goshen scattered’, p. 58; Adams, J. C., ‘Alexander Richardson and the puritan ethic’, JHI, 50 (1989), pp. 22748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Firmin’s library was limited by his funds and sympathies, and by information that reached him. He did not own Edwards’ Gangraena; a tract by Cotton on reconciliation seems to have passed him by. Firmin, Giles, A Sober Reply to the Sober Answer of … Mr. Cawdrey (London, 1653), p. 8 Google Scholar; idem, Serious Question Stated, ‘To the Courteous Reader’; Cotton, John, Certain Queries Tending to Accommodation and Communion of Presbyterian and Congregationall Churches (London, 1654).Google Scholar

23 Firmin, Separation Examined, ‘To the … Ministers of London’, and pp. 68, 98; idem, Serious Question Stated, ‘To the Courteous Reader’. Firmin criticized New England’s Essex divines in print only in 1670, though his reservations about what Hooker and Shepard taught on preparation for grace are apparent in 1654: Firmin, The Real Christian (London, 1670); Firmin to Baxter, 24 July 1654, Baxter Calendar, 1, letter 192; Jones, James W., The Shattered Synthesis (New Haven, Conn., 1973), pp. 3253 Google Scholar; Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts, pp. 164-5.

24 Firmin found ample support for this in the texts cited in note 19. Lake, Peter, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church (Cambridge, 1981)Google Scholar, sheds light on Puritan ingenuity in adapting ideology to circumstance.

25 Firmin, Separation Examined, pp. 82, 20; see also Allin and Shepard, Defence of the Answer, p. 10; on primordial churches in New England, Bozeman, Theodore Dwight, To Live Ancient Lives: the Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism (Chapel Hill, NC, and London, 1988), pp. 12050.Google Scholar

26 Firmin, Sober Reply, pp. 7–8, 24; idem. Separation Examined, pp. 81-2; on the Wethersfield covenant, Collinson, Patrick, The Religion of Protestants (Oxford, 1982), pp. 26970.Google Scholar

27 Firmin, Sober Reply, ‘To the Courteous Reader’ and pp. 7-8; Marshall, [ed. Firmin], Power of the Civil Magistrate; Firmin, ‘A brief vindication of Mr. Stephen Marshall’, appended to his The Questions Between the Conformist and Nonconformist (London, 1681); idem, Separation Examined, p. 27. Nuttall, ‘The Essex Classes’, p. 199, notes that Firmin was ordained by neighbour ministers, and not by a Presbyterian Classis: the ministers came from different Classis areas, and the Classical structure for the county existed only on paper.

28 Firmin, Serious Question Stated, ‘To the Courteous Reader’; Baxter, Richard, Five Disputations of Church-Government, and Worship (London, 1659), p. 349 Google Scholar; Firmin, , Of Schism (London, 1658), p. 69.Google Scholar

29 Firmin, Sober Reply, pp. 28-9; idem, Separation Examined, p. 63. Firmin remained a church member in Boston long after his move to Ipswich: Pierce, ed., Boston Church Records, p. 41. Foster, Long Argument, pp. 178-9, interprets this practice as lay resistance to clerical control. Another ambiguous area was the authority of clerical meetings: Scholz, Robert F., ‘Clerical consociation in Massachusetts Bay: reassessing the New England Way and its origins’, William and Mary Quarterly, ser. 3, 29 (1972), pp. 391414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 The Agreement of the Associated Ministers of the County of Essex (London, 1658). Firmin described the process that led to the Agreement, and quotes a letter from John Norton commending it, in a tract which challenged John Owen’s ecclesiology: Of Schism, ‘To the … Associated Ministers in the County of Essex’. No record survives of the ministers who subscribed, but their agreed statement was to be ‘proposed’ to their ‘particular congregations’, and ‘to all such in the County that love the Churches Peace’: Agreement, titlepage. County Voluntary Association statements each have their own character; the Essex Agreement reflects Firmin’s concerns.

31 Collinson, Patrick, ‘The English conventicle’, SCH, 23 (1986), p. 256.Google Scholar

32 Firmin, Separation Examined, pp. 107-8; idem, Serious Question Stated, ‘To the Courteous Reader’.

33 Firmin, Serious Question Stated; idem, Separation Examined, p. 45; idem, Sober Reply, pp. 22, 54. The Worcestershire Voluntary Association debated this issue: Baxter, Richard, Certain Disputations of Right to Sacraments (London, 1658), pp. 245349 Google Scholar. Firmin claimed Stephen Marshall left his parochial charge because he was ‘unsatisfied … to baptize all, yet refuse above halfe the Lords Supper. But now he is out of the snare being onely a lecturer’: Firmin to Baxter, 24 July 1654, Baxter Calendar, 1, letter 192; see also letter 300.

34 Collinson, Patrick, ‘The cohabitation of the faithful with the unfaithful’, in Grell, O. P., Israel, Jonathan I., and Tyacke, Nicholas, eds, From Persecution to Toleration. The Glorious Revolution and Religion in England (Oxford, 1991), pp. 5176.Google Scholar

35 Baxter to Firmin, 13 May 1656, Baxter Calendar, 1, letter 306.

36 Firmin, Real Christian, ‘Epistle Dedicatory’; idem. Questions Between the Conformist and Nonconformist, ‘Epistle Dedicatory’, and p. 5; Keeble, N. H., The Literary Culture of Nonconformity (Leicester, 1987), p. 39.Google Scholar

37 Firmin, Weighty Questions Discussed, ‘To the Reader’, marginal note. This tract shows Firmin’s support in the 1690s for the short-lived ‘Happy Union’ between Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

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