Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
It is just a small pocket-sized book, bound in old calf, containing 92 pages of plain paper, each neatly filled with writing in various small hands. Those 92 leaves of paper are 350 years old and record in detail the life of Cockermouth Congregational Church over a period of more than a century from the days of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth to a time long after the Jacobite Rebellion.
On 2nd October, 1651, “seven men set their hands to a document” making a covenant to “walke as a people whom the Lord hath chosen . . . to watch over one another in the Lord.” This was the origin of the community. They were a group of independent minded Christians who chose to worship in their own way, separately from both the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church. Founded during the years of religious enthusiasm after the Civil War, this group, like many others, was to struggle for survival when the monarchy was restored and people were required to conform in their religious practices. Ordinary farmers and yeoman were willing to “hazard their property and liberty” in order to pursue their faith, under the leadership of their pastor, George Larkham.
Theirs was a close, intense community of “saints” who supported each other through praise, admonishment and punishment in the pursuit of the goodly life.
In 1657 “our brother & sister Bowman were . . . both suspended from the Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper”. Deacon Bowman had admonished Agnes Bowman “for some private dissatisfaction, “wiching that the lyars might sinke ther” and his wife had slandered “a neighnour’s wife for taking a cheese.”
Brother George Woods was laid under a “publicke rebuke” for “fighting with one Richard Tubman following him foorth of his own house into the street at Raven-glasse & beating him etc.”
In 1686, the miscarriages of James Sutton included “his drinking a health upon his knees in the street at Cockermouth upon the Kings cominge to the crowne”.
In 1659, “Sister Winefrid Burnyeat of Embleton was before the church for new follyes – viz: for stripping her selfe naked before severall persons, & that in a common Ale-house. Being taxed with these, for using very uncivill and unchristian expressions to our brother Bolton’s mother & others, shee was then judged fitt to be suspended from the Lord’s-table till satisfaction given.”
John Blailock was “excommunicated for the fowle sin of uncleanesse”.
Usually, however, the book records a sequence of orderly meetings despite the persecutions they suffered. The entries for 1661, for instance, mention “severall meetings in parts and parcels here and there, as they could, because of the great violence of evill men”, but every Lord’s day, “they had the advantage of hearing some of their teachers”.
There is a gap of fifty-nine years in the entries after 1706, but in 1765, there is the same determination to live the goodly life: “The new meeting house was opened and a sermon preached by one, MR. G.Kettilby, mininester at Totlebank, Lancashire, from those words 26 Isaiah 2, 3 verses open ye the gates that the righteous.”
We know little of the day to day lives of Cumberland people three hundred years ago. This book, meticulously transcribed and introduced by Robert Wordsworth, permits us to see a trace of the people who lived here, their beliefs, their concerns and they way they related to each other.
It is an important historical document and it will be useful to people investigating their family trees – there are a registers of baptisms and members. Above everything it is fascinating as a window onto seventeenth century Cumberland.