Mr Toogood preaches too long, and can you marry your niece?

The Assembly of the United Brethren of Devon and Cornwall brought together a group of Dissenting/Nonconformist ministers from across the two counties, mostly Presbyterian ministers with some Independents (Congregationalists). It is often known as the Exeter Assembly, as the ministers usually met in Exeter with only a handful of exceptions. The Exeter Assembly gathered twice-yearly for preaching, prayer, the conduct of business, and ‘mutual advice touching things pertaining to our Office, the right ordering of our Congregations, & the promoting of purity & unity in the Churches of Christ’.[1] The Exeter Assembly pooled the resources of Dissenters in the southwest to administer funds for the training of future Nonconformist ministers and to subsidise the salaries of ministers whose congregations could not raise enough to support them. The United Brethren also agreed among themselves to defer to the Assembly in the selection, licensing and ordination of ministers, as well as the discipline of ministers who strayed beyond the agreed doctrinal and ethical boundaries of the United Brethren.

While there was a Devon assembly of Presbyterian and Independent ministers centred on Exeter from 1655 to 1659 (during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard), the revived Exeter Assembly of the United Brethren came into existence in 1691, following the Act of Toleration in 1689 that legalised Protestant Dissenting worship outside the established Church (though still leaving Dissenters subject to civil disabilities). The Exeter Assembly was ahead of the curve in establishing formal collaboration between Presbyterians and Independents – on the national stage, the ‘Happy Union’ between the two proto-denominations was agreed in London in April 1691, while the post-Toleration Exeter Assembly held its first meeting in March 1690. Its cooperation also lasted longer – as Allan Brockett (a former Exeter university librarian and leading historian of Exeter Nonconformity) writes, ‘The union of Presbyterians and Independents in Devon and Cornwall lasted longer than the more publicized “Happy Union” in London. Whereas the latter had already broken up in 1695, Congregationalists and Presbyterians continued to join together in the Exeter Assembly until the middle of the eighteenth century.’[2]

Allan Brockett's 1963 edition of the Exeter Assembly minutes.
Exeter Assembly minutes, ed. Allan Brockett

The minutes of the Exeter Assembly might seem to make dry reading often, but there are some more entertaining moments, particularly if we read between the lines. With the exception of occasional periods of pronounced conflict, notably the ‘Arian controversy’ of 1716–19, and some more localised and short-lived tensions, the United Brethren seemed mostly to have collaborated amicably. However, this did not prevent them from suffering from the familiar ills of meetings and committees in general. Among the rules drawn up at the Assembly’s first meeting in Tiverton in March 1691 is one that seeks to limit side conversations:

That in such meetings as we shall from time to time have, there be chosen a Moderator, who is to begin & end the meeting with prayer, & keep order therein, & silence all private & impertinent discourses; and a Scribe to write such things as shall be transacted in the meetings. [3]

Timekeeping is another problem that might be familiar to us – the minutes for the May 1699 meeting record:

Thanks given to Mr Larkham for praying. Agreed that Mr Toogood having continu’d above two hours in sermon all future preachers have warning given to them to keep to their hour: and that the Clark turn the Glass when the Text is named & take it away as soon as tis run out.[4]

‘Mr Toogood’ is probably a variant spelling for Stephen Towgood (d. 1722), Congregationalist minister at Axminster, but it seems that Mr Toogood’s sermon was deemed too long. Even in an age where sermons of an hour were typical, especially among those of Puritan or Dissenting persuasion who saw preaching as a primary means of grace, over two hours was felt to be a little excessive. Allan Brockett’s editorial footnote to this entry intriguingly notes that the words ‘Toogood having continu’d above two hours in sermon’ are ‘underlined in red ink’ in the manuscript, but not necessarily by the compiler of the minutes Isaac Gilling – the wielder of the red ink clearly felt the length of the sermon worthy of emphasis.

While the formal disciplinary powers of the Assembly extended only to ministers of the United Brethren (with the only sanction available being withdrawal of fellowship by the other ministers assembled), the brethren sometimes brought to the meeting tricky pastoral cases among their own congregations in the hope of some fraternal advice.

One of these cases suggests some odd goings on in Cornwall:

Q. Whether a man who hath buried his Wife may lawfully marry his Sisters daughter. Propos’d by Mr Sandercock as a case now depending in the West of Cornwall. Lev:18,14. Thou shalt not uncovers the nakedness of thy fathers brother; thou shalt not approach to his wife, she is thine aunt.[5]

The phrase ‘a man who hath buried his Wife’ presumably means a widower, despite the rather sinister gothic vibes of the chosen wording! The question arises as the biblical proof text strictly speaking says only that ‘The nephew must not marry his aunt’, leaving open the question ‘whether may the uncle marry his wifes niece? Doth the line of affinity & consanguinity run equal?’ However, the opinion of the assembly, having consulted ‘many casuists’, experts on how to resolve ‘cases of conscience’ (perhaps through their writings rather than in person), was that the principle of the biblical text runs both ways, as well as ‘it being against the laws of the land so to do’, and so ‘this Assembly cannot approve it’. There was a further question to resolve – what to do about any ‘contract’ between the two parties given the Assembly’s disapproval of such a match: ‘Doth that rule hold here, Quod fieri non debet factum valet?’ (a maxim of Roman civil law translating as ‘What ought not to be done, when done, is valid’). To this enquiry, no answer is recorded in the minutes. In the view of the Exeter Assembly, you probably shouldn’t marry your niece, but whether it can be undone if it’s a done deed is left an open question.

[1] The Exeter Assembly: The Minutes of the Assemblies of the United Brethren of Devon and Cornwall, 1691– 1717, as transcribed by the Reverend Isaac Gilling, ed. Allan Brockett with Roger Thomas (Torquay : Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 1963), p. 1 [Tiverton, 17–18 March 1690/1, Gilling fol. 23r].

[2] Allan Brockett, Nonconformity in Exeter 1650–1875 (Manchester University Press, 1962), p. 65.

[3] Exeter Assembly, p. 1 [Tiverton, 17–18 March 1690/1, Gilling fol. 23r].

[4] Exeter Assembly, p. 42 [Exeter, 9–10 May 1699, Gilling fol. 103r].

[5] Exeter Assembly, p. 25 [Exeter, 2–3 April 1695, Gilling fol. 75r].

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