The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman: Richard Hall and the Baptists of Austen’s England

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, by Mike Rendell, is a fascinating look at the life and world of a man of the “middling” classes in Jane Austen’s England. It tells the story of Richard Hall, the author’s ancestor. Hall was a hosier; he made stockings. Rendell has done extensive research to explain what was going on at the time. The book includes both faith and science. I’ve written a full review at Jane Austen’s World; I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Here I’ll just expand some on Hall’s religious experience. Hall was a Baptist, one of the Dissenter (non-Anglican) sects at the time. Most Dissenters were from the middle classes. If you were not a member of the state church, the Church of England, your political rights were restricted and you were not really considered part of mainstream society. You were not supposed to hold any public offices, though this restriction was often ignored. Other Dissenter groups of the time were Independents (also called Congregationalists), Quakers, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Catholics, Moravians, and eventually the Methodists (after they separated from the Anglican church in the 1790s; they became the largest Dissenting denomination in Austen’s England).

Hall was brought up a Baptist, but did not officially join a Baptist church until he was 36. As a man aspiring to become a country gentleman–which he eventually did–he may have been hesitant to leave the Church of England. Even after his baptism, he sometimes attended Anglican (Church of England) services.

John Gill was a well-known Baptist pastor of the eighteenth century. Richard Hall loved to listen to Gill’s preaching, and bought copies of his sermons.

How were the Anglicans different from the Baptists? In terms of worship, the Anglicans followed a liturgy in which set prayers and responses were recited. The Baptists thought that this might mean saying something you did not believe, so their services included less formal prayers. Also, by this time, many Baptists were singing hymns in their services, while most Anglicans were still only singing psalms.

But of course the major difference was in baptism. Anglicans, like most denominations of that time, baptized babies. Baptists believed that a person needed to be old enough to make his own confession of faith in Christ before being baptized. Hall did this by “giving in his experience” to the congregation, telling them about his conversion, before he was baptized.

The form of church government was also different. Anglican churches were (and are) led by a hierarchy, with bishops supervising the priests, and archbishops above the bishops. Baptist churches are more autonomous. By the time of the Religious Census in 1851, there were at least five major branches of Baptists in the U.K., separated by theological beliefs. Hall mentions at least one church split in his journal. The Anglican church, on the other hand, has managed to keep a wide range of interpretations and practices still within its fold.

For more tidbits on Hall’s life, thoughts, and world, including scientific developments in his time, see Jane Austen’s World.

I recommend the whole book: The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman. It is quite fascinating, and a great resource for anyone writing about the eighteenth century or just wanting to get a wider picture of life at that time.

 

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