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Spiritual Autobiography


Spiritual Autobiographies


Sorry I am not here. My Monday group—perhaps you would like to come to either of my Wednesday sessions at 10 or 11. If you can’t do those I am sure Alice would have you at one of her sessions this afternoon.

URSS plug-

See display outisde my office –541


Agnes Beaumont

I should first say that this area is a) new and b) something I have worked on myself. There is not too much written on this so I have put an article about spiritual autobiography on the Website—that is about the political/historical context of women’s spiritual autobiographies—so do use it. The political context is of course the persecution of Puritans in the Restoration.. 1674 is the date. It has to be later than 1672 because that is when John Bunyan was around again—he spent the longest time in prison of any Nonconformist, from 1660 when Charles came back until 1672 when there was a brief period of amnesty after the Declaration of Indulgence. This is the worst persecution in seventeenth-century Europe.

Lots of people used Spiritual Autobiographies for their second assessed essay last year—several of them were very good and got entered for the Early English Books Online competition for undergraduate essays. We will hear by the end of January whether any of them won. This course has won one or sometimes two prizes in the EEBO competition every year for four years—and it means real money for you. Look at the EEBO website in the Whats New section.


The collection is an absolute goldmine of information. The digest of denominations at the end is invaluable; the introduction is wonderful. It was written by a brilliant scholar who sadly died of a brain tumour and it had to be finished off by someone else. He really understands the mentality of Nonconformist sects….and you will have to if you are writing about this topic.


1.     Genre

In the collection these are called ‘Spiritual Autobiographies’ but they are not like modern autobiography in any way. The whole point is not really self-construction—self DEstruction might be more like it. If you understand Calvinism you will understand why. These documents are not so much about what human beings do in their lives but what God does in their lives… They have to show God at work in the soul and the way they do that is to illustrate the way Nonconformists think God does work. So the accounts follow similar patterns. In a way it would not be right to say that these are literary patterns—they are patterns dictated by the theology they believe. The focus of these documents is very unlike modern autobiography. It is experience, but experience defined in a very spiritual way, to do with the relationship with Christ.

EEBO slide (look it up)

This is a section from a guide to the Christian life produced by Isaac Ambrose in 1652 called Prima Media Ultima—the First, the Middle and the Last things in the Christian life. The journals come from the middle—Media. This is image 190 in the book. The previous chapter has been about Experiences; the kind of experiences that should be recorded are listed, with their significance.

1. Judgements on the Wicked

2.     Gods Love to the Saints

3.     Several Afflictions and Chastisements to My Self and others

4.     Performances of Gracious Promises to My Self and others

5.     The Temptations of the world ensnaring, of Sin prevailing, of Satan cheating

6. Victories of the World, Lusts, Temptations, Corruptions, Satan

7. Observations of Gods Providences

8.The breathings of the Spirit and in Others and my own Soul

9.The Withdrawings of Christ from the Soul

10. Deceits of the heart beguiling


Ambrose gave us examples, probably taken from his own journal—here are the first two. Interesting interpretation of events in Civil War Preston…. (image 177)

Retribution for drunkenness happens in one of them, and Puritans expected retribution—there is no doubt that Agnes’ father is assumed to have been punished for his treatment of Agnes. And anti-Puritans like Mr Farrow are punished too in Agnes’ writing, although I don’t think he is a Papist as the unfortunates in Ambrose’s diary were.


On the next page of your handout we have Evidences—Isaac Ambrose’s own Evidences. Now you can guess where this came from. It came from the need to prove that you were elect. Everyone was encouraged to produce their ‘Evidences for Heaven’, and they usually concerned how holy you felt you were.  Elizabeth Moore’s famous funeral sermon included hers, and was published by Edmund Calamy as ‘Evidences for Heaven’.


Words as Evidence


Evidence was very important to Agnes Beaumont—it was literally a life or death issue. She had been accused of murdering her dad which was petty treason—think how patriarchal this society is—almost as bad as real treason—the penalty for both was death. I would argue that the appeal of this story when it was written was as evidence, proof that she was innocent. It was even published a little over 100 years later under the title ‘Real Religion’—proof that Agnes Beaumont’s religion was true.

We are dealing with a culture that sees words as proof. To be fair, so do we still, in court, under oath—but not pieces of writing like this.


Just want to draw your attention to how subjective all this ‘evidence’ is.—Ambroses and Beaumonts. Even more subjective that the ‘experiences’ which are at least open to interpretation. Would any one of these count as ‘evidence’ today? They are all about feelings….important that for Puritans feelings WERE evidence. You will see on the opposite side of the page of Evidences that sometimes they had to do without the right feelings—and then they had to trust in God’s promises in the Bible which is why the feelings are supported with a column of Bible references. This is true of Agnes’ account too—full of feelings, supported by references to the Bible.


I don’t know about you but I am not sure today’s diaries are full of this sort of event. Journals reveal the kind of concepts of the self that you are working with. Today’s are full of what? Feelings, emotions? These are not considered important then and would have seemed self-indulgent. I know what my diary as a teenager was full of and was mortified to find out recently that my mother and sister had found a way to pick the rudimentary lock that was on it. It was all about boys I fancied. But that was because I thought the most important thing in my life was who I married. Thus my life was a romance that ended somewhere before my mid-twenties and then  there was a kind of long blank…I could have done with a Media and Ultima of my own! But my reading matter of course was romances…. I hope things are different now. But of course that meant that certain details gained significance—you read things into glances,  conversations, little events…

I hope you can see how what is considered to be the central pattern of your life explains how you interpret day to day events—it is a kind of framework within which you interpret things.

You could see journals like Agnes Beaumont’s as evidence of her love affair with God. Little hints of God talking to her, perhaps through the Bible. Nice things happening like Bunyan coming past when she needed a lift to the meeting. Dreams which have meaning. Things coming into her mind that she thinks are put there by God. And one of the things that came into her mind was that she should spend the night with God—in the barn. A very significant event. She is miraculously warm, and happy, and God calls her ‘beloved’. She hears things from God which she uses to interpret the events of her life—‘think it not strange c onc erning the fiery trials which are to try you’. These of course are from the Bible.

All these events are so significant to Agnes but I wonder whether it has occurred to you how much effort it takes to present these events as significant. At the start she wants to present her father’s permission to go to the meeting as a work of God so she shows how stubborn he is, then desc ribes how she always has to pray, then shows how much God talks to her when she gets to the meeting—ths is all so that we will understand the full significance of ‘going to the meeting’ in her narrative proper.

—so dreams are prophetic. Her dream of the fallen apple tree. V useful narrative device, functioning in two ways. 1. it makes it more interesting, adds suspense because she tells us at the time that this dream turned out to be significant, and links it with her father’s death. 2. It shows how favoured she is by God that he gave her this dream—and she tells us that at the time she did not realise what it meant, which is important as it shows the dream is genuine. (Of course all this could be rhetorical devices—what do you think?)


Ambrose thinks that all these ‘events’ should be kept in a journal.You will find this kind of thing in most of the spiritual autobiographies. I think journals and autobiographies are the same kind of thing—the modern sense of autobiography has not got going yet and I think most people in the period would find it terribly self-obsessed. The collecting of Experience is very important, as Ambrose explains—it is about working out where you are in your Christian life, what God is doing with you. As Ambrose claims, this stuff is Evidence—proof that God is working in you, and as we know from Calvinism, that stuff is like gold dust. This is why autobiographies are full of the kind of experiences listed above—they help to prove that you are one of the elect. I think that is why so many journals are quoted in funeral sermons, manuscripts that don’t survive now—they were produced then as proof that the dead person was elect.


They can help other people see what it is to be one of the elect so these are often circulated in manuscript in a kind of ‘scribal publication’.

On your handout you have got the manuscript sources for Agnes Beaumont’s narrative, both in the British Library. They are taken from the British Library Manuscrpt Catalogue. These entries tell you something.


Full description

Search for: 'Agnes Beaumont'

Eg. 2,414. PERSONAL narrative of the domestic persecution of Agnes
Beaumont, of Edworth, co. Bedford, partly arising from her
attendance at a meeting under John Bunyan ; after A.D. 1672.
See another copy in Eg. 2,128. It was first published in 1760 by
the Rev. Samuel James, of Hitchin, passing through several
editions; and was republished in 1801 by Samuel Burder, with
the title: Real Religion: exemplified in the singular experience and
great sufferings of Mrs Agnes Beaumont. Paper; ff.21 Late xviith
cent. Small Folio.


Full description

Search for: 2128

Eg. 2,128. "DIVINE appearances, or a very wonderfull account of the
dealings of God with Mrs. Agnes Beamount, who was afterwards
married to Mr. Story a merchant at Highgate:" account by Agnes
Beamount [or Beaumont], living at Edworth, near Biggleswade, co.
Bedford, how she incurred her fathers anger by riding to a meeting
behind John Bunyan and how, on his sudden death, she was accused
of poisoning him at Bunyan's instigation." Taken from a coppy
transcribed from a MSS. in the hands of Mrs. Kenwrick at Bavant
[? Havant] in Hampshire." Frequently printed. Paper; end of
xviith cent. Duodecimo.


Look how far the MS got—from Biggleswade to Havant. Note that the manuscript reveals the ‘happy ending’ to Agnes’ story—in spite of the fears of the judge, someone did dare to marry her, so she must have been truly exonerated.

And it was obviously still circulating in 1760 when it was printed.








Narratives like this can serve purposes too, like rescuing a woman’s reputation as in Agnes Beaumont’s narrative. If you remember Agnes was accused of immorality and murder. The jury were convinced by the accuser’s inarticulacy and Agnes’ self-possession—they did not even want a post-mortem, which to our eyes would be better evidence. To the reader of course she presents it all as God’s doing—‘thou shalt not return again ashamed’. If you ‘prove’ that you are close to God with this kind of story it can really help. I wonder if you think this story proves her innocence. The people who published this narrative obviously did. Part of the problem is that we are all know that any kind of story can be faked—the rhetoric of the spiritual journal can be copied. A huge difference between now and the 17th century is that then they believed words on their own could be proof—after all they lived by the Bible. That is why so many people believed GHerbert was inspired. Narratives can conceivably be used as some books say they used, to gain admission to a church: but beware, very few are used like that and certainly none in your anthology. Proof for me that narratives could be used as self-justification is in the fact that two manuscripts in the Perdita project are spiritual journals written by Anglican Royalists, not Puritans at all—but both of them were accused of immorality, and they knew the power of a spiritual journal to signify godliness. One of them, Alice Thornton, tells us that her circulation of the journal to her enemies actually worked—they believed afterwards that she was a godly woman.

The Isham team are toying with the idea that the point of the autobiography we are working on is to explain/excuse her decision never to marry—join us and have your say.


2.The Struggle between Good and Evil


Puritans, especially those who are Calvinist, and a few aren’t by now (Milton moves towards Arminianism but not the political sort, the theological sort) see the world in terms of binary opposites—Elect/Damned, God/Satan, Good/Evil. However they often find these difficult to distinguish—they are obsessed with the signs, or marks, of a child of God. If you put these words into an EEBO search you will find endless devotional works which list the signs of election. As many of you have realised there are no infallible proofs that you are elect but there are signs, and narratives like Agnes’ are full of them. In fact it would be fun to look up one of these works and tick off in Agnes’ narrative where they appear.

All the incidents in an autobiography fit into this battle—sometimes the subject is deceived by a show of good, other times he has to resist evil, other times embrace the good that God is doing in him. ‘The world’ is part of the Satanic kingdom of course, as are the non-elect, who may look like Christians but are merely ‘professors’. Catholics are particularly bad of course—they pretend to be Christ’s but are of course Satan’s. In early spiritual autobiographies such as Norwood’s the mechanisms of anti-popery work as we have seen earlier in the century: in later ones, the hatred of Catholicism is transferred onto the Anglican church who look so close to Catholics and who are persecuting the Puritans—Mr Farrow who is against the Puritans is the one who accuses Agnes. Different political contexts dictate exactly who is the enemy but there is always an enemy and he/she may not appear as such.


You will meet some strange vocabulary, some of it intended to try to convey the inner experience of the Holy Spirit: awakenkings, refreshings, enlargement of heart, ‘sealing ordinances’. Some of it is to identify the enemy: the fleshly man, the carnal man, the professor: None of these is truly spiritual. Again this special language serves to identify the elect and exclude the ungodly.


3. Internal Documents?


We have already established that these manuscripts are not in any sense of the word private. I should just say at this point that hardly any MSS in the seventeenth century can be realistically called ‘private’. To write something in this period was to make it public. You would not write something just for yourself, that would be self-indulgent. Apart from anything else, the cost of pen and paper was prohibitive. In the Perdita Project we do have two notebooks that seem to be full of private notes—but these belong to very rich women (one of them married the Duke of York). I think these MSS were preserved because the paper was so expensive as was the binding and there were a few blank pages left. IN ANY CASE if you got ill and were likely to die you would go through all your papers and burn any that you did not want the whole world to read. And remember Rochester wife going through his MSS and burning them all? This was a typical event in the 17th century. These journals/autobiographies may look like entirely spiritual documents but it is worth asking how the world looks to these people and how they behave towards others in the real world. They are obsessively concerned with a spiritual ‘reality’ but everyone they meet and every institution figures somewhere in that reality—this ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality becomes obvious every so often. Puritans are a touch paranoid—but then they have reason to be so. Hundreds of them are imprisoned in the Restoration and some of them killed. In those conditions, the ideology of martyrology keeps you going.


Next week—One of the loony extremes of the course. Literature is History. Popish Plot in Kishlansky ch 10.

And I would like to do some of Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’ with you…..get a copy of bits of it from the website. And some of you can read the whole poem.


  Next week—read Absalom and Achitophel  in your anthologies.