Before Blogging: the Journals and Papers of Major Christian Leaders
As bloggers and users of the internet, we are sometimes faced with the unpleasant fact that much of what we write in a digital format may well be lost for ever while older written sources ironically may survive. So if you were the Victorian vicar the Reverend Joseph Bloggs, your communications with your people and the world beyond your church in your sermons and letters might still be around in two hundred years while this blog might not. Even the Revd Bloggs’ self-communication via a journal or a diary might well last longer, especially if you were deemed worthy of being made Bishop and then Lord Bloggs of Blogginton Wells – all your most private and delicate thoughts on paper will probably continue to be diligently preserved over the years by rabidly-dedicated librarians, whether you wanted them to be or not.
Recently I was having to clear out old books I’d had for 30 yrs and never read. Some of these were lists of archival sources and bibliographies that one needed as a researcher before the internet. One of these was Papers of British Churchmen, 1780 – 1940, produced by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and published, no doubt to a panting and impatient audience, in 1987. It was one of their Guides to Sources for British History, and probably back in the 1980s I thought I ought to know where to get my hands on the letters of John Nelson Darby, amongst others, as my PhD research featured him quite strongly (they were in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which is fortunately where I had begun my research).
This grey-covered boring-looking book – in fact, the most boring-looking book I have ever owned, so boring I hadn’t even been able to open it in 30 years – seemed like an obvious one to cast aside into the Tesco bag marked ‘THEOLOGY – Give away, to a College’. But, as usually happens when I allow myself a few seconds to open any book, I soon found myself fascinated and was reminded of the old truism to not judge a book by its cover.
It turned out to be a long list of famous and forgotten names, of men once able to charm thousands from the pulpit, who could help decide the fate of churches and nations, lift up the poor, write poetry more famous than any of their sermons, pen hymns sung by millions, cause scandals and give prophetic warnings that made the front of the daily newspapers, and encourage queens and kings. Just the names were fascinating for a start. In alphabetical order, they run from:
“ACTON, Charles Januarius (1803-1847), Cardinal 1842”,
“ZOUCH, Thomas (1737-1815), Rector of Wycliffe 1770-93, of Scravingham 1793-5; prebendary of Durham 1805-15.”
How appropriate that the first one should be named after January, the first month! And a reminder of how Latin was second-nature to the educated men of that era (although perhaps later as a Cardinal he would know that it was also the name of the patron saint of Naples – I looked that up on the internet). Pity Thomas Zouch’s parents hadn’t felt it necessary to call their son ‘Decemberius’ to finish off the alphabetical list neatly, although to be fair, perhaps he wasn’t born in December and it would have just confused everyone as Decemberius doesn’t seem to be a name (at least I couldn’t find any on the web).
The fact that the book listed ‘Churchmen’ of course had not escaped my notice but I genuinely expected not to find any women in there anyway, as I assumed it was mainly clergy. But then my eye fell on:
“SOUTHCOTT, Joanna (1750-1814) Religious fanatic.”
Ah. Not too good for the women, then.
I certainly remembered Joanna Southcott as there had been a veritable obsession with her in the circles of my research just prior to my PhD. She was the latest thing for people interested in Adventism and Millenarianism and… the decidedly delusional. She had claimed to be a prophetess, calling herself the woman clothed with the sun of Revelation 12. And what papers of hers remain? We can rest easy knowing that her correspondence and accounts of her visions, scrolls, seals, and poems, are neatly divided between the Blockley Antiquarian Society and the University of Texas. But her most important papers were said to be in a mysterious box that should only be opened in the presence of the assembled bishops of the Church of England and at a time of great crisis for the country. Some people clamoured for this to happen in the Crimean War and the First World War apparently. Probably it wasn’t deemed an ideal item for the agenda of General Synod whilst debating women bishops, however.
But what of the famous churchmen?
Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury 1896-1902 and father of William, another Archbishop of Canterbury back when it ran in the family – the usual letters and family stuff, but also his “diary of self-examination 1843-9 (1 vol)”. Wouldn’t mind reading that! Confessions of feeling fed up with Queen Victoria? The young William being a pain? Then again, only one volume for 6 yrs implies either a very large volume or not much self-examination. And did he know it would one day be made public? That could cramp one’s style.
The next entry relates to his son William Temple – the usual church and family and business letters and the vital ‘Notes for Lent and Garter Day Addresses 1942’, but, alas, no diary of self-examination.
And one great name I could hardly ignore:
My PhD supervisor, Dr Henry Rack, was and is the world expert on Wesley but because he was on sabbatical at the crucial time, I never did the relevant course with him as an undergraduate and so had a shamefully sketchy knowledge of the great leader’s life, despite being converted by Methodists back in 1971. Here there’s the usual list of letters and sermon notes and diaries, plus Holy Club Notes, kept at the “Methodist Archives in Manchester”. This made my researcher’s nose twitch again. Hmm. Must look it up on the internet. Ah, and there they are, digital reproductions in Wesley’s own handwriting, kept by – guess who – the John Rylands Library.
Perhaps, then, it’s best to hedge your bets and keep your blogs and diaries and sermons in hard copy as well as digital – just in case you get famous and the JRL starts to take an interest…