Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the 17th Century 
by David Underdown.
HarperCollins, 308 pp., £17.99, May 1992, 0 00 215865 5
Show More
Show More

This book charts a kind of revolution: the building of a new Jerusalem, ‘a city on a hill’, in Dorchester, Dorset, in the early 17th century. The story of a little country town, inhabited, like others, by ordinary sinners and recidivists, which, for a time, aspired to godliness is a remarkable one, and is here well and enjoyably told. Professor Underdown seeks to explain ‘who the reformers were, whom they were reforming, how and why they did it, and why in the end they failed’. Crucial to the transformation of Dorchester into ‘the most puritan town in England’ was the fire of 1613 which might have destroyed it, as Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, and the arrival in 1605 of a man with a mission: John White, known to posterity as the ‘patriarch of Dorchester’.

All Christians should live according to Christ’s teachings, lay up treasure in Heaven and follow God rather than man. Evidence of their doing so is less than universal. Yet sometimes we find societies where, for a while, ideals prevail over self-interest; restraint over self-indulgence. That it was so in Dorchester is Professor Underdown’s fascinating discovery. Early in the 17th century there was an extraordinary fall in the number of bastards born, or at least of illegitimate births recorded, and the decline in the number of pregnant brides was equally remarkable. Evidence of nothing less than a transformation in sexual mores. In this, the people of Dorchester followed those in other places in England, but their self-discipline seems to have been more extreme.

The charitable impulses of Dorchester’s citizens were, at the same time, stirred. David Underdown has discovered in Dorchester an outpouring of philanthropy on an extraordinary scale, unrivalled in England. Here was a town of only 2500 inhabitants which gave, in the fight for Christ against Antichrist, £150 for the defence of their beleaguered brethren in the Palatinate in 1620, £45 for the Irish Protestants in 1642, and almost £150 in relief after the massacre in Piedmont. Nearer home, £95 was collected in a single week in 1640 for victims of fire and plague in Yeovil and Taunton. Week by week they relieved their own poor, and devised ways of helping the afflicted. Contemporaries did not doubt, nor does Professor Underdown, that the spur to the regeneration and the charity was the ‘fiery trial’ of 1613, sent by God ‘to awaken the people’. Looking back, after 34 years, John White remembered how ‘well affected persons’ were moved to give £800 to build a hospital to set poor children to work, and that the poor rate doubled. The fire was that ‘sanctified affliction’ for which Puritans looked to prove their faith. How is this flood of charitable giving, constant for a generation, how is the discipline itself to be explained?

The exhortations of White, their commanding patriarch, were of profound influence. So Professor Underdown tells us, without really showing how. Yet White’s writings reveal something of the hold he had over the town. To read White’s Way to the Tree of Life (1647), written at the end of his life and dedicated to the ‘dearly beloved in the Lord’ inhabitants of Dorchester, is to understand how exacting was his ministry among them. He left them a guide to the reading of Scripture: one chapter to be read in the morning, another at noon, and the third at night (‘for the time ... it is very requisite to observe it strictly’). One day only in every four years he left to their own ‘direction and piety’: the supernumerary day in the Leap Year. Without the Word, White insisted as he left his flock, ‘he that is ignorant doth often live and die so, even under a Powerful Ministry’ (his italics).

Reading the Word was essential: ‘to cure a broken and contrite heart’, but also as God’s ‘furnace to purge out the dross of thy natural corruptions’. To White and his followers it was an ineluctable truth that we are all damned by nature. Upon White’s arrival, Dorchester was rocked by a sermon he preached, in which he asserted that ‘Christ was not the saviour of all the world, but of his elected and chosen people only.’ This was the austere doctrine of Beza, and one for which not all of Dorchester was ready. Only God knew who was elect and who damned, but White and his friends were certain that the saved were ‘but a little flock’, that only a tiny minority had been predestined to grace. The fate for the reprobate majority was Hell. Did the citizens of Dorchester tremble when they heard White preach in 1632 against the ‘ruffing like swaggarers, debauched drunkards, blasphemers, swearers, profane scoffers’ whom ‘God shall one day cast out of his presence, to be the everlasting companions of the Devil and his Angels in the everburning flame of Hell fire’? White certainly held out the threat of damnation to his flock. When he sought support for the great colonial, evangelical venture to New England in 1630, he called upon the rich for their superfluous wealth: otherwise their failure would ‘assuredly plead strongly against them at the bar of Christ’s judgment scale at the last day’.

The godly could not by their actions achieve sanctity, for men’s works were, they believed, helpless before grace: but godly behaviour might be a likely (if not infallible) symptom of election. White offered the promise of salvation: ‘Up and be doing; work out thy salvation.’ He wrote of the ‘incorruptible crown’ which is ‘the reward of such as deny themselves for the service of God and his Church’. Since godly behaviour might prefigure election, the godly tried to live more austere lives than their neighbours. They led an onslaught against the drunkard, the blasphemer and the lecher in order to create a society more acceptable to God. In Dorchester the providential fire strengthened their hand. Here lay the moving force behind the charitable giving, but here, too, the reasons for the resentment against them. Ordinary people loved the Puritans ‘as a dog loves a pitchfork’.

It is the achievement of this book to reveal the gulf which grew in Dorchester between the old, permissive culture of neighbourliness and good fellowship and the new Puritan code of discipline and restraint. For the old order, the Puritan insistence upon the unbreachable rift between the elect and the reprobate was uncharitable and divisive. For many in Dorchester the arrival of White had been a dark day. One woman said ‘she had rather believe any drunkard in Chard than any puritans of Dorchester.’ Professor Underdown discovers the parties in both camps, and names names. Libels circulated following White’s sermon on limited atonement, addressed to ‘all sturdy puritan knaves’, accusing them of hypocrisy. Matthew Chubb, leader of the old guard, would have given £100 to rid the town of White. His reasons were partly religious. He sponsored a preacher to insist, contrary to White, that ‘Christ died for the sins of all the world.’ He also lamented a world lost. It was not without significance that Chubb threatened ‘to play Hunckes the great bear and break the backs’ of his enemies, for bear-baiting, along with all other games, morris-dancing and plays, alehouse meetings, festivals and fun, had been outlawed from Puritan Dorchester. There were few jokes in White’s sermons.

The assault upon vice and sin created a divided Dorchester, for the godly were entered upon an epic struggle with Satan, and had a mission to reform the profane who did not welcome reformation. It is hard to tell quite how far their fervour estranged the godly from conventional society. In 1630 White composed a solemn schedule of ten vows, a covenant. The vows were prefaced by a reminder of ‘our sins which get strength daily’, and a confession of ‘lukewarmness’ in zeal for God’s truth, an increase in such faults as carnal security, love of the world, contention and envy. Nothing in the vows suggested a will to separate themselves from the Church or to shun the company of the ungodly. Yet the intention of the vows was to dissuade from communion those who would not join the covenant, and the context was one of persecution. White observed the ‘Lord’s indignation poured upon neighbour churches and threatened unto us by the preparations made against us.’ He meant the assault by the Arminians on the godly, and the transformation in the Church of England, from which he would not separate, but of which he despaired.

In 1629 White had narrowly escaped trouble for his confederacy with Denzil Holles, Dorchester’s MP and later one of the fugitive Five Members. Dorchester was described by Clarendon as the ‘most malignant town’ in England, ‘entirely disaffected to the King’, the ‘magazine whence other places were supplied with principles of rebellion’. A town with such Puritan credentials could only support Parliament. Yet, as Underdown shows, the Civil War was not Dorchester’s finest hour. The town’s governors had sworn to live and die with Parliament, the clergy to seal the Covenant with their blood, but the town’s defences collapsed ignominiously, the clergy and their patriarch fled, and the rich tried to smuggle their wealth away. Carnal security indeed.

The attempted revolution in Dorchester took place against a background of deprivation and distress. The poor are with us always, but at some times more evidently than at others. From the 1620s repeated harvest failures combined with persistent depression in the cloth trade led to a disastrous fall in real wages and destitution followed. Professor Underdown tells us of Dorchester’s Puritanism, and tells us, often movingly, of the people’s poverty, but the relationship between the two might be more profoundly explored. He suggests, and rightly, that the most compelling evidence for the association may be found among those who left Dorchester, Old England, for Dorchester, New England. The godly were convinced that with reformation in religion would come reformation in society. Luxury, pride and fornication offended God, but these vices brought catastrophe in this world as well as in the next. Lust distracted people from work, broke families, and left abandoned girls and their babies to the parish charge. Drunkenness, as well as recreating Adam’s fall, brought desertion and dispossession.

The godly might find the association between vice and damnation even more persuasive because it was consonant with the social and economic chaos they saw increasingly around them. These are intractable problems, which David Underdown considers tangentially rather than explicitly, though they lay at the heart of Dorchester’s revolution. Many are called, few are chosen; on earth as in heaven. There should have been no assumption among the godly that the poor, dispossessed in this world, were without grace, and perhaps there was none. The godly Reformation found friends as well as enemies at every level of Dorchester society, yet the most visible opposition to reform came from the poor. It was they who were more likely to be fingered by Constable Righton for drinking than their social superiors, and they knew it.

Professor Underdown seeks to show Dorchester society whole, and perhaps comes as close as may be to doing so. His intention is to ‘rescue from oblivion some of the ordinary men and women often buried behind the familiar events we know as history, and to give them their historical due’. Andy Warhol told us that everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes. There are in this book many diverting stories about the socially obscure. Yet the historian is captive to his ‘mouse-eaten’ records, and much of the evidence remaining is pathological: especially perhaps in Dorchester in the early 17th century because of the survival of its Offenders’ Book. Is it Mary Colliford’s historical due to be remembered for calling Elizabeth Lugge, the spinning teacher, ‘gig, runagate, speakarse and baggage’? We are told nothing else about her; maybe nothing else may be known. John White wrote of most people being ‘known too well to the world to love the smoke of their own chimneys’, but these blameless lives are not, for the most part, those which can be recovered, as Professor Underdown admits. ‘Drunkenness and irregular church going are very visible in the sources; sobriety and godliness are not, though probably more common.’ Much hangs on that ‘probably’. How are we to tell? As with most forward movements in history, the godly reformation may have passed by those who, in their poverty and distress, had literally no time for it.

The poor are likely to remain dispossessed of their history, as of much else, but Professor Underdown has performed a historical service in seeking to restore it to them.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences