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Directions To Church-wardens by Humphrey Prideaux

Circular Letter to the Clergy of the Arch-Deaconry of Suffolk.

My Worthy Brethren,

ALTHOUGH it hath been my constant practice in ail my visitations to examine the Church-wardens one by one, as on several other other articles, so particularly on this; Whether there he any in their parish, that absent themselves from Church, who resort to no other assembly for the worship of God, which is by law now tolerated? And I have frequently extorted from them confessions, that there are several such in their respective parishes, yet have always found them so obstinately bent against putting them into their presentments, that notwithstanding whatever I have said unto them, either from the obligation of their oaths, or any other argument to press them to do their duty in this particular, I have not yet been able to prevail, that any more than six or seven only from one parish (whom I have since reformed) have ever been presented to me on this account. The reason of which I find to be, that there is a wicked persuasion propagated among them, and now generally spread through the whole body of the people, as if by the late act of indulgence they were now wholly let loose from all manner of laws relating to religion, and every man left to the freedom of his own choice, whether he will pay any worship to God or no: Which being a licence they are very fond of having, this makes them obstinately persist (whatever they are told to the contrary) that it is now granted unto them. And in confidence hereof the people neglecting to come to Church, and the officers of the parish refusing to present them for it, and through want of their presentments all process of law against such absenters having now for sonic years last past wholly surceased, such a gap becomes open hereby to atheism and irreligion, that (as I am from many hands well informed) the dissenters from our worship, for whose sake the said indulgence was granted, begin now in most places to be exceeded by the number of those, who take a liberty from hence to pay God none at all. And they being like still to increase as long as thus permitted to their own wicked inclinations, I think. it now concerns us, whose peculiar duty is to attend the honour of God, and the salvation of the souls of men, to interpose all the endeavours we are able, both by discipline as well as doctrine, to put a stop to so great a wickedness. And in order hereto, the most effectual course being to remove the cause from whence it proceeds, viz. that pernicious error they have so greedily imbibed concerning the liberty granted by the said act of indulgence: And the only way now likely to do this being sensibly to convince them of their mistake herein, by a strict prosecution of all such, irreligious wretches, who thus live without God in the world, and renounce his worship; that I may be enabled to do my duty in this particular, I desire that you would take Some fitting time before my next visitation to call the officers of your parishes together, and then as effectually as you can, inculcate. into them these following particulars.

1. That the said act of indulgence gives no liberty for irreligion and prophaneness, or extends any further than the granting a toleration to protestant dissenters, such as are commonly known by the names of presbyterians, independents, anabaptists, and quakers, of worshiping God their own way.

That all such as are not members of some of the said tolerated assemblies, and constantly resort to them at all times of public worship, are still under all the penalties of the law, whenever they absent from Church, in the same manner as before the said act of indulgence was granted. For the words of the act are as follow;

Provided always, and it is the true intent and meaning of this act, that all the laws made and provided for the frequenting of Divine Service on the Lord's Day, commonly called Sunday, shalt be still in force, and executed against all persons that offend against the said laws, except such persons come to some congregation or assembly of religious worship, allowed or permitted by this act.

3. That therefore, if the said officers of your parishes know any who absent themselves from their Parish-Church in time of public worship, who are not members of some of the said tolerated assemblies, and constantly resort unto them every Lord's Day, they are bound still by their oath to present them in the same manner as before the said act was made, that is, the Constables to the Sessions, and the Church-wardens to the ecclesiastical Court. For although I have nothing to do with the Constables, yet it will very well become both you to put them in mind of their oaths, and exhort them to keep a good conscience in the faithful discharge of them; and also me to let you know, that it is part of your duty as their Ministers so to do.

4. That the said Church-wardens, whenever they omit their duty herein, and either neglect or refuse to present such persons as they know to be thus presentable, do thereby desperately and irreligiously Incur the horrible crime of perjury, and are to be corrected for it with the highest censures of the Church; and to convince them hereof, I desire you would read unto them the 26th and 117th canons of King James the first, and also to take notice therein, what is your duty in this ease to be performed.

That the duty of Church-wardens obligeth them to present, not only upon certain knowledge, but also upon common fame, (Can.115.) and therefore if any shall answer concerning these prophane apostates from God's worship. (as I foresee many will) how know they, but that they resort to some other assembly now by law tolerated? I desire that in reply hereto, you would tell them, that none of their parishes are so large, but that usually every one therein knows what every man doth in a thing of so public a nature, and that therefore, although they know it not upon their own particular observation, yet at least they may by the common report of neighbours, and that this is a sufficient ground for a presentment. However there will be no danger of doing any injury hereby, because whenever any so presented by them, shall but send into my court a certificate from am; tolerated assembly, attesting them to be Members of it, and that they constantly resort thither every Lord's Day for the worship of God, when absent from Church, the presentment shall be immediately dismissed without putting them to the least trouble or charge herein.

I am sufficiently sensible, that it will be no easy task for you, now a lawless license in matters of religion is so much affected, either to convince those men of their duty in this particular, or prevail with them to do it; however, that is no argument to excuse us from the discharging of ours. And therefore I earnestly beseech you, that you would employ your hearty endeavour herein, and if they will not present any of those prophane absenters from God's worship, that you would have them, in this case the 113th Canon impowers you to do it, and the 114th, as I take it, necessarily enjoins it on you, as often as they absent from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. That you have already made particular application to all such irreligious wretches in your parishes (if you have any such there) by your exhortations and admonitions to reduce them to a sense of that duty and worship which they owe unto their God, I cannot but suppose, it being so obvious a part of your duty, vowed at your ordination, enjoyned by the Canons of our Church, and so often inculcated into you by your superiors. And therefore where doctrine hath been ineffectual, our next course must be to have recourse to discipline, that. we may leave no means of our Ministry un-attempted, if possible, to save those whom God hath committed to our charge. And that you may be assured I will not be wanting to execute that part which belongs to me in this particular, I do promise you I will, by God's help, employ my utmost care herein, as far as the law shall empower me to inflict the censures of the Church, and yon enable me by the method afore prescribed to proceed thereto.

I do foresee here will be two objections made to what I propose; First, That I put you upon an odious work, the prosecution of your people; and the second, That this prosecution may become a means to drive them to the conventicler, because, when they see a necessity put upon them of either going to Church or to the Conventicle, it is most likely, that out of spite to us, who put this necessity upon theta, they will rather chuse the latter, and so the numbers of those be increased who are enemies to our Church.

As to the first objection, my answer is, That nothing is more contrary to my intentions, than the putting of any thing upon my brethren, which may draw the least odium upon them from their people. With such as are their people, I would rather desire them to proceed with the spirit of gentleness and meekness, as best becoming them, especially in these times, and leave the odious part to those who are under their oaths to execute it. But can these wicked apostates from God's Worship be reckoned of your people? certainly it any, these ought to be cast out from among us, and cut off from the society of all Christian people till reformed. For men that have erring consciences something may be said, but I never yet heard of any to have pleaded for such as have none at all; nor do I think you need ever fear, that your denying a toleration to the atheistical and irreligious, will ever be called a persecution. For these are such, whose cause is too bad for any one to countenance; but all that own the name of God, must ever have in utter detestation all such prophane and wicked apostates from him, and will be so far from making themselves parties for them, while under so great an impiety, that instead of your drawing any odium upon you on their account, I reckon the more rigorously you proceed with such, the more it will turn to your praise, even among the bitterest of those sectaries that are adversaries unto us. For although such have cried out persecution loud enough against us, I apprehend in this case there is greater dander from them of the contrary extreme, and that, if we do nothing herein, we shalt as assuredly find them ere long (now they have nothing else to say) laying this very heavily to our charge, that we can he content to permit such irreligious wretches to live without censure among us in so great an impiety, altho' they themselves in reality have given the occasion that led them thereinto. In sum, no one that pretends any thing to religion, can ever be offended with any method that you take for the reforming of such as profess none at all. And therefore I think you need not fear any odium upon you for any thing that you do on this account. However, as to your presenting them yourselves in case the Church-wardens will not, I only recommend it unto you, but press it no farther than you in your own discretion shall judge most proper. but since the perjury of those Church-wardens, who thus refuse to do the duty they have been sworn to, can no otherwise be detected but by yourselves, who only besides them have right to present, I hope you will not permit such a wickedness to pass without that correction which it deserves.

As to the second objection, if any so prosecuted for their irreligious neglect of God's worship, do thereon go to conventicles, my answer is, so let them if they will. It is much better they should serve God any way, even with the schismatic or the heretick, than no way at all. Were we to promote a party only, or study the interest of a sect, then I confess it would be the wiser course rather to let them stand neuters, than list themselves with the enemy, and be of no religion at all, rather than of theirs that are adversaries unto us. But our business is to promote the honour and worship of our God, whose ministers we are; and what will best conduce hereto in the executing of those powers intrusted with us, whether of doctrine or discipline, that is it which we are to do without any other by-regard whatever. And therefore as far as we do by these means of our Ministry make those wretched people to own God and his worship, whether it be with us, or whether it be with them that separate from its, thus far certainly we serve the end of our calling: But I hope no such effect may at all follow, as is here objected; on my considering the whole matter, I am apt to believe there will not, or at most very rarely, it not being probable that those who have no zeal for the public worship of God, should immediately for the sake thereof put themselves to the trouble of going sometimes six or seven miles to a conventicle, and also to the charge of contributing to the maintenance of the Minister they there resort to, when without either they may discharge themselves at home at their own Parish Church. If spite should do this for once or twice, they will soon grow weary in this case, and unless atheism become turned into enthusiasm, you shall be sure to see them at Church again. However, were the danger much greater than is here supposed, that is no reason for us not to do our duty. If we will follow the practice of Primitive Christians, which most Churches desire to make their pattern, I am sure it will not. For they never thought it a reason to relax their discipline, least their people when pressed therewith, should revolt to heathenism; but on the contrary, for .this very cause held it up to the highest pitch of strictness and severity through all their Churches, as the properest means to keep them from that apostacy. And this with the blessing of God amidst their greatest pressures became the prime reason of their support; and if we will act therein with the same sincerity as they did, I doubt, not, we may have the same success. However, thus far I am sure, if we faithfully discharge our duty in all the parts of our Ministry committed unto us, whatever the event be, we can say as to ourselves, Liberavimus animas nostras. And altho' it really happen, that the people thus. prosecuted, as I propose, from atheism run into fanaticism, yet it will he some advantage to gain them thus And there will be also this further benefit, that others, who are prone enough, if left to their own liberty, to neglect the worship of God, will be deterred from falling into this apostacy, when they see by the corrections and punishments inflicted for it, that they cannot do it with impunity, but are still liable, as formerly, to the censures of the Church, and the penalties of the law for the wickedness hereof.

I earnestly beseech you (my dear brethren) that you would not be wanting to your diligence in any part of your duty, now in these times of falling away, if possible, to keep your flock together with you. Atheism and irreligion are wickednesses of the deepest dye, as being the highest defection from God, and that which he most resents, and therefore we cannot too soon endeavour to put a stop to so great an impiety, which if permitted still to grow, may perchance, as other mischiefs, become a torrent at last too strong for us to stem, and involve the whole nation in the guilt thereof. For when sins grow up under the countenance of a law (as this pretends to do) and no law is executed to repress them, the whole community thereby mikes themselves parties to the guilt, which private men contract; and in that they countenance the impiety, or do not what they ought to repress it, they make it their own. And national judgments being the usual consequences of national sins, you cannot better befriend the land in which you live, or the Government under which you have your protection, than by putting that stop to this great impiety of atheism and irreligion, as may divert those heavy punishments from the revenging hand of the Almighty, which otherwise so great a provocation must necessarily draw down upon us. We have seen our land long enough the theatre of God's judgments, and at present I suppose there are none but must be sensible how much we smart under them. And the end of their being sent on the earth being, that the inhabitants thereof should learn righteousness, if instead of answering this end, for which we have them upon us, in reforming our lives and departing, from our iniquities, we grow worse under their chastisements, and to vice, and debauchery add atheism and irreligion, and to schism and heresie a total defection from the Almighty, what else can we expect, but that his correcting judgments will be turned into destroying judgments, and the great enemy and oppressor be let loose upon us to take from us both our land and nation? They who by such wickednesses as these provoke God against us, work stronger for our destruction, than all the power of France and Rome united together against us, and therefore ought to be detested by us as the greatest troublers of our Israel, and the common enemies both of ourselves, as well as of our God; and every authority that is in the land ought to be employed to suppress them; and I know no other way but this to avoid making the guilt to be ours as well as theirs, and thereby involving the whole nation in the vengeance which is due thereto. The punishment of those Achan's may again bring back God to our nation with his blessing of peace and prosperity upon us, and the reforming of our iniquities become a means of thoroughly reconciling him unto us, and when his judgments are in a land, I know no other means whereby it may be effected.

If any tell you, that I make too much haste in pressing you with these particulars, and that the time is not seasonable, that it is properer to tarry till their Majesties being freed from the present pressures, may be at leisure to back us with their authority in these proceedings; objections which I have often heard; my answer is, That when such iniquities begin to grow upon us, as atheism and irreligion, we cannot too soon endeavour to put a stop to so great a mischief. The first beginnings of a thing of this nature ought not to be neglected. For sin is of a very prolific nature, and if let alone to spread itself, will soon grow to an head too hard, to be mastered, and we become overpowered therewith. And as to the seasonableness of the time, I think, the first time that we have, always the Most seasonable to do God's work and our own duty in. Life is short, and opportunities are few, and if we neglect the present, how know we that we may have any more? And for this reason, say I, without placing dilatory hopes, and dilatory expectations on future times, let us lay hold on the present, and while we have them, do all the good in them that we are able. And if we will have their Majesties and their kingdoms freed from the present pressures, I know no means can be more effectual for it, than the removing out of our land those sins which they are sent to punish. The bringing of righteousness and religion into a land, is the most successful way to restore peace and prosperity unto it. And if we do our part in effecting the former, we may thereby become the blessed instruments of restoring the latter. And then the blessing and favour of the Almighty shall rest upon the heads both of us and our King. But to tarry for God's establishing of this blessing among us, before we will reform ourselves, is to put the effects before the cause, and impose that unreasonable condition to the Almighty for our amendment, as to expect he should invert the whole method of his providence for the sake hereof, and first bribe us with his blessings, before we will betake ourselves to that righteousness, which is to make us worthy of them. I confess their present Majesties, whom God hath now advanced to the government of these kingdoms, are excellently fitted for the work of a reformation, both by their zeal for religion, and their exemplary practice of it themselves, and all good men have great expectations from them this way, and I doubt not they will fully answer them by some more than ordinary attempts to this end, as soon as the exigency of their affairs will admit. And indeed at the present they have not been wanting to do their part herein, as far as in the ordinary course of their power they are able. For the hands of Kings by which they act, are their Officers and Ministers which execute their authority under them; and it is well known, what their Majesties commands have been to all these in order to the reforming of the iniquities that are among us. Their proclamations have frequently come forth for the putting of their laws in execution against them. And that the ecclesiastical power might also concur with the civil in order hereto, we have their Majesties excellent letter to the Bishops to this purpose, and through them to all others invested with ecclesiastical jurisdiction under them, commanding us to put all our canons and constitutions in force for the reclaiming men from sin, and reducing them to that practice of righteousness and piety, which the holy religion we profess requires from them. And therefore if we want the authority of the King to put us forward in this work, thus far we have it already, as well as the commands of our God upon us faithfully to discharge all the duties of our Ministry in order hereto. And these particulars I now press upon you, being especial parts thereof, how can we answer it to either, if we do not our diligence herein to the utmost we are able? I hope that when alt hath been considered that I have now said, we shall be all willing and earnest so to do. And then I doubt not, but that by God's gracious blessing upon our endeavours, we shall reap that good effect hereby which we propose; that so all atheism and irreligion being suppressed among us, and the true practice of righteousness and piety advanced in their stead, God's holy name may be glorified, his people edified, our Church and nation blessed, and our own souls everlastingly saved in the day of the Lord. I pray God direct us in all things for the accomplishing of this end,

And I am,

Your most affectionate Brother and Servant,


Arch-Deacon of Suffolk.

August 17th, 1692.

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