Record of the Week: On Marriage, Methodists and Medical Men

by Kate Gibson

On Boxing Day 1829, surgeon John Wilson wrote a letter to Mary Parkin declaring his love for her. Both John and Mary had been born and raised in the centre of Whitby, in North Yorkshire. Although Whitby’s population was small, it was a north-east centre of the eighteenth-century shipping boom that was responsible for the prosperity of other rapidly growing Northern towns like Liverpool, Whitehaven and Hull. As a port town, its inhabitants were involved in shipbuilding and fishing, but also in the trade of coal and the other raw materials of industrialisation. As Stephanie Jones has argued, by 1800 Whitby’s shipbuilding production was enough to rival that of London and Newcastle, contributing over ten per cent of the total tonnage of merchant vessels in England and Wales.[1] Mary, the granddaughter of a sailmaker, daughter of the port comptroller, and with close relations living in the similar port towns of Sunderland and North and South Shields, owed her family’s prosperity to the interaction between the sea and industry.

The Parkin family had a flexible approach to denominational choice. Mary and her siblings had been baptised Anglican and in the 1800s her family had rented a pew in the parish church. But, she had been sent to a Quaker school in Leeds, and by 1814 her father seems to have begun attending Whitby’s new Methodist chapel.[2] Letters from her parents to her brother Thomas in the 1810s show Mary’s piety; ‘your dear Sister Mary has been deeply convincd of Sin… We are much rejoiced to find that your dear Sister has given herself a willing Sacrifice to him who bought her of you with his Blood… We are happy to see she has already begun to feel the power of Religion, & to taste of its pleasures which the World can neither give nor take away’.[3]

By the time that Mary was contemplating marriage with John Wilson, she seems to have been certain of her own religious conviction and its importance in her choice of marriage partner. She had clearly brought it up in their correspondence, as John’s letter begins ‘I cannot but admire the observations which you have made on Religion and your sense of it.’ Mary was worried about John’s choice of occupation, as he states, ‘As to the… charge which you make against the class of medical men as to their being in general careless of Religion I confess that I am not altogether prepared to deny it.’ As Sally Holloway has shown, this type of discussion was common among courting couples testing religious compatibility before marriage.[4]

Courtship fan
Unmounted fan-leaf with six scenes on the progress of courtship, British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Anonymous, 1790-1800)

John tried to convince Mary of his suitability, not by professing himself a Methodist, but by suggesting that confessional identity was less important than a general outlook of religious openness. He stated:

‘I was brought up in the Church of England and have ever been satisfied with its orthodoxy. As to any particular creed, I am no bigot, but entertain the profoundest reverence for genuine and consistent piety in every one of various Christian denominations and pity every rational being in whom it is wanting… Of your being a Methodist I was never ignorant. I am glad that we perfectly coincide as to the futility of name alone it can be in the state of the heart and mind only where is to be found the test of real worth. However deficient I may be in religious knowledge or practice I trust there is not wholly wanting in me an openness to conviction and some degree of capacity for improvement.’[5]

Although historians have generally emphasised that different denominations had strong religious identities and that a certain degree of religious intolerance was common in this period, it is clear that a general profession of faith was enough to satisfy the pious Mary Parkin. She professed herself a Methodist, but had been educated by Quakers, and when she married John Wilson in 1831, she did so in the Anglican church where she had been baptised.St Mary the Virgin.[6] Her husband’s later diary reveals that on a Sunday the couple could be found worshipping in an Anglican church in the morning and a Methodist chapel in the afternoon.[7] Mary’s religious fluidity was not in this case a symptom of secularism, but of an engaged and open piety.


[1] Stephanie Jones, ‘A Maritime History of the Port of Whitby, 1700-1914’, unpublished PhD thesis, UCL (1982), p. 22.

[2] North Yorkshire County Record Office (NYCRO): TD 19/1/4/46, ‘Book of Observations’ of Thomas Parkin Jr (d. 1836).

[3] NYCRO: TD 19/1/6/1, Thomas and Mary Parkin (senior) to their son Thomas Parkin, from Whitby, 4 July 1812.

[4] Sally Holloway, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions and Material Culture, (Oxford, 2019), p. 23.

[5] NYCRO: TD 19/I/7/10, John Wilson to Mary Parkin, 26 December 1829.

[6] Mary Parkin, bap. 8  May 1795 to Thomas and Mary Parkin, St Mary the Virgin, Whitby; marriage of Mary Parkin and Thomas Wilson, 26 April 1831, St Mary the Virgin, Whitby, NYCRO: N-PR-WH1-30, p. 5.

[7] NYCRO: TD 19/I/8/17, writings of John Wilson, diary, 1837.

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