By Carys Brown
Why did people in eighteenth-century towns go to church? The most obvious answer is that they were there to worship. However, church going had a broader significance for the life of a town. Churches were social and civic centres; religious observance was combined with meetings with friends, introductions to potential marriage prospects, and even discussions of business concerns.
The diary of Ann Prest, daughter of a currier from Bedale, North Yorkshire, illustrates how church going could be an important aspect of urban social life. Prest was not a consistent church-goer when at home in Bedale. On Sunday 8 September 1776, for instance, she made the diary entry ‘not at Church drank Tea went to visit the Bride (Mrs Moore) a good deal of Company mother Mrs Baxter & Sister B drank Tea at Mr Dawnays’. Two weeks later, on Sunday 22 September, she wrote ‘Not at Church had Mr & Mrs Moor & Miss Galland to drink Tea’.
Strikingly, this apparently relaxed attitude to church attendance was very different from her behaviour over the previous summer, when she had been in York visiting her future husband, Leonard Terry. While there, it appears that church going was complimentary to her social commitments. Her diary entry fro Sunday 28 July reads ‘Mr L Terry & Mrs Baxter called upon us in the morning to go to the minster Prayers Brother Edward & me went with Mr Terry & Mrs B to drink Tea at the Farm’. Both of the Sundays that followed appeared to be busy social occasions that began with a trip to church: on 4 August she was ‘at Church called at Miss Gibsons & Mr Terrys drank Tea at Mr Listers supped at Mrs Shaws Brother N Dined with us’; on 11 August ‘Mrs Baxter & Mr L Terry called upon me in the morning to go to Castlegate Church dined at Mr Silvers drank Tea at Miss Wilsons a rainy afternoon’.
Why then was there such a difference between Prest’s church-going patterns in Bedale and in York? We might speculate the presence of ‘Mr Terry’ at most of these occasions had something to do with it. Going to church was a respectable activity, and one that Prest was unlikely to decline to do when called upon by her future husband. But it was also the case that church was a useful place for her to meet up with other social contacts in York. Although she arrived at the minster on 28 July with Mr Terry and Mrs Baxter, for instance, the group left with her brother Edward in tow. On other occasions she went straight from church to the residence of other friends. Church was a place to see and be seen, and this was perhaps more the case for Prest in fashionable York than it was in Bedale.
None of this is to suggest that when Prest attended church, it was for purely instrumental reasons. There were many reasons, other than a lack of faith, that people failed to attend church, including poor weather, bad roads, illness, or poverty, and in such instances they might read and pray at home. Prest’s diary entries are brief, and she does not say why she did not attend church in Bedale, or indeed whether she ever worshipped at home. What her diary does emphasise, however, is the extent to which church going was integrated with the social life of the town, acting both as a measure of respectability and as a meeting point from which other social activities could spring.
- Birmingham: Cadbury Research Library: MS52/4 – Diary of Ann Prest, 1776, entries for Sunday 28 July, Sunday 4 August, Sunday 11 August, Sunday 8 September, and Sunday 22 September
Biographical information about Ann Prest taken from the Cadbury Research Library catalogue: http://calmview.bham.ac.uk/GetDocument.ashx?db=Catalog&fname=MS52.pdf
Image: Unknown British Artist, ‘A Family Being Served With Tea’, c. 1745. Oil on canvas (106.7 x 139.7cm). Image public domain, courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection: https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670920.