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ELH 70.1 (2003) 67-87

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Mr. Bunyan's Neighborhood and the Geography of Dissent

Adam Sills

What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and links it makes use of, and whose code it embodies? What would remain of religious ideology—the Judeo-Christian one, say—if it were not based on places and their names: church, confessional, altar, sanctuary, tabernacle? What would remain of the Church if there were no churches?

— Henri Lefebvre

I. the Geographies of Dissent

Michael Watts, in volume one of his The Dissenters, offers us a series of maps intended to illustrate what he terms "the geographic distribution of Dissent" from roughly 1715 to 1719. 1 Drawing upon a detailed survey of Dissenting congregations made shortly after the death of Queen Anne, the maps cover both England and Wales and depict the location and relative population, broken down to the county level, of the five Dissenting churches in question: Presbyterian, Independent, Particular and General Baptists, and Quakers. The survey that forms the basis for these maps was compiled by Dr. John Evans, a Presbyterian minister and secretary of the Committee of the Three Denominations, which had been set up in 1702 by various London ministers to "protect Dissenting interests from Tory designs upon the ascension of Queen Anne." 2 With the Hanoverian succession, the political motivations of the Committee emerged more clearly when, in 1715, efforts to repeal the Schism Act demanded a fuller accounting of Dissent not only in terms of its sheer numbers but, just as importantly, in the geographic distribution of its population. To that end, every Presbyterian, Independent, and Baptist congregation in England and Wales was written to in order to obtain their location, the name of the minister, the number and quality of the adherents, and, lastly, the number of votes they commanded. The [End Page 67] survey was periodically updated through 1729, but by 1718, a comprehensive picture of Dissent had, for the most part, already taken shape, one that would not only help abolish the Schism Act but also impact state policy formation on a variety of levels over the course of the eighteenth century.

While the maps in Watts's text were not produced at that time, they nevertheless expose the geographic and cartographic logic behind the survey and the particular mode of political arithmetic that undergirds the production of space in general. The maps, like the survey, offer a somewhat reductive, though highly suggestive, representation of Dissent that spatializes many of the displacements and transformations in the nature and composition of religious community over the course of the previous century. Watts notes, for example, the "heavy concentration" of Presbyterians in the growing industrial centers of the north and west: Lancashire, Cheshire, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, and Northumberland, places not previously counted among the traditional centers of power south and east of London. 3 This is due, in part, to the emigration of Scots into those regions where manufacturing was dominant, thus providing a pool of cheap and accessible labor for burgeoning coal, textile, and shipbuilding industries, among others. Dissenting populations were urban on the whole, living primarily in cities, boroughs, or market towns, while numbers in rural areas tended to remain low since many were dependent on the Anglican gentry for their economic livelihood. Urban infrastructure afforded more centralized populations that, in turn, tended to favor nonconformity since adherents lived in close proximity to one another, their place of worship, and primary source of income.

In addition to economic factors, there is the tradition, dating back at least to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, of encouraging nonconformity in remote counties in order to offset the influence of Roman Catholicism. Dissenting congregations, like the Presbyterians, often emerged in the interstices of an Anglican parish system that could not adequately meet the demands of a rapidly expanding population:

The failure of the Church of England to adapt its parochial organization to the changing economic and demographic structure of the country provided Presbyterian ministers with fine opportunities for poaching on what...


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