Preaching and Print: A Clerical Riposte to Sir Balthazar.

Richard Mayo’s Bethnal Green Pamphlet.

It is generally recognised that Gerbier was not reluctant to publish his views, and during the Interregnum he found numerous opportunities to express himself in print. Often his writings were either self-justifications, prospectuses for his various projects, or broadly pedagogical works. But he also published a pamphlet, of uncertain date, in which he took to task a Minister of the Church whose religious views and practice seem to have concerned him. His privately printed criticisms of the Rev. Richard Mayo provoked a brisk response from this ‘Godly’ clergyman, whose sermons or lectures Gerbier had apparently attended in Bethnal Green.

There seems to be no extant copy of Gerbier’s pamphlet, but Mayo’s response to it survives in the British Library, as reported by Jason Peacey in his article Print, Publicity and Popularity: The Projecting of Sir Balthazar Gerbier 1642-1662. (Journal of British Studies, vol. 51, no.2. p305.) It is probably more by good fortune than anything else that Mayo’s response can still be read: it is not found among the Thomason Tracts, but is instead contained in a bound volume of pamphlets that used to form part of the Home Office Library. The writer implies that the intended audience was a small one – the congregation who came to hear Mayo preach at the chapel at Bethnal Green – and so the print run was probably quite limited. Other items bound with it date from the 1650s and 1660s, with a few bearing dates as late as 1673, and are concerned with political, religious and military matters, spanning the Interregnum, the Restoration and the Dutch Wars. Gerbier’s original publication must have been written after his return from France in 1649, and no later than the late 1650s, before he departed for the Netherlands, to organise his expedition to the New World.

Richard Mayo (c.1631-95) was a non-conformist clergyman, who held the living of Kingston-on-Thames, just south of London, from about 1654 to 1662. Like other clerics who refused to accept the Act of Uniformity, he was ejected from his post in 1662, and is recorded as a Presbyterian minister in the 1680s, with several further printed pamphlets and sermons to his credit. These included “Two conferences: one betwixt a Papist and a Jew: the other between a Protestant and a Jew” – in the dialogue form that was also utilised by Gerbier. Mayo was clearly a successful speaker, who easily attracted listeners and was described sympathetically some decades later, by Edmund Callamy, the chronicler of non-conformism:

‘A man of sincere godliness. His labours here [Kingston] were crowned with abundant success. He had afterwards a large and flourishing congregation in London, where for many years he continued an affectionate useful preacher. He was a great lover of peace and union; was of a sweet natural temper, and in all his conduct manifested great sincerity and prudence. In his last sickness he had great inward peace and serenity. His end was like an evening without clouds. He said to his worthy fellow-labourer, “I have had my infirmities and failings, but my heart hath been right with God as to the main; and I look for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.”’

(Edward Callamy/Samuel Palmer, The Nonconformist’s Memorial… vol 2. London.W. Harris.1775. P449)

Mayo was presumably still in his twenties when Gerbier took exception to his performance in the pulpit, and his objections can only be surmised from the response Mayo offered in his 7-page pamphlet, An Answer to the Zealous Expressions of Sir Balthazar Gerbier, Knight. He directs his words to “his good friends and hearers at the Chappell on Bednall-Green”, whom he addresses with the words “Christian Friends”. Gerbier’s associations with Bethnal Green, – the home of his father-in-law, William Kipp, and later the residence of his Academy – are well known, as are his connections with St. Dunstan’s Church, Stepney. This was his parish church; the burial place of his wife, and his son Charles, as well as the scene of the vandalism directed at his family pew, and described in his 1642 pamphlet “A Wicked and Inhumane Plot Against Sir Balthazar Gerbier”. The ‘chappell’ on the Green was presumably St. George’s Chapel, originally a domestic chapel attached to a house leased until 1646 by Sir Ralph Warren and his descendants. After the departure of the Warren family, the chapel seems to have been taken over by the locals, and used throughout the 1650s for the delivery of Puritan sermons. These could be heard twice on Sundays and additionally on Tuesdays, and in the large and solidly Puritan parish of Stepney the chapel must have been a popular centre of religious activity. (Cromwell personally appointed the vicar of St. Dunstan’s, William Greenhill, to his living.) It is not a surprise to find that Richard Mayo, with his growing reputation as a preacher, was active in the area. He is also known to have given weekly lectures at St. Mary’s Church, Whitechapel.

The Answer to the Zealous Expressions… begins with the author explaining that he feels obliged to respond in print as Gerbier, “the Knight”, has not only attacked him personally in his pamphlet, but has accused Mayo of carrying on “proceedings in this Chappell derogatory to Religion”. (P1) Mayo writes that he does not actually understand all of Gerbier’s charges – he quotes page and line numbers to refer to passages that he finds badly expressed – but intends to answer all the accusations that he can actually follow. He points out that he was invited to speak at the chapel, and was in no way forced on the congregation, describing Gerbier’s attack as “that indigested heap of criminations”. (P2)

It appears that Gerbier’s criticisms can be reduced to five main points.

  1. Gerbier claims that Mayo made the assertion that some of those in hell are in fact less guilty than some of the living.
  2. Mayo is accused of saying that “some that heard me were no Christians”.
  3. He is also alleged to have said of the congregation: “There are amongst us that know not God”.
  4. Gerbier wrote that Mayo claimed that some of his hearers do not observe regular prayer times: “Some of the Inhabitants are wanting to call upon God Morning and Evening in their severall families”.
  5. Gerbier has claimed that Mayo expressed the view that “to honour the name of Jesus Christ, and swearing is one and the same thing”.

The first three of these are primarily linguistic quibbles – it sounds as though Gerbier is looking for literal meaning in oratorical metaphor, and this is very much the line that Mayo takes in his own defence. I think we must assume that Sir Balthazar has – at least in his own opinion – established himself as something of an intellectual authority in the community, and is unwilling to allow the Preacher’s rhetorical flourishes to pass, if they can be interpreted as implying anything less than orthodoxy. And Mayo responds by trying to clarify his meaning: when he said, for example, that some who heard him were “no Christians”, he meant that like all sinners, they were not fulfilling all the requirements of the Christian Life.

The last two points are slightly different. It’s not entirely clear whether Gerbier sees Mayo’s claim that some local families are failing to hold regular prayers as an undeserved criticism of his neighbours, or if he sees it as a consequence of Mayo’s failure to exert discipline over the congregation. Perhaps both! The final charge is a little more complex. Mayo is being challenged on the issue of oath swearing; an ambiguous topic during the Interregnum, and without knowing precisely what Gerbier said in his own pamphlet it is difficult to know what is meant. Yet Mayo goes on to talk about such ‘superstitions’ as bowing the knee at the name of Jesus, and removing one’s hat in church, and clearly believes he is irreproachably orthodox in his preaching. He denies all five of the accusations, and claims that Gerbier is the first person ever to bring such complaints against him.

Having responded to these five points, Mayo turns his fire upon Gerbier himself. He begins by saying that their differences could have been settled by a quiet discussion. Rather than rushing into print with his accusations, “a private admonition had been more according to the rule of the Gospell”, and Mayo tells Gerbier that “you had done more like a Christian if you had spared me in public”. Instead, Gerbier went straight to the printer with his complaints, appealing to the congregation before giving Mayo a chance to defend himself privately. Yet Mayo was obviously as effective a writer as he was a preacher, and proceeds to cast himself in the role of martyr to unjustified criticism, depicting Gerbier as an aggressive troublemaker. He quotes Melancthon on Luther, saying “I hope your heart is not as your pen,“ adding “I shall desire for the future that you will spare to waste your paper”. Mayo does not think a Minister should have to “answer frivolous pamphlets” and declares:

The script you have now pen’d and published I will now with Job bind it as a crown to me”. 

Having claimed the moral high ground in this way – something he presumably hopes will impress the members of the congregation who read his words – Mayo turns to four other points that have apparently given offence to Sir Balthazar. (P6)

  1. Certain members of the congregation keep their hats covered during prayers. Despite having just said that removing them is an old-fashioned superstition, Mayo agrees that “’tis abhorred by me “.
  2. Gerbier has accused him of using “such thundering fulminations of hell fire”. (Arguably this is precisely what one expects of a Puritan divine, or is this just the stereotype?) Mayo replies that describing the likely fate of the soul in such strong terms is essential, if he is to do his job properly. “I must not steer by that corrupt rule of Preaching smooth.
  3. Gerbier complains that Mayo’s preaching attracts “strange doves”, i.e. “some that repair to us out of curiosity”. The Preacher is unrepentant, and happy to receive strangers at his services. “When people come with itching eares, they may go away with stablisht hearts.”
  4. He says to Gerbier: “You take it ill that the Sacrament is not administered amongst you”. The context is unclear, but it sounds as though Gerbier has been advocating that the congregation should receive a form of Communion, either all year round, or more specifically at Easter. Mayo asserts it is nonsense to say “ the Sacrament is more efficacious to the high and excellent ends thereof at Easter then at any other time”. (P7) Whatever the context, Mayo takes the opportunity to say that he will “reprove you for your superstition, which I thought had had an exit together with the prelaticall times”.

Mayo has turned the tables on Gerbier, accusing him of harbouring old-fashioned, Laudian superstitions, which by now he should have disowned. It is hard to tell whether there is any real justification here for what he says, as we simply do not know what Gerbier’s ‘Zealous Expressions’ contained. There is obviously a competitive element in all this. Mayo is not reluctant to defend his ‘hell-fire’ style of sermonizing, while Gerbier disapproves of his approach, and is ready to pick up on any carelessly chosen expressions. The pamphlet ends with words chosen to reinforce the effect, addressed to the Bethnal Green congregation, rather than to Gerbier. Mayo exhorts them to “labour to be a reformed people, that the adjacent and neighbouring Parishes may see your good works and glorifie our Father which is in Heaven.” He asks: “How filthy, how polluted are the skirts of the City of London?” At Bethnal Green, on the other hand, “now they are washt, now they are sanctified”. And he urges his flock to persist in prayer, and “supplication in the Spirit for your own Soules”.

Mayo was probably being disingenuous when he expressed surprise that Gerbier has published his objections, rather than speaking privately to him. By the 1650s, pamphleteering was so commonplace as a method of airing opinions, raising awareness of issues, and instigating public debate, that a preacher of Mayo’s stamp must have expected the occasional challenge in print. It’s impossible to tell how far his exposition of Gerbier’s original pamphlet reflects its content. And if only Gerbier’s piece had survived – it would have been fascinating to read both sides of the argument.

It would be misleading to draw a comparison between this theological spat and the highly charged exchanges that break out in today’s social media. The medium of print – even at the level of ephemeral pamphlets – has imposed an unquestioned discipline on both of the parties involved, and so have their social positions. These are not men who throw bricks through windows: arguments and counter-arguments have been marshalled and a rational debate of sorts has proceeded. And after years of civil war, and a military coup that delivered rule by religious fundamentalists and the suspension of the traditional constitution, it is interesting to find that this was possible, although of course Gerbier and Mayo were co-religionists, and their disagreement was about issues of dogma and style of delivery, rather than fundamentals of doctrine.

I’ve always felt that Gerbier’s Calvinist upbringing in the Netherlands was one of the most significant influences on him throughout his life. He seems never to have wavered – except in the occasional moment of despair – from his distinctively Protestant beliefs, and while he seldom wrote on specifically religious topics, there seems to be no reason to doubt the sincerity of his commitment to this branch of the Christian faith. Sustained by an explicit stoicism in this life, and confident of salvation in the next, he appears to have viewed his God as loving and merciful to his creatures. He often used the motto ‘Heureux qui en Dieu se confie’. (Happy is he who trusts in God.) This may explain why he challenged Richard Mayo: a man who was happy to threaten his congregation with hell fire, and an aggressive preacher who emphasised the wrath, rather than the love, of God. Mayo’s style of ministry was perhaps more than Gerbier could tolerate: it was certainly an issue on which he thought it necessary to take a stand. It does not seem likely that he published his ‘Zealous Expressions’ to gain any kind of personal or political advantage: the print run must have been small, and the issue was a local one. Both men seem to have been equally at home addressing a public gathering, or writing for a specific readership. Unfortunately nothing is known as to the impact – if any – of this debate on the people of Bethnal Green, or the wider public. But Gerbier’s intervention in the religious practices of his community is an interesting example of how oral and print activity – public preaching and pamphleteering – could be made to interact, and perhaps encourage reflection and debate.

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