Mrs Attaway: (almost certainly not) the first female Baptist Preacher/Minister

I reference Mrs Attaway (her first name is lost to us, as far as I am aware) fairly often, and each time end up going back to the original sources. I wanted to do it again this afternoon, on nothing more erudite than a Facebook thread, and thought I really should write up a few notes and leave them somewhere I could find them, and could point other people to them easily.

We have a detailed, if hostile, reference to Mrs Attaway preaching in December 1645, in Thomas Lambe’s church on Bell’s Alley, in London. (I’ve recently argued that there is good reason to suppose this was the continuation of Helwys’s original Baptist congregation–available Open Access here.) The evidence is found in Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena, published in 1646 (pp. 116-119 of the 1646 Ralph Smith edition, Wing E229). She and at least one other woman were preaching regularly, every Tuesday, in the church, and Edwards suggests that they sometimes drew congregations of a thousand or more. (He tells us that the other woman was married to a Major in the army, and gives us some details of her clothing and jewellery, but omits to mention her name; no doubt he thought we had what was important.)

Edwards is perhaps best compared to the sort of modern-day media commentator who makes a career out of being regularly outraged. The book is a breathless catena of letters and reports, with details emphasising those aspects which he judges will most shock his intended reader (who is a Presbyterian minister or parliamentarian who sees the replacement of an episcopal national church with a presbyterian national church as the only way forward for England in the 1640s). Criticising the Scottish establishment repeatedly draws his ire–this is the perfection he strives towards. He detests Arminianism, which he sees as the gateway drug to every heresy, and is very concerned to have his readers understand that the leaders of the various communities he criticises are obviously not people who should lead churches–rude mechanicals, who lack breeding, social standing, and university education. (The Major’s wife may escape public ridicule because she is at least of the right social class; Mrs Attaway is in trade (horror!) selling lace in Cheapside.)

Edwards seems to have a particular objection to any activity undertaken by a woman. The way he lingers on (very scant) reports of women being baptised nude in rivers at midnight really does invite a Freudian analysis, but the fact that he was roundly trounced in an exchange of pamphlets with the remarkable Independent (i.e., Congregationalist) leader and church planter Katherine Chidley over the first half of the 1640s may not have been irrelevant to this focus (he fails to mention Chidley in Gangraena, which silence is fairly eloquent testimony to how he felt their debate had gone).

Already in the ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ we have a passing swipe at ‘Jezebel’ (A4v; you knew it was coming, right?) and a rising crescendo of outrage, culminating with ‘what swarms are there of all sorts of illiterate mechanik Preachers, yea of Women and Boy Preachers!’ (a1v) In his introductory catalogue of the errors of the various sectaries, the 124th entry reads ‘That tis lawfull for women to preach, and why should they not, having gifts as well as men? and some of them do actually preach…’ (30)

When he comes to his evidence, the account of Mrs Attaway and her colleague is the bulk of the material. According to Edwards, Mrs Attaway first referenced the classic justificatory text, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people … your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’. She then prayed, for ‘almost halfe an hour’ and then preached for about 45 minutes on the text ‘If you love me you will obey my commandments’. Later, in the face of some resistance to the ministry of the Major’s wife, she identified them both in prayer as ‘Ambassadors and Ministers of God’.

Lambe’s church is not the only place women are preaching, according to Edwards. He claims in briefer compass to have evidence of female preachers in Southampton, Holland in Lincolnshire, Ely in Cambridgeshire, several in Hertfordshire, and (possibly several) in Brasted in Kent. Of these, he identifies the woman in Southampton as a Baptist (she was ‘dreamt [!] into Anabaptisme‘; p. 84) and claims the woman in Lincolnshire ‘baptizeth’, at least strongly implying she is a Baptist.

Ely was at the time home to Henry Denne, associate of Lambe and significant General Baptist leader, and not a large town, so it is very hard not to assume some Baptist influence there, and of course Mrs Attaway and her colleague are in Lambe’s Baptist church.

This leaves only Hertfordshire and Brasted, Kent. Edwards’s assertions concerning Hertfordshire are strange: on the one hand, he gives us no more exact geographical location than the county; on the other, he identifies one of the texts the women are preaching on: Rom. 8:2. Perhaps the reference there to the freedom the Spirit gives was commonly used as a justification for women preaching in the county? Whitley (Minutes of the General Assembly… I.lix) suggests there may have been a General Baptist church in Berkhamstead, Herts, in 1640, already, but it is hard on this basis to assert that Edwards was thinking of Baptists in his reference.

In Kent, Edwards points us towards John Saltmarsh’s congregation (where he has heard rumours that female preachers also celebrate the Eucharist). At the time, Saltmarsh was Rector of the parish church; he soon left that role and became one of the more significant radical preachers in the Army, and a chaplain to Fairfax. He certainly had Leveller sympathies, and of course the Levellers and the General Baptists were fairly close in the mid-1640s (Richard Overton was involved in Lambe’s church, for example). Saltmarsh died in 1647; he was never a Baptist, but was certainly a close fellow-traveller.

Edwards offers us evidence of female preachers amongst the General Baptists across a fair chunk of England in the mid-1640s; given Helwys had established the first London church around 1612, this is remarkable. The doctrines and life of the General Baptists under the Laudian persecutions are opaque to us, and it would certainly be possible to argue that, like baptism by immersion, women preaching was a novel practice in the early 1640s that spread quickly across the proto-denomination through the missionary energy of the Bell’s Alley Church. Even if that were to be the case, however, we would at least have to accept that there was no organised resistance to the practice.

Of course it did not last. The pernicious effects of a pagan anthropology (women as deficient males) and the pressure to conform to social norms were too powerful; as in other areas, the Quakers did far better than the General Baptists in maintaining their principled witness to Biblical truth. But right at the beginning of their story, it seems, many of the General Baptists took the Scriptures seriously enough to reject the norms of their culture, to receive the preaching and sacramental ministry of female leaders, and to name those leaders as ‘ministers’.

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