While there were a number of first-class poetesses in the 18th century, female theological writers from that era are a distinct rarity. This makes the literary legacy of the Calvinistic Baptist, Anne Dutton (1692-1765), extremely significant.
Anne Dutton, née Williams, was born in Northampton to godly Congregationalist parents. In her late teens she began attending an open-membership Baptist church in the town, pastored at the time by John Moore (d.1726).
There, in her words, she found ‘fat, green pastures, for Mr. Moore was a great doctrinal preacher’. As she went on to explain: ‘the special advantage I received under his ministry was the establishment of my judgement in the doctrines of the gospel’. It was in this congregation that she was baptised as a believer.
Influenced by Hyper-Calvinists?
When she was twenty-two she married a Mr Cattell (his first name does not appear to be known) and moved to London. While there, she worshipped with the Calvinistic Baptist church that met at premises on Wood Street, Cripplegate. Founded by Hanserd Knollys (1599-1691), this work had known some rough times in the days immediately before Anne came to the church.
David Crosley (1669-1744), pastor of the work from 1705 to 1709, had been disfellowshipped for drunkenness, unchaste conduct, and lying to the church about these matters when accused.
Crosley had been a powerful evangelist in the Pennines with his cousin, William Mitchel (d.1705), whose life and ministry we will look at next month. Many years later, he would again know some usefulness in the Lord’s work. But in the 1710s, he had lost all credibility. The sorrow and sense of betrayal and consternation in the church must have run deep.
It was not until 1714 that the church succeeded in finding a new pastor. John Skepp (d.1721), a member of the Cambridge Congregationalist Church of Joseph Hussey (1659-1726), was called that year to be the pastor.
Now Hussey is often seen as the father of Hyper-Calvinism. In his book God’s Operations of Grace but no Offers of Grace (1707), he asserted that offering Christ indiscriminately to sinners is something that smacks of ‘creature-co-operation and creature-concurrence’ in the work of salvation.
Skepp himself published but one book, and that posthumously. In his Divine Energy: or The Efficacious Operations of the Spirit of God upon the Soul of Man (1722) he appears to have followed Hussey’s approach to evangelism.
It is sometimes argued that Anne Dutton’s exposure to Hyper-Calvinism at a young age shaped her thinking for the rest of her life. If so, it is curious to find her rejoicing in the ministry of preachers like George Whitefield (1714-1770) in later years. If Anne did have Hyper-Calvinist leanings, they were not such as to prevent her from appreciating deeply what God was doing through men like Whitefield.
Skepp was an impressive preacher. The overall trend in the church during his ministry was one of growth. There were 179 members when he came as pastor in 1714. When he died in 1721, church membership had grown to 212. And Anne delighted in his ‘quickness of thought, aptness of expression, suitable affection, and a most agreeable delivery’.
About 1720 Anne’s life underwent a deep trial as her husband of only five or six years died. Returning to her family in Northampton, she was not long single. Her second marriage in the early 1720s was to Benjamin Dutton (1691-1747), a clothier who had studied for vocational ministry in various places, among them Glasgow University.
Ministry took the couple to such towns as Whittlesey and Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, before leading them finally in 1731 to Great Gransden, Huntingdonshire.
Under Dutton’s preaching the church flourished. On any given Sunday the congregation numbered between 250 and 350, of whom roughly 50 were members. This growth led to the building of a new meeting-house, which can still be seen in the village.
Benjamin perished at sea, however, in 1747. He had gone to America to help raise funds to pay off the debt incurred in the building of the meeting-house. The ship on which he was returning foundered not far from the British coast.
Widowed for the second time, Anne was to live another eighteen years. During that time ‘the fame of her primitive piety’ became known in Evangelical circles on both sides of the Atlantic. The words cited are those of Baptist historian Joseph Ivimey (1773-1834) and referred to her New Testament-like spirituality.
She had been writing for a number of years before Benjamin’s demise. After his death a steady stream of tracts and treatises, collections of selected correspondence, and poems poured from her pen.
Among her numerous correspondents were Howel Harris (1714-1773), Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), William Seward (1711-1740), George Whitefield, and Philip Doddridge (1702-1751).
Harris was convinced that the Lord had entrusted her ‘with a Talent of writing for him’. When Seward, an early Methodist preacher who was killed by a mob in Wales, read a letter from her in May 1739, he found it ‘full of such comforts and direct answers to what I had been writing that it filled my eyes with tears of joy’.
And Whitefield, who helped promote and publish Anne’s writings, said after meeting her that ‘her conversation is as weighty as her letters’.
But she wrestled with whether it was biblical for her to be an authoress. In a tract entitled A Letter to Such of the Servants of Christ, who May have any Scruple about the Lawfulness of PRINTING any Thing written by a Woman (1743), she maintained that she wrote not for fame, but for ‘only the glory of God, and the good of souls’.
To those who might accuse her of violating 1 Timothy 2:12, she answered that her books were not intended to be read in a public setting of worship, which the text was designed to address.
Rather, the instruction that her books gave was private, for they were read by believers in ‘their own private houses’. She asked those who opposed women writers to ‘Imagine then…when my books come to your house, that I am come to give you a visit’ and the opportunity to ‘patiently attend’ to her ‘infant lispings’.
What if some other women authors had used the press for ‘trifles’? Well, she answered, ‘Shall none of that sex be suffer’d to appear on Christ’s side, to tell of the wonders of his love, to seek the good of souls, and the advancement of the Redeemer’s interest?’
She was not slow to critique theological positions she felt erroneous. For instance, she was a critic of John Wesley and his brand of Evangelical Arminianism, though her criticism was never abusive. In addition to a number of letters to Wesley, she wrote a booklet entitled Letters to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley against Perfection as Not Attainable in this Life (1743).
The Lord’s Supper
One of her best pieces is a devotional study of the Lord’s Table, Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper, Relating to the Nature, Subjects, and right Partaking of this Solemn Ordinance, which was published anonymously in 1748.
It clearly reveals Calvinistic Baptist piety at its best. ‘Not a dram of new covenant-favour’, she writes, ‘was to flow to the heirs of promise, but thro’ the death of Jesus’. This Christ-centredness and cross-centredness permeates the entire treatise.
To give but one further example: ‘O what a wondrous draught’, she declares near the beginning of the book, ‘what a life-giving draught, in his own most precious blood, doth God our Saviour, the Lord our lover, give to dying sinners, to his beloved ones in this glorious ordinance’.
For Anne and, one suspects, many of her fellow Baptist Dissenters, the Lord’s Supper was a ‘Royal banquet which infinite love hath prepared’. In fact, so high is her view of the Supper that she considers it ‘the nearest approach to his glorious Self, that we can make in an ordinance-way on the earth, on this side [of] the presence of his glory in heaven’.
This language may sound extravagant to some, but it reveals, I believe, something of the spiritual intensity that was available to Dissenting congregations in the mid-eighteenth century.
In fact, one of the few negative effects of the Evangelical Revival may well be the way in which this spirituality was diluted in the rush to make churches primarily centres for evangelism.
A personal word
Though most of Anne’s works survive now in only a few copies, they are well worth the effort of finding and reading. This writer can testify to the rich time he spent one October morning last year on a train trip from Bedford to Gatwick Airport, reading some of Anne’s letters.
I had been given a copy of Anne’s Selections from Letters on Spiritual Subjects (compiled and published in 1884) by Mr Nigel Pibworth of Biggleswade, and despite the press of the commuters that morning, I was gripped by the spirituality of her prose. Hopefully this brief introduction to her life will prompt a renewed appreciation of her legacy and spirituality.
The author would like to thank Mr Pibworth for the gift of a number of other sources that also helped immensely in the writing of this article.