previous chapter
The Spirit World
next section

Anglican Royalists such as Sir John Knight saw religious uniformity as the only sound basis for a civilized society. So long as men and women remained united in their deepest convictions and devoted to a common heritage of worship, harmonious social relations and an orderly and productive economy were assured. In the face of dissent, only political and social upheaval and economic chaos could be expected. The dissenters, however, viewed the enforcement of an outward uniformity as no more than tyranny, out of which no public good could come. It not only destroyed the fabric of community but made the free course of economic exchange all but impossible.[92] When the dissenters put forth the idea of a free market, therefore, it was a counterattack to their Anglican Royalist opponents. But it also provided a mechanism for settlement with those Bristol common councillors who sought to use the constraints of competition to control the sectarian colonial traders. On the whole, the great servant traders among the sectaries—such men as Speed, Bullock, and even the irrepressible Christopher Birkhead—accepted the use of the indenture for servants bound for the plantations as right and proper and in their interest, and they continued to register servants most of the time throughout the Restoration.[93] Both parties seemed willing to let a man’s ability to compete determine whether he would remain a colonial merchant. Possession of the necessary investment capital, rather than training in the merchant’s craft or membership in the Merchant Venturers, became the primary determinant of one’s ability to engage in the traffic.

Nevertheless, it was not mere accommodation that the dissenters sought in accepting the challenges of the free market. It was spiritual victory, which would come in the form of converts to their religious way. But even if they could not draw large numbers by their personal example, they expected that their commercial successes would bring customers to them and thereby produce a harmonizing of interests and meeting of minds even with opponents. As Charles Marshall put it,

[W]hen the People of the World come to your Houses, to have Converse and Commerce with you, all being in Dread, Fear and Awe of the Lord God, in the Sweet, Savoury Chaste Life, the Witness of God will arise, and make them acknowledge, You are the People of the Lord, and that he is with you.[94]

The result would be a unified city. In the words of George Bishop, men could “begin to forget the old Engagements wherein they had been mutually exercised to the detriment of each other, and…apply themselves to things that concerned their Own, and the good of each other.”[95] Political moderation would guarantee this social harmony. So long as each man could pursue the dictates of his conscience and tend to the prospering of his estate, free from the meddlesome interference of the authorities, the city would be “at peace and unity within its self; men of all perswasions, as to Religion, well perswaded amongst themselves, and as to the Civil peace united in the hearts, and love of each man to another, and the public benefit.” With this guarantee of a unified social order, “every individual might rest assured of the peace and safety of his estate and Person, in the persuance of the publick.”[96]

By removing themselves from politics, the realm of the passions, to economics, the realm of the interests, the dissenters had come a long way toward intellectual agreement with their enemies. What remained was for those in authority to move toward them. We have already seen that the social history of dissent had laid the groundwork for this modus vivendi. The dissenters in Bristol were no newcomers lacking roots in the city. They had kinship and business ties with a wide variety of their fellow Bristolians and could neither be confined to a sectarian ghetto nor be driven from the town into exile. These conditions were only reinforced by economic developments in the second half of the seventeenth century. As the dissenters became established in their chosen trades, some, like Thomas Ellis among the Baptists and Thomas Gouldney among the Quakers, grew wealthy and could not be ignored. This was due to their importance in the colonial trades, whose role in Bristol’s economy grew at an extraordinary pace from 1660 to 1700. So long as the Quakers and Baptists owned ships and sugar refineries, they would have support from at least some Anglican traders and shopkeepers.

As we know, even in the 1660s these facts had helped promote a policy of religious toleration among some of the leaders of Anglican Bristol. By the end of the century, this view had won the support of statute and had become very widespread among Bristol’s elite. In 1695, John Cary, merchant of Bristol and member of Parliament for the city, himself the son of an Anglican minister, argued for “liberty of conscience” as one of the essentials necessary for the improvement of England’s trade. Although he believed that the Toleration Act had already helped to remedy the breach in the body politic, he still thought “it were to be wisht some way be found to make Methods of Trade more easie to the Quakers than now they are. I am apt to think,” he said, “that he who appears in the Face of a Court to give Evidence on his word, if he be a Man of Conscience looks on himself equally obliged to speak the Truth as if he is sworn, and nothing will deter a dishonest Man like the fear of punishment.”[97] In Bristol and many other places, the sectaries had become sufficiently important to the economy to make it necessary for their neighbors to accept them in peace and work with them in trust and harmony. In these respects Cary had accepted in principle the dissenters’ most profound teachings on the ethics of work and of charity.[98]


previous chapter
The Spirit World
next section