Thursday, December 15, 2011

'O, Mr Carter, what shall I do?' The worthy life of John Carter 1554-1635

After another term in which work made it impossible for me to add to my blog here, I finally return to ‘Early Modern Whale’.

Here’s a work of filial and religious piety to start off again with, THE TOMB-STONE, OR, A broken and imperfect Monument, of that Worthy Man (who was just and perfect in his Generations;) Mr. JOHN CARTER, Pastor first of Bramford, and last of Belsted in SUFFOLK.BY His unworthy Son JOHN CARTER, Preacher of the Gospell, and as yet sojourning in the City of NORWICH.

When I came across this one, I was actually thinking about a post on the centenarian puritan divine Laurence Chaderton (which will follow one day), an associate of Carter. But this memoir by the younger Carter struck me as so unusually intimate, giving us a real sense of what it might have been like to live with one who was genuinely ‘godly’. John Carter senior was a credit to his faith, egalitarian and charitable. His son’s effort to memorialize his father has such sense of godly community that at the end of his account he had this printed: “I leave these ensuing Pages vacant, that so as thou remembrest any of his holy sayings, and doings, not mentioned before, thou mayst write them down, for thine own benefit, and the good of others.” It would be fascinating to come across a copy with reader annotations, like a pious version of the descriptions Sterne invites of the reader’s ideal Widow Wadman.

Carter was born “about the year of our Lord 1554”, near Canterbury (one notices that even his son isn’t sure of the exact date – how often we partly confirm our identities to banks and the like with recital of a date of birth, and how little they cared!). A wealthy citizen funded his education in Cambridge, where he was a member of a very elite seminar (we’d call it): “all that while he continued a gremial in the bosom, and Lap of his Mother the University, he had constant meetings with divers of his famous contemporaries, and that weekly: Doctor Chaderton, Doctor Andrews (afterwards a Prelate) Master Culverwell, Master Knewstubs, &c. and divers others, whom God raised up, and fitted to send forth into his Harvest, to gather his Corn, then ripe for the Sickle, into his Barne. At their meetings they had constant exercises. They prayed together: they bent themselves to the study of the Scriptures: one was for the original Tongues, another’s task was the Grammatical interpretations; another for the Logical Analysis: another for the true sense, and meaning: another to gather Doctrines. Thus led they their several employments”.

A ‘gremial’ is a ‘resident member’. That’s quite clearly a hostile note about Lancelot Andrewes becoming a bishop. Carter’s son, preacher himself, evidently takes some pride that his father “was always a Nonconformist, one of the good old Puritans of England. He never swallowed any of the Praelatical Ceremonies against his Conscience. He was often in trouble by the Bishops; but God ever raised him up friends that brought him off.”

As pastor of Bramford, “Every Lord’s day [Carter] preached twice very powerfully, and catechised the younger sort. He preached a Lecture every Thursday; to which multitudes from Ipswich and other adjacent places did resort.” When obliged to shift parish to Belsted, Carter carried on as though he was still serving the larger parish: “His Church at Belsted stood in a very solitary place: He always kept a Key of it, and would often resort thither all alone. A Gentleman once espying him going to the Church-ward on a private day, hid himself till my Father was past, and in the Church; then he came close up to the Church wall, desirous to peep in at some Window to see what he did, and to listen him, if he said any thing. And the Gentleman told me … that he prayed, then read a Chapter, and after that prayed largely, and very heavenly, as if he had been in his Family, or in the public Congregation.”

It is what the son tells us about his father’s daily life that is more striking. It was of course a very devout household: “his house was a Church. Twice a day he had Scripture read, and after the Psalm or Chapter were ended, he would ask of all his Children and Servants, what they remembered; and whatsoever sentences they rehearsed, he would speak something to them that tended to edification.”

Carter starts his account with a remark that his father’s “lively voice … cannot be recalled”. It was clearly a voice that dominated his upbringing. His father’s private prayers were deliberately loud, pour encourager les autres:

“Besides his Family prayers, and duties, he prayed constantly in his Closet, whensoever he went into his study, and before he came out to Dinner or Supper. He prayed very loud, and mostly very long. For the extension of his voice (I conjecture) he had a double reason; one, that by his earnest speech he might quicken up his own heart and devotion: the other, that he might be a pattern of secret prayer to his Children and Servants.”

John Carter senior gradually comes to life for us as we learn the little things: his clothes he wore, the even tenor of his married life, how he ate:

“For his habit, and my dear Mother’s apparrelling, it was very plain, and homely; of the old fashion, yet very cleanly and decent; insomuch that all that came to the house would say, they had seen Adam and Eve, or some of the old Patriarchs.

“He and my Mother were married together well-nigh sixty years; and I am confident in all that time, there never was a distasteful word between them. And indeed, how could there be? He lived with her as a man of knowledge; he was a wise, faithful, and tender guide; and she was humble and meek, did reverence, and highly esteem him: Every word he spake was an Oracle to her, and her will ever closed with his Judgment.”

“In all his House there was nothing but honest plainness … He never used Plate in his house, but Vessels of Wood, and Earth: Pewter and Brass were the highest Metals for his utensils. All the days of his housekeeping he used constantly at his Table a little wooden Salt, which with age was grown to be of a duskish black, which was much taken notice of by all comers.”

“He never feasted, but always had wholesome, full, and liberal diet in the house. And all fared alike: He, and my Mother, never thought his Children, and Servants, and poor folks, did eat enough.” (Carter adds later that his father in fact fasted regularly, just taking on those days toast and beer ‘to sustain nature.’)

Old Carter treated his servants as friends, and his son almost finds a fault in just how egalitarian his father was: “if he failed in any thing, it was in his carriage to his Servants; for truly he did not carry himself as a Master to Servants, but as a familiar friend to his friends. He would make them to sit down with him, and drink to them at meat … On the Sabbath day he never had any thing roast to Dinner, because he would have none detained at home from the public Ordinances. The Pot was hung on, and a piece of Beef and a Pudding in it; that was their constant Lords-day Dinner for well-nigh sixty years.”

Carter senior was charitable in ways that puritans are sometimes supposed not to be: “He never went to the house of a poor creature, but he left a Purse-Alms, as well as a spiritual Alms of good Heavenly advice, and Prayer.” Nor did he exercise a lordly dominion over the rest of creation: “The righteous man is merciful to his Beast: he was careful even for the brute Creatures, that they should be fed to the full. All his Cattle were like the first Kine that Pharoah saw feeding in the Meadow, they were fat-fleshed, and well-favoured; in so much that I have heard some godly people say merrily, If they would be a Cow, or a Horse, or a Hog, or a Dog, they would choose Mr. Carters house.”

The local people (besides their jocular wishes to be as well-treated as Old Carter’s livestock) knew that their pastor was a life-long specialist on the Book of Revelations (“His pains in the study of the Revelation were indefatigable”, says his son), and, assuming - as 17th century protestants would do - that the book foretold their times, consulted him about what his studies led him to deduce:

“When others came to him, and pressed him with importunity, to tell them his judgement concerning the future state of the Church; saying to him, That he had traveled much in the Revelation, and they were persuaded, God had revealed something more then ordinary to him: What do you think? Shall we have Popery once again, or no? He answered, You shall not need to fear fire and faggot any more, but such dreadful divisions will be amongst Gods people, and professors, as will equalize the greatest persecutions.”

Carter junior gives other examples of the distressed coming to him for advice (“O Mr. Carter! what shall I do?”): it usually came down to him urging them to pray, and of course joining them in prayers.

The habit of prayer became obsessive with the old man. In his last days, as he became mentally confused at last, he would ask his daughter, who was by then his housekeeper, “shall we not go to Prayer? and when she should answer him, you have been at Prayer already, and you are weary; he would answer, I fear we have not done what we should do.” He had invested so much in prayer: there’s a tremor of anxiety there that his account nevertheless needed topping up. Old John Carter died on a Sunday morning, February 22nd, 1635 (new style). He was unable to eat his usual frugal Sunday breakfast, an egg. He had written his sermon for the day, but realized that he could not manage to get to church. His daughter helped him into bed: laid his head down, then lifted one leg in, but discovered when she went to lift up the other leg up and into the bed, that her father had that instant passed away.

His son describes his own experiences after being summoned (it’s a very moving account):

“He had given order before he died, that his body should not be put in the Coffin till his Son John came. God carried me through the journey in hard weather: and through his good providence, I arrived at Belsted early on the Tuesday. And going to the house of mourning, I found the body of my deceased Father still lying upon the Bed. They uncovered his face: Sweetly he lay, and with a smiling countenance, and no difference to the eye between his countenance alive and dead, save only that he was wont to rejoice and bless me at my approach, now he was silent. I fell upon his face, I confess, and kissed him, and lift up my voice and wept, and so took my last leave of him, till we meet in a better World.”

The funeral was an occasion restrained by the dead man’s own scrupulousness: “Old Mr. Samuel Ward, that famous Divine, and the glory of Ipswich, came to the Funeral, brought a mourning Gown with him, and offered very respectively to Preach his funeral Sermon, now that such a Congregation were gathered together, and upon such an occasion. But my Sister and I durst not give way to it: For so our Father had often charged us in his life time, and upon his blessing, that no Sermon should be at his burial. ‘For’, said he, ‘it will give occasion to speak some good of me that I deserve not, and so false things will be uttered in the Pulpit’.

My image is a page from John Carter senior’s Winter-evenings communication with young novices in religion. Or Questions and answers about certaine chiefe grounds of Christian religion wherein every answer, rightly understood, hath the force of an oracle of God (1628). The title one imagines quite typical: when he cannot himself get out to talk to his younger parishioners, they can look at his little book. There's maybe a touch of the old man’s humour too: none of the answers are ‘his’ answers at all, every answer is in fact a bible text. My image is the section he gives to ‘Good Works’: he was clearly quite certain that they had to be performed. And, as we hear, his put his theory (supposedly uncharacteristic of a Puritan) continually into practice.

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