‘I AM RECKON’D A SCHISMATICK’ - Spiritual Diary, Poems and Letters of a Dissenting Cornishman
Folio (37x23cm) recently rebound in period-style half calf over marbled boards with morocco spine label. New acid-free endpapers. Manuscript paginated from page 5-312 where it breaks off. A mixture of old pasted paper repairs to page edges, mostly foreedges, and more recent grafted paper repairs, concentrating on the first few leaves which have seen most wear. Paper bears a fleur de lys watermark with the initials ‘VI’; the paper stock is browned and soft throughout with traces of old staining and the remnants of wear to the foreedge, especially in the early section of the manuscript.
Thanks to recent conservation the manuscript is now robust and stable. Rowse writes in an easily legible cursive hand. This is a fair copy and though arranged chronologically some items have been copied out of sequence. Prose is generally laid out across the page; poetry in two columns, many items signed with Rowse’s initials. The earliest dated item in the MS is from 28th December 1687, ‘A Treatise on Eternity’; the last dated to 1717.
This is a manuscript whose significance only slowly dawned on its author as his writerly ambitions grew. Following on from his poetic ‘Treatise on Eternity’ (p6) and two sets of Sermon notes taken in person in London in May 1688, Rowse suddenly makes his intentions clear by inserting a list of Contents and a self-conscious Preface to the Reader. Here he acknowledges that his writing ’grew under my hand much beyond my intention, until at last it came to this Pitch and Degree’ but insists that what he offers is very much his own and derived from ‘Inward principles not foraign Acquirements… I don’t speak this way by way of boast, as if the Spiders Webb were the more valuable because it Spun out of its own Bowels, Or the honey combe the more contemptible because it was gathered from many Flowers.’ Rowse signs his preface ‘Who is thine in all Faithfulness & Truth Bernard Rowse.’
For all his sincerity, and in spite of the Toleration Act that followed the Glorious Revolution in 1690, Rowse’s attendance at dissenting assemblies had put him in conflict with Philip Collier the newly arrived vicar of his west Cornwall village, Columb Major. In his 1705 letter to Collier he wants ‘to give the Reasons of my practice with respect unto Religion, and the manner of my publick Worshiping of God’. Rowse acknowledged that ‘Sometimes I go to a Dissenting Assembly’ where it is possible to hear those ‘who either through Age or other Impediment or hindrance were prevented from attending on the Publick Worship of God… Now Sir, Out of this Practice it seems ariseth my Crime, Alas! For it. This is called Fanatick Meeting, Conventeling Preaching. I am reckon’d a Schismatick, a Shark for a Sermon, an abominable Deluder and Deceiver…’ (p.162) Rowse makes his plea for toleration in order to maintain communion with ‘Episcopal and Presbiterial’, citing as his model ‘some of the most eminent Bishops in the Church of England for Learning & Piety… Davenant, Hall, Usher, Reynolds…’ For Rowse his latitudinarian moderation means ‘the Exercise of Christian Charity & Forebearance of one another in things not essential to our old Religion, and is opposed to an intemperate zeal and Bigotry which sacrifices the great things of Religion, Love, Righteousness…’ Rowse states that ‘sometimes I go to church where (I take it) I have been, and still am, with the rest of my Neighbours in FULL though not constant Communion. When I am there it is not my design & business to pick Quarrels with the prayers of the Church, but to say my Amen….’ (p162) Rowse ends by denying a series of specific accusation against him including stealing sermons - that ‘I never writt out a Sermon preach’d in St Collomb, and either read or caus’d the same to be read in any Dissenting Meeting in my Life (p.167)
At the outset the manuscript finds Rowse in the capital where he records in detail the (unpublished) sermon ‘preached by Mr Haskard Dean of Windsor, 20th May 1688. London’ and three days later another by Daniel Burgess, an English Presbyterian then preaching at a meeting house Russell Court, Drury Lane, who took as his text ‘Other Foundation can no Man lay than is laid, which is Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinth III. VII).
Rowse makes creative use verse to explore his spiritual dilemmas, in ‘A Poem Occasioned by an Evening Walk’ (p.173) and a ten page long ‘poem Being an Enquiry after Contentment.. finished the 29th of May 1710. And afterwards Revised and Enlarged…’ Rowse considers the spiritual implications of a man’s choice of profession - ‘Good learning calls for Study very long/ Endless disputes come with it in a throng/ Some knots it makes, and some are by’t undone’ whereas ‘To be a Souldier is with Death to fight/ The greatest Dangers to contemn and slight,/ Whilst Wounds and Blood and Terrours are in Sight.’ (p.180). Particularly effective are the lines contained in ‘Some Thoughts after Returne from Church on a Lords Day Evening 1717’ - ‘What just now from the Sanctuary come?/ And wilt thou drink those puddle Streams so soon?/ Did not the Fountaine freely to thee flow,/ And wilt though Oh! My soul to Cisterns go./ Broken and Empty, poor and mean and dry…’ (p265). One of Rowse’s longest poems is on the manner of receiving communion or ‘Angels food’, entitled ‘The Holy Table in its Aray, Address and Attendance…’
In prose Rowse debates the ‘Reasons for the Use of the Lords Prayer, occasion’d by some Persons at the Monday Nights Conference who objected thereto. 1718.’; he copies his letter to Thomas Kella (1701) which describes their ‘first acquaintance at Padstow, [where] I offer’d you a real Invitation to my poor Country Dwelling, in order to further our Christian Society, and my growth in Religion…’, and records the loan of precious books (‘Historys of the 4 last Reignes, the Life of Cromwell, and Mr G Withers Feild Musings’. The tone of the manuscript is perhaps best summed up by ‘A Poem - Set your Affections on things above’ (p.254)