Spiritual Practices of the Puritans
The Importance of Diary-Keeping
Latimer Trust, 2022 (ISBN: 9781906327750, 29pp, £3.50)
The volume presents the edited text of a lecture first given via Facebook Live, being 2021’s St Antholin’s Lecture. This lecture series, in its modern format, is over thirty years old and has dealt with many intriguing aspects of Puritan history. The material in 2021 drew on the author’s wider work towards her recent publication Imperfect Reflections: The Craft of Christian Journaling.
The subtitle of this booklet is more indicative of the content than the main title, being an exploration in Puritan diary-keeping. Birkett draws on the writings of two seventeenth century Essex Puritans, Richard Rogers, Vicar of Weathersfield (1577-1618) and John Beadle, Rector of Barnston (1632-1667). Ensconced in their early modern rural livings, these two clerical gentlemen took it upon themselves to record many details of their lives and the world around them. Rogers was the pioneer in this department, setting the example of diary-keeping upon which others such as Beadle later reflected.
Birkett is conscious of the trope of morbid Puritan introspection and argues persuasively that keeping a journal was not a recipe for such an abyss, but rather provided spiritual nourishment by engraining practices such as thankfulness and mindfulness of God’s blessings. The author reflects that in a lifetime of church attendance she has not once heard preachers laud diary-keeping in such terms. More than this, your reviewer has only ever heard the practice positively denigrated from the pulpit as a time-wasting triviality. To the extent that there are spiritual benefits to self-recording, it would be interesting to consider other expressions of such reflection, such as ember or annual letters, scrapbooks, and even financial or photographic records. All these may be useful toward personal reflection and biographisation. On this latter application, the author bemoans the lack of new ‘edifying biographies of faithful Christians’, though such works are occasionally produced.
Despite laying the foundations for a modern theology of journaling, Birkett’s conclusion seems to veer a little off course, with a pastoral reflection on hardship, which, though useful, is a surprising end to the work. For her substantive case for diaries, we may need to turn to Imperfect Reflections.
Edward Keene, Little Shelford