A Letter From England Re: Austens

14 August, 2004

Dear Mr. Pearce
I am presently researching and gathering information about The
Unitarian General Baptists for a book I shall write when I retire in
two and half years time. Serendipity brought me to your website.
The extended Austen family were much involved in General Baptist
church life in Kent and Sussex during the 17th and 18th centuries;
and since GBs in Kent and Sussex traditionally practised endogamy the chances of many of them being related in some way or other are high.

John Austen of Smarden and Headcorn [they were branches of the same church] was Elder there from 1732. His appearances at the General Baptist Assembly in London are recorded as follows:
GBA 1736
“Agreed that Bro. Mercer and Drinkwater do write a Letter to the
church at Smarden in Kent to invite that church to joyn with this
Assembly next year”
1741 Smarden John Austen Elder
1746 Smarden John Austen Elder
1754 Smarden Jno. Austen Elder
1758 Smarden John Austin Elder
[see W. T. Whitley ‘Minutes of the General Bapist Assembly’ (London, 1911)]

There are also references to Austens at Ditchling and Chichester GB churches in Sussex. Daniel Austen was a GB Messenger [sort of
overseer] for a while.

At Bessell’s Green (nr. Sevenoaks in Kent) John Austen (from Headcorn – must be a later John Austen than the one above – ? a son)  was Elder from 1786 to 1795; and this is the interesting bit. In 1795 along with Robert Colgate, another member of the Bessell’s Green GB church [Colgate toothpaste! Colgate Rochester University] were part of the 1794/95 exodous of political and religious radicals fearful lest the Pitt government gaoled them for sedition as known supporters of the American and French revolutions. By this stage the French Revolution had turned violent. The most famous of these exiles to the US was Joseph Priestley.

A few years later (1803) Ambrose Austen became Elder at Bessell’s
Green, apparently taking over a family farm (Panshurst Farm), but he vanishes from the scene about 1813 and is recorded as having gone to the US – Your artilces indicate that he first moved to a different farm in Middlesex.

Other GB Austens were the Chichester GB Elders James Austen 1701-1713 and Matthew Austen 1744-1756 and Daniel Austen c. 1750 at Ditchling who was also a GB Messenger (sort of overseer) General Baptists. There were 2 types of Baptists – Particular (God saves only particular individuals) and General (God saves all generally). The GBs – mostly in the midlands and south east of England were more connexional than the Particulars and held General Assemblies from 1654. But there was a significant difference between the GBs north and south of the River Thames. Those north of the Thames were more strictly orthodox, while those to the  south verged towards a more heterodox Christology often referred to as Caffynite from its chief 17th century exponent Matthew Caffyn of Horsham. Despite pressure from those north of the Thames, south of the river GBs were reluctant to censure the Caffynites and eventually a majority of Kent and Sussex GB churches travelled in a Unitarian direction – both Headcorn (now actually PB but that is a different story) and Bessell’s Green were both firmly in the Unitarian camp. So were Ditchling and Chichester.

Economically GBs were rural and small town, not urban and mercantile. Many of them suffered greatly from the economic affects of the various wars and a great many GBs from Kent and Sussex migrated to North America but there is little evidence of them re-organising their GB communities in the US. Most US General Baptists stem from earlier migrations – Roger Williams and Rhode Island for example.But John Austen was a political and not an economic one. He and Ambrose were surely related.

I trust that this information is of some interest to you. It comes
from a host of different sources which are unlikely to be available
in the US apart from the one which I have mentioned but the Robert Colgate (it was his son, I think, who founded the soap firm. He became a more orthodox Baptist than his father could have been). This connection must be researchable on your side of the pond. With all good wishes

Andrew M. Hill
Unitarians in Edinburgh
St. Mark’s Unitarian Church
Castle Terrace, Edinburgh EH1 2DP

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