Faith of our Fathers (and mothers) Before 1820

By
Larry Pearce
8/10/01 rev. 5/9/13

To say that our family was or is anymore “religious” than any other in England or America would be, no doubt, misleading, but a quick glance back over the family tree and persons with similar surnames seems to reveal an abundance of Christian values and practices that allow for a general argument that Pearces and Austens and related families were, on the whole, virtuous. We discuss some of the scoundrels in the family, and there were some, in a previous article. This, then, begins a two-part series on the religious practices of the Pearce and Austen families before 1820 in England and after 1820 in America. That is the year in which, according to the Original Family Narrative (OFN), Richard Pearce and his brother-in-law Charles Austen came to the new land to stake their claim and prepare to move their families the following year.

However, at least one statement haunts us from the OFN: “His [Charles Austen’s] ancestors were the Old [Britons] that came to England hundreds of years ago.” We wonder, could they have been Celts or even Druids? Webster’s says that the ancient Celts, which included our Britons, were a people characterized by their language, and included the Gauls from the other side of the Channel where French is now spoken. The term “Druid,” literally “very wise,” simply refers to an elite sub-group of Celts. Gerhard Herm’s map, in The Celts, shows our Britons, who spoke Celtic, driven into Ireland, Wales, highland Scotland and western-most England or Cornwall by the advancing Anglo-Saxons (276). This matches more the origins of the Pearces than the Austens [HOUSE OF NAMES.COM]. Herm has the Jutes spear-heading the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and settling in Kent after the Romans retreated in the 5th century, where the Austens originated, so this doesn’t exactly match the OFN. The Jutes were a tribe from an area in Northern Germany and Denmark known as Jutland. Peter Berresford Ellis, in The Druids, says that while references to the pagan Celts and Druids date back to respectable Greek and Latin writings, today they usually get “bad press.” They are associated with the Welsh, Breton and Cornish “Gorseddau,” or white-robed rituals. If our Pearces originated in Wiltshire, and specifically Aldbourne [see earlier article], then that’s not far from Stonehenge and the summer solstice circle of stones. Ellis believes that the Druids are a “parallel caste to the social group which developed in another Indo-European society – the Brahmins of the Hindi culture. They formed the intellectuals, or learned class, of Hindu society and were deemed the highest caste” (14). While the caste had religious duties, they also comprised philosophers, judges, teachers, historians, poets, musicians, physicians, astronomers, prophets, political advisors, or even chieftains and kings. As Christianity replaced earlier religions in the British Isles, “the Celts poured out a wealth of literature . . . and Irish became Europe’s third written language” (15). [See also Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and for what became of Celts, Jutes, etc. see Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way.] But, before we get back to what we think know about our direct ancestors, let’s look at the origins of the names “Pearce” and “Austen.”

The very names “Pearce” and “Austen” have beginnings that came out of the Christian faith. [See “Upon This Rock: Part I” and the Penhey commentary on the OFN: Part I.] While we don’t know much about the faith(s) of our direct Pearce ancestors until they arrived in America, we do believe that the name Pearce probably originated in France as “Son of Pier (Pierre or Peter)” from the Latin “Petra” or Greek “Petros” for “rock.” Christ asked his disciples:
“Who do they say I am?” Simon (the fisherman) answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah (or John), for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (or Cephas), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (or Hell) will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (The Living Insights Study Bible Matthew 16: 15-19)

The first Pearce was surely a follower of St. Peter and, along with formal vows, took him as his patron saint. We’ll return to the Pearce family in just a minute.

The first Austen was a descendant or follower of St. Augustine, who along with 40 missionaries brought Roman Catholic Christianity to Britain around 597 AD. The name means “majestic” or “to increase.” Bill Bryson reminds us:
Within a year [Augustine] had converted King Ethelbert of Kent at his small provincial capital, Canterbury (which explains why the head of the English church is called the Archbishop of Canterbury, even though he resides in London). With that initial victory, Christianity quickly spread over the island, towing literacy in its wake. In only a little over a hundred years England became a center of culture and learning as great as any in Europe. (50)

Of course, Kent is the very county from which our Austens originated, but we know only a little bit about the three generations before Great-great-great Grandfather and Mother, Ambrose and Susannah [for more on them see “The Ambrose Austen, Sr. Family (1757-1865).” Our cousin Caroline Pinkers believes that Susannah was the product of Nathaniel and Mary Beard of Rottingdean in Sussex, about six miles east of Brighton, and that they were members of some of the first Quaker families on the south coast of England. She does not know the maiden name of Mary, but it may have been Weller. Nathaniel’s parents were Daniel and Susannah Beard. We don’t know who the parents are of this Susannah either, but Daniel was the 15th son of 20 children to Nicholas and Susannah (yes, another) Beard. According to the publication The Sufferings of Friends in Brighthelmston Hove Rottingdean Telscombe from 1657 to 1750, Nicholas was forced to pay tithes to the Church of England even though they did not belong or attend. The ministry could take money, animals, or even produce. Great-great-great-great Grandfather Nicholas spent time in jail for his Quaker beliefs. [Look for a future article on Nicholas.]

Britannica.com lists the official founding of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, as 1652 when Swarthmore Hall, Lancashire, became the headquarters for traveling evangelists who converted thousands. There were smaller gatherings of “friends” before this, often called “Seekers,” who met during the Puritan Revolution against Charles I to simply “wait upon the Lord.” They rejected both the national Anglican Church and the Puritans, which included Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists. The Quakers emphasized a direct relationship with God. Outsiders accused the Quakers of suffering “witchcraft fits,” a reference to the zeal they experienced in this relationship (Pearce 8). With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the passage of the Quaker Act of 1662, Friends were persecuted for not swearing oaths, for not going to Anglican services, and for not paying tithes to the national church. Of the 15,000 who suffered, approximately 500 died in or upon being released from prison. William Penn was issued a charter in 1681 for a “Holy Experiment” in America, a state founded on the Friends’ principles: pacifism and religious tolerance. That commonwealth today is called “Pennsylvania,” meaning Penn’s Woods. We believe that neither the Pearces nor Austens espoused Quakerism in either England or the United States, but we are investigating the Beards of southeastern and east-central Ohio, some of whom may have been Quakers, for a possible connection to our families, but none have been located near the Pine Creek settlement north of Pittsburgh.

The first Austen (a direct relationship hasn’t been discovered) that we know anything about, thanks to Sir Alfred H. Bingley and his editor Brian Austen, is John Austen (d. 1478), known then as Austyn of Toddington (although we have records of Austens owning land under Richard I as early as the 11th century, and we know the names of the three Austen patriarchs preceding John as Edward, Henry, and Stephen – the earliest). John’s son was a priest, which is why we include his line here. He was also named John (d.1542) and was the first Austen to settle in Surrey (adjacent to Kent). Manning and Bray’s History of Surrey says, “John Austyn thrust himself into the living of Chiddingfold.” In 1507 he was installed as Rector there and served for 35 years. As marriage of secular clergy was illegal at the time, it is believed that he was married before taking his vows, and his children were born while he was still a layman. Bingley’s book, The Austens of Shalford and Their Kinsfolk, relates some wonderful tales of Father John taking “tithes in kind” of corn sacks and woolpacks. His son, also John (d. 1571), went on to become a prosperous wool stapler (3). He lived to see the Protestant Reformation, the conversion of his hometown of Guilford to Calvinism, the restoration of Catholicism under Queen Mary, and the subsequent persecution of Protestants. John’s neighbors, Morris and Alice Abbott, were threatened with being burned at the stake for their beliefs. Ironically, their sons George and Robert became the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Salisbury respectively when Elizabeth ascended to the throne and created the Anglican Church. Another brother, Robert, was knighted, elected member of parliament and Lord Mayor of London, and married John Austen’s granddaughter Joan. In 1599 John’s sons, John (d. 1613) and George (d. 1621), purchased the Rectory and Manor of Shalford, which had originally belonged to the Roman Catholic Augustinian Canons Regular but was dissolved and passed to the Queen with the formation of the State Church. [Note the irony in light of the origins of the Austen name.] The estate remained in the family through the death of Robert, the last Austen in the bloodline in 1759. His widow’s nephews, Henry (1735-86) and Robert (1739-97) Stoffold, assumed the Austen name, in accordance with the wishes of the older Robert, and rights to the estate. According to Bingley, the second Robert, “though a good churchman, or perhaps because of his strict orthodoxy, was intolerant and viewed any form of dissent with abhorrence” (31). His wife had “fallen under the spell of John Wesley’s preaching and became one of his devoted admirers.” He, then, consulted a lawyer as to whether this was grounds for divorce. His early death put an end to this idea. The younger Robert’s son Sir Henry Edmund Austen (1785-1871) eventually ran the estate at Shalford. Known for his generosity while living, his reputation continued after his death: “In accordance with Sir Henry’s will, L10 (pounds) worth of bread was given to the poor of the parish on the first Sunday after his funeral . . . 320 quartern loaves were distributed after Morning Service. The newspaper adds ‘we have not seen so many of the working classes at Church for many years’” (Bingley 47). We don’t know the status of the estate today.

Ambrose Austen, Sr., our patriarch, was born the same year as London poet, engraver, and Christian mystic William Blake (1757), and much research has been done on the later as to his religious beliefs. In a paper I wrote for a recent graduate degree I theorized that a study of Blake provides a representative look at both the religious and political climate in England and the United States between the Great English Civil War (1642-46) and the American Civil War (1860-65). Therefore, I also believe, that by investigating Blake, we can understand more about our Great-great-great Grandfather Ambrose. At some point (1800-1803) Blake and his wife moved from London to the southern coast to work under the patronage of poet William Hayley. He may have passed through the very villages where our Austens lived. Blake had a temper, and when he evicted a British sailor for apparently urinating in his garden, the man accused him of “damning the king” and saying that “he hoped Napolean would win the war.” This accusation was enough to put Blake on trial for sedition, and although the jury acquitted him, the political context that allowed such an episode haunted him and later resurfaced in works such as Jerusalem (1804). By the time Blake returned to London, the city had so many churches that it has been impossible for researchers of Blake to determine what his persuasion was. Thompson, in Witness Against the Beast, points to three to four main influences:
Antinomians, Calvinist fundamentalists who believe in “justification by faith’ (other similar sects included the “Levellers,” who would “put down the mighty and exalt the lowly,” and the “Ranters,” who believed that they were elected by God to challenge the State Church);
Swendenborgs, founders of the New Jerusalem Church;
Deists, religion by human reason, which along with faith was also a gift from God; and Jacobinicals, named after a Bohemian mystic who believed in “theosophy,” religious discovery through discussion and recording truth through printed tracts.

In addition, late 18th century London had the Diggers, the Hermeticists, the Heresiarchs, the Family of Love, the Philadelphians, the Fifth Monarchy, and the Muggletonians, to name a few. The 1651 law that forbade such practices, the Blasphemy Act, had long since been ignored. Some of the more mainline churches from then are still with us today: Universalists, Moravians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Several secret parachurch groups are still with us today as well: the Masons and the Rosicrucians. So, by reading the critics of Blake we have a better understanding of our own ancestors and the religious and political turmoil that was present then.

Ambrose and family were non-conformists and official members of the Headcorn Baptist Church near Marden in Kent County. In the early 16th century Henry VIII, in order to remarry, broke from the Roman Catholic Church and formed his own Anglican Church, known in America as Episcopal, or relating to the governing authority of “bishops.” Anyone not belonging to or supporting the State Church was called “non-conformist.” Three origins of the Baptist denomination exist (also referred to as “Protestant” after the German Martin Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church): First, some believe that there is an uninterrupted succession of believers from John the Baptist and the Apostles of Christ. This is almost impossible to prove. Second, some believe that the churches sprang from the “Anabaptist” or the necessity to be “re-baptized” movement on the European continent in the 16th century. This collection of the faithful includes the Mennonite and Amish who struggled against Catholics and Lutherans who baptize infants. Third, most scholars believe that the English Baptist movement is an off-shoot of 17th century Puritanism, specifically Congregationalism. If you want to go deeper, a further sub-division includes Particular Baptists, who like John Calvin, believe that only “the elect of God” can be saved, and General Baptists, who believe that Christ died for all. If that isn’t enough to remember, English Baptist could be either Separatists or non-Separatists, the first believing that the Church of England was a false church and should be ignored, and the second believing that all Christians should seek unity among their churches (WWW.BRITANNICA.COM). The movement culminated in America when Rhode Island was formed as a Baptist state. Rhode Islanders held to their convictions, remembering the persecution under the British monarchy, and refused to ratify the constitution until a Bill of Rights was added. They were the last state to join the Union.

The theology of Ambrose Austen’s Headcorn Baptist Church is not known nor if he found an affiliation in Ohio. We’ll discuss his new world activities in the next article, but recently an M.J. Copus of Great Britain, at the urging of Austen cousin Caroline Pinkers, uncovered the abstract of a will in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Kent, written January 7, 1808 and proved at London August 7, 1810. The deceased, John Iggelsden of Headcorn, Kent, died May 19, 1810, and addressed it:
To the Ministers, Mr. Ambrs. Austen & Mr. Saml. Love, & all them that are in trust of the General Baptist Society or Church meeting for the performing Divine Worship at Bessells Green in the parish of Chevening, Kent, & of which Mr. Edward Merral was the late Elder…This standard will orders that he be “decently buried” and gives money to his daughter, other relatives, and the church.

But, how are we to interprete the greeting? Is “Ambrs.” Ambrose, and is it OUR Ambrose? Was he a minister, or does the comma afterward signify “To the Ministers AND Ambrs.?” Maybe he was an Elder, but what does it mean when it says, “for the performing Divine Worship?” Was our Great-great-great Grandfather Ambrose Austen an ordained Baptist minister? Several people are researching this, but we may never know. In an earlier article we suggested that Ambrose was a hops grower. Our 21st century notion of hops being associated with alcoholic beverages and the prohibition of those, especially in the Baptist Church, may surprise us. But, perhaps such a combination was not only possible 200 years ago, but permissible. I’m reminded of the modern Amish of Pennsylvania who grow tobacco and the early American Mennonites who practiced the art of distilling whiskey. Still, if you’ll excuse my pun, there are questions remaining that may never be answered.

I hope to do a list of famous Austen/Austins in the future as I have done for famous Pearces earlier. In a preliminary study, I was intrigued to learn that the father of probably the most famous Austen of all, Jane (1775-1817) the writer, was a minister. George Austen (1731-1805) was rector of the Steventon Parish, Bath, in Hampshire. That only seems fitting for our story today, and incidentally, our Austen family researchers are eagerly attempting to find a connection to Jane Austen’s family. There has been much confusion over the similarity of names of our Great-great Uncle Charles Austen (1785-1856) and Jane’s brother Charles (1779-?). They were apparently both officers in His Majesty’s Royal Navy.
The Pearce name has been associated with many notable religious positions and publications in England [see “Upon This Rock: Part III – Some of the Most Famous Pearces“]. As with some of the Austens mentioned above, we can’t identify any of these with our immediate family:
EDWARD PEARCE (1560-1613), singer and composer at Canterbury and Master of Children at St. Paul’s in London.
WILLIAM PEARCE (1580-1670), Bishop of Peterborough, Bath, and Wells. As Vice-Chancellor at Christ Church, Oxford, he used his authority to crush the Calvinist Party.
JOHN PIERCE (?), creator and lobbyist for the “Pierce Patent” (1621), the document that gave government approval for the Pilgrims to remain in America.
SIR EDWARD LOVET PEARCE (d. 1733), architect of the Papal House in Ireland. His brother Lt. Gen. Thomas Pearce was Governor of Limerick.
ZACHARY PEARCE (1690-1774), Bishop of Rochester who had many books published and has his bust at Westminster.
SAMUEL PEARCE (1766-1799), famous hymn writer, Baptist minister, and one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society.
CHARLES WILLIAM PEARCE (1856-1928), organist, writer, and music theorist at Trinity College, Cambridge.
REV. E.H. PEARCE (?), British writer and minister.
WILLIAM PEARCE (1862-?), Methodist minister.
ERNEST HAROLD PEARCE (1865-1930), Bishop of Worchester.

We really don’t know anything about our early Pearce’s church affiliations. But, following a lead from the Original Family Narrative, we explored the Bourne, north of London in Lincolnshire, in an earlier article, but we’re not sure that that’s where they came from [see “A Visit to Bourne”]. That town had only the official church and a Baptist church in the early 19th century. But, Caroline Pinkers believes that the Pearce twins, Richard and Sarah were christened the same day in Broomham, Wiltshire, west of London, which suggests an affiliation with the Church of England. We do know that Great-great Grandmother Susan Austen Pearce’s (1794-1865) parish for the sake of her wedding is listed as Enfield, according to genealogist Brian Austen [see the earlier Ambrose Austen, Sr. story]. This is in the northern part of modern day London. Meanwhile her brother Charles, who married Sarah Pearce, Richard’s twin sister, on the same day in 1813 in the same “Queen’s Church” ceremony listed his affiliation as “of this parish,” or St. Marylebone. Sounds like they too, by this time at least, had left the Baptist church for the sake of conformity. Ironically, the Marylebone church in London was John Wesley’s home church. He became the founder of Methodism, the adopted faith of the Pearces of Pine Creek in the new land. My grandfather was named for him.

John Wesley (1703-91), the son of an Anglican rector, was a Fellow at Oxford and leader of a group of students who wished to reform the national church from the inside. They attended church and communion regularly, studied the Bible, and visited the area jails and prisons ministering to the inmates. For this, their fellow students and the faculty derided them as “methodists,” that is, ones who think they can get into heaven through methodical means and social activism. In their early 30s, John and his hymn-writer brother Charles volunteered for mission work in the American South, Georgia. They soon returned home discouraged attributing this to their genuine lack of faith. Unwilling to give up and remaining faithful to the Church, about three years later, they each had experiences that we would call “receiving the Holy Spirit.” After this they became instrumental in Christian revival throughout the British Isles, but their followers officially broke with the Church of England four years after John Wesley’s death. The tenants of the new church included a reinstatement of biblical doctrines that a man may be assured of his salvation (Justification) and through the Holy Spirit attain perfect love for God and his fellows in this life (Sanctification)[WWW.BRITANNICA.COM].

Our discussion stops here as we journey with the Pearces and Austens to the new land. Their religious heritage is thousands of years old, and there are many unanswered questions. Unfortunately, we can’t answer them all in the next article, but we hope you’ll find the reading interesting.

Some Works Cited

Bingley, Alfred H. The Austens of Shalford and Their Kinsfolk. Brian Austen, ed. Hobart, Tasmania, Australia: Snap Printers, 2000.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way. New York: Avon Books, 1990.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Herm, Gerhard. The Celts: The People Who Came Out of Darkness. New York: St. Martin’s, 1976.

Pearce, Larry. “Justified by Faith: A New Historical Look at William Blake.” An unpublished paper for Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2000.

Swindoll, Charles R. ed. The Living Insights Study Bible (NIV). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Go to “Faith of our Fathers After 1820”

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