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Puritans at the Font

J. Leslie Nightingale describes how, during the 17th century, Puritanism spread into English villages, with the twelve sons of Jacob and all the major and minor prophets to be found on the village greens. Names after the Christian graces and virtues—Patience, Honour, Faith, Hope, Charity—were also widely bestowed at Puritan baptisms.

Everyone has heard of the Barebones Parliament, and Macaulay’s schoolboy, at any rate, would know that it owed its name to Praise-God Barbon the leather-seller. An examination of the list of members of that Parliament, however, reveals that only Barbon had such a scriptural Christian name. Sir Walter Scott’s Nehemiah Holdenough and Ben Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy and Tribulation-Wholesome are alike fiction.

For many years it has been accepted that the number of scriptural names bestowed at the font in the period of Puritan dominance has been exaggerated. In 1880 the Rev. C. W. Bardsley wrote an account of his researches in parish registers and, as the 1897 edition has long been out of print, it may be of interest to record some of his findings.

Historians seeking scriptural names, perhaps misled by Scott and also Macaulay, looked chiefly at the Commonwealth period when the practice was in decline. The registers of 1580-1640 are much more rewarding in this respect than those that follow. The Protestant Reformation, and especially the publication of the Genevan Bible in 1560, had many powerful effects. This quarto-size Bible, written in the vulgar tongue, became the household Bible of the nation.

During the period 1560-70, it is not surprising to find a positive rage for Hebrew names for infants as the rising Puritan tide affected men’s thinking. Saints’ names, so popular in centuries past, generally disappeared. Well-tried English names, like Geoffrey, Richard, Robert and William, remained popular, but registers kept between 1564 and 1600 include such names as Barnabas, Philemon, Repentance, Sarah and Rebecca. Jael appears in a register of 1613.

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