Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Neglected Theologians #4 Anne Dutton

This is the first posting in this series by me (instead of a guest blogger) and the first that is new instead of reprinted from my old blog, Levellers.  I hope readers find it worth it.

Recovering the Legacy of Anne Dutton (1692-1765): Forgotten Female Baptist Theologian of the 18th Century.  M. L. Westmoreland-White

The contributions of women to all fields of endeavor are often overlooked because of historic patriarchal assumptions which claim that “public man” makes history while “private woman” keeps to hearth and home and any influence she may have is indirect, private, and through the work of husbands or fathers or sons or other significant male.  In no field have these assumptions done more to render women and their contributions invisible than in religion, very much including the articulation of Christian theology.  Even today in many denominations (including my own, the Baptists), it is assumed that the pastor of a church will be male. (You should see the looks I get when I tell people that I am married to a Baptist minister and that the pastor of my church, who is not my wife, is also female! In fact, over half the deacon body is female and we have to let middle-aged white men preach from time-to-time just so the children of our congregation don’t grow up thinking that “boys aren’t allowed to be preachers!” ) The work of women theologians is assumed to be a recent thing, and women’s contributions to theology are omitted from most church history textbooks.   Even women whose influence is large and widely known can slip quickly into obscurity because of the sexist assumptions about just who “does” theology.

This is what happened to Anne Dutton (1692-1765), a British Baptist woman who was widely influential in 18th C. evangelical life.  Just how thoroughly patriarchal forces managed to silence Dutton’s voice can be seen by noticing that she not only fails to appear in the standard accounts, but is even missing from works which specifically aimed at recovering the legacies of women in Baptist life and thought!  Thus, Dutton is completely absent from H. Leon McBeth’s Women in Baptist Life(Broadman, 1979); from his A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Broadman & Holman, 1990); from Bill J. Leonard’s Baptist Ways: A History (Judson Press, 2003); from Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People, ed. Curtis W. Freeman, James Wm. McClendon, Jr, and C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva (Judson Press, 1999)–a sourcebook which does better than most at including women’s voices.  William H. Brackney’s A Genetic History of Baptist Thought (Mercer University Press, 2004), which is notable in giving more attention to African-American Baptists than do most white historians, simply bemoans the lack of significant women theologians in Baptist life before the late 20th C.!  Those who know better than that last remark, who would be quick to sing the praises of such pioneer female Baptist thinkers as Martha Stearns Marshall (18th C. Separate Baptist evangelist), Hannah Lee Corbin (1728-1783), Ann Hasseltine Judson (1789-1826),  Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934), and others would still be hard pressed to recognize Dutton’s name.

Thankfully, this may be about to change thanks to the work of Dr. Joann Ford Watson. Watson, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology at Ashland Theological Seminary (Ashland,OH), a seminary related to the Brethren Church, has just finished editing 6 volumes of Dutton’s work. See Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton: Eighteenth-Century, British Baptist, Woman Theologian.  Vol. 1 : Letters (Mercer University Press, 2003); Vol. 2: Discourses, Poetry, and Hymns (Mercer University Press, 2004); Vol. 3: Autobiography (Mercer University Press, 2006); Vol. 4: Theological Works (Mercer University Press, 2007); Vol. 5: Miscellaneous Correspondence (Mercer University Press, 2008); vol. 6: Various Works (Mercer University Press, 2009). (The MUP link to all the Dutton volumes is here.)

Anne Dutton neé Williams, was born in Northampton, England to devout Congregationalist parents of the upper middle class. In her late teens she began to attend a Calvinistic Baptist congregation that was “open membership” in perspective.  Deeply moved by the doctrinal preacher of pastor John Moore (d. 1726), Anne was baptised as a believer.  Although she wrestled with whether or not it was “biblically permitted” for her to become “an authoress” of spiritual writings, she eventually decided that since her advice was private, “read by people in their own homes,” she was not taking on any improper role(!) In truth, Dutton’s Sunday School lessons were attended even by visiting preachers.  She wrote numerous poems and hymns that were greatly influential in 18th C. English evangelical life.  She corresponded with the likes of George Whitefield and John Wesley. 

Dutton was early on exposed to the extreme Calvinism that came to be known as “hyper-Calvinism,” a movement that took the doctrines of divine sovereignty and election (including double predestination–election of some to salvation and others to damnation) to the conclusion that it was wrong to preach salvation to the unconverted!  However, Dutton’s own views were more in line with the “evangelical Calvinism” of George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the trans-atlantic Great Awakening.  She contended with John Wesley against his evangelical Arminianism (belief in free will) and against his view that a moral “perfection in love” was possible in this life, but she admired the “practical holiness” and organization of the Wesleyan movement.

She wrote letters of advice of a sort that would today make her “spiritual director” by correspondence, helping people to guard their thoughts from sin and to enlarge their capacities for love and good works.  Her hymns and poems are full of more doctrinal substance than many contemporary ones–glorifying God’s sovereignty, describing the depths of human sin, the greatness and goodness of grace, the atonement, the nearness of God in prayer.  Since far more people sing hymns than ever read a work of “systematic theology,” it could be argued that as a hymnwriter, Anne Dutton was one of the most influential theologians ever in Baptist life!

Her letters on spiritual subjects show a narrative conception of the spiritual life as a journey.  It is a familiar theme from Hebrews, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,  and from John Bunyan, among others.  Dutton narrates her story through that of Israel, from captivity to exodus, to exile, and return.  She sees this spiritual pilgrimage as heading toward joy–but not without entering the severity of troubles in this world–yet with Divine companionship.

How to evaluate Dutton as a theologian is not an easy question.  She had no formal higher education, but neither did most of the male Baptist ministers of her day–since “Dissenters and Nonconformists” (i.e., anyone not a member of the Church of England) were still barred from the great universities.  (Even had the colleges at Oxford or Cambridge been open to Baptists, they would still have been closed to women.) So, she was self-taught, but widely read.  Her works show a wide knowledge of Scripture in English, a small aquaintance with Luther’s writings and a larger one with Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and several Puritan writers.  She was abreast of most of the theological controversies of her day–arguing against the growing Unitarian movement, against universal salvation, and the growing tendency of skepticism in light of the advances of science. 

I am an Arminian Baptist and Dutton was a Calvinistic one.  I find universal salvation attractive, although I have enough doubts that I have never completely adopted it–yet I don’t find it to be the horror that orthodox 18th C. Calvinists like Dutton did.  So why do I think she ought to be recovered from neglect?  Because the type of Calvinism Dutton represents is the warm Calvinism that will later lead Andrew Fuller and William Carey to begin the modern missions movement.  It is George Whitefield’s generous orthodoxy that could disagree with Wesley and yet still expect him to be among the redeemed. (When asked by a fellow Calvinist whether he, Whitefield, expected to “see Mr. Wesley in the heavenley realms,” Whitefield replied, “Certainly not! He will be far too close to the Throne!”)

Further, Dutton’s works on what we would call “spiritual formation,” while having time bound notes that sound “quaint” in our ears, show a seriousness about personal spiritual devotion that needs to be reclaimed for our era.  Nor is it over-sentimental or completely inward-looking.  It issues forth in “practical holiness,” including social action. 

Finally, I think Dutton needs to be recovered even where we cannot follow her thought, today.  Here is a strong Calvinistic thinker from a time when it was assumed that godly women kept silent. (Even Sarah Pierpoint Edwards, vivacious wife to Jonathan, only wrote her spiritual autobiography at his urging and it was “Mr. Edwards” who published it, not her.) Her’s is a strong female voice from a pre-feminist era.  This Baptist foremother needs recovering–and I am one Baptist who is profoundly gratefule to Rev. Dr. Joann Ford Watson, Presbyterian theologian, for helping us with this recovery.

UPDATE: As Aaron Weaver’s comment shows, the recovery of Anne Dutton’s importance has begun.  At this link, one can see a brand-new doctoral dissertation on Anne Dutton as trans-atlantic Spiritual Director in the early stages of the Evangelical Revival (called in North America the “Great Awakening”).  Thanks to Michael Sciretti for choosing to write his dissertation at Baylor University on Anne Dutton as Spiritual Director.  I pray it will soon be published as it would fit well either in the series “ Baptists,” put out by Mercer University Press (which, as mentioned, has been republishing all of Dutton’s writings, edited by the stalwart Dr. JoAnn Ford Watson) or, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Paternoster Press’ series on “Baptist Life and Thought.” (Note: Paternoster, a respected evangelical publisher in the UK for about 100 years, has been a victim of the global economic meltdown. It is being bought out and merged with AuthenticMedia and the website is currently down.  So, what the shape of Paternoster will be in the near future is uncertain, but I hope there is a revitalization soon.  The UK and the world needs Paternoster’s distinctive voice.)

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February 11, 2010 - Posted by | church history, history of theology, theologians

5 Comments »

  1. Michael,

    A dissertation was recently defended (back in December) by a student in the Religion program here at Baylor on Anne Dutton. The author is Michael Sciretti. Here’s the link

    Comment by BDW | February 14, 2010 | Reply

    • The recovery begins! Thanks, Aaron! I’ve got the first 2 volumes of her writings and am ordering them all from Mercer UP, but they ain’t cheap! I’ll stick this link in the main post!

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 15, 2010 | Reply

  2. When asked by a fellow Calvinist whether he, Whitefield, expected to “see Mr. Wesley in the heavenley realms,” Whitefield replied, “Certainly not! He will be far too close to the Throne!”)

    You know, I always heard that legend the other way around. I always heard that Wesley said that about Whitefield, not that Whitefield said that about Wesley. Oh well, I guess the Arminians and the Calvinists both take great pride in how humble their heroes were!

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | February 19, 2010 | Reply

    • LOL. You may have something, there, Jonathan.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 19, 2010 | Reply

  3. I love anne dutton, readers let us go back to classic writings

    Comment by Olivier Nguweneza | August 25, 2013 | Reply


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