The conference focused on the forms of dissenting expression available to dissenters and their congregations, both in England and in America, throughout the seventeenth century. Within this remit, it also looked at how the written materials available to dissenting communities and congregations were intimately related to their religious and social experiences.
It was a conference packed with a great variety of papers given by scholars from many different areas of academia: several covered the usefulness of the contents of Church Record books to researchers; others examined the transition of these records into the digital age; and another looked at the relationship between poetry, politics and dissenting experience. Anyone who knows my research interests will immediately be able to tell that this last paper was the one I was most excited about!
That said, the talk from Margaret Bendroth (Executive Director of the Congregational Library, Boston, MA) and James F. Cooper (who also does work with this library) was fascinating. Their intention is to recover the church records of congregations across America, and to be able to provide digitized versions of them both to researchers, and to those who are just curious to explore their religious heritage. The website for the library is a veritable treasure trove for researchers so, if you are at all interested in religious writing, and especially that relating to dissent or congregationalists, then I urge you to go and explore: http://www.congregationallibrary.org/. I for one will definitely be returning to this website, and am very tempted to look into the possibility of doing some transcription of the church records: watch this space! Both Peggy and Jeff (as they are commonly known!) were wonderful speakers, and have inspired me to seriously take note of this oft-neglected avenue of research. Just because a resource is not 'literary' in the strictest sense, does not mean that it will be of no use to us!
The final paper that Rachel and I were able to go to was George Southcombe's wonderful talk on 'Poetry, Politics and Dissenting Experience'. Throughout my studies, any non-conformist poetry that I have come across, or paid significant attention to, has tended to be that of the libertines. Whilst this poetry is certainly worthy of our attention, I was excited by several new names that George's paper brought to my attention, including Robert Wild and Benjamin Keach (if I had heard of these men before, I had definitely forgotten...). So, apart from opening my eyes to an area of poetry that I have definitely neglected until now, George's paper reminded me of the need to always see the poetry of dissenters as participating in a much broader early-modern culture. In other words, the fact that they, like other 'conformist' writers, used the poetry of their predecessors such as Milton and Dryden for their specific political purposes, should mean that we read their work within the broader context of seventeenth-century poetry. A valuable point to bear in mind!
All in all, the day was a brilliant one (despite the 4.30am start!), and has really ignited my passion for research once again. I don't know about all of you, but I find going to stimulating conferences like this one always reminds me of the reasons why I love what I do.
If you are curious about the other things that the Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies has to offer, do have a look at their website: http://www.english.qmul.ac.uk/drwilliams/