March Blog – Current Research of Rev Ralph Wheelock searching for the facts Part 1

10th March 2021 0 By admin

The saga of to the Origins of Ralph Wheelock still continues, there are 3 possible Ralph’s that match the dates of his possible birth. So far, the sources quoted do not add up to the evidence researched thus far.

Here’s March Part 1 with Part 2 following up in a couple of days.

Cambridge and Norfolk

In order to gain an understanding of why Ralph Wheelock joined the ‘Great Migration’ to New England in 1636 it is important to understand the religious climate in which he was living during his adult years.

What is known: he studied for his BA and MA at Cambridge University. If you were a nonconformist at this time you could not attend Oxford University and after 1616 you could not gain a degree at Cambridge University (Lund, 1978). The fact that Ralph became a cleric after leaving University would suggest that he was probably not a ‘separatist nonconformist’ while he was there; indicating that he did not want to break away from the established church.

In English church history, a Nonconformist was a Protestant who did not “conform” to the governance and usages of the established Church of England. Broad use of the term was precipitated after the Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, when the Act of Uniformity 1662 re-established the opponents of reform within the Church of England. By the late 19th century the term specifically included the Reformed Christians (Presbyterians, Congregationalists and other Calvinist sects), plus the Baptists and Methodists. The English Dissenters such as the Puritans who violated the Act of Uniformity 1559—typically by practising radical, sometimes separatist, dissent—were retrospectively labelled as Nonconformists.

This would not have been unusual at this time as many in the clergy wanted to direct the church away from ‘popish’ practices and hierarchical control, but they felt this could be done from within the mainstream church. However, Cambridge University at this time was attended by many more committed non-conformists and Ralph would no doubt have been introduced to these beliefs and ideas. He was ordained four months before the signing of ‘The Cambridge Agreement’ on August 29th 1629 This was an agreement between those wishing to emigrate to Massachusetts, to set up as self-governing colony, and the shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company (Britannica, 2021). He would surely have been aware of this agreement, although he was not one of the twelve assignees.

He was ordained as a Deacon in Peterborough by Bishop Thomas Dove on the 20TH  September 1629 and as a priest in 1630 by the Bishop of Norwich, Francis White. Chris Gleason Clark has identified him working as a curate in Eccles between 1629/30 and 1636. (Clark, 2021).

Persecutions in Norfolk and Suffolk

In the year’s preceding, and for many years after Ralph Wheelock’s work as a curate in Eccles, there was terrible persecution of the nonconformist, liberal clergy within the church in Norfolk. John Brown in his book ‘History of Congregationalism’ , recounts some of the terrible ordeals these early dissenters went through because of their faith.

“The ……documents give us a painfully clear view of what sorrows our forefathers had to endure to win for us the privileges we now enjoy. Here are persecuted Puritans harassed, indicted, and imprisoned for their conscientious objections to the papistical ceremonies, enforced by the authority of the ruling clergy; urged by the rigors of their lot to enquire into the grounds and reasons of Church authority, and led to embrace à more scriptural theory of Church government; then relentlessly persecuted by High Church and Low Church together. Hunted on the Sabbath day by the Bishop of the diocese ; denounced by courtiers as a pestiferous sect ; indicted, fined, imprisoned , banished, by their fellow townsmen ; and yet they cannot be suppressed .* King, courtiers, prelates, judges, courts, and corporations have done their utmost ; and yet thirty poor people, mostly women, maintain their testimony, and the little Brownist rivulet, after ten more years of sorrow , and twenty more of comparative peace, falls willingly into the broader and stronger stream of Congregationalism , and flows on to the present day !” (Browne, 1877, p. 81)

Ralph was ordained by Bishop Francis White who was Bishop between 1628 and 1631. Browne describes him as, “A staunch defender of the hierarchy, and he too used his best endeavours to suppress dissent”. However, his predecessor Bishop Samuel Harsnet took a much harder stand against those with dissident beliefs. He was Bishop from 1619-28 and during his time, the penal laws for suppressing dissident separatists were strictly enforced (Browne, 1877, p. 74).

Amongst the local population there was much support for the dissidents and as a result there was a falling out between the Dean and the people of Great Yarmouth in the appointment of a member of clergy for the town. The Dean appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury to resolve the matter. The Dean cited; the communication the town had with Amsterdam and the ‘schismatical’ books that had been imported, to indicate how anti the town was towards the established church and requested that his court should have power over appointments. The Archbishop decided in his favour (Browne, 1877, p. 78).

Browne provides a number of descriptions of the treatment the dissenters in Norfolk received. One particularly severe case was against a man named Prynne who published a pamphlet called, “News from Ipswich”. In this pamphlet he accused the established church hierarchy of a desire to, “Usher in Popery, Superstition, and Idolatry”. As punishment, Browne notes he was,

“ fined £5000, to lose the remainder of his ears in the pillory ; to be branded on both cheeks S. L. for “ schismatical libeller,” and to be perpetually imprisoned in Caernarvon Castle.  The sentence against Prynne was carried out with inhuman severity. Burton and Bastwick were his companions in suffering, and underwent a similar punishment ; but Prynne, having already had his ears cropt off, now had to submit to have the stumps sawn rather than cut off by the common hangman. Such being the mercy of the Fathers of the Church”. John Lilburne who had printed and publishing the pamphlet was also tried and, “condemned to be whipt from the Fleet to Old Palace Yard, Westminster. He was placed in the pillory two hours, fined £ 500, and obliged to find security for his good behaviour and imprisoned in the Fleet till he conformed to the rules of the Court” (Browne, 1877, pp. 95-97).

To put it into context to the wider situation in England at the time and in Europe the Reformation was a bitter, 200-year-long dispute about the exact meaning of each of those four words: this, is, my, and body. People were literally put to death for having the wrong views on that. Estimates of the death toll from these European religious wars between Protestants and Catholics exceed 5,000,000.

In the national archives there is a proclamation against certain seditious and schismatical books and libels, In 1588 Queen Elizabeth the First to strengthen her power base decreed considering how within these few years past, and now of late, certain seditious and evil disposed persons towards her Majesty, and the Government established for causes Ecclesiastical within her Majesties Dominions, have devised, written, printed or caused to be seditiously and secretly published and dispersed, sundry schismatical and seditious books, diffamatory libels, and other phantastical writings amongst her Majesties subjects containing in them doctrine very erroneous, and other matters notoriously untrue, and slanderous to the State, and against the godly reformation of religion and government ecclesiatical established by law …

Contemporaries of Ralph Wheelock

Benjamin Brook (1776-1848) in his book, “The Lives of the Puritans,” published in 1813 mentions other clergy who left Norfolk and Suffolk for Dedham in 1636 arriving in 1637. These names may help us to identify fellow travellers with Ralph Wheelock and eventually possibly the ship in which Ralph sailed to America, although this has already been extensively researched without success.

“JOHN ALLEN. This very pious divine was born in the year 1596, and educated, probably, in the University of Cambridge. He was a hard student, a good scholar, an excellent preacher, a grave and pious divine, and a man of a most humble, heavenly, and courteous behaviour, full of sweet Christian love to all; earnestly, and with much meekness of spirit, contending for the faith and peace of Christ. All these excellences, however, were insufficient to screen him from the persecutions of the times. Though it does not with certainty appear at what place he was settled, after his removal from

the university, he bore his share of sufferings with the holy and zealous puritans of those times. A divine of his name, and probably the same person, was minister at Ipswich, who, daring the oppressions of Bishop Wren, voluntarily departed from his cure, and went to London.* Having no prospect of better days, or of enjoying rest from persecution, he went, with many others, to New England, where he arrived about the year 1637. Soon after his arrival he was chosen pastor of the church of Dedham, where he continued, much beloved and very useful, all the rest of his days. He died greatly lamented, August 26, 1671, aged seventy-five years (Brook, 1813, p.456).

This suggests that John Allen was in London prior to sailing to Massachusetts and that he sailed in the same year as Ralph Wheelock. Their connection is further supported by Clark who notes that,

“the church in Dedham was organised 8th November 1638, from a company of about thirty families, come together from several parts of England, few of them known to one another before and Rev. John Allin was ordained on the 14th of the next April.” (Clarke, 1858, p. 18)

“ROBERT PECK. This zealous puritan was rector of Higham in Norfolk, to which he was preferred in the year 1605. He was a zealous nonconformist to the ceremonies and corruptions of the church, for which he was severely persecuted by Bishop Harsnet. Having catechized his family and sung a psalm in his own house, on a Lord’s day evening, when some of his neighbours attended, his lordship enjoined him, and all who were present, to do penance, requiring them to say, I confess my errors. Those who refused were immediately excommunicated, and required to pay heavy costs. All this appeared under the bishop’s own hand. For this, and similar instances of his oppression and cruelty, the citizens of Norwich, in the year 1623, presented a complaint against his lordship in the house of commons. In the bishop s answer to this complaint, he had nothing to say against Mr. Peck s doctrine and life, only his non conformity. He pleaded, in his own defence, “ That Mr. Peck had been sent to him by the justices of the peace for keeping a conventicle at night, and in his own house; that his catechizing has only an excuse to draw the people together; and that he had infected the parish with strange opinions : as, “that the people are not to kneel as they enter the church ; that it is superstition to bow at the name of Jesus; and that the church is no more sacred than any other building. His grace further affirmed, that Mr. Peck had been convicted of nonconformity, and of keeping conventicles, in 1615 and 1617; and that, in 1622, he was taken in his own house, with twenty-two of his neighbours, at a conventicle” (Brook, 1813, p. 263)