Pastoral Care, Literary Cure and Religious Dissent: Zones of Freedom in the British Atlantic (c. 1630-1720)



Partners and collaborators

United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG)

Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO, University of Oxford)


Present-day thinking about public health has come to give increasing attention to forms of wellbeing and caregiving. This project will contribute to such thinking by addressing some of the contexts in which caregiving has emerged and has been formulated as a social practice. Its study focuses on description and analysis of the concept of pastoral care as it was practised in three communities of faith operating across the British Atlantic between 1630 and 1720. The project will further assess how practices of care in the pre-modern past both inform and can shape pastoral care and holistic wellbeing in our post-secular present.

The project focuses on faith communities impacted by the development of nation states and the ways in which emergent states established a specific religious confession as integral to their identity. It will assess how these communities and their practices of care were shaped by political exclusion and/or geographical distance from centres of power. Government policy, such as the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which excluded citizens who refused to conform to its demands from participating in the state church, and geopolitical logistics, such as the challenges faced by a small national church based on parishes increasingly required to provide care for members living beyond the territorial limits of the nation state, created unprecedented spaces for experimentation. Whether by virtue of governmental coercion and persecution, or distant parochial oversight (due to an expanding commercial empire) these zones of freedom required communities to exercise initiative by reinventing practices of ministry and generating new ways of providing pastoral care.

The archives preserved by these communities allow their historical practices of pastoral care to be excavated. The project gives detailed attention to: 1) the concept of pastoral care - defining relationships between religious, philosophical and scientific forms of caregiving, and examining how this changed over time; 2) vocabularies of pastoral care, emotion and experience, exemplified in letters, assessing what these reveal about the scientific, linguistic and theological epistemologies that shaped care provision; 3) the role of the pastor as a physician of soul and body - the boundary between physical and spiritual care was fluid in the pre-modern period and pastors prescribed treatment to ensure the holistic wellbeing of those under their care. This means focusing on the material ways in which these early modern communities practised care and considering how political exclusion and/or geographical distance from the metropolitan centre impacted increasing professional specialisation (e.g. between pastor, missionary and physician).

The project is rooted in, but extends beyond, an historical analysis of how liminal communities exercised care in zones of freedom. It asks how observing relationships between care and cure may contribute to the history of medicine as an emerging professional practice. It also considers how an historically and theologically informed concept of pastoral care can shape thinking about spirituality in our own evidence-based and instrumentalised public health context. More particularly, it will address present-day understanding of how the written word and the act of reading are glossed and (as with bibliotherapy) prescribed as forms of care or agents of cure. The project will also evaluate how the practices of care embodied by these historical communities speak to current thinking about the provision of aid and the role of faith actors in the global public sphere. Partnership with non-academic organisations will be integral to these public-facing dimensions of the project.


There are several groups outside of the academic community who will benefit from this research.

1) Faith-based NGOs and policy-makers: the project will generate knowledge that helps to catalyse thinking around the intersections of faith, health and inequalities in two policy sectors:

a) Faith-based community development circles: building on project partner USPG's existing work on faith, power and accountability in relation to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), through the symposium and ECR workshops this project will extend the dialogue beyond academics to faith-based organisations including Tearfund, World Vision, Christian Aid; mission agencies including the Mothers' Union, USPG and CMS; think tanks including Theos, the LSE Faith Centre, the Institute for Development Studies, FaithAction; and faith actors including Church of England policy representations and hospital chaplains.

b) Faith actors and UK faith-based welfare providers: austerity has refocused research and policy attention on the contribution of faith actors to welfare provision; the UK government's responsibility to report on progress relating to SDGs has generated interest in mapping faith-based actor's domestic welfare provision. These two elements remain unsynthesised: development 'out there' is perceived differently from welfare in the UK. This project will bring together professionals operating in the UK alongside those working internationally to foster thinking beyond the international/domestic binary and move towards a more holistic conceptual framework for addressing global inequalities, as required by the SDG agenda.

2) Chaplains and associated healthcare professionals: chaplains wish to measure the impact of the pastoral/spiritual care they provide within a secular/biomedical model of caregiving. Drawing this expertise into conversation with a wider group of practitioners considering similar questions from different geographical and sectoral contexts will stimulate new ways of analysing and thinking about chaplaincy care in 21st century institutions. Public Health actors wish to collaborate with faith organisations/places of worship as they offer access to 'hard to reach' populations because places of worship can be 'healthy settings'; the project will help the specific expertise of chaplains to be integrated into wider local government and policy thinking about care provision. The project will generate a new vocabulary and insights offering resources for healthcare professionals (e.g. Public Health Leeds, Leeds City Council and third sector organisations (e.g. BHA Leeds Skyline and Touchstone Leeds) working at the intersection of faith and health.

3) Public audiences: there are several public audiences that this research will benefit. USPG has a large number of volunteers and supporters around the world; the project's online exhibition and the public-facing talk at the London symposium will provide an opportunity for these supporters to develop an understanding of the organisation's history, especially the relationship between mission and slavery. As a freely accessible online resource hosted by the Bodleian Library, the exhibition will also be available as a tool for schools to use as part of the curriculum for religious studies, in assemblies, and when teaching the histories of British colonialism. The project's partnership with Big Lit (a well-established literary festival) and the Gatehouse Development Initiative will incorporate two public-facing talks on Samuel Rutherford, whose archive of letters is central to the project research, and Dorothy Sayers, another author with local connections who engages issues of literary care and cure. These talks will attract large public audiences and should open further opportunities for local outreach in schools, museums and public spaces in the Gatehouse of Fleet, building on the PI's history of collaboration with both partners following the restoration of a memorial to Rutherford.