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A Description and History of St John's Church.

Transcribed by Andrew Loughran.

St John's Church Leeds was built by my ancester John HARRISON in the early part of the 17th century

The Church itself is a particularly interesting structure, the design being imitative and yet characteristic. Thoresby (Ducatus, p. 30) wrote of it as " so noble and stately a structure as is scarce to be parallel'd in England," but his eulogy is not seconded by Dr. Whitaker (Loidis & Elmete, p. 61), who devotes a considerable space to its condemnation.

" At this period," he writes, " architecture, especially church architecture, was at its lowest ebb. The highest effort of church builders was to produce a clumsy imitation of our ancient churches, no whit better than the works of their tasteless successors of the present day. This church in particular is a most unhappy specimen of this taste. In defiance of all authority and example it consists of two ailes only, with a single row of columns up the midst; the windows are copies of two distinct, or rather remote periods; the tower is placed almost at one angle of the west end, and the east end has two parallel windows of equal rank and consequence. There is no change or break in the arches to indicate a choir, in lieu of which a kind of clumsy screen, consisting of degrading terms, which have been reverently copied of late by the Wyat School, is thrown across, so as to intersect one of the arches. Its inconvenience (from the circumstances of the minister being placed against the north wall,) is at least equal to its inelegance; in short, St John's Church has all the gloom and all the obstructions of an ancient church without one vestige of its dignity and grace."

Mr. John Ellis Stocks, who has written an account of the Church, published in vol. xxiv of the Thoresby Society, finds an explanation of this criticism in the fact that seventeenth-century work was out of favour at the time when Dr. Whitaker was writing and Jacobean woodwork and furniture were being discarded for the more delicate work of Sheraton, Chippindale, and their contemporaries. To modern eyes, however, the beauty of the Church is again apparent, and it is unfortunate that the architect is unknown. A full architectural description of the church will be found in the article by Mr. Stocks, together with some discussion of the religious views of the founder, but it may not be inappropriate at this point to consider these views afresh, since they throw some light on the personal character of the benefactor.

The originality of the plan of St. John's Church, its evident suitability for preaching purposes, and the setting of the communicants' seats on four sides of the chancel, arrangements which tend to lessen the sacramental view of Church worship, have been taken by some writers as an indication of Puritan principles, and it has even been asserted that John Harrison built his church in opposition to the Laudian practices at the Parish Church. As a matter of fact, the Reverend Alexander Cooke, who was Vicar when the New Church was begun, was noted for his Calvinistic views, which had caused some trouble at his election; while Harrison's nephew, Henry Robinson, who succeeded him, was also known as a Puritan, 1 though he was faithful to the Royalist cause on the outbreak of war. Thus, if John Harrison built his Church in opposition to the Parish Church, it would be as an upholder of the Anglican creed. But the evidence is against any idea of opposition at all. Archbishop Neile, as we have seen, insisted that the Curate of St. John's should agree to serve under the Vicar of the Parish Church, and Harrison appears to have acquiesced in this and to have upheld it later in his life. His letter to Mr. Todd, written about the time when there was talk of making St. John's a separate parish church, has the following passage in it " Have you not already, since these words were spoken (against your promise to the bishop) encroached upon the metropolitan, (if I may so call it) or mother church ? " --which seems to suggest that Harrison was willing to stand by his undertaking not to set " Pulpit against Pulpit, and Chapel against Church."

On the other hand, if the Church has Puritan features, surely the elaborate screen and the richness of the carving discount their evidence, since both were contrary to Puritan principles. And there is also much in John Harrison's writings to show that he disliked Nonconformity and its practices. " Have you not " (he writes to Mr. Todd) " chosen elders (creatures God never thought upon) for Woodhouse, Park-Lane, Quarry-Hill, Marsh-Lane, HillHouse Bank, Knowtrop, Head-Row etc. ? " Again, is it not a significant fact that he was accused by the Puritans themselves of having Roman Catholic sympathies, though many of his sayings show an equal disapproval of Puritanism and Catholicism. Speaking of the Presbyterians, whom he seems to have held in special odium, he says, " Heretofore a cross, a white sark, or any little ceremony were the great beams pretended to be in the eyes of the Church of England but now it appears it was not those trifles, but the lordly carriage of bishops over their brethren that stuck on their stomachs, every hedge-creeping Presbyter would be a bishop, nay a lord for tyranny (if they might have their will in their parish) ...... Is it not strange the Scotch Presbyterians cry out so much against Separatists for making a rout in the Church for ceremonies, when themselves do the like for wearing a surplice, the cross in baptism, kneeling at the communion, and such like ? ...... We have ruling elders which Christ never made."

From which it would appear that Harrison supported the old ceremonies of the church. On the other hand, his dislike of Catholicism is shown by the following " The Papists are against monarchial government, so are the Presbyterians .... The Papists condemn our books of Canons and Common Prayer, so doth the Presbyterians" -while the last of his sayings, which is too lengthy to quote, contains many indictments of the Popes based on historical examples (see appendix to Dr. Whitaker's Loidis et Elmete). He appears, however, to have been much more bitter to the Puritans, particularly the Presbyterian and Independent section of them for whom he had no respect, than to the Roman Catholics. His denunciations of the Puritans were based both on religious and political grounds, while his prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church seems to have been based on its political power only-a fact which may account for the charge of having Catholic sympathies, which was brought against him by the Puritans.

It is much easier to discover what John Harrison's views were not, than to say definitely what they were, but several points may be gathered from his sayings. He respected and upheld the power of the bishops and appears to have approved of many of the ceremonies of the Anglican Church, just as he believed in the divine right of kings, which was the main political tenet of that party; and though it is difficult to judge how far he approved of the practices of the extreme Laudians or Arminians, he certainly does not condemn them. On the whole he was probably an orthodox member of the Anglican Church, who, if he were not a very High Churchman, was certainly more in sympathy with the doctrines and ceremonies of the High Church section than with those of the Puritan party. Whatever his private beliefs, he showed great moderation in his conduct, especially in his patronage of Mr. Todd, whose Puritan views he disliked. Incidentally his moderation had its reward since, as Mr. Stocks has suggested, it was probably the protective influence of Mr. Todd which preserved St. John's Church from destruction at the hands of the Puritan zealots during the Civil War.

On the 6th 0f September, 1638, a deed of settlement was drawn up for the endowment of St. John's Church (Endowed Charities, 1898). By this deed John Harrison conveyed to trustees a messuage and garden in the new street with a croft between the school and church yards, which property was then in the occupation of Robert Todd, for a dwelling for the curate of St. John's 2; and in addition he conveyed another messuage in the new street which, with certain closes near Woodhouse Moor, was of the yearly value of 90, with the direction that 80 was to be the minister's stipend and the other 10 was for the repair of the Church.

Harrison seems to have borne in mind the objections of Archbishop Neile in 1634, for the trustees of the charity were to be the Vicar of Leeds, the Alderman, and three senior Burgesses. This committee had the power to nominate a new incumbent, and if for any reason he was refused a licence by the Archbishop, to devote the stipend to the dependants of the former incumbent or any charity they thought fit, until the vacancy was filled. They were given similar powers of discretion with regard to any increase in the value of the property.

Andrew in Sheffield.


Transcribed by Andrew Loughran
©2005


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