Early Nonconformity in Plympton

Trans. Devon Assoc., vol. XIX, (1887), pp. 386-388.


Edward Windeatt

Prepared by Michael Steer

Protestant non-conformist views have always tended to be strong in Devon, although until the mid C17, puritans in the county generally stayed within the established Church of England. During the Commonwealth, Presbyterianism became the official form of worship in the parish churches with Anglican clergy either conforming or being replaced by puritan ministers. However, with the Restoration of Charles II, the Anglican church was also restored and non-conformist puritan ministers were ejected from the parish churches. Despite official persecution, some ejected ministers almost immediately set up their own congregations - there was strong local support in Exeter and Plymouth in particular. The first Presbyterian congregations in Devon therefore effectively date from 1662. The general Plymouth area was also an important staging-point for non-conformists emigrating to the American colonies, who joined local congregations while waiting for a ship. Nationally, the Presbyterians were the strongest non-conformist group in England in the early C18, with 637 congregations and some 180,000 members (3.3% of the population) The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.


Plympton being only a short distance from Plymouth, in which the Puritan party were so strong in the seventeenth century, it is only natural that here, too, members of that party were to be founi In this series of papers the desire is to record simple facts, and to correct errors into which Calamy, Palmer, and Walker have fallen. In the case of Plympton Maurice I think light may be thrown on the case of Mr. Williams, who is claimed as an ejected minister, which will be of interest as indicating what his views really were. Calamy in his "account" simply records as follows: "Plumpton Morris: Mr. Williams." And in his continuation " Plumpton Morris. It should be Plimpton Morris, Mr. Williams." Palmer's record is "Plympton Morris, Mr. Williams." Both writers claim him as an ejected or silenced minister.

The facts appear to be that from 1653 to 1661 John Williams had possession of the church and its emoluments, but his name does not appear among the members of the Exeter Assembly of Puritan Divines. The Roisters appear to have been all clearly written by him, but up to 1657 contain no baptismal entries, the date of birth being simply recorded thus:

'Damaris the daughter of William Price and Mary his wife was born October 9 1653.'

Later on the entries record the fact of baptism.

Calamy's record is of ministers, lecturers, &c., ejected or silenced after the Restoration in 1660, or by the Act of Uniformity in 1662. It is clear that Mr. Williams was not ejected by the Act of Uniformity; for by April, 1661, he ceased to have anything to do with the Registers, and to be the minister of the church. It is possible that he may not have had a good title to the living, and so had to retire ; but it is clear he did not become a Nonconformist minister, and, though he would seem to have continued at Plympton till his death in 1675, he does not appear to have taken any part with the ejected minister of Plympton St. Mary, nor the other Nonconformists of Plympton and the neighbourhood; nor did he, so far as can be discovered, take out any license under the Indulgence of 1672.

An entry in the Registers would seem to indicate that his views had changed, or at any rate were not in accord with those of the bulk of the Nonconformists of the day. The entry is under date 1660:

"John Williams Minister of Plympton parrish did lisence Mrs. Mary Parker being sicke the 18 day of March."

This was evidently a dispensation from the rules of the church, and the statutory obligation of abstaining from meat during Lent, and the conclusion to be drawn therefrom is that he lost the living through want of title, and was not a Nonconformist at all

The Registers also record (Jan. 15, 1664), the burial of "Aron the Sonne of Mr. John Williams;" and in 1675 - "John Williams was buryed the one and twentyeth day of May."

I am indebted to Mr. J. Brooking Rowe for the entries from the Register.


Dr. Walker in his Sufferings of the Clergy refers to a John Searle as having obtained the vicarage of Rattery on the sequestration of James Bampfield, who although he lost Rattery was allowed to retain the living of Black Torrington which he held with Rattery. In 1660 Mr. Searle lost the living of Rattery, and Mr. Bampfield got it again. On losing Rattery Mr. Searle obtained the living of Plympton St. Mary; but on obtaining it he found the dilapidations so great as to swallow up the income for two years before 1662. Being ejected by the Act of Uniformity he was not allowed to have the tithes of 1662, and so was £200 worse for having the living.

In 1656 his name appears in the List of Members of the Exeter Assembly of Divines in the Second Division.

" John Serle Ministr of the word in Rattery."  (1).

After his ejection he remained in the neighbourhood, and in 1672 took out a license as preacher at Plympton as a Presbyterian, and at the same time the house of "Mary Davis of Plumpton Mary" was licensed for worship for Presbyterians; and Lewis Stuckley, ejected from Exeter Cathedral, took out a license as preacher at the house of Clement Lakey, Plumpton Mary, as a Congregationalist.

It is, therefore, certain that there must have been not a few in Plympton who held Puritan principles.

In 1685 Mr. Serle was imprisoned for six months in Southgate, Exeter, for refusing to take the Corporation oath. There were four other ministers imprisoned at the same time  - “old Mr. Hallett," Mr. Hoppin, Mr. Quylard, and Mr. Trosse, the last of whom thus records the imprisonment:

"When I and the other Ministers (3 aged ones) who would not take the oath came to the Prison, we found three more of our non-conforming Brethren in the City in Bonds for their refusing the same oath; viz., Mr. John Searle, formerly Rector of Plympton, Mr. Joseph Hallett, and Mr. John Hopping. I enjoyed a great measure of health during mine imprisonment. We were not confined strictly to our apartments, but were allowed the liberty of walking in the Common-Hall and in the garden. Our victuals were brought to the prison to us. Fourteen wealthy friends by turns sent us a dinner every day.

"Tho' some Christian Friends did bring us some presents, yet when I came forth from prison, having cast up my receipts and disbursements, I found I had expended about 4s. or 5s. more than I had received.

“Enemies reproached us that we went to prison to get riches."

The last remark applied to Mr. Searle, who was for a long time in very poor circumstances, and was up to the Revolution maintained by friends. After that date he became a regular minister to a dissenting congregation at Plympton, and continued so to his death at the age of 86, preaching regularly even when at that age twice a day. His only published work was a Funeral Sermon, which he allowed to be printed provided the author's name did not appear. He was succeeded by a Mr. John Edmonds, who was ordained June 18th, 1713, and during his ministry the congregation had gone down to 100 hearers, of whom only five were county voters and three borough voters. Mr. Searle died in 1699, the entry of his burial appearing in the Register of Plympton Maurice : "Mr. John Searle Minister of the Presbettry was buryed the 22 day of Sept" Eighteen months later is the entry of the burial of his widow: "1701. Mrs. Susanna Searle widow was buryed the 3rd day of March."


(1)    Trans. Devon. Assoc., vol. ix. p. 282.