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Mark Noll

Watchman, What Do You See?

The inner life of an 18th-century Protestant capitalist.

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Matthew Kadane's "watchful clothier" was Joseph Ryder, a merchant who spent his entire life (1695-1768) in the north of England at the center of Britain's emerging textile industry. As a dyer in Leeds, Ryder worked at a crucial midpoint in the complicated "putting out" system that structured the industry. He relied on money-lenders for the capital to purchase unfinished cloth, which had been transformed from wool on the spinning wheels and looms of outlying villagers. Ryder stood to make a better living than his suppliers when the cloth he dyed found buyers in Leeds' Mixed Cloth Hall (and its predecessor markets). At the end of his active but stressful career, Ryder enjoyed a local reputation as a figure of more than average wealth and higher than common probity.

Joseph Ryder's place in recorded history does not rest on his mercantile success, but rather on the diaries that he kept from May 1733 to almost the end of his life 35 years later. In 41 pocket-sized notebooks of over twelve thousand pages and approximately 2.5 million words, Ryder left an extraordinary record of his internal life that, until Matthew Kadane's meticulously documented book, lay mostly under-studied in the John Rylands Library of Manchester University. While others had exploited these materials for their own research interests, no one before Kadane, a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, had studied the diaries primarily for themselves and their author. The results are every bit as instructive as from Matthew Lundin's recently published study of a similarly massive personal archive left by the 16th-century Nuremberg lawyer Hermann Weinsberg.[1]

Kadane's explanation for why "watchfulness" best summarizes the life of this "eighteenth-century Protestant capitalist" reveals a great deal about Nonconforming Dissenter church life in a tumultuous era of economic, intellectual, and religious transition. Even more, with the diaries' nonpareil record for the inner life of a dedicated lay Christian, the book charts the particular challenge that "modernity" has posed for believers of all sorts and in all places.

This admirably pious Dissenter maintained exquisitely detailed watchfulness for his soul in the midst of its business activities, but almost no watchfulness about the ways and means of those practices themselves.

Throughout his life, Ryder remained, in Kadane's words, "a compulsive church-goer." Yet religion meant far more than regular worship with the Call Lane Independents (or Congregationalists) and the Mill Hill Presbyterians, two Leeds chapels that had arisen in the late 17th century as Dissenting holdouts against the Anglican conformity imposed by the Restoration in 1660 after civil war and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. In Kadane's careful definition, the "watchfulness" recorded in the diaries (it was a term Ryder used often) meant "a relentless, self-perpetuating, and salvational examination of the self, the external world, the divine, and the very process of examination." For Ryder it was the Puritan's traditional "doctrine of providence put into daily, diligent, and often written practice." As the diaries reveal, Ryder ordered his life around his faith, disciplined his thoughts by Christian precepts, studied the Scriptures ceaselessly, reflected constantly on the spiritual meaning of his daily round, and sought by every psychic means possible to assess his day-to-day standing before God. The approximately five thousand worship services Ryder documented supported his daily devotional existence, rather than the other way around.

Ryder's comprehensive record-keeping sheds much light on important 18th-century developments that are usually narrated from the top down. The diaries show a serious layman, eager to maintain the Puritan vision he had embraced but buffeted from many directions. Because his own lifelong devotion to the Bible remained a personal spiritual anchor, he was distressed when liberal theological innovators pushed biblical interpretations toward the Enlightenment and away from Puritanism. Toward the end of his life, the Mill Hill Presbyterians welcomed a young Unitarian minister named Joseph Priestley, who later became famous on both sides of the Atlantic for his chemical experiments but also for his decidedly unorthodox dismissal of the Trinity. At the Leeds Presbyterian chapel Ryder was witnessing a momentous intellectual transformation, which Kadane describes as "a watchful God" become "a watchmaker."

On the other side of the religious ledger, Ryder never found the new evangelicalism of George Whitefield and John Wesley particularly appealing. While he appreciated any effort to promote a biblical message of salvation, he worried that the revivalists' constant travels betrayed a dangerous instability. Ryder wrote with great concern about attacks on original sin and predestination that became more common in the Dissenting chapels he frequented, but his innate conservatism and melancholic personality also left him cold to evangelical innovations.

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