Eighteenth Century British Folk Religion

In the third volume of his Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1849), John Brand quotes the following from a manuscript entitled Discourse of Witchcraft, which is attributed to ‘Mr. John Bell, Minister of the Gospel at Gladsmuir, 1705’:

Guard against devilish charms for men or beasts. There are many sorceries practised in our day, against which I would on this occasion bear my testimony, and do therefore seriously ask you, what is it you mean by your observation of times and seasons as lucky or unlucky? What mean you by your many spells, verses, words, so often repeated, said fasting, or going backward? How mean you to have success by carrying about with you certain herbs, plants, and branches of trees?

Why is it, that, fearing certain events, you do use such superstitious means to prevent them, by laying bits of timber at doors, carrying a Bible meerly for a charm, without any farther use of it? What intend ye by opposing witchcraft to witchcraft, in such sort that, when ye suppose one to be bewitched, ye endeavour his relief by burnings, bottles, horseshoes, and such like magical ceremonies?

How think ye to have secrets revealed unto you, your doubts resolved, and your minds informed, by turning a sieve or a key? or to discover by basons and glasses how you shall be related before you die? Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?

In 1725, a book was published which sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. In the book, Henry Bourne collects together the results of his research into the beliefs of his fellow Englishmen and highlights the fact that both the customs/rituals they observe and the beliefs they hold to be true are in the large part not of an orthodox Christian nature; in fact, they really constitute clear examples of folk religion and folk magic. Speaking of the majority of the English population of his day, Bourne states:

As to the Opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious, being generally either the Produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance. And indeed the ignorant Part of the World, is still so aw’d, that they follow the idle Traditions of the one, more than the Word of GOD; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment.

Sources: 

John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.268-269. Available online at Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Henry Bourne (1725) Antiquitates Vulgares: or, the Antiquities of the Common People. Giving an account of several of their opinions and ceremonies (Newcastle: J. White). Download the book at Google Books or read online here.

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