WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT NORTH NOTTS AND LINCOLNSHIRE?
Quite simply this: given that it is a small, rural area, it has had a huge impact on Christianity in England and America. Here we give you a short summary of the overall story, with some basic links to other sources of information.
A circle 30 miles in diameter drawn around the small Nottinghamshire market town of Retford will encompass a small, rural area that has had an enormous global impact on Christianity. Pretty well every English-speaking nonconformist congregation in the World can trace its origins here and, if we include the south Nottinghamshire birthplace of the effective founder of the Church of England, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in our region, then we could say every English-speaking Protestant church. This from a handful of villages and market towns.
Christianity can be traced from 627AD when Paulinus and Edwin – both future saints – baptised the people of Lindsey in the River Trent, probably at Littleborough. Saint Edwin was – briefly – buried in Sherwood Forest near Edwinstowe after being killed in battle.
The Normans built churches and abbeys across our area such as Worksop and Rufford. These produced great medieval works like The Cloud of Unknowing or the ‘Tickhill Psalter.’ The medieval mystic Walter Hilton was a monk in Nottinghamshire. We should also mention John Wycliffe, the 14th Century translator of the Bible and reformer, who held the living of Fillingham in Lincolnshire though it is likely he rarely stayed there.
Then from 1534 Henry VIII engineered the English Reformation, but a local tendency towards radical re-interpretation of the Faith was emerging and John Lascelles, from a Gateford and Sturton-le-Steeple family, was an influential leader of this within King Henry’s Court. Denounced by his enemies, he was burnt at the stake in 1546 for challenging the King’s views on the nature of the bread and wine in the Mass. Burnt alongside him was the remarkable Anne Askew, a Lincolnshire woman, who was a brave advocate of the new reformed Faith and was burnt because of her beliefs about the bread and wine. It was widely believed that Anne was – illegally – tortured in the Tower of London to gain evidence against Queen Katherine Parr by her reactionary enemies. Parr has close associations with Gainsborough.
Askew, Lascelles and Parr certainly knew another Lincolnshire noblewoman, Katherine Willoughby, who was a great supporter of progressive reformist clergy. She was another who was lucky to escape with her life and had to live abroad during Mary’s reign.
In Retford and nearby villages a network of people wanted to further reform the Church of England. Lascelles and Askew were part of this, and Askew’s sister married into the St Paul family who, two generations later in the early 1600s, were powerful advocates of reform from their base at Snarford. Sir George St Paul married Frances Wray of Glentworth whose sister Isabel and brother Sir William Wray were great patrons of reforming clergy such as Richard Bernard of Worksop and they knew men like John Smyth. In North Nottinghamshire families like the Denmans in Retford, Hercy family at Grove and Helwys family of Askham and Saundy, also used their influence to place ‘godly’ clergy into local churches. Ordsall, Babworth, Headon and Scrooby saw a succession of curates and clerics who wanted to continue the Reformation. James Brewster was the puritan rector of Sutton-cum-Lound, but and his brother William Brewster controlled the curates at Scrooby and Bawtry in the 1590s.
By 1605 the area had produced some of the leading religious radicals in England. Richard Clyfton at Babworth was established as a great puritan preacher whilst two men from Sturton-le-Steeple, John Smyth and John Robinson, were becoming influential theologians. At Worksop, Richard Bernard was also a progressive reformer. All were disappointed by King James I’s refusal to further reform the Church of England and in 1606 after a meeting at Isabel Wray’s house Clyfton, Robinson and Brewster left the Church to form their own congregation which met at Scrooby Manor – although Clyfton continued to appear in other local churches. John Smyth and his friend Thomas Helwys formed a congregation at Gainsborough. By 1608 almost all of these had gone to Holland to find greater freedom, mainly paid for by Helwys.
The Scrooby group settled in Leiden and in 1620 some sailed to America – the Mayflower Pilgrims included locals such as William Brewster (Scrooby), William Bradford (Austerfield), Katherine Carver (Sturton) and her husband John Carver (origin unknown, possibly Sturton or Doncaster).
Smyth and Helwys became the first English Baptists before Helwys returned to England in 1612 to start the English Baptist Church. Helwys is also important for writing the first full argument in favour of freedom of belief for ALL – he was arrested and died in Newgate Prison by about 1615. His ideas of tolerance were further developed by John Murton, a Baptist from Gainsborough, and then by Roger Williams, who married the daughter of Richard Bernard and set up Providence, Rhode Island.
The ‘second wave’ of pilgrims to New England included Roger Williams, but also a significant group from east Lincolnshire. Perhaps coincidentally, this area was also the home of Captain John Smith who is famously linked with Pocahontas. These included the famous John Cotton from Boston, but also Ann Hutchinson, John Wheelwright and Hanserd Knollys, who later returned to England. The governor who had to deal with this controversial period was Sir Henry Vane, who returned to Lincolnshire and married another of the Wray family but was ultimately executed by Charles II. Here again we see the significance of local connections.
The Quakers started in Mansfield, where George Fox was living, Tickhill and the surrounding area. An early convert was Elizabeth Hooton of Skegby, whose home can still be seen, and she became a famous early Quaker missionary to America and the Caribbean. The first Quaker to die for his beliefs was a 20 year old from Retford, James Parnell, in 1656.
For a time the Quakers were rivals to the Baptists, but Lincolnshire men like Thomas Grantham played a significant role in strengthening this denomination. A famous Baptist, Dan Taylor, was baptised in the river at little Gamston near Retford.
A century later another Lincolnshire man, John Wesley produced radical change in the Church, preaching often in Clayworth, Misterton and Owston Ferry on his way to his home town of Epworth. Wesley tried to stay within the fold of the Church of England but eventually the Methodist Church was set up, to be followed by the Primitive Methodists who were strong in rural Lincolnshire. Wesley completed a period of 200 years in which the Isle of Axholme was a constant centre of religious radicalism.
Later missionaries criss-crossed the globe. John Hunt (Fiji) and James Chalmers (Papua New Guinea) had links with our area, and James Hudson Taylor’s mother was from Barton on Humber, the same town associated with Chad Varah who founded the Samaritans. Varah followed in the social mission tradition of William and Catherine Booth, who began as Methodists in Nottingham and went on to found the Salvation Army. More recently, the Assemblies of God set up its national training school in Mattersey from where graduates spread out to all continents. The story isn’t finished yet.
 Recent historians have identified the ‘Kingdom of Lindsey’ as the equivalent of north Lincolnshire and north Nottinghamshire today. Littleborough – where the Roman road crosses the Trent – and which was a Roman town, is the most likely place for the baptisms.