Nehemiah Wallington – Puritan chronicler had far less fun than Pepys

The God-fearing diarist Wallington revealed a spiritual crisis far removed from the cosmopolitanism of his fast-living contemporary.

An excerpt from Nehemiah Wallington's diary
An excerpt from Nehemiah Wallington's diary, dated 1654. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.

Samuel Pepys is surely the best-known English diarist of all time, and no other writer of his period has left such a full personal record as he has of the nine years (1660-69) during which he kept his journal.

He was not alone in writing about himself, however. Many of his contemporaries – men and women – kept diaries or journals, assembled memoirs, or compiled catalogues of their life events. These autobiographers are as distinct and various as any random group of people of the middling and upper sort, and their motivations vary likewise, though they must all share an impulse for reflection and self-examination. But as well as documenting their personal concerns and experiences, their autobiographical writings reveal assumptions and expectations about the world they lived in.

One individual whose life overlapped in time and space with Pepys’s, but whose experience and outlook were vastly different, is the Puritan craftsman Nehemiah Wallington. Both were born in London and lived there all or most of their lives. Both came from lower-middling, artisan families (Wallington’s father was a turner, Pepys’s a tailor), though Pepys enjoyed educational and social opportunities well beyond those available to Wallington. Pepys’s diary covers his life from age 26 to 36; Wallington’s life-writing starts in his early twenties, though it extends over a longer period. Wallington, born in 1598, was a generation older than Pepys, but the difference between them is more than just years: Wallington belonged to an older, traditional London, while Pepys embodied a new kind of Londoner: professional, aspirational, socially and spatially mobile.

Wallington was the son of a solid London citizen, and followed the traditional path of training, citizenship, marriage and the establishment of an independent household and business. Turners made and sold small to medium-sized wooden items, some of them turned on a lathe. Nehemiah was somewhat unusual in training with his father, rather than being formally apprenticed to another craftsman, and in marrying in his early rather than mid- or late twenties, but these are small variations in a centuries-old pattern. Indeed, much about him and his life could almost be described as timeless: guild membership, citizenship, the practice of a handicraft in a workshop that was part of the home, the extended household of servants and apprentices, had been features of London life for three or four centuries. Although by the mid-seventeenth century London’s economy was embracing new commodities, new manufacturing processes, and new work and employment patterns, many of these were located in the spreading suburbs, and the city centre, where Wallington lived, still housed numerous independent craftsmen and retailers, in streets and houses that were materially much the same as in the Middle Ages.

Wallington’s most distinctive characteristic was his intense religious faith. His particular set of beliefs was conventional for the time but animated his worldview and guided his everyday life, including his use of writing as an exercise in self-examination and discipline. His was a godly Protestantism or Puritanism, favouring a Presbyterian church organisation, ordered by elders rather than priests. Nehemiah was hostile to ceremonial Anglicanism, with its seeming inclination towards Popery, and the radical independent sects that flourished in the civil war years and after. He inherited his religious orientation from his father, who remained an important figure for much of his life; indeed, it’s been suggested that the distinction between his earthly and his heavenly fathers may sometimes have become blurred. His writings reveal a painful history of scourging self-doubt (‘My spirit was wounded and my minde troubled, and my conscience terrifying of mee. For rest comfort and quietness I could find none, neither day not night’), leading to more than one suicide attempt in his youth, and an ongoing engagement with questions of divine will, providence, and predestination. A century earlier, he might have been drawn to the evangelical drive of the early reformers, inspired by Lutheranism; still earlier, he might well have thrown himself into the rituals and practices of popular Catholic devotion.

Despite living a quiet life, never moving from the sphere in which he was born, Nehemiah  witnessed the breakdown of political order, civil war, regicide, and a turmoil of radical political and religious experiment in the mid-seventeenth century. He was an avid reader of newsbooks. Historians of the period value his writings not so much for any unique information they may preserve, but because they document the spread of news and local and personal reactions to major public events. His narrative of the incursion of the religiously Independent New Model Army (‘this our Army … that we had poored out to God so many prayers and teers for, and we had largly contributed unto’) into the largely Presbyterian London in 1647, for example, is a graphic account of the fears, rumours, and dissenting views circulating in the city as the army advanced, and the relief, even anti-climax, when army discipline held and the occupation passed off without significant violence. An ardent supporter of the Parliamentary cause, Wallington was distraught at the divisions that opened up between those ostensibly on the same side when victory neared: divisions fomented, as he believed, by the Devil, Jesuits, and ‘Malignants’. He lamented the falling-off, as he saw it, of godliness from a promising early start: ‘now with a grived heart I speake it that the Lords day is much profained with all maner of profainnesse his house empty when the Tavarne and the Alehouse is full.’ Perhaps fortunately for his peace of mind, he did not live to see the collapse of the republic and the restoration of monarchy and episcopacy following the death of Oliver Cromwell.

Wallington’s writings take many forms: narrative, compilation, excerpts and transcriptions. He compiled at least fifty notebooks, of which fewer than ten are known to have survived, with titles such as ‘Extract of the passages of my life’, ‘A record of God’s mercies’, ‘A record of mercies continued’, ‘A memorial of God’s judgements upon sabbath breakers, drunkards and other vile livers’. He stole time for reading and writing from his other obligations to family and business, rising early and writing late. He sought constantly to discern the hand of God in everyday events, whether mercies bestowed on the faithful or judgments visited on sinners. In particular, he tried to understand the events of his own life in this providential light: the safe return of a lost child, an escape from sudden death when a wall collapsed, the distressing dishonesty of an employee. He envisaged his writing not only as a discipline and exercise for his own benefit, but as producing works of possible value to others, an example of the struggle to lead a godly life. He returned to some of them in later years, and read over passages from them with his son-in-law, another turner, evidently with similar thoughts and tastes to his own, to whom he bequeathed most of his notebooks.

Little is known of how Wallington was educated, but his handwriting is good, and his style lively and fluent. (He may have been less proficient with figures, to judge by the difficulties he had with his accounts and with keeping track of his finances). His vocabulary and range of allusion owe much to his Bible study, and also, very probably, since he was a keen sermon-goer, to the rhetoric of preaching. Wallington himself exclaims, apostrophises, exalts, condemns, perhaps with the idea that his words might be read or spoken aloud: ‘and will you O London let God goe? O down on your knees and stope the way with your prayrs and teers and stay the Lord with a unfained and sound Refoemation’. His literary style may also have been influenced by the flood of polemic literature and political ephemera that poured off the presses after the collapse of censorship in 1641, much of it highly partisan, contentious, or vituperative. But there are certainly personal touches and idiosyncrasies, including the striking metaphor that surely alludes to personal experience: ‘the conscience awakened … is like to a gowtie joint so sore, and painfull that it cannot endure itselfe’; ‘profite and pleasure … were unto mee as conserves and marmalent to a sicke man ; it clammed mee and their very sweetnesse was bitter and troubelsome unto mee’.

As this may suggest, physical health and well-being form a frequent topic in his writing, as they do for Pepys and other contemporaries. The agonies of toothache, the terror of fits and fever, are vividly recounted (‘what comfort can a man take in anything if hee wants his helth?’). Wallington’s most compelling writing, to the modern reader, is his description of his wife’s and children’s illnesses, and of the deaths of four of the latter in infancy or early childhood. There is no self-dramatisation or over-writing here, but a struggle to accept: despite their prayers, ‘the Lord would not heere us but took from us our sweete sonne Nehemiah the seventh day of November 1628 for causes best knowen too himselfe’.

Wallington’s worldview was consistent and coherent, even if aspects of it seem strange to us. It is clear that he not only preached but sought to practise Christian virtue, whether at the personal, emotional level ­– for example in seeking to overcome grief and achieve resignation in the face of bereavement – or in more practical actions such as taking a widowed sister-in-law and her children, and an orphaned nephew, into his own modest household. His conception of family was expansive and charitable, unlike Pepys’s highly transactional view of his relations. In other ways too, Wallington exemplifies a traditional morality and sense of rooted order: the disciplined, patriarchal household, respect for civic values and hierarchy, a strong sense of a fixed station in life, engagement with neighbours and neighbourhood.

None of these applies, in anything like the same degree, to Pepys. The contrast between Wallington and Pepys is to a significant extent one of personality. Nehemiah’s Puritanism reflected a religious enthusiasm unconfined to any one age. But it is hard not to see in the separate lives of Pepys and Wallington at least some of the emergent social divisions of a rapidly changing world.


Vanessa Harding