An Analysis of Anne Dutton’s Bible at one time in the possession of Anne Steele of Broughton
The possibility that Anne Dutton (1692-1765) bequeathed her Bible to Anne Steele (1717-78) prior to her death in 1765 has circulated for some time, certainly since its inclusion in Hugh Martin's “The Baptist Contribution to Early English Hymnody,” which appeared in the Baptist Quarterly in 1961. If true, Dutton's act would offer rich connections between the two Baptist women writers. A closer examination of the volume, however, suggests otherwise.
The bible in question is the 1698 edition of the King James Bible by John Canne (Broughton Church Collection, 10/1, Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford), which was popular for more than a century mainly due to his notes. This version of the Bible first appeared in 1647 and a portion of the original Preface has been copied in a very small but neat hand near the front of the volume. The hand is not that of Anne Dutton nor does it appear to be that of Benjamin Dutton, for if the entries in the Great Gransden Church Book between 1732 and 1743 are by him (and they normally would be by the pastor), then the two hands do not match. If neither wrote the passage, then the bible was owned by someone else at some point, possibly Benjamin Dutton’s father, who bequeathed his books to Benjamin after his death in 1719. After Anne Dutton’s death in 1765, her books, along with her husband’s library (more than 200 volumes) were bequeathed to the library of the Great Gransden Baptist Church, where they remained into the 20th century.
There are no markings in the bible that can be definitively identified with either Anne or Benjamin Dutton. This bible was not used as a study or devotional bible by Dutton or anyone else, for the binding is as tight as it was when it was initially purchased and the pages pristine and devoid of any signs of use. Some pencilled scribblings in shorthand can be found on the inside of the front and back covers, but they appear to have been added later in an unknown hand. The handwriting of the notations on the inside page at the front of the bible that identify Dutton and Anne Steele and their death dates are also not in of Anne Dutton. Furthermore, the note uses the spelling “Ann” instead of “Anne” (which is how Dutton signed her letters and her name in the Great Gransden Church Book) and also records Dutton’s death date, which for obvious reasons Dutton could not have known. The only identifiable hand anywhere in the bible is that of Anne Steele, whose signature graces that same page.
One of the most telling features of the bible is the bookplate on the inside cover: “John Collins, Devizes.” This bookplate makes clear that at some point Dutton’s death, this bible was not bequeathed to the church but was either purchased or given to Collins (c. 1740s-1816) by someone connected with the church. Collins became a member of the Broughton church where Anne Steele worshiped in 1765, the year Dutton died. Most likely he is the son of John Collins, also of Devizes, who preached for several years in the 1770s to a congregation of Baptists there and who was known to the Steeles through their relations, the Attwaters, who themselves had relations through marriage with the Collinses (see reference to John Collins the minister in Jane Attwater's diary for 1775) It is possible that both father and son were antiquarians, but the portrait now held among the collections at Yale would seem to suggest by its date (c. 1799) that he is the John Collins who was a member at Broughton and died in 1816, possibly maintaining his business in Devizes during those years.
As a book collector and antiquarian of some note in Wiltshire at that time, and a Baptist, Collins would have been keen on acquiring something of the celebrated Anne Dutton and may have acquired the bible for the purpose of giving it to Steele as a gift. It is also possible that Steele may have asked Collins to get something of Dutton’s for her own library as a keepsake of the prolific writer.
In either case, Anne Steele's acceptance of the bible and her signature on its inside page suggest a recognition on her part of Dutton’s place in a developing tradition of Baptist women writers., an important feature of this story, regardless of any "bequeathing" on the part of Dutton. By acquiring this volume, Collins found a way to tie the two women together. It seems likely that the origin of the bible as belonging to Anne Dutton is not in error, since Collins, as an antiquarian collector, would have been reluctant for the story to spread if it was not true. A claim of that nature would have been easily proved or disproved at that time. Thus, we should accept this part of the story as fact, that the bible was indeed once in the possession of Anne Dutton.
The corresponding claim that Anne Dutton bequeathed the bible to Anne Steele is easily disproved, though many would prefer the claim to be true. The bookplate alone is sufficient evidence that Anne Steele did not receive the book from Dutton but from Collins, who would never have affixed his bookplate to something he did not initially acquire himself. Anne Steele’s signature would have been added after that acquisition, not prior to it. Even without the bookplate, no evidence exists in the volume that suggests any connection between Dutton and Steele. Furthermore, the very idea of bequeathing one's personal bible to someone outside the family would have been extremely uncommon and viewed as immodest and arrogant, since one's devotional time with the bible was as "private" as any time spent during the life of a devout Dissenter
What actually happened is that Collins either purchased or acquired the book in some manner from the estate of Dutton or the Great Gransden Church and then gave the bible as a gift to Anne Steele, who kept the bible among her possessions, some of which were later, like the books of John Collins, bequeathed to the Broughton Church. During the time the volume resided in the church's library the story of the bible being "bequeathed" to Steele most likely originated. In the twentieth century the church’s library was given on loan to the Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford; the books were returned to the church in 1976 and then subsequently sold.