Much can be said, and indeed already has been said, about the extensive diaries that Jane Attwater Blatch kept for over sixty years of her long life. Found in thirty homemade notebooks and an assortment of other bound and loose sheets, Attwater’s diaries are primarily structured around times of worship and personal anniversaries. Entries vary in length, content, and form — often moving between poetry and prose — and frequently interweave devotional reflections and prayers with details of family and community life. Occasionally, Attwater abandoned these rhythms and structures to record particularly significant events, such as the final illness and death of her mother in 1784, and that of her daughter in 1809. Committing each of these various events to writing was an important opportunity for Attwater to renew her commitment and devotion to God. Like many British Nonconformist and Dissenting Women of the long eighteenth century, Attwater’s diaries were influenced by experimental Calvinist traditions of spiritual diary-keeping. True to the tradition they spring from, Attwater’s diaries were practical in their outlook, seeking to record, support, and sustain habits of holy living in the context of her religious community.
One of the purposes for which early British Calvinists began to use diaries was to aid in the process of understanding, remembering, and applying the Word — encountered through sermons and reading scripture alone or in community — to their lives. The vast majority of Attwater’s diary entries are comprised of the date, location, and preacher of sermons she attended, as well as her own reflections and responses to those sermons. In her diary, Attwater wrote prayers for ‘not only a bare knowledge of [sacred truths] but also a practice of ym’ (see entry for 27 November 1774), and asked that sermons would be ‘impressed on [her] heart & reduced into practice’ (see 27 March 1793). On 14 August 1769, Attwater inscribed the words of a hymn by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) on the inside cover of her diary:
O Write upon my Mem’ry Lord
The texts and doctrines of thy Word
That I may break thy Law, no more
But Love thee better than before.
(Watts, Song 28, Divine and Moral Songs for Children, 1715)
On the inside covers of a number of her other notebooks, Attwater inscribed the word ‘Ebenezer’, signalling another key feature of her diaries and of British Calvinist diaries more generally. The name Ebenezer — meaning ‘stone of help’ — is taken from the stone pillar which the prophet Samuel erected between Mizpah and Shen after the Philistines returned the ark of the covenant to Israel. The early chapters of 1 Samuel narrate how the Israelites forgot God, sinned against Him, and came under oppression, before taking the ark of the covenant into battle against the Philistines, thinking it might save them. Consequently, Ebenezer was a crucially important witness against forgetting again that ‘Hitherto the Lord has helped us’ (1 Samuel 7:12). In January 1776, Attwater wove the prophet Samuel’s words into her own:
Indulgent Goodness has hitherto preserved my unprofitable Life Hitherto can I say of a truth has ye Lord helped me – how various has been ye mercies wch I have recd in ye past year various preservations & deliverances has my dear relatives recd in wch apparent times of danger God has heard & granted us a Gracious answer to ye desires of our hearts may an abiding sense of yt kind overruling providence ever impress my mind I was unworthy of ye least good I recd in past periods ’twas alone oweing to ye free unmerited Goodness of God not for any desert in myself may this thought of my unworthyness, be immovably fix’d on my heart & by a consideration of past excite in me a cheerful hope & confidence in God for a continuance of mercys in future time. (To read this entry in full, click here.)
The duty of giving God due thanks, and the danger and sinfulness of forgetting His mercies and sovereign will, was emphasized by John Beadle (1595–1667) in his seminal Calvinist diary-writing manual, The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian (1656). In fact, in his address to the reader of The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian, Beadle’s friend and fellow minister, John Fuller, referred to the manual itself as ‘a Pillar of Praise, an Eben-ezer set up to the name of the most high God; an Ed [Hebrew “witness”]; a Stone of witnesse, both of Gods goodnesse to us, and of our evill and unthankfulnesse against him’. Attwater’s writings were not her only memorial and witness of God’s Providence. At the end of 1793, remembering how her family had survived the birth of their daughter, Annajane, as well as threats of smallpox, Jane observed that the Blatch’s themselves were ‘living monuments of God’s goodness’ (29 December 1793).
Another reason for recording experiences of Providence was to gain assurance of election. For eighteenth-century Particular Baptists, this was foundational to their self-understanding as a ‘gathered church’ of the elect. Consequently, recording providences and examining her heart was particularly important in Attwater’s early diaries, in the lead up to her baptism in 1776. Nonetheless, this practice also formed an ongoing part of her devotional life and the lifelong process of preparing for death which Particular Baptists held so important. After her daughter was born, Attwater also began to record providences in her daughter’s life, examining her for early signs of election. For example, after being out in a storm in 1801, Attwater thanked God not only for preserving the family but also for the ‘impression’ the storm had on ten-year-old Annajane, who solemnly said, ‘this mama is for our sins’ (19 July 1801). It was around this age that Anna’s father dated her conversion when he later reflected on his daughter’s physical and spiritual state in a letter penned not long before her death (see Joseph Blatch, Bratton, to an unidentified recipient, [c. 1809]). Recording evidence of God’s grace in Annajane’s life became more urgent as she suffered from tuberculosis and hope for her recovery diminished. Annajane and her mother’s search for assurance can be traced throughout the diary Jane kept during Annajane’s final illness (which you can read in full here).
Recalling God’s past and ongoing grace was also a source of strength in trying times. Due to God’s faithfulness to His elect, highlighted in the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance, past providences suggested more would follow. In a letter to her sister, Caroline Attwater Whitaker, Jane Attwater applied Psalm 42:11 to the sisters’ experience of losing several family members in 1784–85:
tis true every Christian have [sic] reason for the deepest humility & self abasement before God but whenever we take a survey of our own hearts & actions we must endeavour also to adopt ye resolution & example here before us [in the Psalm] & pray for strength to reduce into practice to hope in God in a well grounded assurance derived from ye precious promises of unerring truth […] & from numerous past Evidences (Jane Attwater, Bodenham, to Caroline Whitaker, Bratton, [Friday], 27 May ).
As demonstrated by Attwater’s writings about her daughter, another significant subject of Attwater’s diaries – in addition to sermons and providences – is people. While the lives of others are generally not considered a distinctive feature of Protestant spiritual diaries, which are often considered from a more autobiographical perspective, they held an important role in experimental Calvinist devotion, religious instruction, and nonconformist identity. Nonconformist biographies of exemplary public lives reinforced collective religious identity, and Attwater’s records of her exemplary loved ones reinforced her family’s religious identity, making them valuable texts for the study of family history as well as nonconformist women’s history. Moreover, remembering and imitating pious examples directed Attwater back to God’s Word and doctrine, aligning the memorialisation of people with the central aims of experimental Calvinism.
While any pious person could provide an encouraging example of holy living for others to imitate, as funeral sermons of the period demonstrate, there were stronger motivations to follow the example of a loved one. In particular, the hope of being reunited with a loved one in heaven was strengthened by, and thus provided motivation for, living piously as they did. Living with this hope, Attwater preserved records for the consolation and spiritual instruction of present and future generations. While she recorded the lives of a variety of persons, the most extensive examples are provided by both Attwater’s diary of her daughter’s final illness (see link above) — which explicitly invites the reader to imitate Annajane’s pious example in its final pages — and the variety of texts she wrote over more than three decades in response to the death of her mother, Anna Gay Attwater, in 1784. Attwater’s writings on her mother and daughter highlight that such memorial texts were not intended solely for instruction. Rather, they were motivated by bonds between loved ones.
A few days after Anna Attwater’s death, the prolonged break Jane Attwater took from diary-writing while she cared for her dying mother gave way to extended writings on her mother’s final illness and Attwater’s prolonged grief. In the years following Anna Attwater’s death, Jane’s diaries and lamenting prose meditations recorded and aided in the transformation of grief into active efforts to perpetuate her mother’s memory. Jane would refer to the latter as ‘imbibing’ her mother's precepts and practices. Attwater continued to memorialise her mother in writing for the remainder of her life, often observing the anniversary of Anna’s death in her diary as an occasion to thank and praise God, and ask to be ‘prepared’ to meet her mother in heaven. For example, on 8 April 1785, the first anniversary of her mother’s death, Attwater countered her morbid reflection on her mother’s body in ‘ye dreary mansion of ye grave’ with the ‘chearing hope of being again reanimated & reunited in another & better state’ by following the ‘Examples’ of those gone before. Yet, this hope did not put an end to Attwater’s grief. On the thirtieth anniversary of Anna’s death in 1814, Attwater reflected that she had ‘most tenderly mournd & felt [her] loss for 20 years’ (8 April 1814). However, she adds
at that period I began to take a different view […] the thought occurred I did wrong to retrace my sorrows & ye departure of a venerated saint to Heaven — I checkd the mourning thought & starting tears with the Idea that It was my duty now to look forward & anticipate a happy meeting in a better world (8 April 1814).
Consequently, she implored her soul to ‘quicken thy diligence in Every Christian duty’, prayed, ‘O blessed spirit sanctify & renew my depraved heart’, and hoped it would be her ‘Earnest desire to be prepared to meet my beloved parent in a state of perfect Holiness’ (8 April 1814).
It is important to note that Attwater was both a reader and writer of diaries. She certainly read her mother’s diaries, as well as those of her aunts Anne Steele and Anne Cator Steele, on which she seems to have modelled her diaries, initially at least. Reading the diaries of deceased family and friends as a source of consolation, guidance, or family history was common among nonconformists and, from as early as 1791, Attwater even included pages from her mother’s diary within her own. Cynthia Aalders has called this practice a ‘diary-conversation’, which strongly resembles the layered family diaries of Anne Cator Steele (‘Faith, Family, and Memory in the Diaries of Jane Attwater, 1766–1834’, p. 157). After Annajane Blatch’s death, one such diary-conversation stretched across four generations of women. Alongside a reflection on the day of her daughter Annajane’s death, in which Attwater explicitly compared Annajane’s final illness with that of her mother, Jane included a page from her mother’s diary that recorded the loss of an infant son, decades earlier. In that entry, Anna Attwater wrote of how her own mother, Jane Attwater's grandmother, shared the loss and ‘loved [the boy] as well as I did’ (undated, in Jane Attwater’s entry for Friday, 28 July 1809). By including this diary entry, Jane was likewise able to share the loss of her child with her departed mother.
Jane Attwater continued to chronicle her life and the lives of her loved ones in her diary until she was about eighty years old. Whether recording sermons, providences, or people, Jane Attwater aimed to, as she called it, ‘reduce them into practice’, in order to live a life ever more devoted to and dependent upon the grace of God. In this way, writing was not an end in itself: Attwater’s written texts aided in transforming living memories — of precepts, providences, and people — into practices and lived traditions which could extend beyond the lifetime of the writer. In doing so, the remembrancer herself became a living ‘monument’ or ‘memorial’.
Aalders, Cynthia Y. ‘Faith, Family, and Memory in the Diaries of Jane Attwater, 1766–1834’, Angelaki, 22, no. 1 (2017), 153–62.
Cambers, Andrew. ‘Reading, the Godly, and Self-Writing in England, Circa 1580–1720’, Journal of British studies, 46, no. 4 (2007), 796–825.
Coffey, John, ed. Heart Religion: Evangelical Piety in England and Ireland, 1690–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Hunt, Arnold. The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Smith, Karen. ‘Preparation as a Discipline of Devotion in Eighteenth-Century England: A Lost Facet of Baptist Identity?’. In Baptist Identities: International Studies from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, ed. by Ian M. Randall, Toivo Pilli, and Anthony R. Cross (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), pp. 22–44.
Webster, Tom. ‘Writing to Redundancy: Approaches to Spiritual Journals and Early Modern Spirituality’, The Historical Journal, 39, no.1 (1996), 33–56 (pp. 35–38).
Whelan, Timothy. ‘Jane Attwater (1753–1843)’. In Other British Voices: Women, Poetry, and Religion, 1766–1840 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 127–54.
Whitehouse, Tessa. ‘Memory, Community and Textuality in Nonconformist Life‐Writings, 1760–1810’, Journal for Eighteenth-century Studies, 41, no. 2 (2018), 163–78.
About the Author
Eloise Quinn-Valentine graduated with a Masters of Theology (Theology in History) from the University of Edinburgh in 2021, completing her dissertation on the life writing of Jane Attwater Blatch. Eloise is passionate about faith, storytelling, education, justice, and compassion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org