Over forty people attended a highly successful Regional Day Conference of the International John Bunyan Society held on 10 April 2015 in the new Gateway building at the Bedford Campus of the University of Bedfordshire.
The subject of the conference was ‘Representing Dissent in the Long Eighteenth Century’, and it was organised by Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire) in collaboration with Professor David Walker (Northumbria University). Speakers included (in the order in which they spoke): Professor Anne Dunan-Page (Aix-Marseille Université), Jenna Townend (PhD student, Loughborough University), Ed Legon (PhD student, University College London), Professor David Walker (Northumbria University), Dr Alan Argent (Dr Williams’s Library), Dr Nicholas Seager (Keele University), Professor Jeffrey Hopes (Université d’Orleans), and Dr Tessa Whitehouse (Queen Mary University of London). Among the audience were academics from over a dozen universities in the UK and France, together with students and members of the public from the local area.
This event was the first in what David and Bob hope will become a regular series of Regional Day Conferences, to be held alternately in Bedford and Newcastle. As Bob remarked in his introduction, it was appropriate that the inaugural conference should be held in Bedford, since it is the Mecca for all scholars of Bunyan and the Dissenting tradition! The theme of the conference was how Dissenters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represented themselves and were represented by others during a long period in which they suffered oppression and discrimination because of their refusal to accept that the state had the right to dictate how and where they should worship God.
Protestant Dissenters were of course a small minority in English society, making up less than ten per cent of the population. They were eventually granted a measure of religious liberty under the Toleration Act of 1689, but it was not until well into the nineteenth century that they were granted equal rights with members of the Church of England in civil matters.
Topics discussed by speakers included how Dissenting congregations kept ‘church books’ where they recorded details of the life and activities of the community; the ways in which Dissenters attempted to defend themselves against accusations of ‘disloyalty’ to the state, given their participation in the upheavals of the English Revolution; how, following the granting of toleration they began to establish organisations and libraries to support the work of Dissenting ministers; how leading Dissenters like Daniel Defoe took part in public debates on matters of national political concern and sought to influence opinion; and how Dissenting women used poetry and other forms of writing as a means of self-representation.
It was evident from the enthusiasm of participants and the high level of discussion throughout the day that delegates found the papers lively, accessible and interesting. At a time when the rights and freedoms of different religious minorities are under threat in many countries, the topic of this conference could hardly have been more pressing or relevant.