Robert Marsden, Minister of Clitheroe

Yesterday I sought refuge from the rain in Clitheroe library, whereupon I found Seventeenth Century Clitheroe, by William Self Weeks, date of publication unknown (the frontispiece is stamped 1878, but references to the 1890s within the text suggest this is erroneous). The book discusses Robert Marsden, the curate of Clitheroe from 1641-1672. Here is a minister with my name living in a period in which I’m deeply interested. Was he a sincere puritan or a weather-vane hireling?

He certainly had puritan leanings in his youth. He was appointed minister just before the civil war and spiritual comfort was much wanting. He was a curate rather than a rector. The rector of Whalley received all the tithes and income from Clitheroe Chapel; as a ‘perpetual curate’ he was not entitled to receive the parish’s full remuneration, instead receiving £25 per year. Some survived on less; others received much more. 

In 1650, the Commonwealth Survey, described him as ‘an able divine’. The Commonwealth government was very keen to remove incompetent ministers who couldn’t and wouldn’t preach; they certainly did not approve of every Lancashire clergymen. Only good puritans were assured employment. 

In 1662, however, he conformed to the Act of Uniformity. This law sought to remove strict puritans, by requiring them to give up preaching, instead reading ‘homilies’ (dry, state-approved speeches), reading set prayers and wearing a surplice, a white vestment, which many thought too Roman Catholic. That he agreed to do all this, suggests his puritanism was rather moderate or that he was a charlatan. He might have been concerned to lose his £25 stipend; had he failed to conform, he’d have lost his home, job and that whole year’s pay. 

Before the Restoration, one finds no reference to him associating with the other puritans of the area. He does not seem to attend the 1646 Presbyterian classis (ministers’ meeting), unlike Adam Boulton of Blackburn, Robert Worthington of Harwood, Richard Reman of Low Church (I’m not sure where this is), William Walker of Whalley, Henry Maurice of Burnley, John Buyers of Padiham William Ingham of Church, and John King of Chipping. Where was Mr Marsden?

In 1648, the Presbyterian ministers of Lancashire signed a document called The Harmonious Consent. Marsden’s name is missing. Neither is he ever mentioned in the diaries of Thomas Jollie, the Congregationalist of Altham. Why did he not seem to associate with other godly minsters?

Although he had to ‘conform’ to the new Prayer Book by 14th August 1662, the church at Clitheroe did not buy a copy until November; it was only in March 1663 that they bothered to have a table cloth dyed to make an altar cloth (required by law), and it was another 24 years before they procured a communion rail. This begrudging and lethargic conformity perhaps indicates that Marsden and his congregation were sincerely puritan, but moderately, and quietly so.

He apparently resigned in 1672, with the Church Warden’s account books stating: ‘Spent when we did take leave with Mr Marsden’: 1 shilling 10 pence.

He was buried in May 1675, the register reading ‘Mr. Robert Marsden, late curate to Clitherow buryed the 25th day of May Anno domini 1675’

So, was he an evangelical who sold out to money and job security at the last minute? Was he a genuine man who sought to avoid controversy and church politics, keeping his head down, and concentrating on his flock?

Only God knows the heart. What would this Marsden have done in the same situation? Only God knows.