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The black-pudding controversialist

14 June 2013

Alec Ryrie considers the reputation of a 'mad' puritan

The Honest Heretique: The life and work of William Erbery (1604-1654)
John I. Morgans
Y Lolfa £14.95
Church Times Bookshop £13.45 (Use code CT124  )

THIS book is written to rescue a largely forgotten Welsh cleric from both obscurity and calumny. William Erbery had made himself a reputation as a puritan vicar of Cardiff in the 1630s, but was very much a mainstream figure until the Civil War came. Then he became a chaplain to the Parliamentary army, and so got caught up in the heady explosion of wild theologies which the army incubated.

"The honest heretique" was his own description of himself in his later years, but contemporaries were not so kind. His books grew increasingly radical in content and ferocious in tone. His last published work was an anticlerical tract, Jack Pudding, or a Minister made a Black-Pudding; and his final book, published posthumously, was The Great Earthquake, or Fall of All the Churches. Unsurprisingly, contemporaries claimed that he had gone mad and died raving.

As John Morgans and others have made clear, this was not so; or, at least, Erbery's madness was not his own, but the madness that had gripped a whole country. He is a case study in how wrenching and unprecedented events can transform religion with astonishing speed. In this deeply conformist society, suddenly, anything was possible. Erbery, like many others, found himself spinning off into ever more idiosyncratic views, turning English Christianity into a virtual Babel.

So he went through Presbyterianism, Independency, and Baptism, and eventually denounced them all: he preached universalism, antinomianism, and absolute religious freedom, opposing any form of structured Church and expecting God to rule directly. It is pretty clear where he would have gone had he lived a little longer: he would have become a Quaker, as his widow and daughter eventually did. The early Quakers read his works appreciatively.

In this book, Morgans has collected extracts from 31 of Erbery's tracts, to give a representative sample of his kaleidoscopic views. Morgans's view is that Erbery was "an intellectual and moral giant", which I am afraid I do not quite see. But if you want a glimpse of the exhilarating, phantasmagoric chaos of mid-17th century religion, you will find it here.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.

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