Being Protestant in Reformation Britain
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THIS is a book about what early-modern Protestants did. While
study of Protestant theology is a well-established part of the
historical canon, Protestant practice - or what it actually "felt
like" to be Protestant - is a less established field.
Shifting the gaze from doctrine to devotion, Alec Ryrie - one of
the foremost historians of Britain's Reformations - presents us
with a staggering piece of scholarship for which the term
"essential reading" is redundant. While justification may have been
the central doctrinal element of Protestantism, it was
sanctification - the lifelong quest to live a life rejuvenated in
the Holy Spirit - that took centre-stage in how that doctrine
manifested itself in Christian experience.
Through a study of prayer, reading, sociability, and attitudes
to different parts of the life-cycle, Ryrie's rich account takes us
through that pursuit of sanctification in sinewy detail.
"Christians are more than credal statements on legs," Ryrie notes
in the introduction, and his irresistibly rich account of their
lives in faith presents accounts of the Reformation with
His threefold thesis contends that: Protestantism was a more
intense (by which he means emotionally rich) and dynamic (capable
of engaging "ordinary" believers) religion than previously noted;
and attentiveness to its devotional practices paints a picture of a
faith more inclusive than is often allowed.
Section one considers "The Protestant Emotions" as a corollary
to the commonplace that Protestantism was a purely intellectual or
coldly austere religion - rather, Ryrie suggests, the passions
helped believers to come to God. This could be an exacting faith -
wrestling with despair was a well-nigh everyday affair - but it was
far from a cool one: heart and head were joined in the submission
to God's will.
Section two considers the practice and purpose of prayer in
extraordinarily rich detail, unpicking how important minutiae (the
times, places, and postures of prayer) were to believers'
encounters with God. Sections three and four - treating
reading/writing and sociability respectively - cover more familiar
aspects of scholarship, while section five, "The Protestant Life",
unpicks the range of attitudes to fundamentally human experiences
(childhood, work, death) as a way into the core world-view of
Protestantism. That life was to be lived as a series of crises of
fallen flesh at war with the spirit, and believers martyred in the
world, reminds us how exacting early-modern Protestantism was, and
how removed its advocates are from us. Ryrie has the capacity to
move us and disturb us on the same page.
We might, however, wish that Ryrie had integrated his central
theses into other currents of scholarship. For instance, the claim
that "early modern Protestantism" was both a cogent entity and one
with a "broad base" has the potential to stir the historiographical
pot. Ryrie asserts that the devotional practices that he charts
were so fundamental to the experience of Protestantism as to exist
beneath the period's polemical divides, its gender divisions, and
the differences of the religious cultures of the various British
nations. This call for a "British" perspective is refreshing, and
will (I hope) have significant ramifications for how scholars treat
the topic - Scotland and England were both, after all, heavily
indebted to European currents of Reform.
Perhaps more controversial, however, is the claim for "early
modern Protestantism" as being a unified entity across the period's
chronological span: "A 1530s evangelical who was stranded in the
1630s by a careless time traveller would not have taken too long to
This raises some vital questions: where do the Arminians fit
into this picture? how does a unified Protestantism sit with the
perspectives of scholars (Michael Questier, for instance) who
present early-modern confessional boundaries as remarkably porous?
and what does it say about Protestants' remarkable capacity to fall
out with one another, both within the ivory tower of theological
debate, and at a parish level?
Indeed, had Ryrie situated his picture of a "broad-based"
Protestantism within the emerging scholarship on the "ecumenicity
of the everyday" - by which the way(s) in which Catholics and
Protestants, Conformists and Dissenters, learned to negotiate their
intolerances in the day-to-day act of living - the results would
undoubtedly have been fruitful.
It would be churlish, however, to end on a note of criticism
when presented with scholarship as accomplished as this. Ryrie has
produced a book that is doubly rare: provocative, and yet written
with considerable humility; and scholarly, and yet accessible to
the most general of readers. Challenging his subjects but treating
them with respect throughout, Ryrie, in his considerable admiration
for early-modern Protestants, never shies away from presenting
those aspects of their faith which are unappealing to 21st-century
sensibilities. This is a book written from the heart, and one that,
in its depiction of men and women relentless in their pursuit of
sanctification, gets to the heart of the matter.
Dr Adam Morton is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Faculty of
Medieval and Modern Languages, at the University of