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Devout life of the spirit at war with the flesh

24 January 2014

Adam Morton looks through a window into the Reformation

Being Protestant in Reformation Britain
Alec Ryrie

OUP £45
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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 considerable challenges.

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 acclimatize."

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 Oxford.

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