CHURCH historians can be a frustratingly coy, even prudish bunch. We all know what a great many of our readers are looking for: not just honest and accurate history, not even just well-told stories and fresh insights, but something of spiritual value.
Modern Christians are interested in reading about Christians in the past, because, as Jonathan Dean puts it in this refreshing book, they are the rock from which we were hewn. We are hungry not only to learn about the past, but to learn from it.
But the approved mood of modern academic and secular history is knowing, cynical detachment. So, historians who are also believers tend to keep the fact well hidden. At best, we might flash the audience some ankle and hope that they get the hint. And so this book fills a surprisingly large gap in the market.
Jonathan Dean, a tutor at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, has found a simple and humane way to tell English-speaking Christians the story of their English Reformation forebears: to tell the stories of ten individuals from the 16th and 17th centuries, most of them obviously flawed, but all of them in their own ways possible to admire — which is what Dean does.
His characters are mostly well-known — Thomas More, Archbishop Cranmer, Elizabeth I, George Herbert; the most obscure ones are More’s hagiographer Nicholas Harpsfield and the punchy Protestant martyr Anne Askew. Each stands alone, but he does use them to weave a story of the English Reformation.
In the 16th century, his heroes include the men and women who died, and killed, for either side of the schism; in the 17th, he prefers the wisdom of moderation, and gives us George Herbert and Thomas Traherne rather than George Fox and John Milton.
What readers will remember, however, is not the narrative arc, but the characters. Historians may carp that he is too forgiving. (Yes, Queen Elizabeth was genuinely reluctant to order her cousin’s execution, but she did try to solve the problem by having the jailer arrange a discreet death in custody.) But the gentleness with which Dean treats his characters is itself all too rare.
Anne Askew is normally depicted as a combative proto-feminist, and her first biographer, John Bale, as an interfering mansplainer. For Dean, Bale’s achievement was to recognise that Askew’s suffering and her death were positively Christlike in pattern — “an English Protestant Christa”.
That generosity of vision sets this book apart, and reminds us that we would be unwise to try to live by debunking and iconoclasm alone.
Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.
To Gain at Harvest: Portraits from the English Reformation
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18