Enduring Losers of the English Reformation

Excellent works of scholarship on the Reformation and its legacy have accompanied the Quincentennial Anniversary of Martin Luther’s argument with his archbishop over indulgences (He probably didn’t post his 95 theses on a church door—rather in a private letter to the bishop—but that is a topic for another day). Diarmaid MacCulloch’s essay collection and Carlos Eire’s survey appeared last year. This year has seen the Oxford Handbook of Protestant Reformations, two additional surveys by Peter Marshall and Ulinka Rublack respectively, new books on Luther from Brad Gregory and Heinz Schilling, Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World by Alan Ryrie (which Donald Devine reviewed for Law and Liberty), and an essay collection edited by Peter Marshall.

Nor is this list exhaustive, for it does not include more narrowly focused historical studies or the less scholarly books appearing as part of the confessional celebration by Protestant theologians and historians. Five centuries after the fact, the political and religious significance of Martin Luther’s actions for every country in Europe at the time and for the world afterwards, and the contested connections between the various movements Luther sparked, remain areas for fertile historical exploration and debate.

To this outpouring, Eamon Duffy, a leading scholar of the English Reformation, has contributed 14 essays that he has gathered under the title, Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants, and the Conversion of England. In many ways, Duffy’s book is an outlier, emphasizing as it does the English Reformation (or Reformations) effectively to the exclusion of the Continental reform movements. Luther is scarcely mentioned (he appears on 11 pages). Nor are Protestant efforts at self-definition in any way the focus: Of the 14 essays, Catholic martyrdom, Catholic leadership, Catholic missions, and Catholic recusancy take up 10. “Godly” (mostly Puritan) and Quaker attempts to reform the church more fully, especially in the 17th century (over a hundred years after Luther), claim the final four. Finally, the dominant group in England, the Church of England, is not central to any of the essays; neither the politics surrounding its direction or the theology of its leaders feature prominently.

Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, has limited himself to writing correctives to the standard accounts of the Reformation. Whereas most studies of the subject highlight the (regional) winners—Luther in Germany, John Calvin in parts of Switzerland and the Huguenots in their cities of refuge, the Anabaptists where they managed to survive and grow, and whichever group of Anglicans was ascendant at any given time—Reformation Divided focuses on the losers. Duffy finds the unpopular part of Thomas More’s life, and explicates it. He spends chapters describing Roman Catholic preaching efforts in England that have been all but forgotten by historians because they did not produce an expanding Catholic community but nurtured a small and dwindling one.

Even the book’s sections on the Protestants shine the spotlight on the marginal ones. Two chapters are devoted to the English Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who was expelled from his preaching position more than once despite his tremendous popular following among the laity and clergy. Another takes as its subject George Fox, founder of the Quakers. Of these men Duffy writes with considerable respect.

Even by the standard of “English Reformation” studies, major players are barely mentioned. Thomas Cranmer gets four pages, Thomas Cromwell one, and William Laud receives a single mention. The author of the Douay-Rheims Bible gets a chapter. The King James Bible and the Geneva Bible that preceded it are scarcely mentioned.

This is not, therefore, an attempt to revise MacCulloch’s All Things Made New (2016) or A.G. Dickens’ The English Reformation (1964). In not concerning itself with the main forces that gave the English Reformation its defining contours, the book lacks an overarching narrative. Instead Duffy trains his attention on how his subjects understood the events they lived through and how attempts at reform that failed to change the direction of history in dramatic ways still produced subtle changes that endured. But this, I hasten to add, is a valuable contribution, for it illuminates how people carved out space in a rapidly changing world for theological and cultural priorities that are alien to us today.

In elucidating the difference between early modern priorities and our own, Duffy makes this a compelling sequel to the work that established his reputation, The Stripping of the Altars. Published in 1992, it was Duffy’s first monograph, and it changed the scholarly conversation about the forces driving the English Reformation by showing that, contrary to Dickens’ claims, the English people did not hope for a reformation, nor welcome it when it came. The English loved their saints, invested in their church fabrics, and marked their year with church festivals. The Stripping of the Altars also demonstrated that, through religious observance, art, and prayer, the English people were hardly superstitious semi-pagans, but rather fairly knowledgeable about the content of their beliefs. The only way to make a dramatic change to English parish life was assertive state action. As further evidence, Duffy found examples of principled political resistance to religious changes, connecting popular rebellions of the 1530s and 1540s to religious rather than strictly economic considerations.

That work and Duffy’s shorter history of an English parish during the same period (Voices of Morebath, 2001) depicted the world of the early Renaissance English peasant with considerable richness and warmth. They described the various waves of reform during which the Tudor state banned traditions, destroyed parish sub-organizations that were the basis for community in pre-Reformation parish life, and confiscated or destroyed the images, banners, and vestments of the parishes and chapels. What remained was an impoverished religious observance—impoverished because the crown had seized endowments but also because it had removed much of the impetus for voluntary parish involvement.

In Reformation Divided, Duffy revisits the pre-Reformation period in English religious life, beginning, however, not with popular devotions but with a particularly troubling aspect of the life of Thomas More. More has two faces in the popular imagination: the benign, humanist, conscience-driven academic of Robert Bolt’s play and 1966 movie A Man for All Seasons, and of the popular Catholic imagination, versus the cold and cruel fanatic of Richard Marius’ 1984 scholarly biography, the lurid Tudors miniseries, and Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall (2009) with its own television adaptation.

Neither portrayal reconciles the two faces of More: the reflective humanist martyr with the  Chancellor who punished heretics. The issue is conscience—if More was willing to die for following his conscience, how could he have executed men for following theirs? Marius and Mantel et al. conclude that More, who definitely hated heretics, must not have been reflective, humorous, or kind (or he was deeply mentally ill). Modern hagiographers are silent on More’s heretic-hunting and angry polemical treatises.

Duffy makes the anti-Protestant polemic the focus of a three-chapter treatment of the man, arguing that these writings demonstrate More’s rhetorical skill and even playfulness as a humanist, and that the Lord High Chancellor’s later stand against Henry VIII cannot be understood apart from his earlier commitments. In these works, More explains his position clearly and forcefully: Protestants threaten to destroy the fabric of society, and the lies told by arrested heretics to avoid death demonstrate that their cause is not the righteous one. Utopia and More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529) are of a piece and, as Duffy says, “Twenty-first century hand-wringing about the horridness of persecution seem a poor gauge of the contemporary effectiveness of More’s urgent advocacy.”

The middle portion of Reformation Divided picks up the arguments of Duffy’s uncomfortably titled 2009 book Fires of Faith, about the reestablishment of Catholicism under Mary I, often known as Bloody Mary. (Reformation historians writing about martyrs seem to have a penchant for uncomfortable titles; consider Brad Gregory’s 1999 work on martyrdom, Salvation at Stake.) Fires of Faith delved into the successes of the Marian reaction—the preaching, the scholarly debates, the use of the Primer as a tool of catechesis, and how the short reign of Mary made possible centuries of continued, covert Catholicism. Duffy had argued that by the markers available in 1559, the Catholicization program of Mary’s reign was highly successful.

For example, Mary’s bishops, with but one exception, rejected Elizabeth’s Anglican settlement, preferring death or imprisonment to accepting the “via media,” even though many of those same men had been bishops under Edward VI. Duffy sought to demonstrate—and perhaps he did—that while many were willing to consider Protestantism in the 1540s, the leadership’s excitement for schism had waned by the 1550s.

The new book expands on that earlier research, linking Mary’s reign with later recusant Catholic history. Although England embraced Protestantism, Catholics remained in England and those hereditary Catholics created a narrative of English Reformation history which prompted both later conversions and the creation of the Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Church of England.

The seven chapters on “Counter-Reformation England” provide snapshots of that history. Through Cardinal Reginald Pole’s preaching program during Mary’s reign, many laymen reconverted. Those converts were sustained by the priests coming from the English seminary in France, the Douay-Rheims Bible, the primers produced for English use, and, of course the Jesuits. Finally, Duffy demonstrates how this native Catholic historiographical tradition played a pivotal role in the 19th century Tractarian movement. Duffy argues that the histories produced by the recusant community engendered an “unsettl[ed] ambivalence towards the Church of England’s Reformation inheritance” in the Tractarians—both those who created the idea of “Anglo-Catholicism” and those, like John Henry Cardinal Newman, who sought communion with Rome.

In the book’s third section, Duffy addresses the other losers of the English Reformation—the Puritans or “hotter sort of Protestants” and the radical Protestants such as the Quakers who were suppressed at the time of the Stuart Restoration.

He argues on the basis of publication records that Puritan priorities made major headway during the 17th century, a conclusion that parallels what he found concerning the pre-Reformation English population whom the early Protestant preachers set out to convert from their superstitious ways. Just as the religious devotions of the pre-Reformation peasant showed a deeper faith than an ignorant reliance on magic, the 17th century cobbler who frequented alehouses might read godly books, and attend long sermons. Furthermore, as Mary I’s program of Catholic re-conversion created the subsequent recusant church, the Puritan successes were not totally wiped out by the restoration of the monarchy. Just as the Jesuits sustained the recusant communities, preachers converted by Baxter took jobs in parishes under the reinstated bishops.

The popular religion absent from this book—and in many treatments of the Reformation—would show us how the mainstream, Prayer Book Anglicans who were neither recusants nor Puritans adjusted and created identities for themselves as Anglican Englishmen (later Britons). Cranmer, for all that he inflicted the Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552) on an unwilling population, created a triumph of language that played a defining role in English culture. While not visual, the Book is a work of art with respect to language—and was recognized as such when the Roman Catholic Church appropriated large sections of it for liturgical use.

The emphasis on a spoken religion, coinciding with the rise of cheap print-making, made a language-based religion more feasible in the 17th century than in the 15th. Anglicans as well as Puritans used a Bible, but the Bible-reading was reinforced by a weekly worship service that is heavily derivative of the language of scripture and shaped the translation choices made by the creators of the King James Bible. The language of tracts and supplementary religious publications further contributed to the 17th and 18th century world that was rife with scriptural allusions, and these were not confined to the writings of fiery reformed theologians.

A chapter on these people, however, would have meant treating the Anglican majority, whom Duffy consciously avoids in this book. Or perhaps it will be a subject for his next.