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Muscular Christians

Martin Henry

Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, by Alec Ryrie, Oxford University Press, xvi+498 pp, £24.99, ISBN 978-0198736653

Proverbially, England is associated with a phlegmatic approach to life. In his heyday, former British prime minister Tony Blair, for example, referred to “Cool Britannia” to evoke the relaxed, even laid-back temper of his country. Back in the sixteenth century, things were different. This monumental, prodigiously researched work of scholarship by Alec Ryrie, head of theology and religion and professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University, aims to bring to life the long-vanished world of Reformation Britain which stands in such bewildering contrast to the Britain of today. To borrow a couple of lines from Louis MacNeice: “It was all so unimaginably different / And all so long ago.”

General readers of a book on Reformation Britain might expect it to be largely concerned with the political upheavals of the sixteenth century, the struggle between Henry VIII and the papacy, the emergence of an independent Church of England, with a slightly different trajectory followed in more forthrightly Calvinist-leaning Scotland, the hiccup in the general process associated with the Marian reaction of the 1550s, when Queen Mary tried to win back her realm for Rome, and, naturally, the theological controversies of the time between the Old Church and the Reformers, controversies that embodied the two diverging cultural expressions of Christianity in the West from the sixteenth century onwards, Protestantism and Catholicism. However, while such aspects of the Reformation are not entirely absent from this book they are very much confined to an assumed background.

As a result, it is not an easy read for the general reader, being written, it seems, for specialists familiar with much of the terminology associated with the Reformation period (I have to admit to having been initially stumped, for example, by the term “conformist”, which apparently has a technical meaning – those who accepted the Elizabethan settlement in Church matters –and which was introduced without explanation). And while names like William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, John Foxe, John Donne and George Herbert might be known to most general readers, the vast majority of those mentioned, or their writings, would generally be little known. Robert Persons (sometimes spelt “Parsons”), for instance, appears a few times, and it is indeed indicated that he was a Catholic writer, but that he was a leading sixteenth century English Jesuit is not clear from the text. Admittedly, the book is about Protestantism rather than Catholicism, but it is nevertheless disconcerting to be regularly confronted by so many obscure names. To compound the challenge, quotations are given in the language and spelling of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Only slightly more exasperating is the fact that so many details are furnished in the course of the book – the author is nothing if not painstaking – that frequently it is difficult to see the wood for the trees, and indeed the branches and leaves as well. But perhaps in a work aimed at exploring fairly new territory, an account of facts will have to outweigh attempts to explain just why the dramatic revolution in Christian devotional practice in England and Scotland surveyed here came about in the first place.

The exclusive focus of the book –and what gives it its particular value – is on the devotional life of British Protestants. What Alec Ryrie, who has already written extensively on the Reformation, does in this volume is to try, by extensively scrutinising their devotional lives, to get into the minds and hearts of Protestants in the period from c1530 to 1640, his cut-off point, after which religious life in Britain was to become a lot more violent. Ryrie acknowledges, but defends, his possibly anachronistic use of the term “Protestant” for the early part of the period, arguing that from around the 1530s key elements in what was to become full-blown British Protestantism are clearly discernible, and that throughout the period a broad, unified, religious culture can be detected in Britain. It is one of the guiding principles of this study, in fact, that the traditional distinction in historical writing on the period between “conformist” and “puritan” Protestantism is misleading, that their shared assumptions and devotional practices far outweigh any sharp differences between the two and indeed that the term “puritan”, for the period in question, “is better used as an adjective than a noun”.

The author puts his own cards on the table early on with disarming honesty, indicating that he is “a believing Christian, a lay preacher in the Church of England, and within that tradition, a liberal Protestant”. So there is no sense in which he seeks to defend Protestantism polemically against Catholicism, say, or to break a lance for Puritanism. But he is eminently respectful and scrupulously fair towards the subjects of his study, taking serious people appropriately seriously, and avoiding any kind of condescension or glibness towards the dead that would not be acceptable in relation to the living. In the introduction there is, however, just the hint of a slightly tetchy broadside, aimed at “the modern world’s materialism, pragmatism, and ‑ to be blunt ‑ sheer sloth” and its “stunted spirituality”, a broadside that is perhaps not entirely undeserved.

Drawing on vast amounts of information culled, and meticulously referenced, from diaries, letters, biographies, spiritual autobiographies, memoirs, commonplace books, prayer books, sermons, devotional anthologies, treatises, catechisms, and the like, Ryrie seeks to let British Protestants tell their own story, not to impose his own views, let alone judgements, on them. Rather than offering beguiling and perhaps tendentious over-speculative theories about what British Protestants were “really” moved by, he consciously avoids any reductionist or functionalist approach to his theme, and sticks as far as possible to interpreting the material evidence (“the material reality of the past”, as he puts it) that has survived from the period, as plausibly as he can. Ryrie writes, when occasion warrants, with a gentle irony, but is never patronising or scornful, rather always painstaking, circumspect, judicious and fair-minded. But that doesn’t prevent him from being candid about the, to contemporary sensibilities, “unattractive”, even “pathological” manifestations of early modern Protestant piety. The unappealing, potentially “elitist” nature of early modern Protestantism is a case in point, although “elitism” is of course a more general problem for all interpretations of Christianity, as indeed for all the Abrahamic religions.

It might seem odd to concentrate on the devotional side of Protestantism, since Protestants had “dismissed all ... Catholic [devotional] practices as idolatrous or, at best, futile”. But Ryrie argues that it would be very wrong to think that they wanted to dismiss piety as unimportant or positively dangerous to the salvation of one’s soul. Rather “the Protestant reformers’ ambition was at heart to bring true piety to every Christian”. Indeed, they had little choice, since after “conversion” potentially vast tracts of time opened up that had somehow to be filled by believers before their death. So, the question becomes: given the Protestant suspicion of Catholic ritual, ceremony and structured religious practice in general, how could Reformers shape the day-to-day life of Protestants without falling into a new treadmill of formalism? “What did early modern Protestants do in order to live out their religion; and what meaning did they find in those actions?” These are the questions the book seeks to answer. Yet as external rituals were never enough in themselves for serious Protestants, “because for Reformed Protestants the inner experience was primary”, how could they achieve honest and authentic piety and keep it honest and authentic? This was the perennial question.

In the search for answers to these large questions, the author treats five main aspects of (Protestant) life: the emotions, private prayer, reading and writing, public and domestic worship, and, finally, a survey of the various stages of human life from childhood to death. The underpinning argument of the book is that, looked at through these five prisms, early modern British Protestantism can be seen as “an intense, dynamic, and broad-based religious culture”. Perhaps it was inevitable that Protestantism should seek to remain fresh, since it was, in Ryrie’s words, “a restless, progressive religion, which was nourished by crisis and starved by routine, and which therefore set out to produce regular crises for itself”. What produced this restlessness, Ryrie argues, was the Protestant conviction of having a “sense of contact with something other”, the transcendent, God ‑ a notion that seems to anticipate the definition of religion of the later famous Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “Father of Modern Theology”.

As the author observes without exaggeration: “The relentless intensity of the quest for sanctification, the need to nurture a permanent sense of crisis, and the fear of idleness, together imply a dynamism which is positively exhausting to contemplate.” Yet he rightly, in my view, pays tribute to the “high price early modern Protestants were willing to pay for the intensity of their religious practice”. Crucially, he adds that they stuck to their religious guns “of course, because they believed that the doctrines which had been preached to them were true, and therefore that [their] course of action was rational”. This can surely only be respected, as long as one doesn’t see intensity and authenticity in themselves as conferring “truth” on anything, a claim the author of course nowhere asserts. When the dust of the theological battles of the Reformation and post-Reformation period had settled, a later generation was to put the Holy Grail of Protestantism, Scripture itself, under scrutiny, and with the same intensity and authenticity ask profound questions about why this “survival” (superstition?) from the past should be credited on faith alone. But the Enlightenment itself is almost unthinkable without the contribution made to its emergence by the intellectual honesty and energy of the “Protestant conscience”. Descartes too of course, from a Catholic background, put enormous emphasis on individual self-consciousness as a privileged route to truth, but the passionate, personal, individual need to search for truth seems, in the modern world, to owe more to the contribution of thinkers from the Protestant world.

Nietzsche once wrote that Christianity essentially represented a “raising of the temperature of the soul”. While some may balk at accepting this as the whole story, there seems little doubt that it captures dramatically a large part of what we find in the religion of British Protestants in the Reformation period, at least as conveyed by Ryrie. For all its exhilaration, it seems to have been an exhausting, even hectic, business being a serious Protestant in Reformation Britain. It was important to be constantly on your spiritual toes. Words that constantly recur to describe the Protestant experience are “intensity” and “dynamism” on the positive side, and, on the negative, as the dire evils to be avoided at all costs, “hypocrisy” and “idleness”, the Devil being constantly on the lookout for work for idle hands. Thus backsliding – “a very Protestant word” ‑ was constantly to be guarded against: “Reformed Protestantism was a dynamic faith, always in motion, yearning for progress, fearing backsliding.”

For serious, earnest Protestants – and they are really the ones the author is interested in – life was a relentless struggle: struggle was “a core Protestant conception of the Christian life ... and that sense of endless struggle is one of the defining features of Protestant prayer”. More generally, a sense of struggle was at the heart of British Protestantism, and it had a powerful theological underpinning: “Protestants were taught that the entire created and uncreated order, the heavens and the earth, stood against them, and that, in this impossible struggle, still ‘in all these things thou will be more than a conquerour through him who loveth thee’ ... If we have wrestled with God and prevailed, who can stand against us?”

One can only imagine what confidence and energy such convictions provided for a people about to launch one of the greatest empire-building endeavours the world had ever experienced. Significantly, the author notes, “it was the vision of a shared Reformation [between Scotland and England] which turned ‘Britain’ from a humanist pipedream into a serious cultural and political project”. In his introduction, he had already commented that “Protestantism was a religious force of astonishing power, which reshaped early modern Britain and through it, much of the modern world.” Becoming eventually the dominant, established majority religion in England and Scotland, it had the potential to become and did become a formidable force on the world stage, as Britain sought to bring its civilising gifts to so many parts of the world.

There are many fascinating sidelights thrown on the period in question by this volume; not all can be mentioned here. But I was struck by the observation that the nowadays commonly held distinction between heart and head was only beginning to appear in the period under discussion: “As Ted Campbell’s valuable study of early modern ‘heart-religion’ [The Religion of the Heart: a Study of European Religious Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries [Columbia, SC, 1991] points out, this meaning of ‘heart’ was a novelty. In medieval usage, the heart had been the seat of the intellect as well as of the will and the passions, since reason was ultimately a matter of intuitive perception. This meant that, at least at the beginning of our period, believers did not oppose the intellect to the emotions in the way which nowadays seems obvious.”

Likewise, the constant emphasis Ryrie places on the university as the birthplace and nursery of Protestantism is an illuminating reminder of an essential dimension of the Protestant faith: “The intellectualism of early Protestantism is hard to overestimate.” “Protestantism was a movement born and bred in universities, and it aspired to turn Christendom into a giant university.” Or again: “Protestantism was, in its bones, a religion of universities. Those weird communities‑ filled with youths, liberally populated with older men, entirely devoid of women and of children ‑ were its natural habitat.” One recalls that Martin Luther himself was, of course, a university professor. Protestants were then highly self-conscious individuals who passionately wished to “take ownership” of their Christian faith, on their own responsibility before God, and then to live out the consequences of what they took it to mean for, and to demand from, them.

The downside of all this, perhaps inevitably, was that it seemed to exclude the unlettered, a point Ryrie readily concedes. It is in fact hard to escape the conclusion that Protestantism was essentially for a superior kind of person, though it should be stressed that, in principle and ideally, all should be enabled to participate in the invigorating and exacting Protestant experience. Sometimes, however, the rhetoric used could be quite dismissive of those who didn’t or couldn’t see the point of using every minute productively, so as to make progress in their religion and leave no opening for the Devil. Thus, the intriguing question of how one could respond to the New Testament injunction to “pray continually” was answered curtly by the nonconformist clergyman Richard Rogers (described by the author as a “Puritan grandee”): How else, he asked peremptorily, could Christians think of passing “the long sommers day, and the wearisome winter nights? Doe men ... thinke, that there is no other, nor better way to take vp their minds ... but like brute beasts, and wilde Irish, to passe their time”? Early modern British Protestants were clearly no Oblomovs.

While much may have changed since the sixteenth century, it seems that the problem of holding people’s attention in church was one that vexed even Reformation Protestants and which they couldn’t quite crack. “One of the [English] liturgy’s defenders claimed that others found ‘the Liturgie a Lethargie’ whose effect was ‘to quench all zeale in the people by the wearisome prolixitie thereof’.” More positively, the idea of making a New Year’s resolution might, at least in the modern world, be a late echo of a Protestant initiative, after New Year’s Day to all intents and purposes became “a major, unacknowledged Protestant feast day”, a privileged time for taking stock of one’s spiritual situation in the struggle for a “godly” mode of living.

The author’s frequent stress on the restlessness of British Protestantism at the Reformation reminded me, finally, of a passage in Carl Gustav Jung’s autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, from a period albeit long after the Reformation, in which Jung recalled the reaction of a Pueblo Indian chieftain in New Mexico to white people he had encountered: “How cruel the whites are: their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed ... Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad.”

Even making allowances for Jung’s possibly rose-tinted and simplistic view of his interlocutor as a “noble savage”, the comment raises troubling questions about the nature of Western culture and one of its most basic ingredients, Christianity. One might perhaps claim that Europe is simply Asia’s “Wild West” and will never be tamed, not even by Christianity, but will always turn Christianity itself, despite its promise of ultimate peace, into a weapon to advance its own ambitions. One of the many merits of this long book is to offer the reader an extended, slow-motion insight into the process by which Christianity, for better or for worse, was transformed in one part of the West into an awesome technique for self-preservation, and perhaps even self-assertion.


Martin Henry is a former lecturer in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.