Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall

From papists to puritans, and all points in-between…

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In this massive history of the English Reformation, Marshall looks in detail at the people and events that gradually led England from Catholicism to Protestantism. He doesn’t fixate on the bickering Tudor Royals, although of course they played their part. Instead he focuses mostly on those of the ranks below – the lords, bishops and religious thinkers of the period, with the occasional nod to the common people. He therefore gives a picture of the Reformation as being fundamentally about points of difference in interpretation of the Gospel, rather than, as is sometimes portrayed, a largely political change carried out by and for the benefit of those pesky Kings and Queens. He suggests that the Reformation was bloodier than is often claimed, and that its relative slowness meant that people became accustomed to thinking about questions that had previously been simply accepted. He gives the impression that he believes the Reformation allowed the genie of individual thought out of the bottle, whether for good or ill.

The book begins with an excellent exposition of medieval religious rites and traditions, and how the Biblical stories were interpreted into daily ritual. The sacraments and sacramentals, the eucharist, transubstantiation, purgatory, etc., are all explained simply and without judgement or commentary. This is enormously helpful to those of us who are not practising Christians and so are vague about what these things mean today, much less half a millennium ago. Marshall points out that the pre-Reformation Catholic church had not been an unchanging entity for centuries, as it is often portrayed, and that even prior to the Reformation there was a growing number of people who were concerned that the rituals, relics and so on, were taking away from the simplicity of the core message of salvation through Christ.

The history is largely given in a linear fashion, starting with an in-depth look at the status of the Church prior to what would come to be seen as the beginning of the Reformation, then going through all the various stages of it, the advances and retreats, power-struggles, factions, purges, burnings and bloody executions. Along the way Marshall introduces us to the major, and many minor, players, and discusses the development of the theology underpinning the religious arguments and the political considerations motivating the powerful.

The book contains a massive amount of detail, and it is well written without unnecessary academic jargon. So in that sense, it is approachable for the general reader. However, this general reader often felt swamped by the hundreds of unfamiliar names trotted out once to illustrate a particular point. For me, with only a superficial knowledge of the period, I found the meat of the argument was often lost in the minutiae which surrounded it. I’m sure all the detail would make it an excellent read for people with a sound existing knowledge of the period who wish to gain additional insight, or particularly for students. But I don’t know that I’d wholeheartedly recommend it as an introduction to the subject, or even as a next step to the relative newcomer.

Peter Marshall

Having said that, I left it for a few weeks before writing this review to see how it settled in my mind, and now that my memory has expelled all the minor names and incidents, I do feel I have a much clearer idea about the broad sweep of events and, more importantly, about the religious arguments behind them. I find Marshall has also made me more aware that ordinary worshippers were more than simply pawns of the powerful – that these arguments mattered to them too and that pressure for change came from the bottom up as much as from the top down. So, although I admit I struggled at times with what felt like information overload, in the end I feel I have gained from the reading of it.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick. Heretics and Believers won the 2018 Wolfson History Prize.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Martin Luther by Scott H. Hendrix

The road to ‘true religion’…

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martin lutherIt’s nearly 500 years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by criticising the practices of the Roman Catholic church and refusing to accept the Pope as the sole arbiter of the meaning of the Bible. What started as a fairly straightforward dispute over the sale of indulgences grew into a theological war that first split the church and then splintered the Reformers themselves into different factions, arguing over some pretty esoteric points of interpretation of the gospels.

Scott H. Hendrix is Emeritus Professor of Reformation History, Princeton Theological Seminary, and tells us in the preface that he struggled during his teaching years to find a full and well-researched but readable biography of Luther to recommend to his students, so decided to write one. Unusually, the problem for Luther biographers is one of too much, rather than too little, information, making the biographer’s task one of deciding what is true and relevant. Although this isn’t the chunkiest biography in the world, its 290 pages plus notes give a thorough account both of Luther’s personal life, at least as much as is known about it, and of the various steps that led him from monk to leader of the Reformation. He explains the main points of Luther’s theological insights clearly enough for this atheist to understand, including the finer points where differences of interpretation arose amongst the Reformers. Hendrix also gives enough information about the prevailing political situation in Germany and further afield to put the Reformation into its historical context, particularly in explaining the level of protection Luther and his colleagues gained from the need of the Emperor to keep the various reformed Princes onside.

The book is in a fairly straightforward linear style, starting with a quick run through of what little is known about Luther’s early years, and then going into more depth once he became associated with the Reformers. Hendrix makes it clear that, though Luther is the one whose name became best known both at the time and to later generations, he worked closely with colleagues at all stages, and that much of what is attributed to Luther, such as the translation of the Bible into German, was in part a collaborative effort involving various scholars and theologians, a fact that Luther himself emphasised. However, Luther became the figurehead of the movement, and to a large degree the arbiter of the direction the early Reformation would take.

I am in my usual position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of the facts or of Hendrix’s interpretation of them, but the book is clearly well researched and it’s obvious that Hendrix knows his subject inside out. He takes a fairly neutral stance on Luther – at least it feels that way – being willing to give both praise and criticism.

Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner

Luther comes over as a man who genuinely believed that he was doing the work of God and who worked hard all his life to bring people to ‘true religion’. Of course, like all these people who think they are God’s chosen, he appeared to become more arrogant and self-satisfied as time went on, and made it clear that he believed that anyone who took a different approach was being influenced by Satan, a figure that to him was as real and nearly as powerful as God himself. In fact, in his later years, Hendrix gives the impression that Luther felt that Satan was out to get him – either true, or a real sign that he was letting his opinion of his own importance get a little out of control.

Luther also appears to have been what could be described as either pragmatic or hypocritical, depending on one’s viewpoint, changing direction on occasion to fit the prevailing political situation. For example, although against bigamy, he would cheerfully make an exception and find ways to justify it theologically when one of his powerful backers decided two wives were better than one. Apparently he also felt that it would be better if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn bigamously rather than divorcing Katherine of Aragorn. (One wonders if he would have felt Henry should also marry Jane, Anne, Catherine and Katherine simultaneously – that would have made for some fun dinner parties.) Luther’s views on violence were subject to similar changes over the years depending on who wanted to be violent to whom. (One odd side effect of the book was that my opinion of John Knox improved when I compared the two – miserable old misogynist though he was, Knox seems to have stuck rigidly to his beliefs in the face of all opposition, even when it meant he made dangerous enemies of some powerful people. While rigidity of opinion isn’t always a trait I admire, there’s something to be said for not reinterpreting one’s spiritual beliefs every time the wind changes direction.)

Hendrix also discusses Luther’s anti-semitism, but puts it into the context of the times when anti-semitism was almost universal in Europe. Luther advocated the burning of synagogues, but Hendrix clarifies that he did not call for the killing of Jews. Hence, Hendrix dismisses the Nazis’ later adoption of Luther as some kind of justification for their actions in the Holocaust, but it seems this has left a lasting stain on Luther, possibly even more in modern Germany than elsewhere.

Scott H. Hendrix
Scott H. Hendrix

Hendrix writes clearly and well, making the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. He rarely left me in a position of needing to look elsewhere for explanation of terms or ideas and while there are the usual notes at the back of the book, I was happily able to ignore them – always my desire when reading history and biography. Hendrix made one decision that really grated on me and that I’m baffled to understand – he decided to anglicise all the names. Thus Johann and Johannes become John, he drops the ‘von’ from von Staupitz, etc. I can’t accept that these names are hard for any reader and see no benefit in me now having no idea of the real names of many of the major players. It seems to me a hideous example of ‘dumbing down’ and is the main reason why I can only rate the book as four stars. Otherwise, this is a very good biography that sheds a lot of light on Luther without engulfing the casual reader in unnecessary information overload.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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John Knox by Jane Dawson

john knoxGod’s Watchman…

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In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She tells us that new material has recently been uncovered amongst the papers of Christopher Goodman, a fellow Reformed preacher and long-term friend of Knox. This material, she suggests, throws a different light on his personality, while changing some of the facts known about his life.

Dawson writes very well, with no unnecessary academic jargon, making the book an enjoyable read. In structure, it’s a straightforward biography following a linear timeline. Not having read any previous biographies of Knox, I’m not in a position to comment on whether the new material makes a significant difference to what was already known about him, but I certainly found that I learned a good deal, not just about Knox, but about the history of the Reformation in Scotland, England and Europe.

Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House by Thomas Hutchison Peddie
Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House
by Thomas Hutchison Peddie

Starting with his childhood, Dawson takes us through Knox’s early career as a priest within the Catholic Church and, as she does at all points, sets his story well within the context of the period. She discusses the importance of the Church in medieval society and gives the reader an overview of the political situation in Scotland and England at the time of the ‘Rough Wooing’, when Henry VIII was using military might to try to force a marriage between his son and the infant queen of Scotland. The legend, of course, is that the Scots and English were sworn enemies, but Dawson shows how those Scots who were moving towards Protestantism, including Knox, were in fact keen for an alliance with England, perhaps even a union. Therefore when France pitched in to keep Scotland Catholic, Knox found himself on the wrong side, and began an exile that would take him first to England and later to Geneva, becoming heavily involved in the development of Reformed religion in both locations.

Dawson suggests that these experiences influenced Knox deeply. He had been a disciple of George Wishart, martyred for his beliefs under Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, and on more than one occasion came close to achieving martyrdom himself. His hatred of Mary Tudor’s bloody persecution of English Protestants led him to expect the same in Scotland when the young Mary Stuart came to her throne. (I have to admit that if I’d had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.) It was around this time that Knox blew his First Blast, basing his case on the authority of the Old Testament, to declare that women were not fit to be rulers and should be opposed, even deposed if necessary. He had been warned by Calvin not to do this but, as always, Knox’s belief in his own unarguable rightness led him to disregard this advice.

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman
Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

Big mistake as it turned out, since Mary Tudor’s death brought Protestant Elizabeth to the throne. Thinking that he could now return to England to continue developing the Reformed Church there, Knox discovered to his surprise that for some odd reason Elizabeth had taken offence over the First Blast. It would have been a bit hard at that point for Knox to explain that it was only Catholic women who weren’t suited to rule, but anyway Dawson didn’t convince me that Knox’s First Blast was more political than misogynistic. Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree – many people like cats but they don’t necessarily consider them equals. Perhaps it’s a semantic debate – perhaps he should be described as a sexist old killjoy instead.

Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva Photo credit: Histoire
Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Photo credit: Histoire

Having blown his chances in England, Knox answered the call to return to Scotland, where he became embroiled in the Wars of the Congregation. For a brief period after this, he was able to set the Scottish Church up to run along the Reformed lines he had been planning for years, and he believed that by accepting this the Scottish people had made a covenant with God. But he soon became disillusioned when many prominent Protestants upheld Mary’s right to rule and even to attend Catholic Mass. During the long years of ups and downs that followed, he never ceased to preach and prophesy, and never changed his core beliefs regardless of pressure and threats, which I suppose makes him admirable if not particularly likeable. In his later years, he suffered from repeated bouts of depression, believing that the covenant had been broken and that retribution would surely follow. Not against him, obviously – just his (and therefore God’s) enemies. He saw himself as God’s Watchman, constantly striving to prevent deviation from the forms of worship he believed the Bible specified, thumping his pulpit and prophesying doom on all who strayed.

Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.
Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.

My superficial overview doesn’t do full justice to Dawson’s book. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations. Though I knew most of the historical ‘facts’ already, I certainly have a better understanding of the man, and of the Church he was so instrumental in creating. And while I can’t say I like him much better than I did, I at least accept that he acted always in conformance with his beliefs. An excellent biography and history combined – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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