Early modern English Protestants, at least the more earnest among them, were known to be a rather dour bunch. “Better it is to goe sickly (with Lazarus) to Heaven,” wrote Lewis Bayly in his The Practise of Piety, “than full of mirth and pleasures, with Dives, to Hell.” That Bayly’s devotional manual was immensely popular suggests that earnest zealous Protestants did not mind foregoing mirth. They liked being told not to have too much fun in this world.
In his Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, Alec Ryrie explains what being Protestant meant to a broad swath of the population in Elizabethan and early Stuart England.
Excluding separatists and Laudians from his purview, he finds that the rest of England’s Protestants had a great deal in common. Yes, the most “forward” and self-styled “godly” were more antagonistic toward anything that smacked of ritual or idolatry, but for Ryrie “the P-word” (Puritanism) is more of a “tendency than a category.” “Puritans,” Ryrie observes, “used set forms unproblematically both in public and private devotions. They noted and observed holy days. They valued public and private prayer and denied that it was in competition with preaching. They revered the sacraments. They observed fixed times of prayer. They made and kept vows.” Likewise, “conformists” valued preaching, wept in private devotions, and promoted fervency and zeal. As Patrick Collinson observed two generations ago, the differences between puritanism and conformity were “differences of degree … rather than of fundamental principle.”
Mining the best-selling Protestant books from the time period along with diaries and other personal writings, Ryrie explores Protestant emotion and religious practice. In many ways reflecting the “culture of emptiness” John Corrigan has found within many streams of American Christianity, English Protestants carefully cultivated their “affections.” They sought to arrive at the despair that would eventually permit God to fill them with true joy. They spent years wrestling with spiritual dullness and dryness. They agonized about whether or not they were fit to receive the sacrament. They despaired because they felt no desire to pray. Most of them stubbornly kept practicing their faith. Ryrie observes that few found enduring spiritual joy, but many enjoyed foretastes of it. “They would not have traded it,” he writes, “for the mess of what the world around them called happiness.”
I find Ryrie’s argument for the “intensity, the dynamism, and the broad-based quality of this religious culture” very persuasive. In fact, along with books such as Alexandra Walsham’s Providence in Early Modern England, we are now fortunate to have books that move beyond earlier arguments about the halting and contested nature the English Reformation. Unpopular and unwanted as it was in many parts of England, England’s tumultuous break with Rome did by the late 1500s produce a demonstrably new religious culture.
Ryrie positions himself vis-a-vis his subjects at the outset of Being Protestant. “I am a believing Christian,” he informs readers at the outset, “a lay preacher in the Church of England, and within that tradition, a liberal Protestant.” He explains that he is not trying to “defend” his subjects, but he is also determined to avoid “narratives of suspicion.” Ultimately, he encourages historians and readers alike to put themselves “on a level with men and women whose minds were as lively and subtle as ours.” That does not mean a condescending apology for their blind spots. Rather, Ryrie simply asks that we take people with deeply held but in many ways alien religious beliefs seriously. What he asks should be uncontroversial, but he acknowledges that it is immensely difficult.As least in Ryrie’s hands, the results of this approach are splendid. Time and again, Ryrie navigates the fault lines, contradictions, and paradoxes at the heart of Protestantism. Why spend so much time preaching, why expend so much energy at any spiritual practice, when salvation is in the hands of God alone? Why beseech God for anything, if the goal was simply to submit to the will of an inscrutable God? Protestants could never fully resolve such conundrums, but that does not mean that they did not have answers for such questions. Preaching, for instance, was the “ordinary means” by which God converts sinners, so preaching obviously mattered.
What I most appreciate about Ryrie’s book is that while his subjects could be dour, he positively revels in their history. One can tell by reading his book that he loves reading and writing about early modern English Protestants (who themselves were more witty and mirthful than even he gives them credit for). He writes about them with a wryness and appreciation for irony, and Ryrie’s fascination with these earnest Protestants is contagious.
Protestants might have valued the preached Word of God above all else, but even the “hotter sort” had trouble staying awake during sermons. “Sleeping in church,” Ryrie observes, “was a problem so ubiquitous as to deserve an entire polemical treatise [the anonymously published Drousie Disease] denouncing it. Nehemiah Wallington (infamous for his many suicide attempts) felt drowsiness during a sermon as a diabolical temptation and fought back. He bit his tongue. He pricked himself with a pin. Then he took pepper, garlic, or cloves with him to church, “to bite on when he felt a wave of sleepiness. Celebrity preachers attracted crowds, but in most circumstances, parishioners looked forward to singing psalms, the most joyful part of a service.
Perhaps Protestants should have allowed for a bit more mirth and laughter in church and elsewhere. Perhaps this is why Philip Nicolai and Bach made “wachet auf, ruft und die Stimme” (Awake, the voice is calling us) such a popular hymn and cantata, respectively.
Ryrie’s approach to his subjects might have something to do with his own Anglican Christianity, but there is no reason why other historians would not benefit from this approach to the people of the past. He encourages us to resist the “assumption that the living are right and the dead are wrong.” He encourages us to allow “that when early modern Protestants prayed, they were not necessarily talking into a void.” He resists purely functional approaches to religion, but he also resists an uncritical acceptance of his subjects’ claims. Ryrie professes a “certain sympathy” with our subjects, but his sympathy is with their own earnestness, persistence, and longings rather than with their precise methods or doctrines. By penetrating to the emotional core of early modern Protestantism, he has made his subjects likeable despite their own best efforts not to be.