Review: A Brief History of The English Reformation

The English Reformation

A Brief History of The English ReformationDerek Wilson. London: Robinson, 2012.

Summary: A history of the house of Tudor, and how their rule transformed England both religiously and politically, and the influence of the vernacular scriptures on the English people.

For English speaking peoples, to understand our religious history, we cannot help but understand the English Reformation. Much of American religious history is either influenced by, or a reaction to this century or so of Tudor rule in England.

Derek Wilson traces the finer details of a story whose basic outlines may be familiar. Henry VIII seems the unlikely reformer. Early on, he is even bestowed the title, “Defender of the Faith” for his arguments against the continental European reformers. He fills in the narrative of Henry’s frustrated dynastic ambitions, jeopardized by the failure to produce a male heir, that leads to the fateful step of separation from Rome when the web of papal politics leads to a failure to obtain an annulment, and his subsequent proclamation of sovereignty over the church in England. He seizes and dissolves monasteries, bankrolling his wars, executes Anne Boleyn, his second wife, and finally secures a male heir from Jane, the third wife, who dies as a result of childbirth.

Wilson narrates the rise and fall of powerful religious figures–Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell. Thomas Cranmer is the figure charged with forming a church, purging it of Catholic elements, resisting the more radical elements, and establishing the via media that characterizes the Church of England to this day.

Wilson covers the Catholic backlash–from dynastic houses on the continent, and within the country. When Edward VI dies young and heirless, Mary, born of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife, becomes a Catholic queen and initiates the purge that gains her the title of “Bloody Mary.” Wilson provides graphic descriptions of burnings at the stake, a truly gruesome means of execution that also left us with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and tales of Cranmer running to the stake.

Relative peace comes only with the accession of Elizabeth I, a shrewd woman who did all she could to avoid antagonizing enemies while returning to its place the church Henry began. This was not without uprisings and more executions, particularly as Catholics make England the object of missionary enterprise, but Elizabeth more readily sought compromise rather than revenge, and the nation, perhaps weary from religious upheaval, accepted the peace she brought.

With reform came the vernacular Bible in various English versions with glosses of Lutherans, Genevans, and eventually English Bishops. For Wilson, this seems one of the most significant events, not necessarily intended by the leaders among the Reformers. In place of ritual came the preaching of the Bible, and a growth of biblical literacy to the place where Shakespeare’s biblical allusions made sense to his public. In concluding the book, Wilson writes:

“One change above all had not only shaped England but ensured that it could never revert to an authoritarian polity dominated by kings and priests. This monumental transformation of the national psyche was brought about by a book. The English Bible potentially enabled every man and woman to find faith for him/herself. And as they discovered truths within its pages, so they would apply those truths to every aspect of social, political and economic life. The Reformation did not invent individualism, but it did provide individualism with a textual basis. The Reformation did not inaugurate an age of faith. What it did establish was a national Christianity that could define its own doctrines, invent its own liturgy and negotiate its own public morality without dependence on a foreign spiritual superpower. Since church and state were inextricably entwined, this freedom found expression in the government’s internal and external relations. England assumed a leadership role in Protestant Europe. In the fullness of time, thanks to its commercial and colonial expansion, it would take its culture and its reformed heritage to the ends of the earth.”

Out of all of this came the Protestant movements that colonized America. English Bibles  trace their lineage back through King James to versions by Coverdale and Tyndale. The sometimes tendentious relationship between church and state finds its roots both in the reaction to state control and yet the idea that somehow the teaching of holy scripture should “apply…to every aspect of social, political, and economic life.” We may trace all this and more back to the English Reformation, making works like this important if we are to understand our own religious and national roots.

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