Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Plain man's pathway to heaven...

I've just finished Chris Haigh's The Plain Man's Pathways to Heaven: Kinds of Christianity in Post-Reformation England (Oxford 2007). And what a fabulous book it is.

Ok, I'm slightly biased as Chris was my tutor on my special subject at university back in the 1970s, and reading his prose is like hearing him speak - the more so in this volume as it started life as the Wiles Lectures at Queen's University, Belfast.

He sets out to explore the nature of faith in England between the 1560s and 1630s by seeing what kinds of cases were coming up before the church courts. In doing so, he paints a rich and varied portrait of the beliefs of ordinary people in the years of upheaval in religion from the accession of Elizabeth 1 to the outbreak of the English Civil war.

In many ways he makes the case - something I have believed for a long time - that the Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s was a continuation of the Reformation that had started with Henry's desire to divorce in 1529.

Along the way, Haigh uncovers marvellous anecdotes and tales of people's beliefs and disagreements over how church should be run. It's refreshing for a preacher or minister, for example, to read of the number of cases brought before the courts of 'gadding to other places to hear preachers'. It appears that even 400 years ago consumerism was alive and well in the church as people travelled some distance to hear a particular preacher or avoided their parish church in favour of another down the road because the minister was more to their liking.

I guess one of the major findings of his reading is that people disagreed over religion - sometimes pretty vehemently - but generally speaking they got on with each other. They continued to work together, share harvesting together, be neighbourly to one another. Only occasionally did religious differences spill over into hostility and then only for short periods - until the Bishops' War of 1639 showed that such differences could actually tear the world apart (and maybe indicates that tolerance was only ever skin-deep).

One thing that is absent from Chris' account - though I'm not sure how much you'd expect it to show up in the records he so carefully analysed - was any reference to separatist congregations or even to those who might be so non-conformist that they were labelled not just 'puritan' but 'baptist' or 'independent'. I wonder if there is any trace of early baptist life in the court records Chris looked at.

Anyone with an interest in Reformation history, the history of Christian churches in England, or just generally in fascinating history brilliantly told and brought to life, should read this book.

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