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Hot Protestants

A History of Puritanism in England and America


 Michael P. Winship


New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2018

Hardback. xiv+351 p. ISBN 978-0300126280. $28/£20


Reviewed by Pierre Lurbe

Sorbonne Université




Michael P. Winship's book began life as a commission from Yale UP. It presents itself as an 'introduction to puritanism's rich, dense, tumultuous history' [1], and its arresting title aren't protestants dour rather than hot? is adapted from a 1581 quip by Perceval Wiburn (who actually referred to 'the hotter sort of Protestants'). The book offers a transatlantic survey of Puritanism, in both its English and American dimensions (but the reader wonders why Scotland is not included in the title, since John Knox is very much part of the story), spanning the century and a half between its “Rise and retreat, c.1540-c.1630” in Part I, and its “Endings, 1689-1690s” (note the plural) in Part IV, going through its “Reformations, c.1630-c.1660” in Part II and its “Twilight, c.1660-c.1689” in Part III.

Winship's contention is that although puritanism properly speaking lasted only for little more than a century and a half, its impact on all aspects of life – political, cultural and religious in Britain and across the Atlantic was in reverse proportion to its comparatively short duration. The book is very good at weaving the strands of a complex transatlantic story, by laying stress on the reciprocal bonds and connections between England and America, or more accurately, New England. Traffic ran both ways, as Puritan ministers in England were inspired by the congregationalism prevalent in Massachusetts to separate themselves from the parish church to set up their own, separate churches [100]. The Atlantic therefore served not so much as a barrier, as a bridge to connect the two shores. A case in point to illustrate the intertwining of English and American history is that of Boston, as the place from which Robert Radcliffe was the last Anglican minister to be hounded out in 1689, while Cotton Mather was the last puritan minister to face prosecution under the terms of the (English) Act of Uniformity [262]. The reader is also reminded that the Glorious Revolution put paid to Puritan political hopes simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic [267].

The focus of the title, on 'protestants' rather than on the 'history of puritanism' of the subtitle, makes it clear from the outset that the focus of the book will be on significant figures in that history, not on abstract notions and ideas. Although the book is built on impeccable research and displays a consummate mastery of the topic after all, its author is E. Merton Coulter Professor of History at the University of Georgia it carries its erudition lightly. This is history as story – an apt reminder that the two are related, and fleshing out the dry bones of historical narrative need not mean any lowering of academic standards. Each part is itself made up of small, self-contained chapters (twenty-three in number), each of which is focussed on one particularly striking representative figure (or group of figures), of 'Hot protestants'. The reader is taken through a collection of vignettes, which taken together, and inserted as they are in the chronological arc c.1540-c.1690, gives a remarkably lively picture of what it was and felt to be a Puritan on both sides of the Atlantic. Nor are these figures necessarily among the most well-known, making for a fascinating gallery of portraits.

Even though we do come across what reads like a roll-call of familiar names – John Cotton, John Winthrop, William Laud, Roger Williams, Oliver Cromwell, John Owen, John Bunyan … – all of them are taken at the point in their lives when they were as yet unknown, giving a vivid and fresh sense of what it had felt like to be Cromwell ('a down-on-his-luck minor country gentleman and MP who had turned out to be Parliament's most effective soldier' [130]), or Bunyan ('an impoverished young tinker',when first encountering the Bedford women, [147]), at the very beginning. This is no less true of what came to be viewed as highly significant political and religious groups, who were already active even before they were given a name: 'These new opinions were being spread by a group that in a year or two would become known as the Levellers' [136].

For this reviewer at least, the most endearing and memorable characters in the book are those of the comparatively lesser-known figures, who are nevertheless no less meaningful in their own right than those who made it into the mainstream of history. Winship is particularly deft at bringing back to life such figures as that of Katherine Clarke [57], devoutedly taking notes on sermons in church as a little girl, making a commonplace book out of her reading of books of practical divinity, and writing a diary that her husband only found after her death – this gives more than a glimpse of what the phrase 'lived religion' actually means. One of the most intriguing, and endearing, stories is that of Waban, the Native American turned Puritan in the early 1640s [194], whose community of Praying Indians however failed the test when required to give convincing evidence of their conversion to be allowed to set up their own church [197-198]. Even when succeeding on their second attempt, the members of the native church at Natick were not granted the right to take the sacrament in white Congregationalist churches [199], a sorry reminder that equality in the eyes of God did not necessarily translate into a human sense of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Taking a leaf from journalistic practice, Winship is not above providing grisly and gruesome accounts to kickstart some chapters: the account of Hooper's protracted execution by fire in 1555 [17] makes for gruelling reading, but then it gives more than a sense of what it actually meant to die in this horrendous fashion, as well as providing a reminder that the era was not one for the faint-hearted. In less disturbing mode, he often takes a particular incident as a starting-point to exemplify a much larger point, thereby connecting the local and particular to the larger picture:

The ease with which Congregationalists and Presbyterians fell out in Exeter over what could have been, and sometimes was, the mundane issue of transferring church membership, reflected the ongoing divisive brittleness of puritanism after eighteen years of power. [159]

By rising in this way from the particular to the general, and not the other way round, Winship uses a kind of inductive method which is particularly congenial and reader-friendly.

The story is kept going by devices that provide unexpected links to the next chapter: it is common for the final lines of a chapter to reverse the conclusion reached just before, and ominously hint at what was to follow. Take for instance the concluding lines of chapter one:

There was no reason for Hooper to think that England's reformation would not keep moving forward. No reason, that is, until everything that Hooper and other Protestants had built up during the reign of King Edward came crashing down on their heads. [16]

Perhaps the author could have done without the kind of journalese into which he sometimes lapses – things 'come crashing down' embarrassingly often on various people's heads, starting with Hooper and other Protestants in the quotation above ('The Knox committee's plans for the Frankfurt church … came crashing down...' [19]; 'The cat-and-mouse game between the General Court and the Lords of Trade and Plantations came to a crashing halt in 1683' [252]). Speaking of 'a kamikaze pulpit denunciation' [100] is perhaps a bit facile as well, but it would also be facile and churlish to blame the author for writing with an eye and ear to the lay reader, who may connect more easily to non-academic prose.

Technically, Geneva was not part of Switzerland, as wrongly claimed p. 21; French protestants can hardly be referred to as 'Presbyterians' [38], a term they never used themselves; but these are very minor quibbles when it comes to assessing a book which, on balance, is an immensely enjoyable and informative read, which is meant both for the lay, and for the more academically-minded, readers.



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