Is Protestantism the gateway to secularism?

John Calvin: his Geneva was far from a liberal paradise

Jonathan Wright on the unintended consequences of the Reformation

Permanent Revolution
By James Simpson
Belknap, 464pp, £25.95/$35

The Reformation is often depicted as the cradle of many excellent ideas: the opening up of Scripture to the masses, with wonderful-sounding terms such as the priesthood of all believers, and the rejection of deep-seated assumptions. With a hop, skip and a jump we are off down what James Simpson calls “corridor liberty”. We are expected to thank the Reformation for getting us started on the road towards liberty of conscience, democracy, toleration and all the rest.

This vision has always done good business, and is not without merit, but it tends to become rather triumphalist. As Simpson reminds us, the 16th-century religious revolution was more often about imposing order, rooting out heretics and robbing people of agency through predestinarian ideas. Protestantism was no worse in this regard than 16th-century Catholicism but, before getting out the party hats, it is best to remember Luther sniping at his enemies, Anabaptists being drowned in various European rivers and poor old Servetus being barbecued in Calvinist Geneva.

And yet, as Simpson’s book ably demonstrates, by the end of the 17th century mainstream Protestantism had indeed become one of the champions of liberalism and a root of modernity. What alchemical process could possibly have made this happen? How had the originators’ project been transformed into something they never intended?

Simpson deploys the term “permanent revolution”. Protestantism’s fundamental message was based on a challenge to authority and this could not simply be pushed aside once the Reformation began to enjoy some success. The splintering of the new faith was extraordinary and, with every new generation, there was almost an imperative to recast, even repudiate, what had come before.

Such chaos had to be contained – “the house was a mess and getting messier” – but this was a gradual process. The end result – or the end of the beginning, at least – can be seen in late 17th-century Britain. By this point, all manner of difficult and disruptive ideas had been, if not tamed, at least shaped into something more palatable. Simpson, observing events through the filter of literature, explores the process: how something that started out as illiberal managed to produce a liberal worldview that was every bit as important to the successive tides of Enlightenment as its secularist alternatives.

Simpson adopts a neat and tidy structure. He takes a particular theme, examines how it was dealt with in the early days, and looks at how it had changed by the late 17th century. He shows, for example, how the anxiety and despair provoked by predestinarian ideas became less severe: existential dilemmas were all well and good but surely it was possible to let in a ray or two of free will.

Milton – a looming presence in these pages – takes centre stage here. The early modern obsession with hypocrisy, and its more admirable companion, sincerity, is also tackled. Perhaps, so the literary trajectory suggests, it was wise to move away from focusing on matters of faith – is that chap in the pew next to me really a true Protestant? – and indulge in a little political and social “hypocrisy management”. Even the most religious of tropes, iconoclasm, could be rejigged. And how much less stressful to attack the worldly idolatry as depicted in Bunyan’s Vanity Fair than to take a hammer to a medieval statue of a saint …

A host of similar topics fills this outstanding book: how theatre dealt with the depictions and meanings of sacraments, for instance, and how magic (so despised by the hotter sort of Protestant) was portrayed in literature.

Simpson is especially good on the ways in which Scripture was to be read. As he has argued elsewhere, an image of an interpretative free-for-all during the 16th century is wide of the mark: rules were rules and control of Scripture meant power. An anti-literalist backlash was, Simpson seems to suggest, inevitable and, once again, Milton is to be found leading the charge. The book ends with an interesting discussion of the differences between 16th- and 17th-century understandings of liberty.

The scope of Simpson’s analysis is impressive. He moves well beyond the literary realm to provide deft accounts of historical developments. His sections on the divisions within Elizabethan Protestantism are particularly instructive.

From time to time, he is a little heavy-handed with the rhetoric and his judgments can become rather over the top. We hear of how “literary and theological culture crept out from under [the] crushing, intolerable, evangelical heel”, which makes Tudor clerics sound a bit like Stalinist apparatchiks.

Overall, the book is still a major achievement, however, and Simpson makes a point of drawing wider conclusions about the recurrent themes of so many revolutions. In the end, as they gobble up the people who launched them, they are apt to lose sight of their original goals, and their founders would likely have been appalled by the ultimate course of events.

Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University