A review article of Gerald Bray, “The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland”

Michael A. G. Haykin
Monday, January 31st 2022

Writing the history of the Christian Faith in the archipelago of Britain and Ireland with all of its complexity and fascinating rabbit-trails is a daunting task for any historian, as Prof. Gerald Bray rightly notes in his The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland (xi). The history of the Church in these islands is nearly two thousand years old and its literature, both primary and secondary, is vast. Bray is to be commended, though, for having written a reliable and lively narrative of this fascinating story, which few historians have attempted. Its importance lies in the fact that, as Bray states, it is impossible to make sense of the history of either Britain or Ireland without a due consideration of the way this religion has shaped the peoples of these countries (xi). And given the global influence of British Christianity, which is greater than ever, understanding this history is also of vital import for the comprehension of world Christianity (xviii).

Determining the chronological eras

The story is told in fifteen chapters. Here, Bray faced the perennial challenge for historians: what stretch of time should be covered in each chapter. Some the historical divisions are obvious ones. The first chapter, for example, narrates Christianity in Roman and early Anglo-Saxon Britain and also covers the Irish mission of Patrick and its immediate impact. It closes in 597, the year in which Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England and initiated a new era of the Christian Faith in Britain.

Other chapters, at first sight, are more curiously divided. Chapter 9, which covers the period from 1625, the coronation year of Charles I, to 1653 is entitled “Sowing the wind.” It ends just before Cromwell became “dictator for life,” as Bray puts it at the beginning of the following chapter (361). In a survey like this, one would expect the conclusion to have been at the fall of the Commonwealth in 1660. Chapter ten, “Reaping the Whirlwind,” then begins in 1653 and concludes in 1717, another interesting epoch division. Chapter eleven, “An age of faith,” then goes from 1717 to 1832, what is now denominated as the long eighteenth century, though it is usually backdated to the 1680s, with the accession of William III and Mary II in the Glorious Revolution in 1688–1689. Of course, such chronological markers are to some degree arbitrary.

Discussing the margins

Although Bray begins his account with Northern Ireland and ends there with the hope that it may become “the heartland of a new outpouring of God’s Spirit that will heal old wounds and start a blaze that will spread to the rest of the country” (626), much of his story is taken up with England, being the dominant country among the four major people groups of these isles, and thus, by extension, the Church of England gets the lion’s share of Bray’s attention (xviii–xix). For this Baptist reviewer, this entailed a feeling at times that the important role played by various Dissenting groups were not always given their full due. Only three significant Baptist authors come in for mention: John Bunyan, William Carey, and C.H. Spurgeon. And given his stated recognition of the global impact of British Christianity, the one sentence given to Carey and his mission at Serampore, India, seems far too lapidary (445).

On the other hand, there is a vast amount of territory to cover, and Bray does give adequate mention to such minor groups as the Muggletonians (353–354), whose founder Lodowicke Muggleton is described as “a charismatic figure who seems to have had a special appeal to women” (353), and the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion (441–442). Bray also takes the time to discuss the way Christianity developed in a number of out-of-the-way places in these islands, for example, the Isle of Man, which is usually completely ignored in standard accounts of British and Irish Christianity.

Devoting space to key figures and themes

Understandably, considerable space is devoted to the influence that certain Christian figures have exercised, such as Bede, whom Bray reckons to have been “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Englishman who has ever lived,” whose classic history of the embrace of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons in essence means that Bede can be regarded as “the true founder of the English nation” (24, 23). Or Wulfstan, the most outstanding bishop of the era immediately before the Norman conquest, who, along with other “saintly bishops of Anglo-Saxon England,” laid the foundations for the post-conquest Church, something that has been sadly forgotten (50–52). Other figures, like Anselm of Canterbury (77–79), Thomas Becket (85–87), and John Wyclif (130–136), receive sub-sections devoted to them.

Bray also spends time looking at the beliefs and piety of various rulers in these lands, since, as he comments: “To a remarkable extent, British Christianity would be shaped by the piety and policies of its secular rulers” (25). His discussion of the faith of Queen Elizabeth II is a good example in this regard (621; for other similar discussions, see 115–120, 133, 176–179, 184–202, 215–224—this section discusses the Elizabethan Settlement and concludes with a lovely prayer by Elizabeth that she originally composed in Italian—303–314, where Bray discusses the beliefs of Charles I, “the most foolish king who ever ruled the British Isles” [p.304]—and 376–386). Anyone who has sought to teach British Christianity, and to a lesser extent that of Ireland, knows how true this is.

In the past sixty years or so, there has been a distinct shift in the historical guild from political and intellectual history to a focus on social and cultural themes and trends. This is reflected in Bray’s various treatments of women and lay piety throughout the volume (e.g., 41–43, 136–140, 169–175, 441–442). Given the powerful role that hymnody has had in shaping Christian thought, Bray also devotes considerable space looking at hymns and worship (e.g., 162–169, 237–245, 365–366, 406–408, 434–441, 611–612, 621–624). All of this is revelatory of Bray’s dexterity and skill as an historian, since far too many historians are uncomfortable writing in these varied and distinct fields of historical research.

Dismantling urban myths

Nor is Bray afraid to pop various urban myths about British and Irish Christianity. Pace Thomas Cahill’s popular How the Irish Saved Civilization, Bray argues that the claim of Cahill’s title is an exaggeration, even though the Irish churches’ “faithfulness and scrupulosity in copying the received body of learning deserves our praise and puts us in their debt” (31). He further disputes that there “was a Celtic Church in any real sense of the word” (14) and that Patrick’s Confession can hardly be considered a class of Christian literature (17). He disputes the common Victorian claim that John Wyclif was the so-called “morning star of the Reformation.” His theology is better understood as “the last flowering of the remarkable theological renaissance in fourteenth-century Oxford” (131–132). Thomas Bilney, often remembered as an early Protestant martyr, held to “papal supremacy and transubstantiation” (184). And the destruction of the medieval stained-glass windows and organs by radical Protestants during the Reformation era was simply “a tragedy” (165–166). One of these radicals, the important Scottish Reformer, John Knox, is described as being “never temperate at the best of times” and his book condemning “female rule of any kind” (with the provocative title of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women)was one of Knox’s “greatest mistakes” (215). Little wonder, Bray concludes that “Protestants of Knox’s type were decidedly short on charm” (223).

The Puritan movement did not originate in the Vestments controversy of the 1560s. “Its roots go back to the Edwardian Reformation” and the Puritans themselves “were closer to the mind of [Thomas] Cranmer and his colleagues than they are often given credit for” (246). As for the Elizabethan Separatists, Bray sees the moderate Puritan Richard Greenham as a key influence in their emergence (253). The major formative event in the history of English Dissent, the so-called “Great Ejection,” which Bray also calls the “Great Schism” (369), is popularly remembered as the forcible removal of some two thousand Puritan clergymen by the state church. By Bray’s reckoning, the “true figure for dissenting ministers is something less than 1,000, or about half the number claimed” (371–372). And while he is appreciative of various Puritan figures—John Owen was a theologian “who stands head and shoulders above his non-Puritan contemporaries” and has “a good claim to being regarded as the greatest English divine who ever lived” (364) and John Bunyan “thought female spirituality was just as important as male spirituality” (365)—he believes that when Puritanism was triumphant in the 1650s it became “an odious moralizing tyranny for the many who were not in tune with it” (363). Bray is also critical of “the extreme fissiparousness” of the radicals in the Puritan movement (292–293)—“they could not agree on a form of church government” (367)—a critique that is not without merit. The impact of this fissiparousness may be best seen in Ireland, where “the spectacle of warring Protestants” destroyed “any realistic chance of converting Ireland to Protestantism” (328–329). This criticism of the Puritans is even extended to publishing houses like the Banner of Truth, which has reprinted large amounts of Puritan theology, which, in Bray’s words, “stir the blood,” but whose “practices and experiences could not be replicated in the television age, which required an entirely different kind of communication” (581).

Disputed facts and lacunae

Given the enormous amount of material that Bray had to digest in this study, it is to be expected that there are the occasional errors of fact. He states that the famous Puritan translation of the Scriptures, the Geneva Bible, was displaced by the KJV by about 1640 (279–280). This is probably a couple of decades too early. The Souldier’s Pocket Bible (1643), for instance, draws all of its some 150 Scriptural quotations from the Geneva Bible.

Bray’s treatment of the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists (343–346) is far from satisfactory. They are depicted as being extremely naïve and fissile, for they imagined “all true believers would think alike” and they “tended to separate from one another because of some deviation from the true path” (343–344). They argued for religious toleration for themselves, but were unwilling to extend such liberty to others (345). In sum, they were a people “full of contradicitons” (345). A review such as this is not the context in which to give a detailed response to this description, but as one who has read widely and at length in the textual corpus of the Particular Baptists of the Puritan era, I think this account fails to do justice to this remarkable body of churches (though, see Bray’s account of the Baptists on p.405 that moderates some of his critique). Bray does note that it was the seventeenth-century Baptists who originated hymn-singing in public worship in the British Isles, though he calls them at this point “the Strict and Particular Baptists” (405), a term that actually denotes a nineteenth-century denomination. Finally, with regard to this Baptist community, its revival in the long eighteenth century was not primarily due to “some Evangelicals” joining it and so bringing it back to life (464; see also 509). While there is no doubt that these Baptists were influenced by Anglican evangelicals such as George Whitefield and William Grimshaw, as well as the New England divine Jonathan Edwards, and the accession of a some new members from the state church, their revival in many ways came from within their movement, from men and women like Anne Steele and Caleb Evans, Anne Dutton and Andrew Fuller, John Fawcett and Samuel Pearce.

In a section on eighteenth-century Evangelical hymnody, Bray describes William Cowper as “a melancholy soul,” who was “eventually driven to suicide by his illness” (437). While Cowper did attempt to kill himself, he did not succeed and he died in his bed of natural causes in 1800. There are also some surprising lacunae, the most notable of which is that there is no mention of the work of David W. Bebbington, the leading historian of British Evangelicalism (there is a single reference to an article by him on p. 446, n.31). The work of the leading two scholars of British Dissent, Geoffrey F. Nuttall and Michael R. Watts, are also curiously absent. And while there are a goodly number of tables, a map of the British Isles would also have been helpful for some readers not familiar with British and Irish geography.

These “disputed facts” and lacunae in no way lessen the value of Bray’s comprehensive study, but could be corrected in a future edition, so as to make a very good work better.

Documenting the present

The final two chapters document the serious decline of British Christianity, and to a lesser degree the Irish churches (hence Bray’s hope for the Irish church as a source of spiritual fecundity noted at the beginning of this review essay), since 1914. I think these chapters reveal Bray at his best, combining detailed historical analysis with incisive and pungent theological and cultural comment. “For the foreseeable future,” as Bray sums up these two chapters,” the “institutional Church appears to be in retreat.” But his last word is not one of despair: Christians need to be “confident that the Lord who kept us for 2,000 years will not abandon us now.” Bray thus concludes with a stirring quotation from the Scottish Puritan Samuel Rutherford, who, not long before his death, told a friend, Robert Campbell: the Lord will yet “remove our darkness, and shine gloriously in the Isle of Britain, as a crowned King, either in a formally sworn covenant, or in his own glorious way” (627–628).

Michael A. G. Haykin is chair and professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY

Monday, January 31st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology