Book Review

“Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation” by Peter Marshall

Harrison Perkins
Peter Marshall
Thursday, November 1st 2018
Nov/Dec 2018

Peter Marshall has written a massive account of how the Reformation took place in England, and it is bound to become a standard introduction to the topic. Containing sweeping vistas, this book is not for the faint of heart, for it certainly does not gloss over the details of how Reformation thinking spread into and took root among the English people. Readers will not feel shortchanged if they endeavor to take on Marshall’s narrative of England’s transfer from medieval ritualism to the early years of Reformed thinking.

The first section of this book paints a picture of what medieval Christianity was like in England. Their theology was focused on ritual. In a time when various parts of the world were still isolated from one another, particularly in rural areas, the people essentially depended on the liturgical calendar for their awareness of the passing of time. It was the movement of the church year that gave pattern and cycle to their seasons and years. Marshall argues that this liturgically driven lifestyle may have been the most obvious fit for the agricultural communities of England (12–13). In this context, it was the clergy who drove the religious life of the country. There was mixed enthusiasm among the laity about the ability of the clergy to lead and teach them. Yet, there were also subversive influences within the Church of England that would shake the status quo. John Wycliffe (1330–84) can be credited with bringing a concentrated presence of resistance to established English orthodoxy (100–02). He used philosophical realism to oppose the doctrine of transubstantiation and argued for the translation of Scripture into the people’s language. From the vantage point of his contemporaries, he was a heretic. From the perspective of later Protestants, he was a trailblazer. Wycliffe and other “Lollards” who stood up against traditional medieval doctrines indicate that the religious landscape of the late medieval period was multifaceted and almost primed for reform efforts (119). These would come in the Reformation.

The second section focuses on the many important events that took place during the reign of Henry VIII. His rule was marked by controversy of almost every kind. His many marriages, whether they ended in divorce or death, were a constant source of political intrigue in the early 1500s, and they were certainly causes of tension between the English government, the English church, and the papacy. Henry readily broke from papal authority and declared himself head of the English church in order to achieve his personal goals for his monarchy. Despite the crucial political aspects that led to the break with Rome, the influence of Martin Luther also made inroads into English theology. Those who wrote England’s earliest independent confession, the Ten Articles, even tried to incorporate Protestant teaching into it.

The last two sections cover the massive changes that happened with lightning speed during the reigns of the last three Tudor monarchs. Part three examines the multiple religious identities that emerged under Henry VIII and continued to develop in the tumultuous reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. The first saw real victory for the Protestant cause, but the latter is famous for its reimposition of Roman Catholic doctrine and ceremony, as well as the heavy-handed punishments divvied out to those who opposed the re-catholicization of the English church. Part four looks at the establishment of Protestantism during the rule of Elizabeth I. Although the Protestants achieved tremendous political favor in this time, it appears that no one really achieved their ideal state of reform or purification of the church during the Elizabethan period.

There are many strengths to this book. It gives real attention to the multiple causes behind the English Reformation. Scholars of a previous era would have focused on the financial or material causes to the Reformation; and although Marshall takes these causes seriously, he does not neglect theological developments happening in the sixteenth century. There were serious political considerations that shaped Henry VIII’s decision to break communion with the papacy, and Marshall provides an excellent account of those events that largely motivated the early monarchy to move for reform. Still, there were many theologians who actually were active to bring about doctrinal change within the English church. Marshall gives actual treatment to those theological issues along the way, although they are certainly not the centerpiece of his narrative. His work is probably the most exhaustive account of the political interactions in the period of England’s Tudor Reformation(s). He concludes that the Reformation was “principally about religion,” and to his credit he recognizes that real belief was the driving force behind the continuing efforts to reshape the English church (xi). Marshall’s is a well-written and very readable narrative that expertly traces the interactions between various spheres of influence in England in the sixteenth century. It is a wealth of information that covers the gamut of issues that arose in the Tudor period and that contributed to various reform efforts.

There are also a few things for readers to note as they engage with this text, although these are not necessarily negative aspects of the book. Since Marshall writes about controversial figures from the perspective of the times in which they lived, this means that—according to the notions of their day—many of the Protestant Reformers were considered heretics. Marshall often writes in these terms, whereas readers of this magazine would likely think the very opposite about figures such as John Wycliffe and Thomas Cranmer. There is something to appreciate about this, though, in that it helps us grasp how truly earth-shattering the Reformation was across the world. Protestantism was something that revised almost every aspect of English life and caused multiple controversies that ended in death for many. Additionally, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with the overall narrative of this book. It is a long work, and there are lots of figures and details that support Marshall’s proximate arguments. It may be helpful from time to time for the reader to take account of what section of the book they are reading and how that relates to what they have already read.

In the end, Marshall’s account is a rewarding read and a valuable resource about the English Reformation. It will enlighten readers about the various factors that led up to and furthered Reformation efforts. Although it is a book that takes some time to work through, it will bring a deeper appreciation for the real and difficult work that went into reshaping the church, thus bringing the Reformation to the Church of England. These are efforts from which Protestants still benefit, and this work will give readers better insight into the struggles and victories that went into obtaining those benefits.

Harrison Perkins is a postgraduate research student in the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast.

Photo of Harrison Perkins
Harrison Perkins
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), online faculty in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Thursday, November 1st 2018

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

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