Pious, Profane & Perplexed
The Plain Man’s Pathways to Heaven: Kinds of Christianity in Post-Reformation
reviewed by William J. Tighe
This book is a study of popular religion and irreligion in England from 1560 to 1640 by an author who has made a name for himself as a leading historian of the English Reformation, and is currently a Lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University and a Tutor at Christ Church College there.
One characteristic of Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemics was the production of religious instruction and propaganda in the form of dialogues. Most of these publications featured dull conversations in which the fictional participants were stock figures whose purpose was to serve as exponents of, or foils for, the godly message which it was the authors’ purpose to deliver.
Haigh, however, has found six such English dialogues, published between 1581 and 1616, which, he believes, make a serious effort to portray the attitudes and arguments of those different groups of people with whom “godly preachers” had to deal, and often to controvert. By far the most popular of these was Arthur Dent’s The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven, which was repeatedly reprinted after its appearance in 1601, and from which, with one alteration, Haigh took the title of this book.
Dent’s Pathway took the form of a discussion between four characters: Theologus, a godly Protestant clergyman; Philagathus (“a lover of the good”), a committed and active, although not always theologically well-informed, Protestant layman; Asunetus (“a witless fool”), a conventional churchgoer with a distaste for sermons and too much religion; and Antilegon, “a scoffer”—not an atheist or agnostic, but one who had not much interest in religion or concern for religious practice, who felt that the clergy and “the godly” were interfering killjoy busybodies, and who acted on the principle, or assumption, that “God helps those who help themselves.”
Haigh structures his book around these four characters from Dent’s dialogue, along with a fifth, the Papist, from George Gifford’s 1582 Dialogue Between a Papist and a Protestant. Around them he organizes a vast amount of data, some of it drawn from printed sources, but most from original manuscript records, such as cases in church courts. The result is like a large, complex, and detailed mosaic put together from numerous small pieces: impressive, overwhelming even, and difficult to describe briefly.
What Haigh does is to take each character and to discuss the nature and “quality” of each one, how they interacted with one another, and what they thought of each other, based on the sources he has employed: “This book asks how ordinary people saw and practiced their own religion, and what they thought about those who saw and practiced religion differently.” It is full of vivid, memorable, and occasionally hilarious or disgusting episodes and “cases” (these last usually of a sexual nature—and suffice it to say of them that some are equal in grossness and depravity to anything one can find today in any of the contemporary media of communication or entertainment).
More Against Than For
The book is organized in an analytic, non-chronological, fashion, but it reaches some general conclusions. The preachers were, in the longer run, successful in disseminating religious knowledge and particularly in compelling most people to be catechized and commit to memory the Prayer Book catechism—but they were not successful in winning large numbers of people over to puritan godliness or even to any clear understanding of what it was that they had labored so long and often so unwillingly to memorize. The godly preachers, he thinks, may actually have intensified anti-clericalism and irreligious or even anti-religious attitudes.
Haigh views the English Civil War of the 1640s as, in the end, a war between “the godly” and “the profane.” As he writes,
The book flows well and is extremely readable, but with much detail and numerous “exemplary” episodes, which some may relish and others find tedious or offensive. To read it with understanding does not require a detailed or specialized knowledge of the history of the period, or of the contrasting details of Catholic and Protestant theology, but some knowledge of these things would be helpful. At times when reading it, I found myself breaking down into gales of helpless laughter at the sheer slapstick strangeness of so many of the incidents recounted in it, but, as my tastes in these matters run to the vulgar, others may find them less amusing. I recommend this book with high enthusiasm. •
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“Pious, Profane & Perplexed” first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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