Faith, Fire and Fury: The British Reformations and their Discontents

Course Material 2023/24

The religious reformations that convulsed the British Isles in the sixteenth century entailed a profound rupture with the medieval Christian past. This paper examines these events and their divisive political, ecclesiastical, social and cultural consequences and repercussions up to 1700 – a period which saw the outbreak of a bitter and violent civil war, the execution of King Charles I, and a constitutional revolution which was accompanied by the granting of partial toleration to Protestant dissenters.

Against the backdrop of the equally tumultuous developments in other parts of Europe and the global missionary movement for religious renewal, it will explore the different approaches to and trajectories of religious reform in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The paper will show how religion and politics were closely intertwined and explore how the Reformations - Protestant, Catholic and radical - created problems of pluralism, sectarianism, authority and conscience that continued to complicate the stability of the church and state. The multiple religious groups it brought into being presented a challenge to a society that believed uniformity was the foundation of order and that regarded toleration with unease, if not with horror.

It will consider the experiences of those who witnessed and participated in the unprecedented disruption which these movements wrought and the new forms of piety that it served to generate and nurture. It will introduce students to the rich and fertile scholarship that surrounds this field and expose them to source material that opens a window into the centrality of religion in the early modern world. It also raises larger questions about the power of religious ideas as an agent of violence, conversion, resistance and change and their ramifications in personal piety and everyday life. 

Exploring theology and lived religion in tandem, the paper traces how the Reformations were planted in the realms that comprised it and ecclesiastical and political conflicts that surrounded attempts to reverse, complete, reform and perfect over the next two centuries. It also examines a series of key themes: contemporary debates about idolatry and iconoclasm, salvation and the sacraments and the contentions and conflicts that surrounded the reform of worship and ritual, sacred space and material culture; the relationship between religion and national identity and Protestantism and patriotism; the campaign to reform morality and manners; the emotional texture and dynamics of religion and spirituality; the manner in which religious ideas were communicated via speech, writing and print, and embodied in images, objects, bodily gestures and books; Catholic resistance and radical Protestant efforts to extend and perfect the Reformation; and the role of history, memory, and competing perceptions of the past became embroiled in the politics of the period.