Research Update: Remembering the Reformation

Chris Langley gives us an update on some of his research plans for the summer. 

In April 2007, John Bon Jovi released one of his less-than-stellar singles entitled ‘You want to make a memory’. To cut a long story short, while performing adequately in the US singles’ chart, it was never going to reach the lofty heights of his earlier, one-haircut-for-twenty-years, approach to feel-good anthems. The thing is, and I don’t say this often, I don’t think Bon Jovi got the full picture. Memories aren’t just made: they’re developed, remade, recycled and viewed from different angles by different stakeholders. Mr Bon Jovi, to quote an earlier, more triumphant record of his, was only half way there.

This summer, among other things, I’m pushing on with a project about how contemporaries remembered the religious Reformation of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. While this will eventually take the form of an article, I think there’s something bigger in it.

Historians have spent a lot of time trying to establish how early-Modern Protestants answered the perennial, and annoying, question posed to them by their Catholic adversaries: ‘where was your religion before Luther?’ Or, to quote Bruce Gordon (not quite John Bon Jovi) ‘where had their Church been for a thousand years?’ Much of the writing on this has revealed how Protestant reformers were particularly adept at searching through archives, dredging up old nationalistic myths and looking for exemplars of their type of piety. Sola fide and based on scripture, naturally. The thing is, once you get into the seventeenth century, we know remarkably little about what contemporaries thought about their immediate predecessors. From a Scottish context, this is particularly frustrating: in the one corner we have figures like John Knox and in the other we have the Covenanters. Never the twain shall meet.

A copy of the National Covenant, 1638
After 1638, Covenanter leaders moved quickly to write histories of the Scottish Church that legitimised their actions in protesting against the Crown. In this process, Covenanters struggled to agree over the true significance of their actions. Were events of their own time a second reformation, a restoration of the glories of the first or a rescue of the Scottish Church from the tyrannies of an episcopal settlement? More radical thinkers like Archibald Johnston of Wariston positioned themselves as potential martyrs for a new cause, while others struggled to evaluate the role of the Stuart family in the process of reform. By the middle of the 1640s a loose unity emerged: one that identified the mid-seventeenth century as part of a process of renewal whereby protest was legitimised by the courageous actions of early reformers like Knox.

This loose historiographical coherence shattered in the 1650s. Faced with the threat of schism and uncertain over how to proceed with Charles II, Scottish preachers diverged on their understanding of the historical significance of the sixteenth century. While all sides agreed that the sixteenth century was of great importance, they diverged on the extent to which the human element of the Church could err and, therefore, the legality of further protest. They could not agree on the extent to which ministers could dissent in a truly reformed Church. The examples of reformers in the past became a point of contention. In response, theologians like James Wood at St Andrews University distinguished between ‘protest against, or dissent from some particular acts and constitutions of a general Assembly’ on the one hand and cases when ‘a generall Assembly it self is protested against, and declined as unlawfull and having no authority at all’. Wood concluded that the latter – and the schism that would inevitably result – was something that ‘godly orthodox Christians in all ages of the Kirk detested and abhorred’. This was a battle royale for the memory of the Reformation. Or, as one pamphlet from 1652 put it, a search for Reformation in the ‘literall and genuine sense and meaning thereof’. What that meant in practice had become increasingly contested.

“A Vindication of the Freedom & Lawfulnes of the Late Generall Assembly” (London, 1652)
This sort of thing gives us food for thought. As the recent events across the globe have shown us, one’s initial thought on a subject can rapidly change. Shifts in the political landscape can have profound changes on how one reflects on previous acts. Memories and reflections are context-specific constructions: we should beware of thinking that such things, even in the past, were rigid and unchanging.


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