George Gifford and the Reformation of the Common Sort: Puritan Priorities in Elizabethan Religious Life

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TIMOTHY SCOTT MCGINNIS. George Gifford and the Reformation of the Common Sort: Puritan Priorities in Elizabethan Religious Life. Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies. Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press, 2004. Pp. xiii +191, illus., maps, bibliography, index. $49.95.

Timothy Scott McGinnis has written a readable and thoroughly consuming portrait of both a concerned pastor, George Gifford (1548-1600), and indeed the whole sweep of the religious situation in England in the second half of the sixteenth century. Gifford, a vicar in Elizabethan Essex, was primarily concerned with care for the "common sort," the average English Christian who had been, according to the "godly" minister, pastorally neglected by the established Church of England. McGinnis, a professor of religious studies at Samford University, covers the writings of this relatively prolific author in their pastoral context and observes that Gifford, through these tracts and polemics, revealed his assessment of the spiritual needs of the people of England. Gifford additionally discloses his thoughts of himself and ministers like him and his sense of a pragmatic way forward inside a church-an institution-still in need of reformation.

McGinnis writes as a revisionist scholar: he is uncomfortable with generalized labels as well as with reductionist scholarship that tends to write Puritans off as essentially linked with socio-economic control. At the same time, however, the author shows how opposition and support for Gifford's program of "practical divinity," an idiom shared by many advanced Calvinists, cut across class divisions. Moreover, McGinnis wishes his readers not to mistake Gifford's work as total rebellion against the established church; the minister was keen to work with what he had-or rather, in what he had. As McGinnis describes in later chapters, Gifford is thoroughly opposed to separation. The pastor's diagnosis was that the common people were nostalgic and had a works-based sense of salvation. In his most well-known text, Contrie Divinitie, Gifford used the idea of the "common sort" to create the character of "Atheos," a man effectively without religion because of his passive acceptance of authority and tradition. This evocative character is Gifford's vehicle for expressing his call for more godly clergy to correct the problem of atheism (in Gifford's sense of the word). Atheos is, effectively, an indictment of English clergy who had let unimaginable opportunities slip through their fingers.

In his second chapter, McGinnis provides a helpful and grounded biography of his subject. Cambridge-educated Gifford served his Essex parish until Archbishop John Witgift's subscription campaign of 1583-84: Gifford could not positively affirm the Book of Common Prayer. McGinnis explains that although Gifford may have served some jail-time, he found his way back into the establishment's good graces. …