Christianity under the Ancien Regime, 1648-1789

By Miller, David C. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Christianity under the Ancien Regime, 1648-1789


Miller, David C., The Catholic Historical Review


Christianity under the Ancien Regime, 1648-1789. By W. R. Ward. [New Approaches to European History series, 14.] (New York: Cambridge University Press.1999. Pp. xii, 270. $54.95 hardback; $19.95 paperback.)

Christianity under the Ancien Regime, the latest installment in the Cambridge series "New Approaches to European History," is written by the able W. R. Ward, Emeritus Professor of Modern History in the University of Durham and author of many books, including The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (1992). His most recent volume aims at a readership of both students and nonspecialists by offering a "sampling [of] various aspects of religious life" as well as a "sketch of the main outlines of its history on a regional basis" with an emphasis placed on describing religious belief and experience and not on the political or institutional history of the Christian Churches.

Ward's historical survey adheres to its series' general format: being concisely written without footnotes, with each chapter subdivided into topical headings, concluding with a suggestive bibliographical essay; additionally, it is prefaced by a short glossary of terms. Such efforts have merit and this one has several, while unavoidably suffering from those limitations imposed by sponsoring editors. The major disadvantage derives from having to cover significant events and developments from the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War to the outbreak of the French Revolution in a volume of restricted length. This century and a half was far from being an "heroic age," an observation made by historians who might still recognize the important antecedents to modern religious beliefs and practices. Few would deny that there were powerful as well as subtle, even contradictory, currents flowing through popular Christianity during this critical time span. Significantly Ward sees no Christian retreat before the Enlightenment; nor does he observe a radical shifting of Christian belief and activities while science and reason appeared to march confidently forward.

Ward's emphasis is on the renewed vigor of evangelical Protestanism through its more intensely personal expressions of faith and the formation of new organized bonds. These developments owed much to the same forces behind the unfolding, secular Enlightenment-namely spreading literacy and the printing press. Religious orthodoxy and governing establishments not withstanding, Christian Europe remained dynamic, if fractious; creative, if zealous.

The reader will appreciate Ward's balanced and comprehensive presentation, combining wit with an obvious talent for popular distillation. A minor caveat: the author may focus on subjects most dear to his own scholarly interests, resulting in greater attention given to Protestanism than Catholicism, but this book is not heavily weighted toward England and France as is sometimes the case in other historical surveys published by British and American scholars. …

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