Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590

By Petrakos, Christopher | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590


Petrakos, Christopher, Anglican and Episcopal History


Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590. By Karl Gunther. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, Pp. viii, 284. $99.00.)

Karl Gunther's book, Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590 reconceptualizes the origins and consequences of religious radicalism in an age that was defined by it. The book's central thesis is that English radicalism was not the product of persecution under Mary I (1553-1558) but rather an ideology present at the beginning of the Reformation itself. By uncovering radical ideologies in the 1520s, Gunther fundamentally revises longstanding interpretations of sixteenth-century intellectual and religious history. If a small but influential coterie of radical intellectuals, as Gunther contends, were demanding the dismantling of the "popish" episcopacy, justifying violence to achieve religious reform, and providing devastating critiques of magisterial reformation, then it seems that the origins of puritanism in Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603) and the entire notion of a "moderate" English reformation are called into question. This is the implication of Gunther's tightly constructed and deftly written work-one that must now be contended with by those interested in and writing about the early English reformation.

Gunther is arguing against a well-established historiographical tradition. From Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London, 1594-1597) to A. G. Dickens' influential The English Reformation (New York: Schocken, 964) theologians and historians of the English Reformation have maintained that it was a relatively moderate affair, one that steered a middle way between the popery of the Roman Church and the radicalism of the Munster Anabaptists. In this interpretation, the middle way or via media was interrupted only during the reign of Bloody Mary I when the hotter sort of Protestant left England for the Calvinist enclaves in Geneva and Frankfurt. Only after the experience of persecution and the threat of a militant Roman Catholicism rolling back godly reformation, so the argument goes, that English radicals began to imagine solutions to the problem of persecution.

Reformation Unbound offers another interpretation one that is more conceptually sophisticated and, ultimately, more persuasive. Here Gunther draws on historians like Ethan Shagan (his doctoral advisor at Northwestern University) whose Rule of Moderation: Violence Religion and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) has sought to revise the traditionalist interpretation of the English Reformation as a staid affair, characterized by moderation and d indifference towards outward displays of church ceremony. …

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