Neufeld on Champion and Coffey and Harris and John Marshall, 'Politics, Religion and Ideas in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain: Essays in Honour of Mark Goldie'

Justin Champion, John Coffey, Tim Harris and John Marshall, eds.
Matthew Neufeld

Justin Champion, John Coffey, Tim Harris and John Marshall, eds. Politics, Religion and Ideas in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain: Essays in Honour of Mark Goldie. Melton: Boydell & Brewer, Incorporated, 2019. 365 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78744-587-1.

Reviewed by Matthew Neufeld (University of Saskatchewan) Published on H-Albion (May, 2020) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

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This very fine collection of essays glows with a deservedly warm appreciation for recently retired Cambridge professor of intellectual history Mark Goldie. It testifies to both the breadth of his interests and the significance of his scholarship, while hinting at the limitations of the “politics of religion” approach to early modern history.

As Justin Champion points out in his contribution to the book’s introduction, the Cambridge approach to the history of political thought, within which Goldie undertook his doctoral and then professional research, resisted attempts to relegate ideas to a lesser order of historical reality than social-economic structures. Ideas conveyed via a range of media were interpreted as interventions into changing and contingent political contexts that effected changes to those same contexts. The main task of intellectual historians was to uncover authentic authorial intention from the linguistic and sociopolitical frameworks of a variety of speech-acts. Goldie’s contribution to this tradition of scholarship, as recapitulated by Tim Harris, was to illuminate the history of late Stuart politics through the history of ideas and religion. Over the course of his career, Goldie’s research shed light on a wide range of notable and lesser-known figures, from both the right and the wrong sides of History: Tory Anglicans, Puritan Whigs, and most importantly, John Locke.

The fifteen essays which made up the book fall roughly under three themes that reflect the key lines of Goldie’s prolific career (209 publications, of which 110 are book reviews): the politics of religion in Restoration-era Britain; John Locke’s ideas and influence; the history of ideas over the long eighteenth century. For the purposes of this review I will focus on three that concern religion and politics.

Tim Harris returns to the problem of constitutional royalism in and after the English Civil Wars. Was, he asks, constitutional royalism a “myth” or part of historical “reality?” Harris’s answer is that royalist polemicists had an understanding of England’s monarchy that entailed it was accountable to God alone and so could not be resisted legitimately. Parliamentarians, by contrast, sought to make Charles I accountable to them, by force if necessary. After 1688, Tory Anglicans redescribed their political ideology so that their support for Revolutionary principles cohered with their pre-Revolutionary political theology. For Harris, the royalists’ conception of monarchy, and their unwillingness to concede over its unaccountability to human authorities, means that the Civil Wars were really a struggle about the constitution, not a war of religion. Given that, as Harris admits, Anglican royalists’ core doctrine of nonresistance derived from their reading of Romans 13, it might be more accurate to claim the English Civil Wars were fundamentally about biblical hermeneutics. 

John Coffey reexamines the ideological origins of the assassination of Scottish archbishop James Sharpe. Coffey frames his discussion within early modern (European) conceptions of martyrdom and religious violence. The essay traces, in the best Goldie-style, the interweaving of political events and polemical tracts in the period prior to and after Sharpe’s murder. Coffey doubts that the assassins were strangers to radical Covenanter tracts that justified individuals taking action against the enemies of God’s people. Both Sharpe and his assassins would be remembered as martyrs, and both subsequently condemned for their “religious zeal.” One result of reading both the pre- and post-event rationalizations of Sharpe’s death, Coffey suggests, is the difficulty of “easily distinguishing” between the victims and the perpetrators of religious violence. This observation rather gets around the fact that early modern people were quite able to make the distinction: martyrs died for the true faith. The question of religious truth was one they, unlike modern and mostly secular historians, did not bracket out of their analysis.

A process of secularization takes center stage in Sarah Irving-Stonebraker’s account of the transformation of the concept of useful knowledge over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Useful knowledge emerged within Protestant circles focused on expanding the remit of charitable action from the poor to the whole world. Natural philosophy well applied, so Francis Bacon claimed, would make everyone’s lives better to the glory of God. Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding subsequently denuded the idea of its connection to God’s glory. Thereafter, useful knowledge increasingly concerned temporal improvement and the common good. By the nineteenth century, usefulness was a mark of moderation and good citizenship, in contrast to religious enthusiasts. Yet the concept’s transformation might be understood not only as the subtraction of its theological content as also a reorientation of its target: its Ultimate Concern was not the eternal but the state. Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europeans proved themselves very happy to kill each other with zeal in defense of governmentally defined goods.

All the essays bear close reading by historians of early modern Britain and all others who take religious ideas and their importance for politics seriously. That strand of Goldie’s scholarship and the Cambridge approach to political thought is clearly still bearing fruit. It is also evident that religion in the Cambridge mode is mostly textual and propositional. The chain of causation runs from thoughts to words to actions. With perhaps one exception (Coffey’s essay) the essays’ authors employ a substantialist definition of religion: it is a body of beliefs. Goldie himself acknowledged the limitations of an ideological approach to religion in his 2003 Historical Journal review essay entitled “Voluntary Anglicans.” An essay or two on the experience of religion or the sacralization of politics over the period would have been welcome.

The substantialist approach to religion is itself an artifact of early modern history. The idea that religion is a genus of which Catholicism or Protestantism or Puritanism or Judaism are species, and the idea that religion ultimately concerns nonpolitical (because nonreal) phenomena are products of the turbulent and contingent history of Latin Christendom, variously charted by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (2007), Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation (2012), and most recently, Tom Holland’s Dominion (2019). The book could well have been titled Politics, Christianity and Ideas in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain. This, perhaps the biggest of social-intellectual contexts, is missing from the approach underlying the collection. Nonetheless, there is much within the book for which many readers can be grateful to its editors, authors, and above all, Professor Goldie.


Citation: Matthew Neufeld. Review of Champion, Justin; Coffey, John; Harris and John Marshall, Tim, eds., Politics, Religion and Ideas in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain: Essays in Honour of Mark Goldie. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. May, 2020. URL:

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