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Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England

By Brooke Conti

Publication Year: 2014

As seventeenth-century England wrestled with the aftereffects of the Reformation, the personal frequently conflicted with the political. In speeches, political pamphlets, and other works of religious controversy, writers from the reign of James I to that of James II unexpectedly erupt into autobiography. John Milton famously interrupts his arguments against episcopacy with autobiographical accounts of his poetic hopes and dreams, while John Donne's attempts to describe his conversion from Catholicism wind up obscuring rather than explaining. Similar moments appear in the works of Thomas Browne, John Bunyan, and the two King Jameses themselves. These autobiographies are familiar enough that their peculiarities have frequently been overlooked in scholarship, but as Brooke Conti notes, they sit uneasily within their surrounding material as well as within the conventions of confessional literature that preceded them.

Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England positions works such as Milton's political tracts, Donne's polemical and devotional prose, Browne's Religio Medici, and Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners as products of the era's tense political climate, illuminating how the pressures of public self-declaration and allegiance led to autobiographical writings that often concealed more than they revealed. For these authors, autobiography was less a genre than a device to negotiate competing political, personal, and psychological demands. The complex works Conti explores provide a privileged window into the pressures placed on early modern religious identity, underscoring that it was no simple matter for these authors to tell the truth of their interior life—even to themselves.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Note on Spelling and Punctuation

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pp. ix-x

Although authoritative or scholarly editions have been cited in most cases, at times my analysis depends on early printed texts or individual manuscript witnesses that are not available in modern editions. In transcribing such texts, I have preserved original spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, with the exception of i/j, u/v, long s, and obsolete abbreviations and contractions, all of...

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Introduction. Controversy and Autobiography

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pp. 1-18

In 1642, engaged in pamphlet warfare over the proper form of church government, John Milton took time out from his vivid renderings of the evils of episcopacy to discuss his literary ambitions. A few months later, in another contribution to the same debate, he again interrupted his work’s political content with an autobiographical excursion—this one occupying nearly a third...

Part I. Oaths of Allegiance

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Chapter 1. James VI and I and the Autobiographical Double Bind

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pp. 21-49

Only a few pages into Basilikon Doron, the handbook of advice he wrote for his son Henry, King James VI of Scotland (the future James I of England) gives the prince directions on a number of devotional matters. After treating the proper method of prayer and the appropriate approach to scripture, he abruptly slides into autobiography and then abruptly slides back out: “As for...

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Chapter 2. Conversion and Confession in Donne’s Prose

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pp. 50-74

If even the king of England seemed unable to declare the truth of his religious experience in a straightforward fashion, it should be no surprise that many of his subjects were similarly cautious or similarly conflicted. The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Oath of Allegiance may have spelled out the essentials of an Englishman’s faith and expected his assent, but under...

Part II. Personal Credos

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Chapter 3. Milton and Autobiography in Crisis

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pp. 77-109

Alexander More, whom John Milton vilified in the Second Defence of the English People, is the first person known to have remarked on the autobiographical passages in Milton’s prose. “In this very Second Defence of yourself or the people,” More writes, “as often as you speak for the people your language grows weak, becomes feeble, lies more frigid than Gallic snow; as often as you...

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Chapter 4. Thomas Browne’s Uneasy Confession of Faith

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pp. 110-136

Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici initially seems very different from the fragmentary confessions of faith published by James I, Donne, and Milton. Unlike those works, the Religio was not published until years after its first composition; its entire subject is explicitly autobiographical; and it does not at first appear to be political or polemical. In the letter to the reader that prefaces the...

Part III. Loyal Dissents?

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Chapter 5. John Bunyan’s Double Autobiography

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pp. 139-163

At the end of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan describes his arrest six years earlier for preaching before an illegal assembly. He portrays himself as a man of unshakable resolve, one who submitted to the civil authorities without ever doubting the justice of his cause or the truth of his convictions: “I was made to see,” he writes, “that if ever I would suffer rightly...

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Chapter 6. James II and the End of the Confession of Faith

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pp. 164-170

Bunyan’s age represents a transitional moment for the confession of faith. By the last decades of the seventeenth century the religious, political, and generic pressures that had served to fuse controversial literature with autobiography seem to have abated. Although religious conflict was far from a thing of the past, its political and professional stakes were different; the relationship...


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pp. 171-204


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pp. 205-218


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pp. 219-222

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pp. 223-225

The chief article of my own confession of faith is a belief in the generosity of the scholarly community: without the support, advice, and timely interventions of dozens of people this book would never have been completed. Annabel Patterson, who believed in this project from the beginning, put up with my early drafts, my vague conviction that I was onto something, and periodically...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209211
E-ISBN-10: 0812209214
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245752

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 869904636
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Religion and literature -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Authors, English -- Religious life.
  • Autobiography -- Religious aspects.
  • Faith in literature.
  • Polemics in literature.
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