- Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain Edited by Jessica Martin and Alec Ryrie
This is an excellent and illuminating collection that not only deepens our understanding of lived religion in Protestant England and Scotland; it also showcases some of the innovative new directions and methodologies employed by those studying early-modern religious cultures. The volume explores the myriad ways in which people prayed when they were not in church and serves as a companion [End Page 141] volume to Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie’s edited collection Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain (Burlington, VT, 2013). Indeed, the relationship between private devotion in the household and public worship in the parish church is a persistent refrain in the volume. For instance, in the volume’s opening chapter Ian Green characterizes domestic devotion as a blend of official or clerical recommendations with personal preferences and priorities. Jane Dawson’s chapter on the Scottish context similarly demonstrates that the Christian duty to practice private devotion was closely supervised by the Kirk, whose elders sought to shape the household into a “domestic seminary.”
Following these overviews are chapters that explore where people prayed and how they prayed, revealing the sheer variety of opportunities available to contemporaries; the volume’s interdisciplinary approach allows for wide-ranging coverage of these. Literary scholars Micheline White, Jessica Martin, and Alison Shell explore the texts that people used to structure and focus their devotions, revealing strong continuities with earlier pre-Reformation practices whilst also indicating the strategies adopted by evangelicals to persuade people to adopt new devotional habits. Prayer as a means to change embedded practices is also an issue with which Ryrie engages in his admirable chapter on devout activities associated with sleep, a chapter that is also a reminder of the evangelical principle of strict spiritual discipline during every moment of life, waking or not. Many of the chapters survey the devotional aids available to the laity to assist and guide their spiritual regime—advice literature, prayer manuals and handbooks were thick on the ground, and devotions utilizing the Psalms were evidently extremely widespread, as both Beth Quitsland and Hannibal Hamlin show. In her innovative chapter focusing on the place of visual and material artifacts in household devotion, Tara Hamling persuasively argues that domestic practice also continued to rely on visual and material props, which served as visual emblems of godly identity and agents of comfort as well as practical aids to memory.
Kate Narveson and Jeremy Schildt tackle the place of scripture in private devotion, each acknowledging that the evangelical ideal of universal access proved problematic in practice due to the complexity and opaqueness of the Bible. Schildt traces the ways in which the laity could traverse scripture and apply its lessons to their daily lives, whereas Narveson focuses on the clergy’s concerns that the laity were not equipped to encounter the Word without professional training in exegesis. The call for scriptural literacy was therefore accompanied by tactics to bolster deference to clerical authority and to ensure that the laity read the Bible in the right way—not in order to interpret it but to confirm the ground of doctrine that had been laid down elsewhere.
Narveson’s and Schildt’s chapters highlight that the flexibility of an individual devotional regime was constrained by official expectations and anxieties. The volume reveals that Protestant clergy in England were just as keen to script and oversee domestic worship as their counterparts in the Scottish Kirk. Erica Longfellow demonstrates that, despite the widely proclaimed Protestant duty of private [End Page 142] prayer, many clergymen remained deeply ambivalent about it and thought public worship superior. Solitary prayer in particular was thought not only to deprive the supplicant of congregational support and the sustaining presence of the church; it was also considered dangerous, an encouragement to melancholy, and a likely source of religious delusion.
As a whole, the volume vividly evokes the difficult...