- Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World by Kathleen Lynch
Most scholarship on Protestant autobiography has focused on its (presumptively) private, individual, and inward aspects. A quick glance at the titles of books in the field illustrates this perspective: Joanna Moody’s edition of Margaret Hoby’s diary, The Private Life of an Elizabethan Lady (Sutton, 1998); John Stachniewski’s The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair (Oxford UP, 1991); and Meredith Anne Skura’s Tudor Autobiography: Listening for Inwardness (U of Chicago P, 2008). By contrast, Kathleen Lynch’s Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World is interested in the communal aspects of early modern autobiographies: both their congregational and political contexts and modes of authorization and the print regulations and activism that brought them to the wider reading public. In Lynch’s view, Protestant autobiography is as much about church and state formation as it is about individual selves, and as much about what Jerome McGann has called “non-authorial agents” as the auto bios at the center of the works themselves. In one of the nice surprises of the book, printers—even more so than publishers—play an integral role in the publication and politicization of the work Lynch discusses in her book.
As in many previous studies, the moment of conversion, or what the seventeenth-century writer Rose Thurgood called the “sweet Flash” of spiritual revelation and assurance, is at the center of Lynch’s book; indeed it is the basis for both spiritual authentication and church membership. But the conversion narrative Lynch is interested in is an “intra-Protestant phenomenon” rather than interconfessional one, a narrative based firmly in predestinarian theology—particularly in the assurance of election—and located squarely in the writings of mid-seventeenth-century sectarians (15). And by “sectarian” Lynch means Congregationalists and Independents; her study rules out groups like the Ranters who, in her words, “wandered outside the bounds of Protestantism.” While this seems both arbitrary and regrettable to me, Lynch is interested in church formation [End Page 591] and authorization, and those who radically rejected institutionalization of any kind are simply, as she puts it, “off the radar screen of this study” (34, 18). The period her book covers “encompasses the decisive loss of hegemony of the Church of England”; it begins in the 1620s and ’30s with the crisis over James’s Oath of Allegiance, and ends with the later Stuart failure to reunite the English church on the grounds of “comprehension” (27). (Richard Baxter’s Reliquiae Baxterianae  is the case study here.) In each chapter, Protestant autobiography serves both as a tool and a site of struggle in the ongoing battle between independent church formations and state power.
The centerpiece of the book is the middle chapter on three anthologies from independently gathered churches published in 1653, right after Oliver Cromwell’s purging of the Rump Parliament. Lynch argues, wholly persuasively, that each of these anthologies—one from London, one from Cromwellian Ireland, and one from New England—served as a virtual gathering place for the elect in this crucial moment of millenarian promise, and that together they signaled the high water mark of the autobiographical religious narrative as the basis of group membership and activism. It is this chapter that provides the buttressing for Lynch’s claim that Protestant Autobiography offers an “Anglo-American” account of religious identity formation in the Atlantic littoral of the mid-seventeenth century. In the introduction, she argues, undoubtedly correctly, that the period was one in which both ministers and books moved back and forth across the Atlantic, but she offers little evidence for her assertion that autobiography was “an agent of circum-Atlantic community formation” (4). She does not, for example, look at the circulation of Protestant autobiographies in the way that others have looked at the circulation of Augustine’s City of God, the works of John Bunyan, or the devotional texts that are the subject of Matthew Brown’s The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in...