- Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England by Brooke Conti
What historians usually mean by the “confessional age” of the late Reformation has long seemed tangential, even antithetical, to the study of English literary imagination in the Age of Shakespeare and Milton: the dissemination of the continental confessions and Thirty-Nine Articles; the attempts at “harmonizing” the creeds of the Reformed, Lutheran and English churches; and the sundry guides to professing the faith, printed in England from 1550 onward. In Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England, Brooke Conti adopts a new, although equally tangential, approach to this subject. Her book forgoes the ambitious corpus implied by its title in favor of a close reading of seventeenth-century literary and spiritual autobiographies from James I and John Donne to John Milton, Thomas Browne, and John Bunyan, with a brief afterword on James II.
Conti’s six author-centered chapters explore “confessions of faith” as public statements of individual belief that constitute a biographical yet fundamentally “disnarrative” genre in Stuart England, forensic attempts “to explain or clarify [authors’] beliefs that wind up doing very little of either” (pp. 22, 51). This flexible definition allows Conti to trace forms of confessing and professing across such diverse canonical texts as James I’s Basilikon Doron and Apology for the Oath of Allegiance, Donne’s Pseudo-Martyr and Devotions, and Milton’s Defenses and antiprelatical tracts of the 1640s, as well as Browne’s Religio Medici and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. It also finds rhetorical and textual nuance in controversial prose frequently demoted to historical anecdote. Chapters 1 and 2 read the polemical writings of James I and Donne against the rhetorical ambiguities of the Oath of Allegiance, showing how both writers distanced themselves biographically from their Catholic ancestry through anxious professions of English Protestantism that resist denominational or narrative closure. “Anxiety” and “ambiguity” are indeed keywords of the study, as chapters 3 to 4 move from Jacobean conversion to the loosely termed “Personal Credos” of Civil War-era prose. Although Conti alludes to the shifting irenic, conformist, and Laudian policies bridging this period, her method of close reading subordinates ecclesiological questions to personal or psychological ones. Donne’s confessions thus stem from filial regret, whereas Milton’s stem, not from a theory of prelacy or Church, but rather stylistic patterns of self-scrutiny in the political tracts, where the “half-formed expression of uncertainty is quickly followed by an assertion of confidence” (p. 82).
This theme of uncertainty in Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England has the unfortunate effect of leaving uncertain what, precisely, the creedal nature is of [End Page 646] the “confessions” uniting its six chapters. Despite references to the work of Jaroslav Pelikan and Ian Green, the bibliography does not list any of the doctrinal confessions—officially sanctioned or otherwise—printed in England between 1550 and 1650, nor important recent studies of English and continental confessionalism, like those of Tom Betteridge or Robert Stillman. At the same time, Conti’s textual analysis illuminates that strange rhetorical category early-modern English believers preferred to call, if not their confession, their “religion.” Chapter 4 on Browne anchors the book in this respect, providing a painstaking collation of the 1635, 1638, and 1643 manuscript and print versions of the Religio Medici that shows how Browne’s reluctant “divorce” of reason and confession signals a move, even in heterodox prose, from the recitation of personal to “communal beliefs” (p. 127). Whether or not this augurs an “end to the confession of faith”—as the fifth chapter on Bunyan and a six-page coda on James II conclude—the book charts a growing gap between personal and polemical autobiography in seventeenth-century England. It is a welcome perspective, highlighting the need for further sustained study of the links among literature, creeds, and confessions in the period.