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The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution.

Christopher Hill. Allen Lane: The Penguin Press. 466pp. 25.00[pounds]. 0 713 99078 3.

Trying to review this book adequately is rather like trying to review the Bible on a single sheet of paper. Professor Hill has already written nineteen books on closely related aspects of life, belief, and politics in seventeenth century England, and despite his modest claim that this latest work is the result of wide but not very systematic reading, I cannot help feeling that in fact it is the crowning achievement of a lifetime of scholarship and research into one particular century of England's social history, which has absorbed and fascinated him for years, and still does so. |If I still had fifty years to spend in serious study of sermons, biblical commentaries, and theological treatises', he writes in the Preface, |I might -- just -- be able to cover the ground. But as I have not, I have done the best I can on the basis of many years of desultory reading in and around the subject'. That |best' is extremely unlikely to be bettered, and the ground covered in remarkable and mostly fascinating detail is huge.

He begins by looking at the influence on society of the Bible in the preceding century when |Lollards had been circulating versions of the Scriptures' surreptitiously and illegally to |lowly social elements', who |found profoundly subversive messages in the Bible'. But it is the explosive effect of the advent of printing and the consequent appearance of easily available vernacular versions of the Bible, which forms his main subject. Once everyone could read it, everyone could interpret those |subversive messages' in his own way and apply them to every aspect of his life. The effect upon society of the appearance of the English version of the Geneva Bible with its annotations was enormous. |By the seventeenth century the Bible was accepted as central to all spheres of intellectual life; it was not merely a "religious" book in our narrow sense of the word "religion". Church and State in Tudor England were one; the Bible was ... the foundation of all aspects of English culture ... If we do not grasp this, we shall fall into the anachronistic trap of speaking of "a more religious age" than our own. In many senses it was a less religious age than ours'. The Bible was the sovereign guide to everything: not just to religious belief, but to politics, economics, the Law, and all other aspects of corporate life as well as to |the private life and doings of every man in wisdom and folly, love and hatred, soberness and incontinency'.

The trouble, of course, was that people could -- and did -- find texts or passages in the Bible, ripped out of their historical context, to support their own ideas, whether those ideas were political, social, moral, or denominational. All men, whether Presbyterian, Royalist, Quaker, Ranter, Leveller, or even advocates of free love justified their beliefs and their actions by reference to the Bible, the Old Testament and the last book of the New Testament playing a far larger part than the Gospels in the passions of the time. The beheading of Charles I was justified by dozens of texts about the fate of unrighteous or idolatrous kings in the Old Testament; the English were equated with God's chosen people, Rome with Anti-Christ. Eventually people became so surfeited by denominational strife and fratricide and their biblical justification that the Bible lost much of its previous respect. Indeed, after the Restoration, Charles II made a certain Isaac Vossius Canon of Windsor precisely because |he would believe anything if only it was not in the Bible'. Meanwhile, however, sectarian hatred -- especially hatred and fear of Rome -- persisted, so that |when Nell Gwynn was mistaken by a hostile crowd for the King's French mistress, she said reassuringly, "Be silent, good people, I am the protestant whore".'

Professor Hill is careful not to look back in judgement, though at one point he shows an understandable preference for the Quakers after their abandonment of violence and militancy for more peaceful behaviour; but his book almost inevitably forces the reader to make judgements of his own, and he helps them to do so by pointing out that, despite its dangers, the Bible -- especially the Old Testament -- remains a profoundly revolutionary book. Karl Marx could not have been a more typical descendant of such savagely righteous old prophets as Elijah, rejecting the Church and God as deceivers rather as Elijah rejected the prophets of Baal for the same reason; and the Roman Catholic proponents of |Liberation Theology' in South America today are in the same line of descent. Moreover, despite the excesses of the seventeenth century, it is impossible to deny that the Bible had a huge influence upon some of England's greatest literary giants -- Shakespeare, Milton, Marvell to name only the most obvious -- or that the work of the Non-conformist churches in the slums of Victorian England during the early years of the industrial revolution, the birth of the Labour Party, the democratic constitution of this country -- not to mention the Constitution of the United States -- and much else were the long-term results of the seventeenth century revolution in this country. So what are we to say? That the Bible is a desperately dangerous book? Or that, even though so often abused and misused, it contains some of the most profound thinking about both the social and the personal problems of being alive? I suspect that Professor Hill would answer |Yes!' to both questions. His book is a monumental achievement.
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Author:Bridge, Tony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Words:927
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