Alec Ryrie

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This page reflects a scholar's association with the Folger Institute.

Long-term fellowship

"Piety and the Experience of Protestantism in Early Modern Britain" (Mellon, 2008–2009)

The doctrines of early modern Anglo-Scottish Protestantism (c. 1525–1660) were defined with sharp-eyed precision; not so its practices. It was forthright in proscribing Catholic piety, but (ever fearful of idolatry) was reticent in endorsing religious practices of its own. However, piety abhors a vacuum. Of necessity, pious Protestants—‘godly’ Puritans and quieter conformists alike—had to find ways of blamelessly passing their time. The patterns of pious action that resulted constitute the lived experience of Protestantism.

I am attempting to reconstruct that experience, so essential for understanding Protestantism’s extraordinary cultural impact. Clearly, lay Protestants valued Bible-reading, sermon-attendance, laboring in one’s vocation and (above all) prayer. It is less clear exactly how they did these things; what they understood them to mean; or how they found sustenance from them. Likewise, vehement debate over doctrine and practice was a regular Protestant occupation; we barely understand why those debates packed such an emotional punch for the participants. This was a restless, intensely self-conscious religion which depended on maintaining, or manufacturing, a constant sense of crisis.

There has been much scattered, interdisciplinary work around this topic. I lead a network which will hold several conferences and workshops on the subject in 2008–2009. During a Fellowship, I propose to work towards a substantial monograph. Specifically, I hope to examine: Protestant fasting; reading, writing, and sermon-attending as pious practices; concepts of secular work; and practices of private prayer. I plan to use the Folger’s numerous commonplace books, as well as printed sermons and pious treatises.