- The Plain Man’s Pathways to Heaven: Kinds of Christianity in Post-Reformation England, 1570-1640 by Christopher Haigh
Oxford, 284 pp, £32.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 921650 5
There is plenty of evidence about the religious beliefs of the ‘plain man’ in early modern England, but it tells us more about the devout and the learned than it does about the lukewarm, the ignorant, the sceptical, or those who muddled through. We know a lot about godly ministers, in their own words and in those of their detractors; we know less about their parishioners. We know about the martyred Jesuit Edmund Campion; we know less about the silent majority of English Catholics who lived without incident, many continuing to attend their now Protestant parish churches and being buried in now Protestant churchyards.
Books of popular homiletics such as George Gifford’s Country Divinity (1581), Arthur Dent’s The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven (1601) and Lewis Bayley’s The Practice of Piety (1611) aimed to set forth the rudiments of soul-saving doctrine in plain English. Their authors were Puritan ministers, who drew on their own experience in addressing parishioners’ spiritual concerns, and their books help us understand what those concerns were. These books sold well, none better than Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway, which went through 25 editions by 1640. His book takes the form of a wide-ranging discussion about religion between four characters: ‘Theologus, a divine’, ‘Philagathus, an honest man’, ‘Asunetus, an ignorant man’ and ‘Antilegon, a caviller’. Theologus, Dent’s mouthpiece, is given the winning arguments, while the pious layman Philagathus feeds him useful questions; but the two non-Puritan characters give them a run for their money, responding with serious objections, scornful jibes and, at times, real indignation. Anyone who picks up The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven today might well be surprised by its liveliness.
As you’d expect, Theologus and Philagathus are keen on preaching, church attendance and private devotion, and take a hard line on ignorance and sin. Theologus preaches a standard predestinarian Calvinism, which at the turn of the 17th century had not yet taken on the anti-establishment associations it would acquire in the 1620s. Dent’s godly characters allow us to see what mattered most to late Elizabethan Puritans, and why. Take the doctrine of assurance, the Calvinist principle that the elect know with perfect certainty that they are bound for heaven. Many found this idea hard to swallow. ‘I will never beleeve,’ Asunetus objects, ‘that any man can certtainely know in this World, whether hee shall bee saved, or damned: but all men must hope well, and be of a good beliefe.’ ‘Nay, we must go further than hope well,’ Theologus replies. ‘We may not venture our salvation upon uncertaine hopes. As, if a man should hope it would be a faire day tomorrow; but he cannot certainly tell. No, no. We must in this case, being of such infinite importance as it is, grow to some certainty and full resolution.’ Without this,
what comfort can he have in any thing? Besides this, the perswasion of Gods love towards us, is the root of all our love and cheerefull obedience towards him. For therefore wee love him and obey him, because we know he hath loved us first, and written our names in the booke of life. But on the contrary, the doctrine of the Papists, which would have men alwaies doubt and feare in a servile sort, is most hellish and uncomfortable. For so long as a man holds that, what encouragement can he have to serve God? What love to his Majesty? What hope in the promises? What comfort in trouble? What patience in adversity?