"At one time English religion had emphasized the static or the recurrent aspects of worship. Then for a century or more, England was conscious of acting a sacred history as opposed to reenacting it". Sommerville's observation should shock no one familiar with his "century or more," roughly 1530 to 1660, although the declared opposition between "acting" and "reenacting" is likely to strike those who still read Bale, Foxe, Dering, or Dell as rather forced. Yet, so many of the contrasts in Secularization are terribly suggestive, announcing that religion "was changing from devotion to deliberation".

What may surprise some historians, however, is that Sommerville cleverly crafts fresh distinctions in order to dismantle an old and long-cherished one, to describe, that is, the simultaneous secularization and spiritualization of English experience. Textbook wisdom tenaciously holds that secular ambitions and religious commitments were inversely related; one rose when the other fell. Hexter called it "the seesaw theory" and, for the tuxedo crowd, "the assumption of the conservation of historical energy." Sommerville, like Hexter, will have none of this up-and-down. His claim is simply that secularization agreed with English Calvinists. "[T]hey gave the process much of its impetus. Protestants believed that the essential features of their religion could not only survive the separation from other aspects of culture but would be purified by the process". Twelve hundred years earlier, following the ostensible conversion of Constantine, Christianity encouraged desecularization. Markus has recently described "the mass Christianization of Roman society," "the absorption" of the secular. Nesting thereafter in Constantine's shadow, church executives cheered the regimes of purportedly sacred monarchs and sometimes themselves dominated municipal, regional, even imperial affairs. How is it conceivable that a religion accustomed to privilege and power would give "the process" of resecularization "much of its impetus"?

Document Type

Book Review

Publication Date

Summer 1994

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1994 MIT Press. This article first appeared in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 25, no. 1 (Summer 1994): 85-94. doi:10.2307/206113

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