John Coffey. John Goodwin and the Puritan Revolution: Religion and Intellectual Change in Seventeenth-Century England. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006. xii + 337 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-265-2.
Reviewed by Nick McDowell (Department of English, University of Exeter)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2008)
An Anti-Cavalier Attitude to Life
A decade ago John Coffey published Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: the Mind of Samuel Rutherford (1997). Rutherford (1600-61) was during the 1640s professor of divinity at St. Andrew's and one of the most formidable of the Presbyterian heresiographers. In his focus on the life and thought of a vocal Puritan opponent of liberty of conscience, Coffey chose an unfashionable topic and, to the modern liberal reader, an unattractive one; but the illuminating results paved the way for works such as Ann Hughes's intricate study of the most notorious 1640s heresiographer, Thomas Edwards, in Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution (2004). Whereas Hughes's book incorporates techniques developed by historians of the book and is ultimately concerned with exploring the relationship between print culture and historical event, Coffey's book on Rutherford is a more traditional intellectual biography.
In John Goodwin and the Puritan Revolution Coffey offers "a sequel of sorts" (p. vii) to the book on Rutherford, in which he explores the mind of a man who represents the flip-side of Protestant activism during the Civil Wars: Goodwin was an Independent, an Arminian, and one of the leading tolerationists of the period. Goodwin, then, would appear to be someone with whom we have more in common than the likes of Rutherford and Edwards (who described Goodwin as "this great Goliah of the Sectaries" and spent over half of the second part of Gangraena detailing his supposed heresies) and whom we can identify as a forbear of liberal democratic society. The whole issue of whether Goodwin anticipates Enlightenment values, as has sometimes been claimed, is one that Coffey leaves until his conclusion, although he emphasises from the beginning that he will resist the tendency to "modernize and secularize" Goodwin's thought (p. 9) and will emphasize Goodwin's sense of his own vocation as a godly minister and theologian.
This desire to refine Whiggish versions of the history of toleration is evident in recent work on John Milton, with whose evolving ideas about free will and soteriology Goodwin's anti-Calvinist theology is often compared. The essays collected by Sharon Achinstein and Elizbaeth Sauer in Milton and Toleration (2007) are keen to present an awareness of historical and cultural difference as a guiding principle of their approach, although not all the contributors (who are all from English literature departments) manage to maintain this professed skepticism towards Whig interpretative paradigms. In David Loewenstein's contribution to Milton and Toleration, Goodwin is placed alongside Milton and the Leveller William Walwyn as one of the more daring proponents of toleration in the Civil War period. The historian Coffey impressively maintains throughout a balanced assessment of claims for Goodwin as a "proto-Lockean" thinker. Coffey's Goodwin certainly valorized liberty of conscience and promoted freedom of inquiry into religious matters, but he was willing in ways that Milton and Walwyn never were to accept the polemical terms of sectarian denomination. During the 1650s he wrote explicitly against Baptists, Ranters, Quakers--"that late diabolical sect," according to Goodwin's Cata-Baptism (1655). While Goodwin's Arminianism draws him close to Milton theologically, Goodwin's hostility to Socinianism is revealing: while Milton got into trouble in 1652 for licensing the Racovian Catechism, probably translated by John Biddle, Goodwin delivered sermons against Biddle and his anti-trinitarianism.
Goodwin nonetheless maintained in these sermons that Socinians should be defeated through rational argument and scriptural exegesis, not through persecution and imprisonment. This begs the question of Goodwin's position on Oliver Cromwell: Biddle, who was imprisoned in the Isles of Scilly in 1655, where he remained for three years, is often cited as a test-case for the limits of Cromwellian toleration. Goodwin supported the Humble Proposals of 1652, a petition put together by conservative Independent clerics for increased clerical and state regulation of religion, whereas Milton's sonnet "To the Lord General Cromwell" (1652) laments the rise of these "new foes" who seek to "bind our souls with secular chains" (lines 11-12). Coffey is on the whole more thorough and confident on Goodwin's theology than his politics. If more light could have been shed on the evolution of Goodwin's republicanism in the 1640s (though there is a helpful discussion of Goodwin's important 1642 tract, Anti-Cavalierisme), the reasons behind his vociferous support for the Cromwellian Protectorate, which lasted until 1657, might also have become more apparent. Goodwin's former allies, radical Independents like Henry Vane and Fifth Monarchists such as Vavasour Powell, were appalled and confused by his Cromwellian allegiance. Milton also wrote in defense of the protectorate in Defensio Secunda (1654); but, unlike Godwin in Dis-satisfaction satisfied (1653), Milton did not specifically attack the Fifth Monarchist opposition to Cromwell. Yet Goodwin could never be accused of time-serving and he published several bitter attacks on the Restoration church before his death around 1665.
Coffey's conclusion that "Godwin helps us to see how a new style of English Protestantism emerged from the fusion of radical Reformation and Renaissance humanism during the English Revolution" (p. 293) is an attractive one, but while there is certainly an Erasmian spirit in the highly educated Goodwin's constant defense of the values of unprejudiced reading and inquiry, it is less clear if classical republican thought informed his thinking in any significant way. As Coffey observes at one point, without much elaboration, Goodwin's emphatically biblical language of freedom and slavery offers an interesting counterpoint to the neo-Roman theory of liberty identified by Quentin Skinner in Milton and Henry Parker. It would also have been interesting to hear some thoughts on Goodwin's style; it seems to me that the spokesmen for intolerance, Rutherford and Edwards, were the more entertaining prose stylists. In most respects, however, this is an exemplary intellectual biography which is rich in detail and highly sophisticated in its account of theological difference in seventeenth-century England.
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Nick McDowell. Review of Coffey, John, John Goodwin and the Puritan Revolution: Religion and Intellectual Change in Seventeenth-Century England.
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