Burning to Read English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents James Simpson Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, $27.95, 368 pp.
According to the standard argument of Protestant historiography, the sixteenth-century struggle to provide a vernacular Bible, with the corresponding doctrine that each person can come to a knowledge of faith sola scriptura, was a pivotal moment in Western culture. The reformers scored an early victory for what some would later come to call “liberalism” by striking down all mediating authorities dictating who could read and what they should get out of that reading.
InBurning to Read, James Simpson vigorously rejects that thesis: “Evangelical reading did not produce either readerly liberty or freedom from institutional constraint,” he writes. In fact, those advocating the private reading of Scripture met with enormous obstacles, and stirred such conflict that civil authorities often had to intervene to forestall anarchy.
Simpson focuses on a relatively brief period in the early sixteenth century—the age of William Tyndale and Sir Thomas More—when the English “Lutherans” promoted the doctrine of sola scriptura. The belief that every person could read the clear message...