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Kathleen Lynch, Protestant Autobiography in the seventeenth-century Anglophone world. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-19-964393-6. Xii+322pp., Hbk. £60

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben

[1]  Much of the attention paid to life-writing in early modern England has concentrated on the conversion narratives which were developed in certain puritan communities to monitor proper religious experience and to function as a gateway to church membership in gathered congregations. The scholarly consensus argues that these conversion narratives emerged in Independent churches in New England in the 1630s and 1640s, were theorised in England and Ireland in the 1650s, and thereafter evolved into a literary genre from which a series of narratives, such as Bunyan’s Grace Abounding (1666) and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), became classics in the English canon. This scholarly consensus was established by Edmund S. Morgan’s Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (1963), Owen Watkins’s The Puritan Experience (1973), and Patricia Caldwell’s The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (1983). These texts argue that successful conversion narratives – those which allowed candidates into church membership – followed a standard rhetorical and theological pattern. This ‘morphology of conversion’ provided candidates for church membership with a basic vocabulary and structure from which it was unwise to deviate. More recent work, especially by astute critics like Naomi Baker, has done much to extend the arguments of Morgan, Watkins and Caldwell. Nevertheless, despite their relative age, these texts remain central to the debate about religious life-writing in the period.

[2]  A number of scholars are now beginning to question some of the assumptions of this established consensus. Working mainly within the existing scholarly boundaries, Francis J. Bremer has begun to revise some of his earlier conclusions, challenging assumptions about the relationship between conversion narratives and processes of granting church membership. One of the papers in which Bremer has advanced these new claims was presented at a conference organised by the ‘Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe’ project, based in the University of York. This project has led the way in expanding the writing under consideration by pushing back the geographical and religious boundaries of the discussion, by examining narratives of conversion from across and even beyond European Christendom. Kathleen Lynch’s study of Protestant Autobiography in the seventeenth-century Anglophone world (2012) is an important and convincing contribution to this new stage of the debate about the origins and evolution of life-writing in early modernity.

[3]  Lynch’s book moves away from the established centres of discussion to investigate the origins and development of Protestant autobiography across broader chronological, generic, book-historical and geographical contexts. With ambition and confidence, Lynch identifies a number of key ‘reorientations’ in which, she believes, her book makes a key contribution, including her book’s broad engagement with the literature of the English Atlantic, and its paying ‘fuller attention to the human communities and human processes by which these purportedly truthful texts were rendered credible, if not “True”’ (13). It is this situation in terms of recent work in book history and trans-Atlantic studies that makes Protestant Autobiography in the seventeenth-century Anglophone world such a key theoretical and historical contribution. But it is Lynch’s movement beyond the traditional focus on puritan studies that indicates the real value of her work. The book begins with an account of spiritual experience drawn up by Richard Norwood, a settler on Bermuda during the 1610s, and moves to discuss the reception of Augustine during the 1620s alongside work by John Donne. A chapter on civil wars writing compares the account of Sarah Wight in Henry Jessey’s The Exceeding Riches of Grace Advanced (1647) with the representation of the spiritual experience of Charles I in Eikon Basilike (1649). The second part of Lynch’s book returns to territory which would be more familiar to readers of the older literature on puritan conversion narratives. Chapters focus on the collections of conversion narratives published by Henry Walker (until recently attributed to Vavasor Powell), John Rogers and John Eliot in 1653, and on later autobiographical writing by Bunyan and Baxter. But this is no re-statement of earlier orthodoxies. Instead, Lynch’s reading of some of the more familiar texts in the English protestant life-writing tradition is informed by the subtlety and provocation of her opening chapters. The Bunyan and Baxter to whom we are introduced are effectively de-familiarised, and their place in the print culture of English dissent superbly communicated. Lynch’s greatest strength is in her reading of the materiality of these texts. Her study of the production and reception of John Rogers’s Ohel or Bethshemesh (1653) is particularly nuanced and advances discussion of the text in significant ways. Lynch’s reconstruction of the contexts of the book’s production and reception draws on the efflorescence of radical print culture in the Cromwellian world: ‘among these speakers, we hear for virtually the first time in print the new public voices of women, lower classes, ordinary citizens and the laity, those from outside the elite circles of London and the universities, those entering the public record for the first time and in the first person – with gender, geography, and culture as salient conditions of publication’ (125). And in Lynch’s account, the publication of the collections of narratives edited by Walker, Rogers and Eliot has everything to do with the hopes raised by the dissolution of the Rump and the sudden aspiration for godly rule embodied in the Barebones Parliament.

[4]  It may be that the book underplays its investments in trans-Atlantic contexts – and some of the hopes raised by its title. This may be strategic – earlier accounts of the emergence of protestant life-writing often over-stated the importance of American innovations. Future work in the area will no doubt seek to redress the balance. But as it does so, this future work will also need to acknowledge that Protestant Autobiography in the seventeenth-century Anglophone world has re-written the scholarly consensus, and that its decision to place its account of the emergence and evolution of protestant life-writing within early modern processes of knowledge production and dissemination has rooted often abstruse ideas within vitally material contexts.

Trinity College Dublin, October 2012