Emblem of Faith Untouched

A Short Life of Thomas Cranmer

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Leslie Winfield Williams
Library of Religious Biography
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , September
     2016.
     160 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802874184.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Leslie Williams uses the phrase “to make a long and complicated story concise” (113) as an explanation of her purpose in writing this book. She sets out specifically not to write another in-depth study of the life and thought of Thomas Cranmer, given that there is no lack of books already dedicated to this theme. Her purpose here, and it is an admirable one, is to provide the interested reader (rather than the critical scholar), including priests and seminarians, a well-rounded portrait of an important figure instrumental in the early development of an essential institution—the English Church—at a key stage in English history: the Tudor/Reformation period. Her goal is to make clear why Cranmer has had so much attention dedicated to him by historians and theologians interested in that era, combining anecdotal material (largely provided by John Foxe) with scholarly historical and theological studies. (Williams readily acknowledges the two most recent works on Cranmer—the 1993 essay collection edited by Paul Ayris and ‎David Selwyn and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography of 1996—but draws too heavily and uncritically upon the latter for contextual information.) The book features twenty short chapters arranged chronologically from “Beginnings” to “Death.” The portrait that emerges is of a timid, almost saintly scholar thrust into controversies he wanted no part in but one who emerged from his trials as a true defender of his faith. The basic facts are rehearsed in a clear and simple manner and the basic chronology observed. I can see what non-scholars will take away from the book (it is an interesting story after all), but it is more difficult to see what priests and seminarians would get out of it, as they should have some firm basis in theological studies already.

It is obvious that this book was not written by an historian. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as non-historians can bring interesting perceptions to their subject, but Williams does not avoid the pitfalls historians would be conscious of, and this undermines the value of the book. For instance, the text is riddled with far too many weasel words and phrases—“must have been”, “perhaps”, “probably”—which hints at a lack of familiarity with the facts or uncertainty with her conclusions. This uncertainty is passed on to the reader. This may be a result of Williams’s reliance on unproven anecdotal evidences. The too heavy reliance on second hand information and extremely biased accounts here, written by contemporary or near-contemporary Cranmer disciples and cheerleaders, may add drama to the story, but it skewers the reality. As a result, for instance, the old picture of the Henrician bishops as mere time-servers is presented as fact, and Williams puts a great deal of positive spin on what might otherwise be considered character flaws in her subject. Thus, Cranmer’s longer than normal undergraduate career becomes evidence for a calm, considerate, and thorough manner, while his “chameleon-like personality” (30) is interpreted as open-mindedness rather than, say, indecision. Williams wants to portray Cranmer as the influencer, but he appears here more often as the influenced, bullied into complaince by other authority figures like the king, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and the duke of Somerset. Another weakness is the lack of analysis. The uncritical use of anecdotal evidence changes the meaning of some events or leaves them open to lazy conclusions. For example, Williams wonders at the obstructionism of bishops Gardiner and Stokesley to Cranmer’s metropolitan authority (46) without explaining why these two savvy individuals took the stance they did. Later she does not seem to understand that parliament was dismissed at the king’s pleasure in that era (64). These are perhaps minor complaints important only to professional historians, but ignoring those gives non-experts an unrealistic picture. Moreover, there are factual errors. For instance, Richard Sampson was bishop of Chichester (not of Chester); Miles Coverdale was not a bishop until 1551 (and neither was John Hooper); and John Fisher was executed in June, not in July. These errors may be evidence of editorial glitches (as too is the fact that no footnotes are listed for pages 82-84).

The last five chapters of the book are considerably better than the previous fifteen, although chapter 17 (on the reign of Mary) does perpetuate the Bloody Mary stereotype without comment or acknowledgement of more recent historical revisionism. Chapter 16, on the consolidation of the Reformation under Edward VI, is by far the most interesting and useful chapter. Here Williams presents some analysis of the important theological issues, but perhaps not wishing to put off non-experts, she never ventures into depths that a priest or seminarian reader might appreciate. There are also two very useful appendices: a review of the key issues of the Reformation and a clear and concise (i.e., simple) overview of Reformation Eucharistic theology. All told Williams does what she sets out to do: “to make a long and complicated story concise.” It is a good read, well written despite its flaws, and very interesting. I don’t know, however, whether this is enough to inspire non-experts to dig a little more deeply into the issues raised. I hope it is. Otherwise we are left with non-experts acquiring only a very unnuanced portrait of a man for whom nuance was everything.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew A. Chibi is Director of the Distance Learning Association, Sheffield, United Kingdom.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leslie Williams is an English professor, writer, and three-time Fellow of Yale Divinity School. Her other books include The Judas Conspiracy and When Anything Goes: Being Christian in a Post-Christian World.

Comments

Leslie Williams

I am honored and would like to thank Andrew Chibi of the Distance Learning Association for reviewing my book on Thomas Cranmer. Since the book is self-proclaimed as neither a scholarly book, nor intended to be read by historians, I’m grateful that he took the time to point out that the book is not scholarly, nor would it appeal to historians.  

I am, however, glad that he recognized the book for its intention:  to appeal to intelligent readers in busy professions such as law or medicine or business, who enjoy reading biographies that are accurate but not unnecessarily clogged with the sort of minute detail that scholars and historians appreciate.  In spite of his opinion to the contrary, this book was also written for seminarians and priests, who, yes, have a basic background in church history and theology, but who live in the whirlwind of parish duties, expectations, and who might like a brief and lively biography of the man who changed their church.

Although I have a Masters of Sacred Theology from the Yale Divinity School, my Ph.D. is in narrative theory; my goal in writing Emblem of Faith Untouched, was to bring Thomas Cranmer the man and his story out from under the crushing weight of scholarly and historical research.  Again, I’d like to thank Mr. Chibi for writing a review in such an esteemed venue.  His insights were interesting.

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