Thomas Fuller

Discovering England's Religious Past

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W. B. Patterson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Commenting on Thomas Fuller’s short biography of Thomas Cranmer, which appeared in John Stafford’s Abel Redevivus (1651), W. B. Patterson notes that it is “written with economy and grace [and] it presents a human, fallible, yet engaging figure caught in the crosscurrents of politics” (145). The same may be said about Patterson’s convincing reassessment of Fuller’s life and work. In an attempt to set aright Fuller’s ambivalent legacy as an historian, Patterson carefully reconstructs his contribution to the national memory in mid-17th century England in the wake of years of internecine turmoil and demonstrates his “major role in shaping modern historical thought and writing” (343). Patterson depicts a man keen on accurately transmitting English history, uncolored by the ravages of political and military partisanship, in an effort to help his compatriots make sense of their collective religious past. In that effort, Patterson argues, Fuller “recover[ed] the nation’s religious past in a more comprehensive and coherent way than any of his predecessors” and “provided the foundation of historical treatments” for historians in the ensuing centuries (8). 

Patterson supports his narrative by setting Fuller squarely in the stream of historical writing that developed during the era of the Reformation, both on the continent and in England. With the rise of Protestantism came a “greater spur to historical investigation than any intellectual movement since antiquity” (342). Fuller’s writings were “nurtured” by the subsequent historical methodological developments in Elizabethan England, which began to take on inchoate, though discernible, modern attributes (v). This shift in English historical writing had at its core the “cultivation of memory” and brought about historical practices that were “dispassionate, critical, and as firmly based on reliable evidence as any in Europe” (1). Fuller, who himself possessed a well-known penchant for memory, considered it to be “the treasure house of the mind” in which “the monuments thereof are kept and preserved” (9). 

After delineating the contours of developments in the practice of history in England, Patterson weaves together the story of Fuller’s life and the story of his historical writing. This approach offers an effective treatment of both the man and his scholarly corpus. Incidentally, by mapping Fuller’s life through his works, Patterson provides a superb survey of mid-17th century English history. Fuller’s presence as an ancillary participant in many of the key socio-political events of the Civil War, Interregnum, and the Restoration helps highlight the equivocal nature of this turbulent period. Like many in the early 1640s, Fuller “was neither a strict royalist nor a strict parliamentarian,” but expedience, questions of conscience, and urgency tied to increased political fissuring forced firm decisions (106). Indeed, despite having ultimately sided with the king, Fuller “continued to favor negotiations and the cessation of hostilities as the way to achieve peace” (107). While circumspection may have ruled his conscience (as his account in Church-History suggests), the exigencies of the time called for decisive action. Throughout the tumult of the mid-17th century, Fuller “involved himself directly and repeatedly in the conflict, and he showed great courage and independence of judgment at key points in the struggle” (341). 

The independence that Patterson fleshes out in several of the chapters is reflected as well in Fuller’s work as a historian of English Christianity. Though Fuller, as a committed Calvinist minister, was “closely linked” with previous Protestant historians, he, “more than his predecessors, Catholic and Protestant alike, saw the continuity of the Church in historical rather than in theological terms” (221). What is more, in his major work of English social history, History of the Worthies of England, Fuller favorably referenced past Catholic historical writers in England, recognizing that a number of them were “a credit to the country that bred them” (301). 

While much more could be said about Patterson’s wide-ranging achievements in this biography, his most significant achievement is providing a superbly contextualized argument that allows “Fuller’s contribution as a historian to be recognized and seen in the perspective of the development of British and European historical writing and thought” (342). In so doing, Patterson effectively sketches Fuller’s gregarious, yet deeply introspective, personality, which personalizes both his work as a historian and the unsettled times in which he lived. Patterson’s work is a convincing reassessment of one of the major early modern English historians and a nuanced account of the social, theological, and political unrest of 17th-century England.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Baddley is a graduate student in the History of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. B. Patterson is Professor of History (Emeritus) at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, has written widely on British and European history and religion. His publications include King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (Cambridge University Press, 1997), which won the Albert C. Outler Prize in ecumenical church history from the American Society of Church History. He is an active member of the Ecclesiastical History Society of Great Britain and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.


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