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Protestants by Alec Ryrie

Protestants by Alec Ryrie
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What is a Protestant? That’s the question at the heart of this book, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. And it’s a “tough one” to answer, as the label “means everything and nothing”. Abraham Lincoln, Ian Paisley and Martin Luther King Jr. were devout Protestants. So was Jim Jones of the Jonestown Massacre. “Protestants freed slaves, but also sold them; rescued Jews, but also gassed them.” Despite such “confounding diversity”, Alec Ryrie, a religious historian and Anglican lay preacher, “doggedly tries” to fashion a coherent narrative.

He begins his admirably ambitious account by claiming that Protestants are, above all, “lovers”, distinguished by their direct, “passionate affair with God”. This, he says, has helped inspire “three important contributions to modernity”: free enquiry, democracy and tolerance (or the demand “simply to be left alone”). And if Ryrie’s “blatant bias” leads him to overlook some of Protestantism’s less edifying episodes (Belfast, for example, is “conveniently ignored”), this is still a “remarkably open-minded” and “light-hearted” work. Cramming the history of Protestantism into 500-odd pages seems “reckless” on the face of it, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times, yet Ryrie suceeds “magnificently”. He shows that it emerged at a particular time, when the “development of print culture was shaking authority all over Europe”. It was political as well as religious, which helps explain why it was often “accompanied by extreme violence”. In our own time, Protestantism has become a “global phenomenon”; the most dramatic growth occurring in Southeast Asia and Latin America. And while the “wildly ecstatic” rituals of modern Pentecostalism would strike Luther and Calvin as “shocking”, they are still evidence, says Ryrie, of the “same old love affair”.

Protestants is an excellent “introduction” to its subject, but not all its arguments hit the mark, said Edward Vallance in the Literary Review. Ryrie’s eagerness to emphasise the “common ground” between the movement’s sects leads him to downplay its “fissiparous” tendencies. And though he gives short shrift to the idea of a “relationship between capitalism and Protestantism”, it’s hard to deny that Protestants have been “good at accommo-dating, even embracing, commerce and entrepreneurship”. Pentecostalism, which promises that the poor will be blessed “not in the next life but in this”, is but the latest example.

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