This compelling book tackles an enormous subject, covering a major part of the history of evangelicalism in England. In this first volume, Thomas covers church history from 1516 to 1791, highlighting the beginnings of gospel preaching during the infancy of the Reformation to the rise of (and response to) Methodism.
Part 1 of the book intrigues us by the humble beginnings of English Protestantism. This followed a slow but steady retreat from Roman Catholic practices and the increase of gospel knowledge through the translation of the Scriptures into English, the practice of catechising, and the stalwart preaching and martyrdom of gospel preachers.
Thomas highlights men such as Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer, whose goal was to transform ‘the life of their nation into a mirror of the true Christian Commonwealth’ (p.151). The author not only covers the high points of this infant period in gospel preaching and education, but also the lows, where divisions rocked the church.
Part 2 looks at the beginnings of divisions within the Church of England, covering the years 1603 to 1743. In this large swathe of church history, Thomas brilliantly addresses the momentous change from ‘an established church, embracing the nation with broadly a single theology backed by royal power, to a more nuanced religious situation’ (p.303). He covers the pendulum swing from religious tolerance to the strife associated with the Establishment’s desire to create uniformity.
One section, in particular, that I enjoyed was Thomas’ treatment of various groups that were not part of the Church of England. He provides detail concerning how the Act of Uniformity (1662) affected all manner of dissenting groups, from Presbyterians to Quakers.
Part 3 covers the early years of Methodism during the 1730s to the relatively enervated state of the denomination at the death of Wesley in 1791. Within this segment, Thomas not only covers Methodism extensively, but also the rise of heretical sects during this period, such as Unitarianism. In addition, this final section examines such issues as scepticism among the learned, church growth and the manner in which the Church of England handled the Methodists.
All in all, this book is a masterly undertaking. It explains the growth, main events and various trials relating to the Protestant church in England between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Thomas covers the material superbly in both an historical and theological manner.
Unlike many history books, this truly understands the impact and weight of the gospel over the course of history. It shows both the highs and the lows associated with man’s shortcomings and the impact of persecution. It is highly recommended for those wishing to delve deeper into English church history.
Columbia, South Carolina