Brooke Conti. Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. viii, 240p. ISBN 9780812245752. US$ 55.00 (hardback).
Literary criticism continues to be taken with the complex, dynamic nature of early modern religious belief. Such is the case with Brooke Conti’s Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England, which considers short bursts of religious self-confession amidst the political prose works of King James I, John Donne, John Milton, Thomas Browne, John Bunyan, and King James II. Conti defines these “confessions of faith” as “polemically inspired autobiographies that purport to lay bare their authors’ beliefs but that tend, instead, to complicate and obscure them” (2). Marked by “incoherence, with suddenly tangled syntax, complicated negative constructions, and the like” (6), these confessions signal religious belief caught between individual complexity and a social landscape impatient with ambiguity.
The book contains three parts. “Oaths of Allegiance” pairs James I’s and Donne’s conversions to Protestantism. Throughout Basilikon Doron and later speeches and pamphlets, James I’s royal voice gives way to moments of “nervous repetition” (27) and “ambiguity” (42), as he tries and fails to align his Catholic heritage with his role as leader of the Protestant church. Donne parallels him throughout Pseudo-Martyr and Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, where “messy emotional backstory” (56) plagues an otherwise confident conversion, suggesting lingering Catholic nostalgia. “Personal Credos” turns to Milton’s and Browne’s emphasis on reason and personal knowledge. Throughout his anti-prelatical tracts and Defences, Milton offers “nervous and evasive” self-references that “seem to emerge from a sense of uncertainty about his mission” (79). Likewise, revisions to Religio Medici before its authorized printing reveal similar “theological uneasiness” (112) in Browne. His later removed “nervous gestures in the direction of orthodoxy” belie the “declarative mode” (127) of the final version. “Loyal Dissents?” considers Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and the speeches and pamphlets of James II. Whereas Bunyan’s work purports to vindicate his spiritual beliefs, it tends to read his victorious conversion through the later “fears, doubts, and temptations” (162) of his imprisonment. In conclusion, James II’s confessions practice unconcerned misalignment between his private Catholicism and Protestant leadership. This tonal shift suggests to Conti that religion had lost its privilege as a defining public quality. She concludes that the confession of faith, thriving in outdated debates over private and public worship, no longer mattered as a rhetorical strategy.
These incidents reveal real concern over belief amidst the religious controversies of the seventeenth century. Given the complexity of these controversies, the book’s religious inquiry might have gone deeper. It claims that for belief, “options were generally binary: Catholic or Protestant, conformist or non-” (4), yet the first part explores two decidedly non-binary major figures. This oversimplification leads the book to problematize the unevenness of religious confessions. Yet as the book recognizes, religion is as central and complex to identity as race (8), underlining that change and contradiction are to be expected as people grow. Closer consideration of specific spiritual debates, perhaps as also echoed in these figures’ fictional works, could have framed these issues positively as extensions of human reflection.
However, Confessions of Faith is also to be greatly admired, particularly for the ways in which it carefully traces a protean, fleeting genre, offering fresh insights into some of literature’s most traditional names. The study helpfully makes visible and decodes a swath of prose that is too often dismissed in these lengthy prose works. Conti’s ability to manipulate the different dimensions of her argument, including religious confession, “autobiographical endeavor” (169), and literary genre, provides for a study useful to multiple sub-disciplines. SHARP readers will find her description of Religio Medici’s transformations through manuscript and unauthorized publication fascinating, as well as the confessional through-lines Conti traces that tie disparate works together in new ways. Confessions of Faith brings fresh observation and insight to classic early modern texts, and proves fruitful reading for literary, religious, and political interests.