This book is based on a story. Its main protagonists are a London clergyman, Stephen Denison, and a lay sectmaster and prophet, John Etherington. The dispute between the two men blew up in the mid-1620s, but its reverberations can be traced back to the 1590s and continued to 1640.
Through Denison the book analyses the tensions and contradictions within the 'religion of protestants' that dominated great swathes of the early Stuart church. Through Etherington, it eavesdrops on a London puritan underground that has remained largely hidden from view and which, while it was related to, indeed, parasitic upon, was not coterminous with, the order and orthodoxy-centred puritanism of Stephen Denison.
By placing the Denison/Etherington dispute in its multiple contexts, the book becomes a study of puritan theology and intra-puritan theological dispute; of lay clerical relations and of the politics of the parish; and thus of the social history of parish and puritan religion in London.
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By narrating a protracted and frequently bizarre altercation between a London minister and a member of his flock, this book provides a vivid picture of puritanism at the parish level in early Stuart England.
On February 11, 1627, Stephen Denison preached a sermon that violently denounced an erstwhile boxmaker, John Etherington, as a heretic, a sect master, and an Anabaptist. The accused stood before Denison and then was returned to prison, where he languished for another three years. Denison published his denunciation later that year under the title The White Wolf. By the 1630s, however, Denison himself was in trouble with the same Court of High Commission that had sentenced Etherington. Denison was deprived of his living after being denounced by parishioners who resented his irascible temper, his harsh pulpit style, and his belittling of their church activities. Then, in 1641, Etherington came back to haunt Denison when, taking advantage of the collapse of censorship, the boxmaker heatedly replied in print to the accusations made against him fourteen years before.
The book places this dispute in the multiple social, cultural, and political contexts necessary to understand it. What forces and what ideological and personal trajectories brought these two men into conflict? What issues did the dispute raise and what do they tell us about the religious history of early Stuart England? The story of Denison and Etherington provides an example, almost unique before 1640, of the interaction between a minister and a parishioner. We also gain a portrait of an arena of lay activities and at least potentially heterodox doctrinal debate in puritan circles.
The author challenges the bad name that polemic has acquired of late among scholars by using overtly polemical sources, arguing that polemical intensity allows us a privileged glimpse into a world we do not usually get to see. He reads his sources against the grain, collating and comparing them to overcome the biases, silences, and exaggerations that the polemical mode also produces. In the end, the polemical constructions through which the story of Denison and Etherington has come down to us become necessarily a part of the story itself.
“This substantive investigation of parochial politics is not merely the story of a private vendetta, but rather a dynamic narrative about popular opinion in flux. . . . The Boxmaker’s Revenge deserves a wide readership among serious scholars.”—History
“A brilliantly argued, erudite book.”—Religious Studies Review
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