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David Hempton

After the Reformation

Probably the most prolific, and arguably the most learned, religious historian of his generation, W. R. Ward, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Durham, has produced an admirable synthesis of his many years of labor on the history of early modern Christianity in Britain and continental Europe. In a career stretching back some 40 years, Ward has produced over a dozen seminal studies of British and German religious history, including some of the most powerful writing on Methodism and Pietism ever published.

Having once described himself in print as an old Ranter (an English Primitive Methodist), Ward was unusual in his generation for having nothing much to do with either traditional ecclesiastical history or the new-fangled social history of religion as pioneered by Marxist historians and those influenced by social anthropology. For Ward's liking, the former was too prone to celebrate the achievements of established churches while the latter had a way of reducing religious history to the bare foundations of economic and social control. Ward has always had too much interest in the religious achievements of enthusiasts to peer at the history of religion either through the windows of cathedral closes or from the perspective of mainly reductionist theories about the social function of religion. He has been, and still remains, an iconoclast, and a formidably intelligent one at that.

For those of us who entered the academy in the 1970s, Ward was something of a hero figure. Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm had written spellbinding pieces on Methodism based on the thinnest of evidence; Ward, in his Religion and Society in England 1790-1850 (1972), produced a work of intricate brilliance based on the thickest of evidence. The problem with younger Ward, as with older Ward, is that he made few concessions to the ignorance of his readers and resolutely refused to simplify a complex story. Some historians can be read by the yard, Ward only by the inch. Densely ...

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