Thomas Becon: Beacon of the English Reformation

I've been rereading the delightful and (unlike much of my recent fare) concise historical survey of Anglican spirituality by Bishop John R. H. Moorman titled The Anglican Spiritual Tradition (Templegate, 1983). I was amused by his two-page, tongue-in-cheek review of the career of Thomas Becon, a trenchant Protestant polemicist of the mid-16th century (pp. 50-51). Becon (c. 1511–1567), like many Reform-minded clerics of his day, studied at Cambridge; he then served as chaplain to the Lord Protector during the reign of young Edward VI and also worked in the household of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

When Queen Mary came to power in 1553, Becon fled to Germany and returned to England in 1559, after the accession of Elizabeth, and he was appointed a canon at Canterbury cathedral. As Moorman wryly notes, Becon was very much given to jump into the fray in those tumultuous early days of English Protestantism.

It was in his early writings that Becon showed his great gift for devotional and spiritual work, though even here he found it impossible to prevent himself from dropping into castigations and denunciations of the Church of Rome (p. 50).

Moorman describes an early Becon work, The Flower of Godly Prayers, published in 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII. It would seem that the English reformer combined a certain zeal -- perhaps bordering on fanaticism, from a 21st century perspective -- with great skill in prolixity:

This is a collection of seventy prayers, some of inordinate length, designed for all occasions. Some are purely personal, some are meant for the family or household, for those in office in Church and State, for all sorts and conditions of men, even including one's enemies. Many of them are, to our ears, curiously informative, didactic and abusive. They go to great length to inform the Almighty of facts with which he must be already aquainted; they tell the Lord that a bishop is no good shepherd if he "standeth all day whistling and calling at his sheep" when he ought to be driving them to "sweet and pleasant pastures"; and they inform the poor that poverty, like riches, is a gift of God (ibid.).

Becon, however, like many a modern church leader, was also capable of ecumenical gestures. Take, for example, his prayer for "Uniform and Perfect Agreement in Matters of Christian Religion." This text, as it happens, attacked Roman Catholic religious orders and various other societies as, in his own words, "an innumerable rabble of hypocrites more, papists, anabaptists ... and such other dunghills of Satan" (p. 51). From a modern standpoint, this screed, Moorman notes, "would scarcely win approval for a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" (ibid.).

Some of Becon's works were less polemical and more devotional, Moorman concedes. What all these works had in common was their great prolixity. The 21st century Twitter user, who can't be bothered to spell out a two-syllable word, surely lacks the stamina of the average 16th century English reader, who gobbled up these wordy tomes much like a contemporary teenager (ahem) rabidly consumes the latest "Game of Thrones" episode. For example, Becon's Sick Man's Salve

is an immensely long death-bed scene in which four friends prepare a man called Epaphroditus for his death. In spite of its length, this was so popular that many editions had to be printed in the sixteenth century, and some people appear to have learned the whole thing by heart (ibid.).

16th century beacon hut in Culmstock, Devon, England
By Martin Bodman (via wikimedia commons)
Today we might wince or chuckle at such ardent zeal. After all, in our day, a sitting pope has intimated that, should a Lutheran slip in the side door during a mass and sidle up to the communion rail, the Holy See is not going to make a fuss over it. But maybe we should pause before judging the past too harshly: The next time one of us reads the 800th article of the week in Slate about what a bigoted buffoon Mr. Trump is ("Holy crap! You won't believe what he said next!") or the latest missive from Breitbart about how Secretary Clinton is the most pernicious of traitors, who deserves no less than to be locked up underneath Guantanamo. Perhaps, in some respects, were not so different from our forbears after all.

In our day, apparently, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has proven that all religion is bunk -- He demonstrates it with some mathematical algorithm that's beyond my ken, as I never progressed beyond trigonometry in high school. But we should recall Becon's younger contemporary, another beacon of English letters, Francis Bacon, a philosopher who set in motion the wheels of enlightened empiricism that ultimately would be our salvation -- It's coming, Dr. Stephen Pinker assures us: Wait for it. So to the late modern palate, why is Bacon kosher while Beacon is beyond the pale?

I end with a salutary reminder from a beacon from our own day:

I really believe that all of us have a lot of darkness in our souls. Anger, rage, fear, sadness. I don't think that's only reserved for people who have horrible upbringings. I think it really exists and is part of the human condition. I think in the course of your life you figure out ways to deal with that.

So says Kevin Bacon.

Preach it, brother.



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