Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity

Written by Curtis W. Freeman Reviewed By Jan Martijn Abrahamse

Curtis Freeman’s new book is a sort of cross-over between theology, church history and the history of literature. Through an exploration of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and William Blake’s Jerusalem (1804–1820), Freeman builds an argument to understand the relationship between democracy as political constellation and religious nonconformity of the Dissenter tradition as “symbiotic”: “Democracy demands dissent, dissent defends democracy” (backflap). Hence, Freeman claims: nonconformity is a democratic virtue.

In the introductory chapter, Freeman draws a genealogical line to picture his idea of the Dissenter tradition. Although he allows for reasonable variation, he clearly emphasizes the similarities by three identity markers. First, he notes the obvious refusal to make church and faith dependent on the likings of the civil government. Second, he recognizes a joint sense of what he indicates as “apocalyptic imagination” (pp. 15–26). Even though Freeman does not offer a clear-cut definition, it becomes gradually apparent that this denotes the eschatological framing of current events and figures through the vocabulary of the apocalyptic literature of Scripture. Third, they share disapproval from the political rulers of their day and age who in turn aim to domesticate these groups. “Domestication” is the tendency of those in power to perpetrate control and keep social order, either by violent oppression (prison, public execution), or a controlled and moderated incorporation of radical ideas (viz. the King James Bible), or by social exclusion. In this way, dissenters were prohibited from university, civil service, and—important for Freeman’s storyline—from being buried on the ecclesial burial grounds. For this reason, Bunyan, Defoe, and Blake—though years apart—were buried in the same place, namely, the special dissenter-graveyard known as Bunhill Fields. Freeman takes his departure from Bunhill Fields to tell the story of English dissent in three acts.

The first act (ch. 2) opens with an analysis of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, demonstrating the “slumbering dissent” of the mid-seventeenth century. A period in which dissenters faced heavy suppression to enforce conformism. Bunyan, accordingly, invites his readers to mirror their lives to the pilgrimage of the main characters, Christian and Faithful, and withstand the temptation of evil. He writes, “In the Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan provided dissenters with an apocalyptic narrative, albeit a quietly subversive one, which held out the promise of the crown of life to those who resisted the powers and proved faithful unto death” (p. 52). Fascinating is Freeman’s sketch of the reception history of Bunyan’s book among various peoples, who also paid the cost of martyrdom for their dissent (pp. 70–83).

In the second act (ch. 3), Freeman discusses Defoe’s adventure novel Robinson Crusoe, characteristic of what he terms “prosperous dissent.” In short, the Toleration Act of 1688 provided nonconformity with new liberties so that dissenters suddenly found themselves in better socio-economic circumstances. Those liberties also challenged their nonconformist convictions. Wrestling with his dissenter-background, Defoe expressed his dissatisfaction with society’s postulated toleration and called his fellow combatants to maintain vigilant and persistent in their cause. Freeman believes that Robinson Crusoe should be interpreted against this background of reconfiguring nonconformist identity. The “first modern novel” (p. 101) is actually a retelling of the “Prodigal Son”: “It is his struggle to come to terms with his vocation” (p. 104).

In the third act (ch. 4), Freeman continues his story of dissent through the work of William Blake, representing “apocalyptic dissent” and ushering in a new phase in dissenter history—the age of revolution. Of course, it was Blake who also made the famous watercolor-paintings for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Blake’s dissent never found an ecclesial community befitting his anti-rationalism and anti-nominalism. Thus, Freeman argues, Jerusalem exhibits the poetic manifestation of Blake’s hope for a new Christianity: “an apocalyptic vision of a dissenting Christian who believed that only a complete transformation of thinking could return Christianity to the religion of Jesus” (p. 174). Freeman closes his book with reflective remarks in which several related themes and historical figures are involved. Freeman concludes that the dissenter tradition still challenges the United States not to interpret their liberties through the lens of individualistic freedom of choice, but as the “freedom to be a new humanity reconciled with Christ” (p. 225).

Untamable dissent toward the government is in many ways a typical American issue. Since the concern for freedom, democracy and the distrust of political power is strongly connected with the history of English Separatists, known as the Pilgrim Fathers, whose convictions are said to have born “the land of the free.” However, this self-evident link between dissent and democracy is for many Christians in the European context less obvious. Reformed, Lutherans, and Anglicans share the fundamental conviction that the state is a gift of God demanding obedience rather than dissent (Rom 13). Free Church perspectives have only played a marginal role in the establishment of democracy in Europe. Nonconformity in Europe largely remained devoid of power and political influence; it has never been at home. This is also the irony. Since Freeman’s book is concerned with English authors, whose legacy inspired the founding of a new country (a new home!), and hence, in one way or the other, became associated with power itself: the power of the individual will. So how would European nonconformists read these stories without the immediate connotation that dissent is a good thing for society? Politics aside, this book offers to those interested in the history of the Free Church tradition a recognizable and stimulating narrative. Especially Freeman’s inclusion of reception history makes this book worthwhile. This is also the force of argument that underlies Freeman’s entire discourse and theological methodology: stories convey convictions and generate identity. It is a fine example of theology in the McClendonian tradition.

Jan Martijn Abrahamse

Jan Martijn Abrahamse
Ede Christian University for Applied Sciences/Amsterdam Baptist Seminary
Ede/Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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