Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Writing Journal 6: Nathan Johnstone's "The Protestant Devil: The Experience of Temptation in Early Modern England"

In “The Protestant Devil: The Experience of Temptation in Early Modern England” (2004), Nathan Johnstone argues that the devil the Protestants in 16th and 17th centuries England imagined existed solely in their minds and was accompanied by no physical descriptions; very different from the devil of the 14th and 15th centuries that depended very much upon physical description. The role of the devil to the Protestants was as a tempter and therefore spoke to them and tempted their thoughts without any physical manifestation. Johnstone makes this argument in order to illustrate that demonism was a very real part of a Protestant of this time’s understanding of the world, a fact that may have been glossed over due to the subtle nature of their beliefs. The expected audience is one that would be aware of the history behind English Protestantism and the belief system they followed, as well as one with a passing knowledge of how devils would have been viewed in the previous centuries.


This piece is helpful to my project because while I had planned on using the King James Bible and King James’ Daemonologie as primary sources for comparison, I did not have any scholarly commentary on the subject. This article points out that while the devil may have been a more subtle characterization than seen before, he was still a very real part of life in England. It also provides a nice tie in to the Catholic Church’s position on the devil, as it discusses the conflict that arose in Protestantism since it viewed anything Catholic as diabolical, including the Virgin Mary, saints, and the sacraments. The article focuses on the characteristic of tempter for the devil, and this pointed out to me that even if the characteristic was more of a role than a physical personality, it was still very important to the time period.

Johnstone forwards several other scholars, mainly historians for their work on the time period, and uses them as a way into the topic, as they set the stage for his argument. He also provides the opinion of Thomas who states that Protestants would have felt “powerless in the face of evil” (174) and uses this statement to point out that while many have come up with interpretations that counter Thomas, it has led to recent work on witchcraft and what that meant to “Protestant demonology” (174). Johnstone also refers to Russell, whose work I cite in my thesis prospectus, his work on the devil as a historical figure and uses this reference as a way to state that the character of the devil “pervaded the written culture of early modern England” being present in plays, sermons, tracts, diaries and ballads(175). Johnstone then goes on to form his argument that because the Protestant idea of demonology was more personal, as each person fought their own temptation, the perspective of how Protestants viewed the devil would not necessarily be found in these written works. Johnstone spends most of the article forwarding other scholars, most folklorists or historians in order to set the stage for the next stage of his own argument. He does counter Thomas and Russell’s ideas on “Protestantism as hostage to the Devil” (178), but seems to agree with some of their work as he forwards their other viewpoints. Johnstone also forwards several excerpts from personal diaries and church ballads to illustrate how Protestants of this time viewed the devil. He also forwards several examples of devotional literature that dealt with the devil as tempter. The end result of these moves is that he sets up each section of his article and uses them to move forward his own argument.

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