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Burning to Read

Burning to Read

English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents

James Simpson

ISBN 9780674046122

Publication date: 05/01/2010

The evidence is everywhere: fundamentalist reading can stir passions and provoke violence that changes the world. Amid such present-day conflagrations, this illuminating book reminds us of the sources, and profound consequences, of Christian fundamentalism in the sixteenth century.

James Simpson focuses on a critical moment in early modern England, specifically the cultural transformation that allowed common folk to read the Bible for the first time. Widely understood and accepted as the grounding moment of liberalism, this was actually, Simpson tells us, the source of fundamentalism, and of different kinds of persecutory violence. His argument overturns a widely held interpretation of sixteenth-century Protestant reading--and a crucial tenet of the liberal tradition.

After exploring the heroism and achievements of sixteenth-century English Lutherans, particularly William Tyndale, Burning to Read turns to the bad news of the Lutheran Bible. Simpson outlines the dark, dynamic, yet demeaning paradoxes of Lutheran reading: its demands that readers hate the biblical text before they can love it; that they be constantly on the lookout for unreadable signs of their own salvation; that evangelical readers be prepared to repudiate friends and all tradition on the basis of their personal reading of Scripture. Such reading practice provoked violence not only against Lutheranism's stated enemies, as Simpson demonstrates; it also prompted psychological violence and permanent schism within its own adherents.

The last wave of fundamentalist reading in the West provoked 150 years of violent upheaval; as we approach a second wave, this powerful book alerts us to our peril.


  • Burning to Read is a landmark in the study of fundamentalism. In James Simpson's radical reassessment, the Protestant Reformation appears not as a parent of the Enlightenment, but rather as a progenitor of the extreme and intolerant literalism that has seized every major world religion today. Written with passion as well as scholarly authority, this is a compellingly readable and utterly persuasive study of a critical moment in world history.

    —Amitav Ghosh


  • James Simpson is a renowned scholar of the English Middle Ages and the Reformation. He is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard University, and the author of many books, including the critically acclaimed Burning to Read.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 5-1/16 x 7-7/8 inches
  • Belknap Press

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