Religious History

Module code: HS2232

Module co-ordinator: Dr Zoe Knox, Dr Andrew Hopper and Dr Nigel Aston 

Module Outline

This module serves as an introduction to Religious History as a ‘variety’ of history. It invites students to develop a comparative perspective on the religious experiences of Reformation England, eighteenth-century Ireland and revolutionary Russia. At its core, it will investigate the nature of the link between church and state, a topic of critical importance to current affairs today. In these three different contexts, students will assess the relationship between the individual conscience and the requirements of conformity to a government’s religious policy. The module will explore why states have been so concerned to regulate and control religion, how religious persecution has been justified, and why particular states have adopted policies of religious toleration. Students will consider how far the modern world has really witnessed a rise in religious freedom. The module combines investigation of recent historical methods and approaches, with the researching of detailed case studies that include how to interpret primary source material.

Topics covered

The English Reformation case study will examine the state of popular religion in England on the eve of the Reformation before investigating how the succession of the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I led to fundamental changes in religious policy and the relationship between church and state. It will consider how far the English peoples were participants or victims in these processes, and how effective religious persecution was as a tool of state.

The case study of eighteenth-century Ireland will examine a country where the majority – Catholics - were governed by the Protestant minority. In looking at all three of the main Churches – Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian – in relation to the state and each other, it will show how Irish religious affairs were crucially affected by British government policy and how the latter could be unsettling for all the Irish, irrespective of their religious allegiance.

The revolutionary Russia case study will examine church-state relations in late Imperial Russia, when the Orthodox Church was a pillar of the autocracy; the spread of atheism amongst the Russian intelligentsia; the assault on Orthodoxy immediately following the Bolshevik revolution; and the persecution of religious minority groups under the new regime. Taken together, these topics will offer insights into the rise of militant atheism in the Soviet Union, which resulted in the most sustained assault on religious belief of the modern era.


The module opens with a series of lectures introducing students to the history of Christianity and how different historians have approached explaining the relationship between church and state. The lectures which follow focus on the case studies outlined above. During the second half of the semester, students will choose which of the three case studies they would like to explore in greater depth in a series of seminars. In small groups, students will explore the historiography and primary sources for each of the case studies, giving them ample opportunity to share their arguments, interpretations, and observations with the group and to debate key issues. The module closes with a concluding lecture exploring the legacy of the three case studies in the twenty-first century, and comparative seminars in which students will bring their insights from the close examination of one historical context to bear on the other two case studies.


The module is assessed by two coursework essays. The first is an essay of 2,500 words comparing a theme in church–state relations across different time periods and countries (worth 40%). The second is an extended essay of 4,000 words examining a more narrowly focused question on one of the case studies (worth 60%).


For a general introduction to Christian history, students will read the following:

  • D. MacCulloch, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London, 2010)

For the case studies, students will start with:

  • E. Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven, 2001).
  • P. Marshall, Reformation England, 1480-1642 (2nd edn, London, 2012).
  • T. Barnard, A New Anatomy of Ireland: The Irish Protestants, 1649-1770 (New Haven, 2003).
  • S.J. Connolly, Divided Kingdom: Ireland, 1630-1800 (Oxford, 2008).
  • I. McBride, Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Long Peace (Dublin, 2009).
  • V. Shevzov, Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution (Oxford, 2004).