Book review: Mithras to Mormon: A religious history of London

By Bernadette Meaden
November 28, 2018

Mithras to Mormon: A religious history of London by Philippa Bernard

Anyone who thinks of multicultural, multi-faith London as a modern development will be surprised by this book. The reality is that from its earliest days, London has been home to people of diverse origins, who brought with them a wide variety of religious belief and worship. This is reflected in every facet of London life, playing a major role in creating the rich architectural and cultural heritage which makes London one of the world's most fascinating cities. 

The concept of this book, telling the history of London through the stories of its different faith communities, is such an obvious and natural one it is surprising to think that it has not been done before. The author’s love of her subject shines through, and her experience of lecturing in British history and running an antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea have clearly combined to give her the depth of knowledge and personal engagement which gives the book its authority, but prevents it from becoming a dry or heavy read.

One of the pleasures of the book are the telling details and snippets of history, at least some of which will almost certainly be news to the general reader. I was unaware, for instance, but learned from the Foreword by the Bishop of London, that in 1913 the suffragettes had planted a bomb under the throne in St. Paul’s Cathedral. And I did not know that a Celtic leader called Bran had ordered that his head be buried where the White Tower of the Tower of London now stands. Bran means raven, so the connection of ravens to the tower is even more ancient than we think. These, and many other fascinating stories, convey the multi-layered nature of London’s history and make the book a rewarding read.

The sheer strangeness and drama of Roman London which the book reveals is striking, with temples to Mithras, Isis, Diana and Cybele located where modern Londoners now work and shop. Freedom of religion was complete, with people at liberty to worship a multiplicity of gods and goddesses of Roman, Eastern, or Celtic origin. The ritual and ceremony associated with these ancient religions is fascinating – indeed I would have liked a little bit more detail on these ancient practices and belief systems. But it is surely the sign of a good book when it prompts a desire to learn more.

The most enjoyable parts of the book were for me the sections which dealt with periods in our history where religion and politics were inextricably linked – indeed at times religion was politics, and at the very heart of momentous national events. These chapters, on the Reformation and the English Civil War, are very good at conveying the energy and drama of those times. The author rattles through them at pace, whilst still communicating the essential facts, the ideas and principles at stake, with concise descriptions of all the main characters and factions.

The traumatic social repercussions of religious upheaval are also vividly conveyed. Before the Reformation, monastic establishments provided meals, schooling and healthcare for the poor. The Dissolution of the monasteries brought this to an end, with dramatic consequences, particularly for children. The author quotes the view of Benjamin Perry-Mason, an expert in the history of childhood medicine who says, “the Reformation caused the single greatest change in childhood health; it had more of an effect than the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses, or the 100 Years War.”

This book would be a very informative and interesting read at any time, as it gives an accessible overview of the grand sweep of London’s and, by extension, Britain’s history, and the indispensable role religion has played. Its publication as Britain prepares to leave the European Union however makes it very timely, as it perfectly illustrates the fact that our history and culture is a huge amalgamation of contributions from Europe and beyond. Whatever strength or greatness Britain may have comes from its diversity over millennia, and we must hope that such diversity continue to thrive, whatever politicians decide.   

Published by Shepheard-Walwyn ISBN: 9780856835247 – Hardback, illustrated. Price £25

* Shepheard-Walwyn https://shepheard-walwyn.co.uk/

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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