Review: The Reformation: A History


A few months ago, I began to grow bored with the Alt-Right. I was sick of the internet drama. I was sick of following and writing about the news cycle. I was sick of hearing, day in and day out, about whatever the Trump administration was doing. From my perspective, nothing was changing in American politics and I was just wasting my time paying so much attention to it.

It was around this time that I decided to change my focus. I embarked on this project to study the moral and cultural decline of the West across history. I became more interested in history, culture, religion and philosophy than politics. I bought a ton of new books and quickly became so absorbed in my research that I all but stopping writing on this website. It is more a challenge to write regularly about these topics than whatever happens to be in the news cycle on any given day.

As I have explained in previous posts, I wanted to start in Western Europe in the Early Modern Era and explore cultural trends down to the present day. At the beginning of this period, Europe was still relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Intellectually, educated Europeans were still living in Aristotle, Ptolemy and Galen’s universe. The Catholic Church dominated Western culture. Western Christendom shared an elite language, Latin, and universities which were the basis of a common international culture.

Europe was not “liberal” in any sense of the word at the start of the Early Modern Era. The Ancien Régime in France wasn’t “liberal” all the way down to the French Revolution in 1789. The same was true of most of the other powers in Europe – Spain and Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, although some enlightened monarchs like Joseph II, Frederick the Great and Peter the Great were modernizing and adopting some liberal reforms. Clearly, the origins of liberalism are to be found in Europe in the Early Modern Era between 1450 and 1789.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include Britain and the Netherlands on this list. That’s because what we would recognize as “liberalism” has its origins in these two countries in the years around 1700. To what extent was the Protestant Reformation to blame for the rise of liberalism?

It was with this question at the forefront of my mind that I took Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History off my bookshelf and began reading it. I’ve had this 792 page book since it first came out in 2003. I never had the time or the interest to read the whole thing until last month.

This is a sweeping account of church history from around 1450 to 1700 that spans the Schmalkaldic War, French Wars of Religion, the English Civil War, the Thirty Years’ War and the Dutch War of Independence to cite only the most brutal conflicts. If you have ever wondered about the origins of the religious landscape of Europe and North America, you should definitely check out this book.

The Protestants can be broken down into roughly four camps – the Lutherans, the Reformed, the Anglicans and the Radicals. Each branch of Protestantism has a different theology and history. All four were opposed by Counter-Reformation Catholicism throughout this period.

The Lutherans are the followers of Martin Luther. This branch of Protestantism became ascendant in northern Germany in what was then the Holy Roman Empire and Scandinavia. Lutheranism was almost exclusively confined to the German-speaking world. The historical arc of Lutheranism from Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517 down to 1700 was institutionalization and confessionalization. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Cuius regio, eius religio principle (Whose realm, his religion) emerged from the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Lutheranism quickly became the established state church in northern Germany and Scandinavia. There was ONE religion in the Lutheran world and the overall story is religious homogeneity, a close relationship between church and state and a long term trend toward a very refined and robust theology.

The Reformed grew out of the other major pole of the Reformation in Switzerland. The earliest leaders here were Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich and Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel. Fatefully, the Lutherans and the Reformed diverged at the Marburg Colloquy over the Eucharist. Zwingli was killed in battle outside of Zürich and Bullinger emerged as his successor. John Calvin later became the dominant theologian in the Reformed world. Calvin and Bullinger resolved their theological differences and Reformed Protestantism once seemed poised to become dominant in Europe.

Unlike the Lutherans, Reformed Protestantism was a much more international movement and advanced primarily outside of the German-speaking world. The Reformed were once dominant in a band of territories stretching from Scotland to the Netherlands to parts of France to Switzerland to Hungary, Poland and Transylvania. The overall story here is rapid expansion, religious heterogeneity and intense conflict in a religious borderland between Catholicism and Lutheranism. Reformed Protestantism was rolled back in large parts of Europe – Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Transylvania, England and France – after the disasters of the Thirty Years’ War, English Civil War and the reign of Louis XIV.

Anglicanism was the product of England’s unique half-hearted Reformation following Henry VIII’s determination to produce a male heir to carry on the Tudor family line. The overall story is intense conflict first with Catholics under Bloody Mary and later with Reformed Protestants, the Puritans, who wanted to purify the Church of England because they weren’t satisfied with Queen Elizabeth I’s religious settlement. Queen Elizabeth I had loved religious music, art and ceremony which the Calvinist Puritans deplored as popish remnants of Catholicism. The conflict between Anglicanism and Puritanism culminated in the English Civil War after King Charles I attempted to impose bishops and an Anglican prayer book on Presbyterian Scotland. The Scots and Irish rebelled and the conflict spilled over into England where the Puritans were powerful in Parliament. King Charles I was beheaded in the English Civil War, but Oliver Cromwell’s regime was short lived. The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy led to the disintegration of the Puritan movement in England and the triumph of High Church Anglicanism.

This proved to be a false dawn for Anglicanism because King Charles II secretly signed an agreement with King Louis XIV to re-Catholicize Britain. The reign of his openly Catholic brother, James II who was his successor, led to a succession crisis, the end of the Stuart dynasty and the Glorious Revolution which established Stadtholder William of Orange of the Netherlands as King William III of England, Scotland and Ireland. The Glorious Revolution established religious tolerance of Protestant Dissenters in Britain. The long term story of Anglicanism is the loss of influence and privilege due to the growth of Dissenters in the 18th and 19th centuries and the eventual triumph of evangelical Christianity in Britain.

If anyone heralded the arrival of liberalism in Europe, it was the Radical Protestants. These antinomian sects – Radical Protestants who believed that salvation by faith and grace entailed their exemption from social norms and moral law on earth – were the scourge of the Reformation. The most famous incident was the establishment of the “New Jerusalem” by radical Anabaptists in Münster. The overall story here though is that the Radicals alienated everyone and were violently repressed virtually everywhere in Europe with the exception of Moravia. Martin Luther and John Calvin hated the Anabaptists who they considered fanatics. Lutherans and Calvinists cooperated with Catholics to persecute the Anabaptists. It was this persecution that transformed the Anabaptists into quietists. Ironically, the world rejecting descendants of these radical groups – the Hutterites, the Mennonites and the Amish – are now widely regarded as among the most conservative and traditionalist of all European religious groups!

The Catholic Church survived the Reformation and remained absolutely dominant in Iberia and Italy. The Reformation had little appeal in Southern Europe. Italy, of course, produced all the popes from the time of the Reformation down to John Paul II. The Pope was considered little more than an Italian prince for centuries. In Iberia, the militant Catholicism that powered the Reconquista continued to crush multiculturalism by forcing Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism. When that wasn’t good enough, Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Spain was the dominant European power in the 16th century and Protestantism never established a foothold there. The overall story of Catholicism during the Reformation was the rapid loss of northern Europe which was followed by the gradual reestablishment of Catholic dominance in central Europe. By the end of the Reformation in 1700, Protestantism had been rolled back by Louis XIV and the Habsburgs in most of Europe.

How does liberalism emerge out of this world? It was a byproduct of religious pluralism, conflict and international commerce. Spain and Portugal were religiously homogeneous. The Iberian powers strove to impose religious uniformity on their empires. They wiped out Judaism and Islam and New World paganism. Italy was comfortably and confidently Catholic. Northern Europe was a bastion of homogeneous Lutheranism. The Orthodox world was dominated by Islam and Russia was highly illiterate and committed to serfdom. Germany was a wreck after the Thirty Years’ War. Ireland was stridently and defiantly Catholic. Scotland was a bastion of homogeneous Presbyterianism. France expelled the Huguenots after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Habsburg Austria imposed Counter-Reformation Catholicism on Bohemia, Hungary and Transylvania.

Liberalism arose in the Dutch Republic and England in the 17th century. The great enemy of England and the Netherlands was absolutist Counter-Reformation Catholicism embodied first in the Spain of Philip II and later in the France of Louis XIV. The Dutch War of Independence was a long, drawn out fight for freedom and independence from Spain. In England, English national identity came to be linked with Protestantism, which was associated with freedom as opposed to the “Black Legend” of tyrannical Spain. Both the Netherlands and England though faced an internal challenge within Protestantism from the rise of Arminianism. Whereas Sweden was confidently Lutheran or Scotland was confidently Presbyterian, England and the Netherlands were much more diverse.

England and the Netherlands were also competing to build global commercial empires which were different from the Spanish and Portuguese empires. These two countries were at the cutting edge of European capitalism. In the Netherlands and England, large amounts of arable land was being drained and reclaimed from the sea or from swamps and bogs. Agriculture was improving. Sanitation was improving. Commodities were starting to flood back into England and the Netherlands from their new overseas colonies – Virginia, New England, the British West Indies, the Dutch East Indies, etc.

In the Netherlands, the long war for independence from Spain led to commercial prosperity. The Dutch Reformed Church became the established church, but it never dominated the Netherlands the way the Kirk did in Scotland. Basically, the Dutch Reformed Church became an established church that catered to a minority of the population. The Dutch Republic was dominated by a merchant oligarchy that had done away with monarchy and limited the power of the Dutch Reformed Church. Religious tolerance was established in major cities in the Netherlands which attracted Jews, free thinkers and other heretics like the Socinians. Religious was getting in the way of commerce.

In England, the English Civil War led to religious turmoil and the rise of Radical groups like the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters. The “Society of Friends,” which is better known as the Quakers, emerged in this period. In order to hasten the Apocalypse, Oliver Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to England. He also tolerated Protestant Dissenters. After the Restoration, the attempt to reestablish Anglican hegemony was undermined by Charles II and James II who attempted to steer Britain back into Catholicism. The result was the Glorious Revolution which united Britain and the Netherlands under William III. Britain under William III effectively adopted the Dutch model of capitalism and religious tolerance and turned away from the French model favored by Charles II and James II.

In the midst of the waning of the Reformation in the Thirty Years’ War, the Scientific Revolution was quietly going on in the background. Francis Bacon was pioneering modern empirical science. Galileo was defending the Copernican theory of heliocentrism and developing mechanics. A bunch of different intellectual currents – Hermeticism, interest in the Jewish Caballa, and the revival of interest in Ancient materialism (Democritus, Sextus Empiricus, Pyrrho, Epicurus) – were converging to produce a new cosmology which overturned the authority of the ancients. It produced a radical new skepticism and materialism which was on display in the philosophy of Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

The publication of Issac Newton’s Principia in 1687, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government in 1689 brings to a close the Reformation. This was the beginning of the Age of Reason and the rise of liberalism. London and Amsterdam had grown into huge cities and were at the forefront of the new cosmopolitanism. Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 illustrates how bitterly most of Europe was still divided by religion, but France was now on the doorstep of the Enlightenment and from this point forward the appeal to Reason (as it would be spelled) would begin to undermine and supplant the central place of Christianity in the European social order.

If we were to return to the year 1700 and look at the state of Christianity in Europe, we would find a world which had settled into what was perceived at the time to be a rigid, dogmatic orthodoxy. In the Protestant world, the rise of evangelical Christianity after 1700 was about bring about a shift toward feeling and emotionalism and individual piety. Much of the Protestant world was in despair at the success of the Counter-Reformation in Central Europe. In the Catholic world, there was a spirit of triumphalism. Neither side anticipated that the real challenge to Christianity was going to emerge from science which was overthrowing the old Augustinian view that human nature was corrupted by Original Sin.

Source: Occidental Dissent

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