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  • Joel F. Harrington

The World the Reformation Made?

Joel F. Harrington on the modern world and the meaning of the Reformation

In 1976, the novelist Kingsley Amis imagined a modern world in which the Protestant Reformation had never occurred. In his counterfactual history, the renegade monk Martin Luther reconciled with Rome and went on to become pope, later succeeded in the position by his English contemporary Thomas More (who obviously was not beheaded for treason). Historians of this world referred to the minor religious upheaval of the sixteenth century as The Alteration—also the title of Amis’s book. Rather than shattering western Christianity into multiple denominations with widely differing views of true religion, the Alteration left the Roman Catholic Church unified and its hierarchy firmly in the control of the faithful. In Amis’s version of the late twentieth century, this meant continuing suppression of all dangerous ideas and literature, including the collected works of Shakespeare. Scientific inquiry is forbidden and only select modern inventions are allowed to proliferate (not electricity). The absolute authority of the pope and his court is ruthlessly enforced by a religious secret police known as the Holy Office (i.e., the Roman Inquisition). In short, the power, practices, and beliefs of the Catholic Church reign supreme, with only a few successful schismatics, most notably the break-away Republic of New England.

The Alteration is a light-hearted satire, not a serious or sustained argument about the broader social significance of the Protestant Reformation in Western and world history. Yet its underlying premise remains common to most people’s understanding of the Reformation’s pivotal role in the shape of the modern world. For a long time, someone’s assessment on whether the Protestant schism was generally a good or a bad thing could be predicted by denominational status, i.e., a good thing if you were a Protestant, a bad thing if you were a Catholic. Since at least the nineteenth century, though, the historical significance of the Reformation has become more generalized, to the point where that assessment often represents a referendum on modernity itself. Many of the hallmarks of the modern era—greater individualism, freedom of conscience, open intellectual inquiry, etc.—have become associated with the religious revolt launched by Martin Luther. If you approve of these developments, then you had the Reformation to thank. This close association of Protestantism and social progress first became a mainstay among Protestant Europeans before spreading more widely, today leaving “medieval Catholicism” closely associated with all the backwardness and oppression mocked by The Alteration. In nineteenth-century Great Britain, the success narrative (in which Protestant Britain played a leading role) became known as the Whig theory of history.

During the past fifty years, though, modernity has come to be seen by many people as less than the crowning achievement celebrated by Whig historians. We are all familiar with the various shortcomings and criticisms of modern Western society. Moreover, some historians and social theorists have argued that Protestant societies could be even more constricting than their Catholic predecessors, with capitalist, sexist, and racist agendas even more firmly entrenched in the religious teachings of such so-called open societies. None of this revisionism has touched the dire reputation of the medieval Catholic Church, but the forward march of Protestantism and Progress no longer enjoys triumphant universal acclaim, at least among scholars.

More recently, a distinguished historian of the sixteenth century, Brad Gregory, of the University of Notre Dame, has argued in his book The Unintended Reformation that Luther and his fellow reformers unwittingly unleashed intellectual forces that led to the modern era of relativism, secularism, agnosticism, and atheism—undeniably not a result intended or expected by early Protestant rebels. Protestant appeal to individual conscience in the interpretation of scripture, he claims, was just the beginning of an erosion of all sorts of religious and intellectual authority. Gregory ingeniously uses this contrast between the reformers’ objectives for their movement and its ultimate consequences to frame the Reformation as an unexpectedly anti-religious phenomenon, a completely counter-intuitive interpretation. Like Kingsley Amis, he believes that Protestantism changed almost everything—just not for the better.

While I have great respect for Professor Gregory’s scholarship, my own assessment of the Reformation’s broader historical significance differs from both his and that of Kingsley Amis. Put bluntly, I think our world would still look mostly the same whether or not the religious schisms of Martin Luther and his co-religionists succeeded. I realize that this seems an outrageous position for a historian of the Reformation to take, let alone one living in a predominantly Protestant country, so I will try to explain and convince my readers.

First, we are deeply misled in talking about “The Reformation.” From the very beginning, there were numerous movements of people calling themselves evangelical Christians in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire and Swiss Confederation. Martin Luther was undeniably the most influential theologian and writer of the 1520s but there were many other important leaders as well. And while these individuals and their followers agreed on many generalities, such as the centrality of biblical authority and resentment of the clergy, there were many more disagreements about the specifics of belief and practice. As is often the case with new movements, common enemies—most notably the pope and church hierarchy—gave a greater semblance of unity in the earliest years than was the reality. Over time, these disagreements would become more prominent and at times violent.

Modern historians, consequently, prefer to speak of “Reformations,” encompassing a wide array of schismatic movements throughout the sixteenth century. Despite important doctrinal similarities, there was also great diversity, yielding some groups, such as the people known as Anabaptists (precursors to the modern Amish and Mennonites), who found themselves situated far outside the mainstream and, in consequence, brutally persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike. Gathering all of these individuals under the umbrella of “the Reformation” is clearly useful for argumentative purposes, but the lived reality of the sixteenth century was far more muddied and ambiguous.

Second, we are also often deceived when we imagine “The Catholic Church.” Yes, there was a papacy and clerical hierarchy, but the institution was far less centralized or monolithic than we usually assume, just as among the people we today call Protestants. The individuals who chose to remain loyal to Rome were far from unanimous on their interpretations of scriptural authority and proper clerical roles. Many leading intellectuals, most notably Erasmus of Rotterdam, openly criticized various church practices and abuses, and, at the same time, spoke up for a closer adherence to the standards of the gospels (available in vernacular translations). Many Catholic reformers remained convinced that institutional changes could be effected without schism. When the reforming Council of Trent met three times between 1545 and 1563, elimination of clerical abuses was as much a part of the agenda as refutation of various articles of Protestant doctrine.

But surely, the astute reader objects, none of this diversity of opinions and practices diminishes the fundamental contrast between medieval and Protestant teachings. What about the new priesthood of all believers, completely undercutting the clerical (or saintly) middleman? What about married ministers, rejection of the papacy, or the abolition of purgatory? And at the theological core, surely there is a world of difference between a religion based on good works (Catholicism) and one based on personal faith (Protestantism). Whatever the specifics, no one can deny that the Reformation (broadly defined) represented a major sea change for Europeans, putting Protestant societies on a path significantly different from their Catholic counterparts.

To such objections, I offer a third point. There were many forces of “modernization” at work in the sixteenth century, beyond the religious sphere. For too long the Reformation has been required by intellectual historians and their audiences to do most of the heavy lifting for “modernity.” In other words, there were many other social changes underway in Luther’s time that moved Europeans toward the more secular and individualistic societies of the twenty-first century. Many early modern governments, for instance, were expanding their own bureaucracies and ambitions, including control over church activities within their realms. The Spanish and French crowns had already made significant advances in this area before the Reformation (and remained Catholic afterward). Reformation or not, it is hard to imagine the imperial papacy described by Kingsley Amis as having survived the sixteenth century intact, let along another three hundred years.

So, too, the greater literacy supposedly unleashed by the Reformation had been growing steadily for many decades, driven by both economic and other intellectual forces. With the expansion of both government and commerce, literacy was an increasingly valuable commodity for workers of all types. The invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century—a development of undeniably great historical significance—made possible the spread of all kinds of information. Luther and his co-religionists made excellent use of this technology to spread their teachings, but so too did every other author with a message or a product. Whether or not a religious schism occurred in the 1520s, the proliferation of printing presses and the gradual rise of literacy (particularly in cities) would have likewise made both religious and political dissent of all varieties inevitable.

There is also the persistent misapprehension—furthered by Amis—that the Catholic Church was fundamentally opposed to empirical science and that the Protestant churches supported it. In fact, popes and other churchmen were the earliest patrons of the new science and many researchers, themselves, such as Copernicus, were in Holy Orders. The reactionary position of the Vatican by Galileo’s time was a much later development, in part meant to forestall Protestant “novelties.” And while some Lutherans, such as Kepler, explored the cosmos, few Protestant theologians would have supported inquiries into the natural world that put the truth of the Bible in jeopardy. Yet, whatever the level of formal resistance by religious authorities of any denomination, the new learning could never have been suppressed. One way or another, scientific investigation and discovery, prompted by both governmental funding and genuine intellectual curiosity, would have continued into the modern era.

Even in the religious sphere, many “modern” changes were already underway well before Luther posted his 95 Theses. Contrary to popular belief, Bible reading by members of the laity was not forbidden in the Middle Ages, but very difficult for reasons of cost. With the development of the printing press and the increasing use of paper (much cheaper than parchment or vellum), books of all kinds became much more affordable, including Latin versions of the Bible. Translation of sacred scriptures into vernacular versions was admittedly more controlled but, even here, the Catholic Church eventually gave way to irrepressible forces (while still maintaining its right to approve authorized versions—as did the Lutheran and Calvinist churches). Censorship, the natural counterpart to information technology, was of course widely attempted, but by all authorities, secular as well as religious, Protestant as well as Catholic. And, in most cases, resourceful authors and printers found ways of reaching their intended audiences.

Could most of the aims of Protestant reformers been accomplished without a schism? Negotiations between Catholic and Protestant church leaders during the first twenty years of the break reveal just how much compromise was possible, including on such seemingly insurmountable issues as clerical celibacy, justification by faith (the supposed bedrock of evangelical teaching), and administration of the sacraments. By comparison, the ultimate source of breakdown in talks—whether the essence of the bread and wine in the Eucharist became divine during the mass—seems to many modern observers not as central a faith question, at least in the context of modern worship practices. For Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century, this was a huge matter. Yet, even in this case, some kind of compromise allowing diverse observations might have been possible, as it had been with Hussites in Bohemia for more than a century.

That said, I believe that one or more formal schisms would have been inevitable during the early modern period. In some instances, growing royal states might have simply taken over church administration within their realms, as in the instance of the French, “Gallican” Church. But, with the proliferation of ancient teachings and new information (astronomy, the New World, human anatomy, etc.), some formal breaks with the authority of Rome would have been highly likely. In other words, if Europeans had not experienced the Reformation that we know from our history, they would have experienced another one (or several), under different circumstances, but sharing many commonalities with the event we know. Of course, in this alternate universe, many of the specifics would be different, but the larger social trends we have discussed suggest that the new Christianity (or Christianities) would likely emphasize more individual authority in defining the relationship with the divine.

The final objection to my own alternate modernity scenario, most likely from some people of faith, is that this sociological treatment of the Reformation risks diminishing the important spiritual message at the heart of the Protestant break. What matters most about this pivotal moment, not just in Western history but in human history, is the fundamentally different understanding of the relationship between God and humans. Whatever its broader historical significance, the Reformation represented a spiritual watershed and a dramatic transformation of Christianity itself.

My response is twofold. First, I do not believe that acknowledging and analyzing the historical context of any human thought or belief diminishes it. All of us exist in space in time, socially as well as individually. Our thoughts’ language (both words and concepts) is not irrelevant to our understanding of them. Whichever beliefs of others we decide to embrace ourselves, understanding the full circumstances (and thus meaning) of those beliefs can only be to our advantage. Whatever one considers the core of the Protestant teaching, I argue, could have come in various forms under different circumstances, in another time and place.

Second, I am addressing the Reformation as a historical event (or series of events), not as a spiritual revelation. I do not believe that the printing press or early modern state-building caused the Reformation, any more than I believe that the Reformation caused the rise of empirical science or secularism. My argument is that human history is shaped by multiple broader forces—sometimes moving in the same direction, sometimes in opposite directions—as well as by individuals and their actions. When we overly simplify all of this diversity into one monolithic, teleological, anthropomorphized, world-changing event—take your pick—we risk attributing false motives, false causality, and false results.

What would the modern world be without the Reformation? The modern world without the Reformation. Or in other words, we would still have nation-states, capitalism, democracy (and authoritarianism), multiculturalism, empirical science, religious diversity (including agnosticism and atheism), and individualism. Undeniably many of the specifics of our history would be different, some significantly so. But the Reformation that we know, as opposed to Amis’s Alteration, was part of our social maturation, not its cause. Modernity remains as much its parent as its child.


Joel F. Harrington is Centennial Professor of History and Chair of the Department at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of seven books on pre-modern Germany and the history of Christianity, including a new biography of Meister Eckhart, Dangerous Mystic, forthcoming from Penguin Press in March 2018.


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