We need to understand some basics about Christian history to understand colonial, Revolutionary, and 19th century America. We won’t delve far into theology or matters of faith, but some basic church history will help explain the Protestant Reformation: a major schism within Christianity that changed history in ways so embedded in the Western world that they’re easy to overlook or take for granted. For one, in a classic case where history “makes for strange bedfellows,” the Reformation’s challenge to Catholic doctrine reinforced the Scientific Revolution. Moreover, it provided ideological justification for modern banking and capitalism and Western notions of representative government and equality. In short, it’s impossible to unravel America’s Revolution, culture, or economy without taking Protestant doctrine into account. If these fundamentals aren’t enough to warrant investigation, there is religion itself. The Reformation gave rise to all forms of Protestant Christianity outside the established Church — or what we now call the Roman Catholic Church — including Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Reformed, all forms of evangelical fundamentalism, and Mormonism. Here we’ll trace some early Christian history forward through the Reformation and “connect the dots” through England to early American history.
Christianity grew out of the Jewish religion that emerged in the Near East during ancient times. From that Judaic trunk sprouted Christianity in the 1st century CE and Islam in the 7th CE. Together, these “desert faiths” are sometimes called the Abrahamic Religions since they all trace to the Biblical patriarch Abraham (Muslims also believe that Adam, Noah, David, Solomon, Moses, and Jesus were prophets). There have been major splits within both the Islamic and Christian branches. Monophysite Christianity, prominent in Africa and the Middle East (e.g. the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria), branched off in the 5th century, stressing that Jesus was purely divine rather than a combination of human and divine. A second major fork-in-the-road for Christianity was between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century, resulting in the former being based in Constantinople with no Pope or celibacy requirements for priests and the latter based at the Vatican (Holy See) in Rome, Italy. That Great Schism also resulted from disagreements over the Holy Trinity, the type of bread appropriate for communion, and the Roman Bishop claiming superiority over those of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Then there was a major split within the Western church in the early 16th century when Protestant denominations broke away from Catholicism during the Reformation.
It’s helpful to know something about early Christianity to see why later Protestant reformers like Martin Luther came to distrust the institutional (Catholic) church’s authority. Early Christians started out as a small sect on the outskirts of the Roman Empire along the eastern Mediterranean, in Judea. As historians learned in the 19th and 20th centuries, they varied widely in their interpretations before there was an agreed-upon Biblical canon. In the 1st century CE, apostles led by Paul spread their gospel to (non-Jewish) Gentiles, especially in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Greece. Slowly, these followers of Christ came to be called Christians. Paul took advantage of the Romans’ vast road system (e.g. Via Egnatia), designed to move soldiers and trade, to spread the faith. Also, Romans relocated slaves captured in the unsuccessful Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE) throughout the empire, inadvertently spreading Christianity along with them. The sheer size of the empire helped disseminate the religion as early “proto-orthodox” theologians from Lyon (France), Carthage (Tunisia), and Smyrna (Turkey) worked out its accepted interpretations and set up hierarchies of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.
Romans persecuted these early Christians for not worshipping state-sanctioned gods, most dramatically throwing some to the lions along with other criminals for spectators’ amusement. According to the historian Tacitus, after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, Emperor Nero scapegoated Christians and they executed Paul, apostle Peter, and others. They steamed to death or beheaded some martyrs and, at first, Christians built their churches to look like houses to stay under cover. Others saw Christians as cannibals for ceremonially “eating Christ” in their communions, incestuous for calling each other “brother” and “sister,” or just strange for providing healthcare to the poor. Persecution helped bind Christians together, just as it had for Jews and would later for Mormons in 19th-century America.
Gradually Christians found common ground with Romans. In keeping with Roman society, many Gentile Christians became anti-Semitic, overlooking that Jesus himself and his disciples were Jewish, at least according to the Synoptic Gospels, the first three accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. The fourth gospel author, John, and early church fathers like Marcion of Sinope, Barnabas, and St. John Chrysostom distanced the religion from Judaism, focusing instead on most Jews not accepting Christ as their Messiah and Jewish priests acquiescing in Christ’s arrest and crucifixion. Many Jews interpreted prophecy as foretelling a warrior king messiah that would vanquish foreign rulers from Judea rather than a martyr who was killed by Romans. If John (the gospel writer) was right that Christ was divine, then obstinate Jews, by misinterpreting their own sacred writings, had even “killed God.” In the words of Biblical historian Bart Ehrman, “One of the real ironies of the early Christian tradition, [is] that the original form of the religion [was] cast out and denounced…The profoundly Jewish religion of Jesus and his followers became the viciously anti-Jewish religion of later times, leading to the horrific persecutions of the Middle Ages and the pogroms and attempted genocides that have plagued the world down to recent times.” One of the exceptional things about colonial America, as we’ll see toward the end of this chapter, is that it took the first baby steps in the Western world toward overcoming the centuries of ugliness engendered by these theological disputes.
Early Christians had other things in common with their fellow Romans. Just as some Romans ate the flesh of their dead in the catacombs, Christians symbolically ate the flesh of Christ through the Eucharist, the taking of communion. These Romans saw the “eating of Christ” as common ground rather than setting Christians apart. As they gradually came out of hiding, early Christian churches adopted the rectangular-shaped, basilica style of Roman churches. Just as Romans celebrated December 25th as the birth of their Sun God, Sol Invictus (later Mithras), Christians adopted that date as Christ’s birthday, though Pope Benedict XVI argued that was a coincidence. While historians reject the coincidental theory, some see the Christmas date as a challenge to Roman religion while others see the overlap as an effective way for Christians to recruit pagans to their faith. Some art historians interpret the mosaic below from the pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St. Peter’s in the Vatican as a hybrid of Christ and either Sol or Apollo Helios, the personification of the Sun in Greek mythology. Like later Christians, Romans also used trees to celebrate their weeklong December Saturnalia holiday. Likewise, Easter celebrations morphed out of earlier traditions, though, in that case, unlike Christ’s birth, the New Testament clarified the chronology of the Resurrection. Other aspects of Christ’s story paralleled aspects of Greek and Egyptian mythologies.
The takeaway is that future Protestants saw this blending with other religions as compromising even if, at the time, it was probably necessary for Christianity’s survival as it assimilated into mainstream Roman life. Early Christianity may not have survived, in other words, if it hadn’t adapted by soaking up some aspects of existing mythologies, even as it maintained its essential messages. Eventually, Christianity grew popular enough that Emperor Constantine legalized the prevailing Roman version of it after his conversion in 312 CE. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, codified the 27 books in today’s New Testament in 367 CE and Emperor Theodosius I declared Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE.
As the Roman Empire fell into political and military decline over the next few centuries, its main institutional remnant was the Christian church. Medieval Christianity split into the two aforementioned seats of power: Rome (west) and Constantinople (east). Fast-forwarding five-hundred years and through numerous smaller schisms, the Western church grew politically powerful and prone to the same imperfections as a secular government. The Pope was sometimes called the “pope-king” and much of what’s now Italy was divided into the Papal States.
Some theologians challenged the canon, or which gospels had been included or left out of the New Testament (that varied regionally), but even more protested against the Church and its controversial policies. Included among their complaints were ongoing instances of child abuse and extramarital affairs caused (presumably) by its celibacy requirement, church-sponsored brothels, corruption of the papal throne by wealthy and influential non-theologians, conducting of masses in Latin, and selling of indulgences to grieving relatives for the Church to liberate lost souls from Purgatory, a purported stage of afterlife between Heaven and Hell. While Catholic rituals provided great comfort to many, Latin was a “dead language” unspoken in most parts of Europe, making it impossible for most parishioners to understand what was said during mass. The Church was also harsh in stamping out Europe’s traditional folk religions that it defined as pagan, or different interpretations of Christianity that it defined as heretical. Many peasants resented the relative comfort of monasteries, where monks stayed warm and had plenty to eat and drink, despite the fact that they labored hard at farming, construction, and transcribing. Protests by early heretics like John Wycliffe (1330-1384) of England and Jan Hus (1369-1415) of Bohemia met with harsh repression. Wycliffe (right) led a movement to translate the Bible from Latin into English in the late 14th century.
In 1517, one protester — root of the term Protestant — expanded on Wycliffe and Hus’ earlier complaints but with more lasting success. Augustinian monk Martin Luther escaped his predecessors’ fate despite boldly nailing his Ninety-Five Theses (complaints) onto the door of his home cathedral in Wittenberg, in what’s now Germany. Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, had likewise nailed their complaints to the door of Westminster Hall in 1395. Per protocol, Luther’s initial post was a call for debate at the local university. Luther shared the usual concerns; a recent sale of indulgences motivated his complaints and most of his early controversy surrounded indulgences, the proceeds of which lined monk’s pockets with the rest toward construction of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The monk selling the round of indulgences that set off Luther had a sales pitch translating to: “As soon as the coin in the coffee [cup] rings, so the soul from purgatory springs.”
As the firestorm kicked in and the Church demanded that Luther recant his views or be excommunicated, he doubled down and expanded his critique beyond indulgences to challenge Church authority. It’s often said of Luther that he wasn’t envisioning a new church, only debate and reform within his own Catholic Church. Yet eventually Luther wanted to wash away the Catholic bureaucracy altogether – including the Pope, whom he denied was divinely ordained, and the whole ecclesiastical hierarchy of cardinals, bishops, etc. beneath him. His idea was a religious version of what economists later called disintermediation, or “cutting out the middleman.” For Luther, an ordained priest and theology professor, the institutionalized Church was an unnecessary intermediary between people and their faith. Based on his reading of St. Paul’s words in Romans 3:28, faith alone justified salvation, even without a church. This salvation-by-faith doctrine was known in Latin as sola fide.
Luther wanted the early Roman corruptions like Christmas celebrations washed clean, though a story developed later (perhaps as a way to reconcile traditions) that Luther put the first candles on winter evergreens to commemorate Christ’s birth. A century later, New England Puritans forbade Yuletide, but German Protestants viewed the Christmas Tree as a less anthropomorphic representation of Christ or the Three Wise Men and less profane than the mistletoes pagans used in mid-winter fertility rituals. Luther’s famous protest symbolically came on All Saint’s Day, the sort of neo-pagan holiday he abhorred.
The holidays were just a start, though, especially once Luther’s ideas spread to others, like his friend Andreas Karlstadt. If the Ten Commandments forbade graven images of God, then Karlstadt argued that statues, paintings, and stained glass should be removed from churches as well. While reformers destroyed and vandalized much traditional art, the Reformation nonetheless freed art from its strictly religious domain, giving rise to still lifes, landscapes, and depictions of everyday life (novels about everyday life also rose in popularity). Protestant services were conducted in local languages, or vernaculars, rather than Latin, so that people could understand what was being said. In keeping with that spirit of participation, Protestant congregations participated in music by singing their own hymns. Luther himself wrote hymns, as did Lutheran J.S. Bach a century later. Most importantly, Protestants believed that the Bible should be in the hands of the congregation, translated into their respective vernaculars. Protestants vested authority in Scripture, not the Church. The Scriptural emphasis was incidentally revolutionary in another way because it required literacy, and future Protestants led the movement for compulsory public education. The back-to-basics focus on participation, simplicity, equality, and Scripture created what early Protestants called the Priesthood of All Believers. Though they left room for ministers to administer baptisms and communion, everyone in the congregation was a “priest” in his or her own right.
You’ll note this was called the Reformation, not the Formation. Protestants hoped to return the Church to an earlier, purer state – the way they imagined it to have been before its assimilation into the Roman Empire. As mentioned, Luther initially wasn’t founding a new church; he was just trying to reform and spark debate within the Catholic Church. The 95 Theses he nailed to the door at Wittenberg were in Latin, the language of the Church. But when Pope Leo X (born Giovanni Lorenzo de’ Medici) issued a bull correcting Luther’s 95 points, Luther excommunicated himself before the Church could excommunicate him. By then he was convinced that the Antichrist was acting through the papal throne. He burned the bull and renounced his allegiance to the Church at the Diet of Worms in 1521. With his only allegiance to Scripture, he was now what Christian theologians starting calling a Lutheran (later a Protestant denomination) instead of what we’d now call a Catholic. Luther condemned priestly celibacy and married a nun. Six children later and enjoying his newfound domesticity (and ignoring the key historical role of monks in keeping Scripture intact for centuries), Luther wrote that “household chores are more to be valued than all the works of monks and nuns.” The Reformation shaped modern Christianity’s emphasis on the nuclear family.
The Pope and Emperor Charles V of Spain, who organized the trial at Worms, might have dealt with Luther the way the Church had earlier heretics — over the open flame or on the rack — were it not for two complicating factors: the incendiary impact of the printing press and the threat of Muslim invasion in central Europe. First the Muslim threat. As we saw in Chapter 2, Islam made inroads into Byzantium, southeastern Europe, and Iberia, including the takeover of Constantinople, seat of the Eastern Roman Empire (renaming it Istanbul in 1453). Other Europeans wanted to avoid this fate and even launched several preemptive Crusades in the Middle Ages to destroy Islam in the contested Holy Land. Now, with Ottoman (Muslim, Turkish) armies threatening central Europe, German princes took a sudden liking to Luther’s criticism of Catholic authority. Some may have had genuine theological motives, but power can be a zero sum game and leaders like Frederick III of Saxony stood to gain money and property at the Church’s expense by extracting a price for their military protection. The Sicilian Mafia didn’t invent protection rackets. Thus, if Catholic authorities wanted their cooperation in fending off yesteryear’s version of ISIS or al-Qaeda, they were compelled to go easier on Luther than they otherwise would have.
Prince Frederick provided Luther shelter at the Wartburg castle in what’s now eastern Germany. Luther grew a beard and went by the alias “George.” Over the next decade, regional princes formed an alliance around Luther, especially after the Augsburg Confession of 1530 that Lutherans drafted just as Charles V was looking to unite Europeans against Islam. Yet, these same princes and nobles also had to fend off revolutions from below that Luther’s combustible ideas inadvertently sparked. Though Luther discouraged challenging political authority, he’d brought attention to Acts 5:29, which argued to obey God, not men. Religious and political authority were so intertwined in late medieval Europe that it was impossible to challenge one without the other. In 1524-25, German peasant Thomas Münzter led a failed Peasant’s War that ended in his decapitation but foreshadowed future class struggle. The image below depicts the fate of Lutheran rebel Little Jack Rohrbach.
The religious side of the Reformation fared better because Luther had a weapon earlier heretics like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus hadn’t possessed: the printing press. His revolution coincided with the technological revolution in print and paper we discussed in Chapter 2. Luther’s original Ninety-Five Theses were widely copied and translated into German and he personally transcribed the New Testament from Latin into German in 1522 and shuttled it to the presses; he finished the Old Testament in 1534. During the first decade, the Theses, sermons, and pamphlets were even more influential than the Bible itself, with roughly a third of the six million sold in Germany penned by Luther, and he wrote three other books in 1520, alone. There were also songs, paintings, and woodcuts, including crude images of she-devils defecating popes and monks and the like. Conversely, when Catholics countered the Protestant message it was usually in Latin, legible only to their own theologians and academics.
Continent-wide, other transcribers soon copied sermons and Bibles into French, Dutch, Scandinavian languages, etc., setting off a theological firestorm and turning the Bible into an early and perennial bestseller. While Wycliffe didn’t live to see it, his dream of seeing a widespread English Bible came to fruition. By then it wouldn’t have mattered much if the Church had dealt with Luther the way the nobility dealt with Little Jack Rohrbach; the Bible had already “gone viral.”
The Catholic Church neither took this challenge lightly nor agreed to shore up its act and make fundamental changes. They retrenched, clarified their positions, and condemned Protestant heresy in a series of Councils in Trento, Italy. Thus began the Counter-Reformation and a 150-year period of violent factionalism collectively called the Wars of Religion (1524-1628). This was not an era of live and let live in the spirit of modern religious freedom or tolerance. Tolerance, in general, was thought of as a weakness until modern times. Most agreed that life’s hardships – epidemics, famines, earthquakes, fires, etc. – resulted from God’s anger at the way the community as a whole worshiped, or didn’t. Consequently, Protestants and Catholics felt compelled to wipe each other out in order to save Europe. Without understanding this background, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the religious freedom pioneered by future Americans like Roger Williams, William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington or, for that matter, why so many Americans resisted their efforts.
The Roman Inquisition (Catholic tribunal) also stepped up its attack on Jews and, following Rome’s lead, most European cities segregated Jewish ghettos. Within Italy, the Inquisition actually went pretty light on Lutherans and other heretics as long as they recanted their views and agreed to a proper education. For his part, Martin Luther missed an opportunity to expunge anti-Semitism from the Protestant fork of Christianity. At first, he advised kindness and toleration in That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523). But Luther grew frustrated at his inability to convert. In On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) he wrote that their synagogues and prayer books should be destroyed, their homes smashed, their property and money confiscated, and that the “envenomed worms” should be forced into labor camps or expelled “for all time.” History’s most important Christian theologian wrote of Jews, “We are at fault in not slaying them.” We should be careful not to draw too deterministic a line from “Luther to Hitler” (see Rear Defogger 26-8 above) — Luther didn’t exist to lay a foundation for Nazism. However, it’s true that Nazis exploited his writings. Four hundred years later, Nazis opportunistically displayed and read from Luther’s book at their Nuremberg Rallies.
Around 10-20% of the European population was killed in the Religious Wars, mainly in the course of nine conflicts that culminated in the Thirty Years’ War. The many other reasons humans fight, including power, resources-land, money, and generic cruelty, sadism, revenge, and vindictiveness were, in turn, swept up in the hysteria and framed or rationalized under the religious rubric. In other words, Europe obviously wouldn’t have experienced 150 years of uninterrupted peace and tranquility if the Reformation hadn’t happened. Yet this was the prevailing framework of conflict, just as capitalism and communism were during the Cold War of the 20th century. By comparison to the Religious Wars’ 10-20% of Europeans, World War II killed roughly 3% of the world’s population in the 1930s and 40’s, though its 60-70 million dead constituted a higher total and it only lasted eight years.
The violence was spotty and sporadic. Italy, whose kingdoms surrounded the nearby Vatican, remained Catholic. Christians closed ranks around Catholicism in Spain, as well, because their energies had been exhausted fighting Muslims and co-existing with Jews in previous centuries. The Spanish Inquisition eventually cracked down on Protestants but only after their emperor Charles V initially legalized Lutheranism, seeing it understandably enough as an inter-Catholic dispute since Luther was Catholic. Germany and northern Europe were more evenly split with Scandinavia leaning toward Protestantism. In the Thirty Year’s War Sack of Magdeburg (Germany), a Catholic League army killed ~ 20k Protestants in a single day. France was mostly Catholic but had enough Protestants to warrant an entire subset of massacres and edicts called the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) severe enough to disrupt France’s colonial American agenda (Chapter 3). In his essay “Of Cannibals,” Michel de Montaigne wrote of rival Christians who “hack at another man’s limbs and lop them off, and would cudgel their brains to invent unusual tortures and new forms of murder.” In one notorious event foreshadowing the Rwandan genocide of 1994, French Catholics simultaneously murdered Huguenots (Protestants) en masse on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572. France nonetheless ended up with a Protestant King, Henry IV, who survived twelve assassination attempts before finally being killed by a fanatical Catholic.
Calvinists, Jesuits & Puritans
Luther’s most devout French follower, John Calvin, agreed with Luther’s doctrine of sola fide: salvation by faith alone, not “works” (good deeds). Calvin established a community of Protestants across the French border in Geneva, Switzerland who ruled themselves politically in their own republic and believed in predestination: that an elect of God was chosen before birth to be saved. Some of his Huguenots fled to America to escape Catholic persecution, though in smaller numbers than their English counterparts would a couple of generations later. However, the Religious Wars accelerated all European missionary work because both Protestants and Catholics thought it important to beat the other to the punch in converting heathens in Africa, Asia, and America. For many American Indians of the Midwest, Great Lakes, and Canada, the first Europeans they encountered were Jesuit Black Robes: missionary followers of Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus in Spain in 1534 as an arm of the Counter-Reformation. Missionaries from other Catholic orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans went to Northern New Spain, or what’s now the American Southwest.
In England, a Protestant group called Puritans who hoped to purify the Church spread Calvinist doctrine. Some of these Puritans migrated to America, where they set up replicas of Geneva such as Boston, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Calvin also influenced Protestants to loosen up restrictions on credit and lending at interest, helping to establish the capitalist system that fueled exploratory joint stock companies like the Massachusetts Bay Company and Virginia Company of London (Chapter 2). While Calvinists believed in predestination, the elect had to constantly prove themselves worthy of God’s grace and that translated into hard work, that translated into money. Wealth, then, was evidence of God’s grace (today’s version of the idea is Prosperity Theology). In the interest of breaking down the old Catholic dichotomy of profane and sacred — the outer world versus the church or monastery — Calvin and Luther preached that professions outside the Church could be just as Godly as those within. Keeping track of one’s hard work on the job or around the house involved cataloging it, and the Reformation thus gave rise to the diary and autobiography.
The Reformation and Wars of Religion in England had implications for America. There, the soap operas of the Tudor Dynasty, rather than actual theology, triggered the unraveling of Catholic authority at first. Then genuine theological disputes kicked in among subsequent generations of rulers and their subjects, leading to over a century of turmoil. You don’t need to learn the gory details, but we’re going to run through some of them anyway to give you an idea of what transpired. That will help you understand why colonial Americans later avoided hereditary rule and separated church and state.
The Tudor dynasty’s first monarch, King Henry VII, wanted to consolidate power with Spain through inter-marriage because of the power and wealth that the Castilians acquired colonizing America. He arranged for his son Arthur to marry Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon. However, Arthur died of tuberculosis four months after the wedding and, through a special dispensation from the Pope, Catherine then married Arthur’s brother, Henry VIII. The two had a long marriage and one daughter, Mary, but weren’t able to produce a male heir (they lost one male infant, Henry). Despondent, Henry fell in love with a conniving courtier named Anne Boleyn after having an affair with her sister, Mary (he’d had at least one earlier affair and a male son, Henry Fitzroy, before he met the Boleyn sisters). Desiring to marry Anne Boleyn and divorcing Catherine, Henry’s only recourse given the laws of the time was to seek permission for an annulment from the Pope. But Pope Clement VII denied the request because marriage was for life and he didn’t want to alienate the emerging Spanish monarchy at a time when the Church was desperately hanging onto whatever power it had left over the rulers of Europe. Pope Clement christened Spanish king Charles V Holy Roman Emperor in 1530 after Charles invaded Italy, and Charles was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. Outraged, Henry thought the Pope owed him a favor for having burned several English Lutherans at the stake in the 1520s. After accusing Catherine of having consummated her brief marriage with his brother Arthur — which would have invalidated his own — Henry took matters into his own hands and severed England’s ties with the Catholic Church.
With the blessing of Canterbury Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (himself secretly married) and lawyer Thomas Cromwell, King Henry declared himself Pope of a new church in 1534 known as the Church of England (or Anglican Church). By virtue of his Act of Supremacy, Henry’s first act was to grant himself a divorce. The Reformation had helped turn marriage into more of a civic than religious practice and the Vatican’s unwillingness to sanction Henry’s divorce is what led to the English Reformation. Henry had his Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More beheaded for opposing the break with Rome and his troops plundered the country’s Catholic monasteries, selling off the proceeds to the nobility that stood to gain from the Reformation in the same way German princes had. Henry’s crown collected the same taxes collected by the Catholic Church prior to 1534, known as first fruits and tenths.
Henry’s subsequent marital life is the stuff of legend. The increasingly gluttonous sociopath went through six wives total, beheading two of them, all the while failing to produce a healthy male heir to assume power upon his death (likely the fault of his own undiagnosed medical complications). The final count read: “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” His one son, Edward VI (with his third wife Jane Seymour), ruled from age nine until his death at 15, at which point Henry and Catherine’s daughter Mary ascended to the throne even though the dying young Protestant Edward had directed otherwise.
By then, the problems with England’s Anglican Church were apparent. Nearly everyone on either side of the Catholic-Protestant divide was unhappy with the ambiguity of the new church, and both groups ended up feeling the brunt of persecution at one point or another as Henry’s children vacillated back and forth along the theological spectrum. The respective zealotries of Protestant Edward VI and Catholic Mary could squelch debate by force in the short run, but only fueled free thinking about religion in the long run. Catholics resented the break with Rome, while Protestants viewed the “pseudo-Catholic” Anglican Church as reformed in name only. The Anglican Church retained Catholic vestiges such as a leader (the king or queen) and bishops, and the traditional rituals and liturgy — what Protestants derisively called the “smells and bells.” Old habits die hard. When protestors said that “only 80 miles separated the new church from Catholicism,” they meant that the short geographical distance from Dover, England to Calais, France mirrored the superficial differences between the Anglican and Catholic faiths. They didn’t take down paintings. They still celebrated Christmas. Mainly the seat of power had just shifted from the Vatican to London.
Real Protestants wanted to take the country further in their direction and the new queen, Mary I, dealt with them harshly enough to earn the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.” The name wasn’t entirely accurate since she burned 300 Protestants Inquisition-style rather than the traditional English manner of dragging (drawing), near hanging, castration, disembowelment, and quartering (being chopped into four pieces). Thomas Cranmer, who’d helped Henry break away from Rome, was among her victims. A graphic little page-turner called the Book of Martyrs (1563) chronicled Bloody Mary’s butchery, becoming the second-most-read book in colonial America after the Bible. Under Mary, England rejoined the Catholic Church and she cemented ties with Catholic Spain by marrying Philip II, Charles V’s son.
After Mary died from cancer her stepsister Elizabeth (Henry and Anne Boleyn’s daughter) vied for the throne with her Scottish cousin Mary Stuart (aka Mary, Queen of Scots). Catholics in Britain and across Europe hoped that Mary Queen of Scots would win out and establish a dynasty through her marriage to young Frances II of France. A Papal Bull had excommunicated Elizabeth as a heretical bastard child after Henry beheaded her mother, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth spent time imprisoned in the Tower of London. But Elizabeth got the upper hand after Frances’ death, imprisoned Mary Stuart for eighteen years, and eventually signed her death warrant after becoming convinced that Mary was conspiring to overthrow her. The following account reveals how Mary’s upset, confused dog witnessed the execution. Elizabeth went easier on Catholics than Bloody Mary had on Protestants, usually letting them practice as long as they laid low, plead their oath, and paid their taxes to the Church of England. According to the law of the land, though, outright Catholic priests could be tortured and executed.
Treachery often accompanied transitions of power in the monarchical system of dynastic succession (inherited power), just as it had in Classical Rome and in late medieval England. If the 16th and 17th centuries weren’t bad enough, the late 15th was a similarly chaotic bloodbath known as the Wars of the Roses. On the bright side, such politics spiced up plots ranging from William Shakespeare’s plays to Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010) to PBS’s Secrets of the Six Wives (2017), based on Henry VIII’s reign. However, if such treacherous soap operatics seem tedious and confusing and you’re consulting your course catalog to re-check what class you signed up for, remember that you don’t have to know many details about the Tudor and Stuart monarchies for the upcoming exam. Your author recounts this sordid tale mainly so that you get the picture as to why Americans starting a new country from scratch in 1776 saw fit to avoid the chronic violence of hereditary rule and to separate church and state.
Moreover, Elizabeth’s rivalry with Spain had a lot to do with colonial America’s settlement. Queen Elizabeth was a moderate but resolute Protestant and Catholic Spain tried to lure her into a marriage to mitigate her influence. She refused, instead aiding Dutch Protestants as they fought to drive Spain from the Low Countries of northwest Europe. She re-severed England’s Catholic ties with her Act of Supremacy leading the papacy to encourage her assassination. Today, that’s the sort of thing you’d expect the Taliban to do to infidels but, in the 16th century, such intrigue was common fare in Europe.
With Mary Queen of Scots dead and their hopes of an English alliance dashed, the spurned Spanish proceeded with plans to conquer “the misty isle” (England) and overthrow Elizabeth. Philip II, the Hapsburg King of Spain, assembled the largest armada (navy) yet built. Under the Duke of Medina Sidonia, it sailed from Cadiz for the British Isles in 1588 hoping to pick up seasoned soldiers in the Low Countries. They encountered several obstacles in the English Channel, including excellent fortifications that Elizabeth’s father Henry had built along the coastline and, most importantly, bad weather. England’s fledgling navy had cast iron guns that (unlike Spain’s) didn’t overheat and they and the Dutch set fishing boats on fire and used them to set ablaze the larger Spanish ships (the floating torches were called hellebranders, hellburners or fireships). Elizabeth rallied the troops with a speech on the coast at Tilbury that English schoolchildren still recite (depicted in the red circle in the painting below). After three weeks of high casualties in the Channel, the disastrous Spanish expedition finally ended with the Armada’s remnants sailing north all the way around Scotland and shipwrecking on the Irish coast.
For Elizabeth, the storm in the English Channel was “God’s breath,” similar (for historians) to the Divine Wind in Japanese tradition that defended that island from Chinese invaders in the 13th century. The conclusion in England’s case was obvious: God preferred Protestants to Catholics. This unfolded right when England coveted the riches Spain was plundering from America and now they wanted some for themselves. Under Elizabeth, Protestantism cloaked England’s patriotic identity and their religion’s superiority justified why America should be theirs, not Spain’s. Elizabeth’s approval ratings were probably soaring at this point, though it’s hard to tell because she outlawed criticism and polling didn’t exist. England defeated the Spanish again outside Cadiz in 1596. England’s colonizing efforts had barely begun when Elizabeth died childless in 1603. Power passed to none other than Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James Stuart (James VI of Scotland and, now, James I of England). The House of Tudor gave way to the House of Stuart.
Under James I and his successor Charles I, the center didn’t hold in England religiously. The Church of England vacillated, leaving neither Catholics nor Protestants satisfied. James relied on Catholic support throughout Europe to lay claim to the crown after Elizabeth’s death and promised increased tolerance toward Catholics as long as they continued to lay low and pay their taxes. However, it wasn’t enough and, in 1605, Catholic terrorists led by Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes tried unsuccessfully to “blow King and the whole company (Parliament) when they should there assemble (in Parliament)” with 36 barrels of gunpowder stashed in a basement vault under Westminster Palace, connected by tunnel to an adjacent house. Authorities caught wind of the plan and discovered the explosives before they went off, catching Fawkes red-handed near the unlit long match. For centuries afterward, including in colonial America, Protestants celebrated the failed Gunpowder Plot — often with either the Pope or Fawkes burned in effigy — and England still celebrates what’s evolved into Bonfire Night on November 5th.
With Catholics on the defensive, Protestants transcribed the Bible and the King James Version is still the most famous in the English language. Then, in the “Catholic Drift” under Charles I persecution toward extreme Protestants (Reformed Calvinists) reared its ugly head once more. Yet, as that was happening, England’s conquest of neighboring Ireland emboldened Protestants because of Ireland’s Catholicism. Exaggerated reports of violence against English soldiers in Ulster (Northern Ireland), made possible by the recently freed press, stoked a patriotic Protestantism similar to what the Spanish Armada had. One of the military leaders in charge of suppressing the Irish, Oliver Cromwell, rose quickly in popularity and eventually took over England. According to the Calvinists’ reading of the Book of Daniel, kings who ruled in an ungodly fashion had to be overthrown, and Charles had dissolved Parliament.
The English Civil Wars (1642-1651) between Cromwell’s Parliamentarian-Protestant Roundheads and Royalist Cavaliers resulted in Charles I’s decapitation and an 11-year interim known as the Commonwealth, a republic with no monarchy and Cromwell serving as leader until his son took over after his death. Roundheads took their defeat of Charles as evidence that he wasn’t divinely ordained; thus, their rationale for killing him was that they’d killed him. Protestant onlookers soaked their handkerchiefs in Charles’ blood to symbolize the purification of their revolution. While the monarchy returned in 1660 to Charles’ son, Charles II during the Restoration, English kings never regained the absolute forms of dictatorship enjoyed by other European leaders. Especially after another uprising known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they had to share power with an increasingly powerful parliament and ministers.
These early republican revolutions in England set the stage for the American uprising a century later, when colonial rebel leaders needed to look no further than their country’s history for the seeds of their own revolution, tracing all the way back (in the popular imagination, at least) to Magna Carta of the 13th century. Republicanism as yearned for and practiced in colonial America originated in the English Reformation.
In the midst of the English turmoil, a small group of radical Protestant Pilgrims had seen enough and slipped away across the big pond to America on the Mayflower, aiming for but missing Virginia. Today 1/30 Americans share some DNA with passengers aboard the Mayflower. Another larger group of more mainstream Puritans followed a decade later. These Calvinists missed out on the dramatic English Civil War but founded colonies in New England that later became part of the U.S. Their colony of Massachusetts instigated the Revolutionary War against England 150 years later. We’ll trace their story in more detail in coming chapters.
The Reformation impacted these colonists and others in many ways. The Renaissance was important because it gave rise to the navigational technology and mercantilist economics that drove Europeans overseas in pursuit of material wealth. The Reformation, though, inspired missionaries and religious refugees to come to America, augmented a rivalry with Spain that inspired England to claim Virginia, and inspired Calvinists to settle New England. Protestants also put a premium on earning worldly wealth, dovetailing their religious motivations to colonize with the economic motivations detailed in Chapter 2. American colonists were familiar with the English Civil War, in which Protestant republicans rose up and challenged a monarchy, laying a foundation for the American Revolution the following century. American Protestants often suspected “papist” Catholic colonists in Canada, Maryland or elsewhere of conspiring against them with Indians, adding another complication to frontier warfare.
Even aside from the English Civil War, the Reformation encouraged democratic revolt against authority and Protestants thrived in areas of Europe like Switzerland and the Netherlands that contained small pockets of republican rule. These were the same areas, along with England, that embraced capitalism. By freeing the soul from the Catholic Church, Martin Luther had unleashed individual freedom and the prospect of questioning all forms of absolute authority. Just as Luther rebelled against the top-down authority and divinity of the Pope, Dissenters in both England and colonial America rebelled against the divinely ordained authority of the monarchy. English monarchs, after all, were anointed by Bishops in Westminster Abbey, not appointed by ministers in the Palace of Westminster. Protestants also emphasized equality among worshippers and that carried over into a similar emphasis on equality that slowly but surely worked its way into American politics between its Revolution and the 21st century.
American Protestants developed a greater sense of religious freedom than their European counterparts. While the early settlers were far from tolerant in the modern sense of the term and maintained generally anti-Catholic, anti-Quaker and anti-Semitic views, religious pluralism made America fertile soil for long-term toleration. To wit: there were so many different groups that it was in everyone’s best interest to get along, otherwise, their own group could easily be the next target of discrimination, just as it likely had already been the target at some point previously. It took a long time, though, for that new dynamic to play out. For one thing, despite pluralism among Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, free-thinkers, etc., English law still applied in the British colonies. All landholders still had to pay a tithe (or tax) to the Church of England regardless of their faith.
Such laws continued within various states even after American independence. Yet, in 1790, 183 years after the Mayflower landing, the first American president George Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island guaranteeing their full citizenship. The “father of the country” boldly stated that the U.S. government offered “to bigotry no sanction, and to persecution no assistance…Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree [sic], and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington not only disliked religious intolerance, he idealistically even hoped that tolerance would become obsolete because the concept implied the potential power or desire of one group to dominate another. He didn’t take this stance lightly, telling a British historian, “I walk on untrodden ground.”
Many of the early state governments didn’t comply with those ideals, continuing to charge tithes of their own and denying full citizenship to Jews, Catholics, Deists, and Atheists. But the national government set a very high standard in comparison to most of the states, to say nothing of what went on in England and Europe in previous centuries. Washington’s words were a far cry from Martin Luther’s in On the Jews and Their Lies! After passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 American states had to fall in line with the full-blown religious freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Dozens of Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Christ, and Mormons, would put their own distinctly American stamp on the Reformation. What they didn’t impact as directly as some people argue is the founding of the United States as an official, legally Christian nation, and neither can we connect the New England Pilgrims to the founding as easily as some might try to. New England’s colonial history was well known, important, and influential to the Founders, some of whom shared their views. But New England was just one of several colonial regions, and Pennsylvania and Virginia pioneered models of religious freedom that influenced the Constitution more than Pilgrim/Puritan society. The Pilgrims’ sense of religious freedom is overrated unless one defines freedom merely as the desire to not be discriminated against. That sense of religious freedom is cheap, though, considering that everyone in the world, past or present, would agree with it. Compared to Massachusetts, colonists in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and (eventually) Virginia set a higher, more meaningful standard of religious freedom — defined not just as fleeing one’s own persecution but as living alongside and not persecuting those with different views. Virginians James Madison and Thomas Jefferson co-authored the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 and Jefferson, as president, coined the phrase “separation of church and state” that future judges used to interpret the amendment.
Pilgrims and Puritans would not have approved of such religious liberty and, moreover, weren’t involved in founding the United States. While we don’t dwell on exact dates much in history classes anymore, it’s important to realize that the Pilgrims settled New England 150 years before anyone ever conceived of the United States. For perspective: nearly as much time transpired between the First Thanksgiving and the Declaration of Independence as between ourselves and the Civil War. The Pilgrims were important in shaping American identity, though, and the Reformation continued to influence America in significant ways through the founding up to the present. However, other Americans in other colonies established the sort of religious freedom Americans rightfully cherish today.
“The Separation of Church & State Is Rooted In American Christianity,” Johann Neem
Manifold Greatness: the Creation & Afterlife of the King James Bible (NEH)
“Join the Army & Choose Whichever God You Like,” Sarah Vowell, NYT 8.12.16
“The Gunpowder Plot,” Pauline Croft, History Review 52 (9.2005)