4 Protestant Reformation & America

Martin Luther @ Diet of Worms, 1521

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521, Anton von Werner (1877)

We need to understand some basics of 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 whereby some Christians broke away from the Catholic Church that had monopolized Western Christianity from the 4th through the 16th century CE, or AD.  Since the Catholic Church was the dominant institution in medieval Europe, this revolution shook Europe to the core and, in turn, cast a long shadow over America.  The Reformation 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 that was challenging church doctrine at the same time (and vice-versa), albeit from a different angle.  Equally crucial, the Reformation sparked notions of representative government and equality and provided ideological justification for modern banking and capitalism just as the Age of Exploration was enriching upwardly mobile merchants who demanded political representation (previous chapter).  In short, it’s impossible to unravel America’s Revolution, culture, or economy without understanding the Reformation as Protestantism was the religious context of democratic capitalism, the American system.  It also led to common schooling/widespread literacy, diary-keeping, and landscape/still-life painting while jump-starting overseas colonization.  If these developments aren’t enough to warrant investigation, there is religion itself.  The Reformation gave rise to all denominations of Protestant Christianity outside the established Church — or what we now call the Roman Catholic Church — including Quaker, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, all manner of evangelical fundamentalism, and Mormonism, with each of these further sub-divided into various sects.  The violence and political upheaval the Reformation uncorked in the 16th and 17th centuries drew on a starker distinction between Catholic and Protestant Christians than today, when the differences are subtle or even incidental.  Today, for instance, Catholic parishioners read their own Bibles and Protestants celebrate Christmas, and neither blames natural disasters on the other.  And, today, Protestant sanctuaries run from ornate to minimalist, whereas originally they were all bare-bones minimalist.  Here we’ll trace some early Christian history forward through the Reformation and connect the dots from Europe through England to early American history.

Early Christianity
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 century 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 inspired by Saint Peter and built by Emperor Constantine I in the early 4th c. CE.  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 bishops 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.Abrahamic Religions

It’s helpful to know something about early Christianity to see why later Protestant reformers like Martin Luther came to distrust the Catholic Church and question its authority.  Early Christians started out as a small sect on the outskirts of the Roman Empire along the eastern Mediterranean, in Judea, mainly Jerusalem and Galilee.  The “Jesus Movement” spread among the Jewish Diaspora around the Mediterranean, with early worship in synagogues.  Followers varied widely in their interpretations before there was an agreed-upon Biblical canon in the late 4th century.  In the 1st century CE, apostles led by Paul spread their gospel to (non-Jewish) Gentiles, especially in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Greece.  Gradually, at first among Jewish Christians in Antioch (Turkey), the Jesus Movement came to be called Christians.  Paul took advantage of Rome’s vast road system (e.g. Via Egnatia), designed to move soldiers and trade, to spread their faith.  With this upstart religion, as in other matters, “all roads led to Rome,” and there was a sect there by 50 CE.  Also, Romans relocated Judean slaves captured in the unsuccessful Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE) throughout their empire, inadvertently spreading Christianity along with them.  The sheer size of Rome’s empire helped disseminate the religion as early “proto-orthodox” theologians from Lyon (France), Carthage (Tunisia), and Smyrna (Turkey) collated its accepted interpretations and set up hierarchies of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.  This very early Christian Church predated the New Testament.  Fittingly, Gentile Christians who worshipped in Jewish synagogues saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism and, as a condition of their conversion, Jews required Gentiles to disavow state-sanctioned Roman paganism.

Painting of Ignatius of Antioch from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD), WikiCommons

Painting of Ignatius of Antioch from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD), WikiCommons

Fibonacci IchthysRomans persecuted these early Christians for not worshiping state-sanctioned gods, most dramatically throwing some to the lions along with other criminals for spectators’ amusement in their famous Colosseum.  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.  Emperor Trajan did likewise to Christians, including most famously Syrian-born Ignatius of Antioch, after a series of earthquakes in the early 2nd century.  They steamed to death or beheaded some martyrs and Gentile Christians started building their churches to look like houses to stay undercover and used the Ichthys “fish” symbol (left).  Only the really dedicated sought out martyrdom, but thousands of others were inspired by their sacrifice as it echoed the Passion of Jesus.  Persecution also helped bind Christians together, just as it had for Jews and would later for Mormons in 19th-century America.

Some Romans saw Christians as cannibals for ceremonially “eating Christ” in their communions (Eucharist), incestuous for calling each other “brother” and “sister,” or just strange for providing healthcare to the poor.  In 250 CE, Christians aided plague victims.  They provided emotional support and took care of the disadvantaged within their networks, which no doubt contributed to their growing popularity.  You could even argue that, outside of the political realm, they invented welfare systems and safety nets within their own parishes, though we need to be cautious about projecting modern concepts onto historical actors.

Byzantine Mosaic of St. John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia (Istanbul)

Byzantine Mosaic of St. John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Christians inverted, or at least offset, Rome’s emphasis on boldness, strength, and nobility by preaching that the blessed meek would inherit the Earth (Matthew 5:5).  But, over time, Christians found common ground with Romans.  In keeping with Roman society, many Gentile Christians remained anti-Semitic, overlooking that Jesus himself and his disciples were Jewish, as evident in the Synoptic Gospels, the first three accounts of Jesus in the New Testament (divergence).  The fourth gospel author, John, and early church fathers like Marcion of Sinope, Barnabas, St. Augustine (of Hippo), St. Athanasius (of Alexandria), 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.  Anti-Semites believed that, 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 harsh 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.”  But one of the exceptional things about colonial America, as we’ll see toward the end of this chapter, is that, because of a unique set of historical circumstances, it took the first baby steps in the Western world toward overcoming the centuries of bigotry engendered by these theological disputes.

Mosaic of Christ as Sol or Apollo-Helios in Mausoleum M in Pre-4th-Century Necropolis Beneath St. Peter's, Vatican (Rome)

Mosaic of Christ as Sol or Apollo-Helios in Mausoleum M in Pre-4th-Century Necropolis Beneath St. Peter’s, Vatican (Rome)

Early Christians had other things in common with their fellow Romans.  As they gradually came out of hiding, early churches adopted the naveapse rectangular basilica style of Roman courts.  The style of early Christian hymns drew on Roman street music.  The Roman symbol for philanthropy, sheep, dovetailed with the Christian Good Shepherd and the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  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 recently argued that was a coincidence.  While most 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, with the rebirth of the Sun transitioning into the birth or rebirth of the Son (Jesus).  Some art historians interpret the mosaic on the left 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 Pagan traditions (some had advocated timing it with Jewish Passover) though, in that case, unlike Christ’s birth, the New Testament clarified the chronology of the Resurrection.  Like other Romans, Christians buried their dead and had funerary meals near their deceased relatives in the city’s catacombs.

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 syncretizing and soaking up some aspects of existing mythologies, even as it maintained its essential messages.  Their accommodations paid off as, 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.  Under Theodosius in the 390s, militant Christians took the offensive and destroyed pagan statues and temples, though the Colosseum crowd stoned the Christian monk Telemachus to death in 404 CE for trying to stop the gladiator games.

John Wycliffe, by Thomas Kirby (1775-1848), Balliol College, Oxford University

John Wycliffe, by Thomas Kirby (1775-1848), Oxford University

Protestant Reformation
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 two 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 Church expanded its temporal powers under Pope Gregory I (590-604 CE).  The Pope was sometimes called the “pope-king” and much of what’s now Italy was divided into the Papal States while uniting, or attempting to unite, much of central Europe was a Holy Roman Empire that critics derided as neither holy, Roman nor an empire (pink, left).

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 itself and its controversial policies.  Their complaints included ongoing instances of child abuse and extramarital affairs exacerbated by its priestly celibacy requirement.  Other problems included 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.  Indulgences started as awards given to soldiers during the Crusades but the Church started selling them to parishioners.  While Catholic rituals provided comfort and inspiration 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 except for during a brief homily in their local language (American Catholic masses switched to English after Vatican II, 1962-65).  Clergy thus controlled content.  It’s not a given that sermons and Scripture are more fulfilling than rituals, but 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 in the Winter and had plenty to eat and drink even as they labored at farming, construction, and transcribing.  Protests by early heretics like the Waldensians, 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.

John Wycliffe Dispensing Early English Bible

Wycliff Giving ‘The Poor Priests’ His Translation of the Bible, By William Frederick Yeames, 1835-1918

In 1517, one protester — root of the term Protestant — expanded on Wycliffe and Hus’ earlier complaints but with more lasting success.  Catholic Augustinian monk Martin Luther escaped his predecessors’ fate and had a bigger impact because of a combination of circumstances that had less to do with theology than with politics, war, and technology.  According to a story that first appeared a century or so after Luther’s death, he boldly nailed Ninety-five Theses (complaints) onto the door of his home cathedral in Wittenberg, in what’s now Germany.  The legend likely stemmed from stories about Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, who had nailed their complaints to the door of England’s Westminster Hall in 1395.  Luther actually submitted his theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Branden, who forwarded them to Rome and accused Luther of heresy.  Luther condemned a recent sale of indulgences and most of his early controversy surrounded indulgences, the proceeds from which lined monks’ pockets with the rest toward rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.  The monk selling the 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.”  Per protocol, Luther submitted his theses to call for a debate, or “disputation.”  He won widespread popularity by postulating about wine-drinking Italians in the luxurious Vatican laughing at the stupidity of duped tax-paying Germans.  Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, aka the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, didn’t question Catholic authority in any fundamental way, though.  His more revolutionary ideas weren’t sparked until the Church pushed back on his complaints about indulgences.  If Albert of Branden was trying to defend Catholic orthodoxy, he shouldn’t have picked a fight with Luther.

Luther wasn’t initially envisioning a new church, just debate and reform within Catholicism.  His initial writings were in Latin, the language of the Church.  At first, not much came of his protest.  No one accepted the challenge to debate and he had nearly forgotten about it until he learned that local printers had copied and distributed the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.  Printing, as we’ll expand on more below, was one critical difference between Luther and proto-Protestants like the Waldensians, Wycliffe, and Hus.  In the ensuing controversy, the plucky monk doubled down during interrogations and expanded his critique beyond indulgences to challenge Church authority altogether, perhaps even surprising himself when the words came out of his mouth.  Luther wanted to wash away the Catholic bureaucracy, including the Pope, whom he denied was divinely ordained, and the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy of cardinals, bishops, etc. beneath him.  The monk’s idea was a religious version of what economists later called disintermediation, or “cutting out the middleman.”  Despite Luther being an ordained Catholic priest, monk, and theology professor, he argued that the Church was unwarranted in situating itself as an intermediary between people and their faith.  Indulgence sales just symbolized that.  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-not-deeds doctrine was known in Latin as sola fide.  His notion of faith had less to do with belief than with trust in God’s grace.  At this point, Luther and his followers were far beyond the initial coins-in-the-coffee cup indulgences critique.

Martin Luther Nailing 95 Theses to Door of Wittenburg Cathedral, 1517

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.  They aimed to scrub away barnacles that had accreted onto the early version, like saints, stigmata, and relics.  Luther’s initial protest symbolically came on All Saint’s Day, also known as All Hallow’ Eve (10.31), the sort of neo-pagan holiday he abhorred.  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.  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.  Legend credited Luther with popularizing the medieval German “paradise tree” after a 1536 vision walking in the woods and German colonists brought the yule tree to Pennsylvania.  Sélestat, along the French-German border, claims the first recorded Christmas tree earlier, in 1521.  Nonetheless, many early Protestants, including Puritans in America, banned Christmastide or portions thereof.  Colonial New Englanders outlawed Christmas between 1659 and 1681 and English Puritans did so in the mid-17th century when they controlled the country.

Banning pagan holidays was 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, relics, and stained glass should be removed from churches as well.  While reformers unfortunately 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.  They streamlined the Seven Catholic Sacraments to three: Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance.  A key hallmark of Protestantism was sermons, of which Luther wrote and published many.  In the spirit of participation rather than being administered to, Protestant congregations sang their own hymns.  Luther himself wrote hymns, most famously “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” 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.  Luther was a Bible professor who promoted sola scriptura: vesting authority in Scripture and Scripture alone, not the Church, with verses used as talking points for sermons and participatory Sunday schools more expansive than Catholic homilies.  This 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 sermonize and administer baptism and communion, everyone in the congregation was a “priest” in their own right.  You can see the democratic implications of the Reformation, that we’ll connect below to American politics.

Luther in Worms, Woodcut, Artist Unknown, c. 1577

Luther in Worms, Woodcut, Artist Unknown, c. 1577

These ideas obviously didn’t sit well with the Catholic Church.  When Pope Leo X (born Giovanni Lorenzo de’ Medici) issued a bull, Exsurge Domine, correcting Luther’s views, Luther excommunicated himself before the Church could excommunicate him.  He burned the papal bull, which described Luther as “a wild boar that seeks to destroy the forest and every wild animal in it,” renounced his allegiance to the Church at the Diet of Worms in 1521, and called the Pope the devil.  Responding to Luther’s bridge-burning retort, Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist, Leo X doubled-down on his porcine theme, calling Luther a “roaring sow.”  Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain condemned Luther and convicted him of treason but allowed him to escape.  The Pope and Charles V, who organized and attended the trial at Worms, might have seen fit to follow through and deal with Luther the way the Church had earlier heretics — over the open flame or on the rack — were it not for the threat of Muslim invasion in central Europe.  This geopolitical context helps explain Luther’s survival and success.  

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 from the east (red arrows below) and French armies from the west, German princes (or electors) took a sudden liking to Luther’s criticism of Catholic authority, capitalizing on external threats to leverage concessions from the Church.  And, new Protestants in eastern Europe got along well with Muslims, constructively debating theology but mostly bonding over their mutual hatred for Catholicism.  Luther even called Islam what translates to “the rod of God’s wraths against Europe’s sins.”  German princes may have had genuine theological motives, but power can be a zero-sum game and leaders like Frederick III of Saxony (aka Frederick the Wise) stood to gain money and property at the Catholic church’s expense by extracting a price for their military protection — the Holy Roman Empire’s military really being just a sum of its many parts.  As of 1517, the Catholic Church owned ~ 50% of all land in Europe.  In short, the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire needed the princes’ cooperation in fending off the Ottomans and French and keeping that land, and the princes were exacting a price by using Protestantism as a pretext to wrest power from the Church.  Frederick was one of the electors within the loose conglomeration of kingdoms in present-day Germany under the Holy Roman Empire (below).  The Pope didn’t want to alienate Frederick any more than he had to and that meant going easier on Luther.  This context provided Luther political shelter that John Wycliffe and Jan Hus never had.

Ottoman Siege of Vienna, 1529

Ottoman Siege of Vienna, 1529

Frederick’s men kidnapped Luther and provided sanctuary (technically house arrest) at the Wartburg castle in what’s now eastern Germany.  Luther grew a beard and went by the alias “George.”  With his only allegiance to Scripture, Luther was now a Lutheran, soon the name of a Protestant denomination.  After release from house arrest, he 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 he loved 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.

Over the next decade, regional princes formed an alliance around Luther, especially after the Protestant Augsburg Confession of 1530 that Lutherans drafted just as Charles V was looking to unite Germans and fend off invasions from the east and west.  There were even some Protestants that would’ve preferred Muslim over Catholic rule because, at the time, Islamic empires offered more religious freedom.  Charles V was juggling a lot of balls, in theory ruling over huge swaths of America (New Spain, including where you’re now sitting) and the Netherlands and trying to defend central Europe from an external threat while tamping down a religious civil war within the empire.  Another concern was a brewing divorce between the English King Henry VIII and Charles V’s aunt, Catherine of Aragon (more below).  He condemned the Augsburg Confession but initially didn’t wage war against Protestants.

Meanwhile, the German princes and nobles also had to fend off their own 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 Protestant Thomas Münzter led a failed Peasant’s War that ended in his decapitation and the death of 50-60k peasants but foreshadowed future class struggle.  The image below depicts the fate of Lutheran rebel Little Jack Rohrbach.

Little Jack Rohrbach

The Burning of Little Jack (Jacklein) Rohrbach, Leader of the Peasants, in Neckargartach, Originally from Peter Harrer, Beschreibung des Bauernkriegs, 1551

The religious side of the Reformation fared better because Luther also had technology that earlier heretics like Wycliffe and Hus lacked: the printing press.  His revolution coincided with the technological revolution in print and paper that we discussed in Chapter 2.  Philosopher and Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (Netherlands) published updated versions of the New Testament in Greek and Latin, sparking Scriptural debate and inadvertently setting the stage for the Reformation.  Luther’s works wouldn’t have caught on if his followers were hand-copying onto animal parchment manuscripts.  His original Disputation on the Power of Indulgences was copied and translated into German and he personally transcribed the New Testament from Latin into German “for the ploughboy” in 1522 and shuttled it to the presses.  He finished the Old Testament in 1534.  In the Reformation’s first decade, the Disputation, sermons, illustrated catechisms in poster form, and pamphlets were even more influential than the Bible itself, with roughly a third of the six million documents sold in Germany penned by Luther.  He wrote three other books in 1520, alone.  Many Germans had portraits of Luther hanging in their homes next to the catechism sheets.  His writing was earthy and humorous, even scatological, filled with colorful insults toward his “evil scum” detractors.  There were also songs, paintings, and woodcuts, including crude images of she-devils, defecating popes and monks and the like — images with currency among regular folks who enjoyed his association of Catholics with the devil and human waste.  Conversely, when Catholics countered the Protestant message it was usually in Latin, legible only to their own theologians and academics.  Imagine if the Reformation had started in 2020 instead of 1520 and Protestants used memes and Tweets while Catholics emailed PDF attachments.

Continent-wide, other transcribers soon copied sermons and Bibles into French, Dutch, Czech, 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.”

Religious Wars
Erasmus hoped for reform within Catholicism, but both sides ignored his call for moderation.  The Catholic Church neither took Luther’s challenge lightly nor agreed to shore up its act and make fundamental changes — at least not in the short-term.  At first, 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 sporadic, violent factionalism known collectively as the European Wars of Religion (1524-1628).  The Religious Wars started with book burnings and insults but degenerated into mass murders, torture, rapes, and the burning of villages.  Charles V eventually led his army into Protestant areas, including Wittenberg where he destroyed Luther’s farm.  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.  For most of English history, it was an insult to accuse someone of being tolerant.  Most agreed that life’s hardships – epidemics, famines, earthquakes, fires, etc. – resulted from God’s anger at the way the community as a whole, the body politic, worshiped or didn’t.  Consequently, Protestants and Catholics felt compelled to slaughter each other 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 Jews, forgetting that early Christian Gentiles converted to a form of Judaism.  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 Protestant theologian even wrote of Jews, “We are at fault in not slaying them.”  He also wanted to execute Catholics, witches, and rival Protestants like followers of Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland, who denied that communion bread was actually Christ’s transformed flesh.  We should be careful not to draw too deterministic a line from “Luther to Hitler” (see Rear Defogger 26-9 in menu above); Luther didn’t exist to lay a foundation for Nazism.  However, it’s true that Nazis exploited his writings and he was, in retrospect, a harbinger of what came later.  Four centuries after Luther’s book, Nazis opportunistically displayed and read from it at their Nuremberg Rallies.  Yet, around that same time, one American visiting Germany saw inspiration in Luther instead of hate, attracted to his peaceful revolt against authority.  Michael King changed his name to Martin Luther King, Sr. and his son’s to Martin Luther King, Jr.

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 fighting was worse in France than Germany, partly because in France the wars were enmeshed in political disputes among the nobility, while Germany fragmented into tiny kingdoms within the Holy Roman Empire in which local princes decreed religious faith and, after the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, those that disagreed could easily segregate to a neighboring kingdom.  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 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 ’40s, though its 60-70 million dead constituted a higher total and it only lasted eight years instead of 104.

Les Grandes Misères de la guerre (The Great Miseries of War, aka The Hanging), Jacque Callot, c. 1633

Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre (The Great Miseries of War, aka The Hanging), Jacque Callot, ca. 1633

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 among others, French Catholics simultaneously murdered Huguenots (Protestants) en masse on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, mostly in Paris but also subsequent massacres in a dozen other cities.  France nonetheless ended up with a Protestant King, Henry IV, who survived twelve assassination attempts before a Catholic finally killed him.

Catherine de Medici Gazing at Protestants Massacred in the Aftermath of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, Edouard Debat-Ponsan (1880)

Catherine de Medici Gazing at Protestants Massacred in the Aftermath of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, Edouard Debat-Ponsan (1880)

Portrait of John Calvin, Titian, 16th c.

Portrait of John Calvin, Titian, 16th c.

Calvinists, Jesuits & Puritans
Luther’s most devout French follower, John Calvin, agreed with Luther’s doctrine of sola fide, or salvation by faith alone not “works” (good deeds).  Calvin established a community of rigorous Protestants across the French border in Geneva, Switzerland who ruled themselves politically in their own republic and believed in sanctification and 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.

Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius of Loyola

For many Indigenous Americans 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 (Chapter 3).  Partly since Loyola was a knight before becoming a priest but mostly because of their role abroad as missionaries, Jesuits were called “foot soldiers of the Pope.”

Meanwhile, Calvin’s message spread to the Netherlands and Britain.  In England and Scotland, a Protestant group called Puritans who hoped to purify Christianity 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, in turn, translated into money.  Wealth was seen as 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, later popularized in America by non-Protestants like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

English Reformation
The Reformation and Wars of Religion in England had implications for America, having happened simultaneous to the Age of Exploration.  As Luther was transcribing Scripture, Magellan’s ships were circumnavigating the globe.  In England, Tudor Dynasty soap operas, 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 memorize 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.

Pope Clement VII, Portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1531

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 (Chapter 3).  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 divorce 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 Catherine of Aragon was Charles’ aunt.  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.

The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession (Anachronistic, Mixing 1540s-50's), Lucas de Heere

The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession (Anachronistic, Mixing 1540s-50’s), Lucas de Heere

With the blessings 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.  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 caused by 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, who’d written that the Pope was the Antichrist, 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 that 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 (Anglican) Dover, England to (Catholic) Calais, France matched the superficial differences between the Anglican and Catholic faiths.  Anglicans didn’t take down paintings.  They still celebrated Christmas.  Mainly the seat of power had just shifted from the Vatican to London.

Reformed 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 non-fatal 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 heavily-Protestant 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.

Queen Elizabeth @ Coronation, 1559

Queen Elizabeth I @ Coronation, 1559

After Mary died from cancer her step-sister Elizabeth, Henry and Anne Boleyn’s daughter, vied for the throne with her Scottish first cousin-once-removed 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 a marriage to either young Frances II of France or the Duke of Norfolk.  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 her spymaster William Cecil rightfully convinced her that Mary was conspiring to overthrow her.  The following account reveals how Mary’s upset, confused dog witnessed her 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 — all this despite surviving seven assassination attempts by Catholics.  Still, according to the law of the land outright Catholic priests could be tortured and executed.  Meanwhile, she allowed in Protestant refugees from across Europe on merchant ships.

Treachery often accompanied transitions of power in the monarchical system of dynastic succession (inherited power), just as it had in Classical Rome and throughout medieval England.  Politics in Reformation-era England was an endless labyrinth of conspiracies, betrayals, and double-crossings.  Elaborate spy rings employed hundreds of agents and double-agents.  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 personalized 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.  Likewise, HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019) was true to life for the late Middle Ages, if not modern wars fought over ideologies like capitalism/communism and democracy/fascism.

If such treacherous soap operatics seem 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 these sordid tales mainly so that you understand why Americans starting a new country from scratch saw fit to avoid the chronic violence of hereditary rule by voting instead, and to separate church and state, which also relieved the government of tedious, hair-splitting theological debates and, in theory, put up a firewall between religion and war.  Nineteenth-century American Robert G. Ingersoll wrote, “Our [founding] fathers were the first men who had the sense, had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword.”

Elizabeth’s rivalry with Catholic Spain directly impacted colonial America’s settlement, as we’ll unpack in the next two chapters.  And the histories of Massachusetts and Virginia, the two most important colonies in seeding the United States, are inseparable from the English Reformation.  Queen Elizabeth was a moderate but resolute Protestant and Catholic Spain tried to lure her into a marriage to undermine 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 how you’d expect the Taliban to treat infidels but, in the 16th century, such intrigue was common fare in Europe.

Route of the Spanish Armada

Route of the Spanish Armada

With Mary Queen of Scots dead and their hopes of an English alliance dashed, the spurned Spanish proceeded with plans to conquer 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 to the purported 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 their share of the bounty.  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 free press 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 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.  James, unlike his mother, was Protestant, and hoped to bring about peace between religious factions but failed.

Elizabeth I & the Spanish Armada, Artist Unknown, n.d., Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London

Elizabeth I & the Spanish Armada, Artist Unknown, n.d., Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London

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.  But it wasn’t enough.  In 1605, in an attempt to take out the entire Protestant establishment, Catholic terrorists led by 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 fuse.  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.  Poems and folk songs begin with “Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot…”

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, c. 1823, By Henry Peronett Briggs, Laing Art Gallery, Tyne and Wear Museums

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, c. 1823, By Henry Peronett Briggs, Tyne and Wear Museums

With Catholics on the defensive, Protestants transcribed the Bible and the King James Version is still the most famous and authoritative 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 charged with suppressing the Irish, Oliver Cromwell, rose quickly in popularity and eventually took over England as “Lord Protector.”  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, justifying Cromwell’s takeover.

Frontispiece to the King James' Bible, 1611

Frontispiece to the King James’ Bible, 1611

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. Protestant onlookers soaked their handkerchiefs in Charles’ blood to symbolize the purification of their revolution.  Cromwell tolerated Anglicans and even legalized Catholicism, but the Puritans outlawed Christmas, Easter, and theater.  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 British-American rebel leaders needed to look no further than their mother country’s history for seeds of their own revolution, tracing back as far as the Magna Carta of the 13th century.  Representative government as yearned for and practiced in colonial America originated in the English Reformation and English Civil War.

America Bound
In the midst of the English turmoil, a small group of reformed Protestant Pilgrims had seen enough and slipped away — first across the English Channel to the Netherlands, then all the way 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.  Leaving during the reigns of James I and Charles I, these Calvinists missed out on the dramatic English Civil War of the Cromwell era but founded colonies in New England that later became part of the United States.  Their colony of Massachusetts instigated the Revolutionary War against England 150 years later.  We’ll trace their story in more detail in coming chapters.

Pilgrims Signing the Mayflower Compact in a Cabin Aboard the Mayflower, Edward Percy Moran, ca.1900, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA

Pilgrims Signing the Mayflower Compact in a Cabin Aboard the Mayflower, Edward Percy Moran, ca.1900, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA

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 American Indians, adding another complication to frontier warfare.

Even aside from the English Civil War, the Reformation encouraged democratic revolt against authority elsewhere and Protestants thrived in areas of Europe like Switzerland and the Netherlands that contained small pockets of republican rule.  Remember here, as elsewhere in the text, small-r republicanism means representative government (with voting citizens), not the capital-R political party.  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, Protestant 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 mid-20th 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 in Europe.  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 before American independence.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William Halsall, 1882, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Ma

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William Halsall, 1882, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Ma

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.  Quoting a phrase from Moises Seixas of Newport’s synagogue, 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 for intolerance, defined as the power or desire of one group to dominate another.  Washington 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, atheists, and even evangelical Protestants.  But the national government set a 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, Mormons, and various fundamentalists would later put their own distinctly American stamp on the Reformation.  But Pilgrims and Puritans didn’t set up the United States as an official, legally Christian nation, and neither can we connect New England to the founding as easily as traditionally taught in schoolbooks.  New England’s colonial history was well known, important, and influential to the Founders, some of whom shared their views.  But it 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 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.  Virginian James Madison co-authored the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 and Virginian Thomas 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.  But other American colonies besides Massachusetts established the religious freedom Americans value today.

In coming chapters we’ll revisit how the Reformation impacted England’s colonization of Virginia (Chapter 5) and Puritan New England (Chapter 6), and examine how religious freedom evolved during the Protestant Great Awakening (Chapter 7).

Optional Reading:
Douglas O. Linder, Famous Trials: Martin Luther Trial (1521)
Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)
“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)
“Ideas Were Not Enough” [For Religious Freedom], Mark Koyama, Aeon 8.28.17
Protestantism & Islam, Wikipedia

The Boyhood of Raleigh, Sir John Everett Millais, 1871

The Boyhood of Raleigh, Sir John Everett Millais, 1871

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