The Magazine

What Luther Wrought

Protestant Europe and the invention of the modern world.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By JAY WEISER
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The Reformation was not, contrary to myth, a reaction to a corrupt church that was failing to fulfill the spiritual needs of its flock. While there was corruption aplenty in the parish endowments looted for sinecures for absentee clergy from noble families, most parishioners were satisfied with the spiritual services they were receiving. Instead, MacCulloch argues, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were primarily ideological movements initiated by small, literate elites, and only later taken up as popular movements. This has been the pattern for revolutionary movements ever since, down to Islamist fascism, whose tribunes have been the disaffected, highly educated sons of the middle class and wealthy.

Nor did the theological ferment begin with Luther. Humanists like Erasmus had already begun closely reading Biblical texts and discovering their numerous contradictions. For example, there is no direct textual support for the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. The Bible doesn't even agree on what the Ten Commandments were--there are two versions in the Old Testament, with the Deuteronomy version numbered in two ways by different groups.

European thought had already begun to move away from the medieval ritualistic emphasis on the Mass, and toward a simplified, more direct, form of worship. Spain, a core supporter of Pope-centered Catholicism, notwithstanding its frequent distaste for reigning popes, actually had a pre-Reformation, around the time of the final conquest of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews in the late 15th century, that anticipated many of Luther's reforms. Luther catalyzed what was in the air, and unwittingly became the head of a movement.

The results were cataclysmic, and rapidly spread beyond theology. By 1524, fuelled by resentment over indulgences--effectively, a tax to pay for Pope Leo X's grandiose rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome-- German agricultural communities launched the so-called Peasants' Revolt. Far from being peasants, the leaders were actually substantial landowners and, in prior generations, similar disputes had been resolved by negotiations with local nobles. This time, the conflict brought in the would-be universal monarch, Charles V, king of Spain and Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, who quashed the uprising.

After a spasm of additional mid-16th-century wars, Lutheranism stabilized in northern Germany and Scandinavia, but this did not end the turmoil. The Reformation, like our own period, was a golden age for religious conspiracy. Calvinists, initially organizing through secret cells, participated in 40 years of civil wars in France, while the Jesuits, militant arm of the Counter-Reformation, sent underground priests to destroy Protestantism in the British Isles. Radical Protestant groups smashed religious art, which they felt to be an idolatrous violation of the prohibition on graven images--shades of the Islamist threats following the publication of cartoons about Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.

Catholics proved adept at slaughtering Protestant civilians in actions such as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France, in 1572, and at terrorist assassinations like those of William the Silent of the Dutch Republic and Henry IV of France. In England, Guy Fawkes Day still celebrates the foiling of a September 11th-style Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Catholics also pushed back through the Inquisition, by the co-opting of Protestant nobility and, most spectacularly, in the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which killed somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent of Germany's population.

It seemed for a time as if the Counter-Reformation might triumph. By the late 17th century, only about one-fifth of Europe beyond the Orthodox lands was Protestant, primarily along the northern edge. But that generation's Catholic champion, Louis XIV of France--now most famous for revoking the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed tolerance to French Protestants--called into being his nemesis, the Protestant William III, stadtholder of Holland and later king of England. After three huge wars over 40 years, Europe's confessional borders stabilized and Britain became the dominant power. And following two centuries of religious shifts that began with Henry VIII, English Protestantism diverged from European Calvinism and massively expanded in North America.