Reluctant Protestants

July 12, 1996

Bob Scribner doubts that Luther (below) or his reforms were eagerly embraced by most Germans.

Only a few years ago an A-level history student would have accounted for the Reformation in terms of the public career of Martin Luther. The story was of a reformer who defied the establishment, developed revolutionary doctrines and, aided by the printing press, won over the majority of the "German nation". Luther thus fractured the structures of the universal church and founded Protestantism, a religion that spread over Europe and opened the door to modernity by inculcating non-magical and rational-scientific thought modes. Over the past generation, scholars, amid considerable academic controversy, have challenged this narrative.

What has changed in the traditional picture? First, the image of Luther as a modern Carlylean hero has been qualified by the knowledge that his early popularity depended on being seen in traditional medieval terms: as a prophet sent by God to reform the church from within, part of a cataclysmic upheaval heralding the world's end. Second, support for Luther was not a mass movement. From 1517-20 the "Luther affair" was debated among educational and political elites and the especially devout. The political repercussions of Luther's stand gradually made him known, but knowledge of his theology was limited.

The shift chronology that locates the beginnings of the Reformation not in 1517 but after 1521 allows us to see that Luther's positive ideas for reform emerged alongside those of others with whom he was to disagree radically. By 1525 there was a bewildering ferment of often contradictory religious tendencies. Luther's favoured version of reform, directed by the firm hand of princes, emerged only in 1523-26 in response to the chaos he saw swirling around him.

Luther's initial appeal to reform church and society was aimed explicitly at the German nobility, but the three social groups who responded reacted in very different ways. The peasantry saw in Luther someone who addressed their concerns about social injustice. Incited by radical preachers, they took up arms in the search for a just Christian society, only to hear Luther and other leading reformers repudiate their vision as a "fleshly" and unchristian distortion of the "Gospel message". Townspeople also responded in terms of their own concerns, creating a "coalition of interest" that linked the new ideas to demands for a lay communal religion. The Peasants' war of 1524-26 saw the discrediting of both these more egalitarian visions in favour of reform steered by princely authorities.

The creation of what after 1529 became Protestantism was a narrow political process, in which certain princes and a handful of towns asserted their rights to reform their territories in the face of the emperor's condemnation. When institutional reform of the church was introduced after 1526 in individual territories, it was largely a matter of princes making choices that bound their subjects, creating "involuntary Protestants". The older view that the Lutheran Reformation quickly encompassed the bulk of the German nation as a result of mass popular demand is no longer tenable. It would be surprising if those who professed adherence to the new religious dispensation before 1547 amounted to more than a tenth of the German-speaking population. The work of religious reform was a process of gradual inculcation of religious ideals in a largely rural populace who showed little enthusiasm for the new order.

This is not to say that the religious changes were nugatory. Much of the old religious world was swept away: the cult of the saints, purgatory, pilgrimages, and the role of images in worship. A simplified liturgy was conducted in the vernacular and a new moralism emerged that sought to discipline social and sexual behaviour. But the very essence of reform had been to change minds and hearts, to inspire a deeper Christianity. By this criterion, the Reformation failed - visitations conducted throughout the 16th century revealed ignorance of, and even resistance to, the neo-clericalism of the new Protestant churches.

Many of the changes once associated with the Protestant Reformation can now be seen to have been illusory. The "freedom of the Christian" was severely curtailed by Reformation moralism and renewed clerical control, the aspiration to a communal Reformation by territorial state churches run as arms of bureaucratic government. Even free access to the Bible, once thought to be the touchstone of Protestant liberty, was qualified. The Bible was to be read in approved editions that steered the ordinary lay Christian away from dangerous interpretations. Even Protestantism's much-vaunted contribution to elementary education has been challenged. Most strikingly, the claim that Protestantism "disenchanted" the world by abolishing belief in magic has been repudiated by discovery of deep-rooted forms of "Protestant magic" that persisted into the modern period.

What will replace the older paradigm of the Reformation? It will be a view that demonstrates the emergence of a distinctive Protestant identity forged out of many elements - syncretism with older thought modes, qualified reception of what was offered by ecclesiastical elites, grudging acceptance of the conditions created by state churches, and even a growing affection for a religious outlook which by the 17th-century had itself become a form of "traditional religion".

Bob Scribner is professor-elect for the history of western Christianity at Howard University.

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