Reformation Consequences

Five hundred years ago this autumn a young professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg decided that a document he had written and sent to his local bishop deserved a wider readership. Martin Luther’s objections to current church teaching about salvation and the means by which individuals might be absolved of their sins were presented in the form of ninety five propositions or ‘theses’ each consisting of no more than a couple of sentences. The format was conventional enough. In the university world of the late middle ages, circulation of a thesis among faculty members was standard practice if one wished to start a debate on a philosophical or theological issue. Luther’s motives in writing as he did are endlessly debated. Ordained a priest ten years previously, he was a man under obedience and by sending his theses to Bishop Albert of Mainz as well as to university colleagues Luther was following the rules. His list of objections, doubts and queries were written in the highly academic style of Latin prose that was de rigeur among contemporary scholars. Even so, Luther’s freshness of thought and feel for language bubble to the surface in his ninety five theses.  Like any author with something urgent to communicate he wished to be read and in November 1517 he sent his manuscript to the printers. The German language edition was rolling off the presses from January 1518 onwards and its readers were among the very first ‘Lutherans’. A reform process of the Church from within was probably Dr Martin’s intention. But the movement he had started could not be contained within the inherited structures of church and state. The consequences – both creative and tragic – of the divisions that followed are the subject matter of the Erasmus Forum’s research programme: ‘Reformation Consequences’.

Conflict, Mediation and Sectarianism

War, and on a scale never before witnessed on European soil, was one undeniable consequence of the sectarian divide between Protestant and Catholic.  Luther, a social conservative, was appalled by the Peasants’ War ( 1524-25 ) – an uprising of the rural lower orders in the German speaking territories. Spiritual equality before God – a Lutheran principle – was given a socio-economic interpretation by the insurgents. Sovereign princes, irrespective of their religious views, were as one in re-imposing secular authority by repressive means. For the next 120 years European nation states, having identified themselves as ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’, used those labels in order to justify their wars of expansion. Assertions of national identity were especially associated with Protestant allegiance. But France’s late sixteenth century religious conflict – a civil war which lasted over three decades and which included outbreaks of cannibalism – showed the partisans equally prepared to pursue the politics of faith at the expense of national survival. The end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), an all consuming central European blood bath, heralds an age of greater toleration. Killing people because of their religious views fell out of fashion although the English and Dutch were still insisting in the 1700s that the wars they fought against Louis XIV’s France were an anti-Catholic crusade.

For twelve decades repeated attempts at mediation had failed to heal the Catholic- Protestant divide. Why? The question is not of course exclusively ‘religious’. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was the blend of religious belief with political assertion, state power and nationalist sentiment that made the issue so intractable. And the use of labels only served to obfuscate. ‘Protestants’ thought they knew the meaning of ‘Catholic’, and vice  versa, but in each case the terms, by their usage, only deepened the prejudices. A sectarian divide within a world religion led to the wars and countless acts of atrocity which claimed the lives of millions of Europeans.  In the early twenty first century offensives launched by Islamism – a politicised version of another world religion – mark the return of sectarian violence to European soil. Propaganda’s distortions, incitements to hatred, militarist attacks on an international scale: these hallmarks of Europe’s inter-Christian fury recur in contemporary Islamist onslaughts. The negotiated peace treaties signed at Westphalia in 1648 brought a kind of peace back to Europe and Christians started to learn how to tolerate each other's differences. Over three and a half centuries later another religion needs to be rescued from the embrace of men of blood.

Economic progress and business life

The publication of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) marked the start of a new interest in the economic implications of Europe’s religious divide. Weber was not the first scholar to notice that by the end of the seventeenth century there was a new continental divide: Catholic societies, concentrated by and large in southern, Mediterranean, Europe were on the whole poorer than the northern, Protestant, countries. And in the two centuries that followed this North-South gap had become increasingly pronounced. Weber’s explanation was however deemed to be both novel and suggestive. Calvinism’s psychological impact, experienced especially in the Dutch Republic and the northern German territories, had produced a new world of work and labour- efficient, industrious and purposeful. It was the theology of John Calvin, specifically his idea of an ‘elect‘ infused with an energetic sense of having been called to do God’s work, which had made all the difference.  The idea of a vocation had changed business life as well as the life of the spirit.

Weber wrote as a pioneering sociologist who wished to detect long term tendencies that could then be treated as laws of social development. Historians with an eye to the varying evidence and significant differences have been sceptical about the ‘Weber thesis’. No amount of local Calvinists could have rescued the Italian south for example from the effects of a general economic slow down  once the Atlantic economy started to undercut the trading advantages previously enjoyed by merchants operating in the Mediterranean world.