HistoryBits: Reformation

HistoryBits: Reformation

Bits and Pieces of History

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The extremes to which this protest went to are astonishing. You would find the life and times of John Calvin (the “Pope of Geneva”) morbidly fascinating: children in his Calvinist community could be (and were) beheaded for talking back to their parents! That this sort of thing was perpetrated in the name of one man’s understanding of God’s will is a monstrous absurdity that remains one of History’s Great Constants. Is there anything more preposterous than a man who purports to speak for God?

Religion/Calvinism compared with Lutheranism

While Martin Luther was content to turn Central Europe inside out in rebellion against the corruption of the Catholic Church, John Calvin had his choleric eyes fixed on a much wider horizon. At his bastion in Geneva—the Protestant Rome—Calvin wielded his tyranny over an odious and oppressive regime that rewarded the most innocuous offences against Calvinist orthodoxy with floggings, exile, and beheadings. Calvinism was the most proselytizing and expansionist of Protestant orders. Certain that what was good for Geneva was just as good for the rest of the world, Calvin sent his flock far and wide—to France (where they became the hated Huguenots), the Low Countries, Scotland, and ultimately to America and even Hawaii! The irony here is that in its Calvinist iteration at least, Protestantism soon became just as intolerant of heresy as the Church of Rome had been in the days of the Inquisition and the Index. Which just goes to show: the more things change, the more they remain the same.


Like most True Believers, John Calvin wanted to see the world remade into the image of what he was sure God intended. As the “Pope of Geneva,” Calvin aspired to the worldwide reach of Rome itself, as the emissaries of Calvinism spread the gospel according to John throughout Europe and, borne on the words of the Dutch and English emigrants and explorers, it soon took root in the New World in the form of Presbyterianism. But when you think about it, could anything be more presumptuous than a man who purports to speak for God? However misguided each man’s approach to God may be in the eyes of others, it is important to respect whichever path a person has chosen to find their way to God; the main thing is that he finds Him, on whichever terms make the most sense to the individual in his cultural context. God cares not by which name He is known. We should not confuse “the word of God” with the power-mongering that it is so often invoked in support in. The draconian regime of John Calvin’s Geneva had little respect and even less tolerance for those who did not subscribe to its rigidly doctrinaire beliefs: Calvin’s first order of business was Calvin.

Religion/Cultural Change

The Church was Europe’s cultural Rock of Gibraltar, and culture for the common man came from the Church. Whatever education was available was reserved largely for young men intent upon entering the clergy; art, hymns and music were churchly; reading and higher learning were for the most part in Latin; philosophy left little room for any consideration of man in his own right or as anything other than a peon in the service of God’s will. With the Reformation came the beginnings of the end of Faith, and in its place arose humanism, with its proposition that man’s primary purpose on earth was to serve himself. The Church as sole arbiter of human culture and destiny was diminished by Luther’s credo that salvation depended upon faith, and that the Bible as sole guide to religious truth. The Anabaptists called for return to the practices of early Christians and the separation of church and state—an idea that went well beyond Scandinavia in the fullness of time. Out the window went religious ceremony and imagery in Protestant services, and along with it, fun: drinking, plays, dancing; and even Christmas gifts. But as the discord progressed, the Church was finally given to understand the need to clean up its act, and the Counter-Reformation brought a renewed emphasis on the duties of the Church as they were long intended: orphanages were established, girls were educated, and Jesuit educators began their career that led them to become regarded as Europe’s finest educators. Even the rift in England over Henry VIII’s divorce bore fruit in the form of both an eventual heir for Henry and the Cultural Renaissance in England that flourished under Elizabeth. In a broader sense, the cultural transformation wrought by the Reformation was an extension of the fecund chaos and creative re-awakening that the Renaissance that had begun to spread northward across the Alps some two hundred years before.

Religion/Martin Luther

Martin Luther offers a good example of the all-important role that individuals play in history. I submit that the one element that sums it up best is vision–the one indispensable element of leadership that defines the role of the individual in history. Because greatness requires charisma, inspiration, and genius, greatness cannot flourish without vision. Perhaps because of the countless compromises—large and small–that are implicit in group-think, vision cannot be a product of a committee—any more than a committee can paint, sculpt, compose, or write a masterpiece; it is for the individual that to articulate the vision that forms the unifying theme that is embraced and lent force by popular support.

Religion/Martin Luther/Factors of Success

By the time of Martin Luther the Holy Roman Empire had become a brittle and unwieldy entity that was a calamity waiting to happen. Martin Luther proved to be the catalyst of a revolution that not only sowed the seeds of religious strife but of secular strife as well. All of this reared its ugly head in the Thirty Years War, the battle lines of which were drawn along religious spheres but which evolved into Europe’s first secular war from there. Small wonder that Europe then became such a snake pit of conflict. When you add the internecine rivalries of countless kingdoms, principalities, and petty rulers to fundamental religious differences, territorial disputes, and ethnic hatreds—all in very close quarters, you have the recipe for a lethal difference of opinion that has endured throughout Europe’s history. Will the present-day European Union put an end to it all? History weighs against it, but it’s a good beginning.

Religion/Religious Warfare

I can’t think of a religious conflict that hasn’t eventually gone on to engulf a wide range of political and other secular concerns. Perhaps that’s because religion is less about man’s relationship with God than with regulating man’s relationship with authority–and I submit that there’s a difference.

Religion/Teutonic Knights

One could be forgiven for wondering how the Teutonic Knights went from being a charitable organization to a vicious political pogrom and land grab… but it seems that when people “get religion,” they also get a hair up their hindquarters for the human race! Christianity became a jealous and mean-spirited affair once it got into the hands of organized religion, and as Western civilization matured politically, religion itself became less a matter of spirituality and goodwill among men, and more of a naked political force.

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