Civilizations Past And Present
"Here I Take My Stand"
The Second Reformation
While Anglicanism and Lutheranism were developing as state churches,
other forms of Protestantism were emerging in western Europe. Calvinism was
the most popular and most conservative of these, but there were many others,
including multiple forms of Anabaptism. All of them went farther than
Lutheranism and Anglicanism in rejecting Catholic dogma and ritual. The were
also marked by their intensity in pursuing objectives. Generally, they were
opposed to monarchy, but this did not become very apparent until they became
deeply involved in the religious wars after 1560.
The Early Reformation In Switzerland
Popular Protestantism developed early in Switzerland, where conditions
favored its growth. During the late medieval period, the country prospered in
the growing trade between Italy and northern Europe. Busy Swiss craftsmen and
merchants in such cities as Zurich, Berne, Basel, and Geneva, became alienated
by their Habsburg overlords and by papal policies, particularly the sale of
indulgences. In 1499, the Confederation of Swiss cantons won independence from
the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs. To many Swiss, this was a first step
in repudiating the authority of the pope.
The Swiss Reformation began in Zurich, shortly after Luther published his
theses at Wittenberg. It was led by Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), a humanist
scholar, priest, and former military chaplain, whose regime of clergymen and
magistrates at Zurich supervised government, religion, and individual
morality. Zwingli agreed with Luther in repudiating papal in favor of
scriptural authority. He simplified services, preached justification by faith,
attacked monasticism and opposed clerical celibacy. More rational than Luther,
he was also more interested in practical reforms, going beyond Luther in
advocating more ground for divorce and in denying any mystical conveyance of
grace by baptism or communion; both, to Zwingli, were only symbols. These
differences proved irreconcilable when Luther and Zwingli met to consider
merging their movements in 1529.
As Zwingli's influence spread rapidly among the northern cantons,
religious controversy separated north from south, rural from urban areas, and
feudal overlords, both lay and ecclesiastical, from towns within their
dominions. When, in the 1520s, Geneva repudiated its feudal obligations and
declared its independence from its local bishop and the Count of Savoy, the
city became a hotbed of Protestantism, with preachers swarming in from Zurich.
Zwingli was killed in the resulting religious war of 1531; fortunately, the
fighting ended quickly in a peace which permitted each Swiss canton to choose
its own religion.
Origin And Early Development Of Calvinism
Hoping to secure Protestantism in Geneva after the religious wars,
enthusiastic reformers invited John Calvin (1509-1564) to Geneva. Calvin
arrived from Basel in 1536. His preaching ultimately won enough followers to
make his church the official religion. From Geneva, the faith spread widely in
all directions after the early 1540s.
Calvin was a dour and dogmatic Frenchman of the middle class. Like
Luther, he had an unsympathetic father, who let a friend of the family send
his son to the University of Paris. At first, Calvin studied theology but
later transferred to Orleans, where, at his father's urging, he took up law.
He read some humanist writings, talked to Lutherans, experienced a personal
conversion, was suspected of heresy by the authorities, and ultimately fled to
Basel. There, in 1536, he published the first edition of his Institutes of the
Christian Religion, a most influential theological work because it transformed
the general Lutheran doctrines into a profoundly rational legal system. It
also earned Calvin an invitation to Geneva.
There, Calvin's original plan for a city government dominated by the
clergy aroused a storm of opposition, forcing him into exile at Strasbourg,
where he was associated with other reformers who urged him to take a wife. In
1539, he married Idellette de Bures, a sickly widow with two children. She
came back to Geneva with him in 1541, when his party regained power.
Henceforth, as Protestant refugees packed the city, Idellette managed Calvin's
household, took in friends and refugees, nursed him through frequent
headaches, tried unsuccessfully to bear his children, and left him bereft when
she died in 1549.
Calvin personally ruled Geneva, exercising his power through influence
and republican forms. The town council approved all legislation, including
laws governing morality and religion, but it recognized the Bible as supreme
law and the Institutes as a manual for behavior. Legislative interpretations
of these sources were prepared by the "Congregation of the Clergy," reviewed
by the Consistory, a committee of the clergy plus twelve lay members, and sent
to the town council for final action. The Consistory also apprehended
violators of the law, sending its members into households to check every
detail of private life. Offenders were reported to secular magistrates for
Punishments at Geneva were severe, in keeping with the religious
fanaticism of the time. Punishable offenses included missing church, laughing
during services, wearing bright colors, dancing, playing cards, and swearing.
Religious dissent brought much heavier penalties. The consistory frequently
banished offenders for blasphemy, mild heresies, adultery, or suspected
witchcraft. Magistrates sometimes used torture to obtain confessions and often
executed heretics, averaging more than a dozen annually in the 1540s. Michael
Servetus (1511-1553), the Spanish theologian-philosopher and refugee from the
Catholic Inquisition, was burned for heresy because he had denied the doctrine
of the Trinity. The Consistory in this period showed little sexual
discrimination, punishing men and women with equal severity.
Although he accepted most of Luther's theological principles, Calvin
placed heavier emphasis upon God's unlimited power. For Luther, God's majesty
"served to point up the miracle of forgiveness," but "for Calvin it gave
rather the assurance of the impregnability of God's purpose." ^4 In pursuing
this mysterious purpose, God had created the world and human beings in his
image. The same divine will had caused Adam and Eve to fall from a state of
sinlessness, leaving humans utterly depraved and lost, without God's grace.
[Footnote 4: Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth
Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), p. 114.]
Unlike the Catholic Theologians, Calvin did not emphasize Eve's guilt in
Adam's fall. Both, in his mind, were guilty and so were men and women equally
full of sin. Both were also equal in God's eyes and in the hope of salvation.
Thus, in the 1540s, as he sought recruits, Calvin stressed the rights of women
to read the Bible and participate in church services, a promise of sexual
equality which attracted women to his movement. Very soon, however, he
expressed a conviction that, in practical affairs, even in the conduct of
church business, women were naturally subordinate to their husbands. Without
female patron saints or priestly confessors, they were now expected to seek
protection and moral discipline from their spouses.
Calvin's idea of God's omnipotence, carried to its logical conclusion,
produced his famous docrine of predestination. Since God is all-powerful, He
must also know who are to be saved and who are to be damned eternally. The
human purpose, then, is not to win salvation - for this has already been
determined - but to honor God. Calvin did not profess to know absolutely who
were God's chosen, although he believed that some tests might be partially
successful in identifying the elect: a moral life, a public profession of
faith, and participation in the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's
Impact Of Calvinism Before The Peace Of Augsburg
Before 1555, Calvinism was growing but had not yet gained official status
except in Geneva and the tiny Kingdom of Navarre, on the French side of the
Pyrenees. It was not even recognized as an option by the German princes in the
Peace of Augsburg. Among European governing elites, it was generally regarded
with suspicion if not contempt.
The most promising area for growth was France, Calvin's own homeland. His
message attracted many members of the urban middle classes, who had begun to
feel alienated from both church and state. Missionaries from Geneva carried
Calvin's message to France where the church was organized in a national system
of congregations and synods. French Calvinists, or Huguenots as they were
called, made up an aggressive minority of discontented nobles and middle-class
urban citizens. The new movement also enlisted a large proportion of women,
drawn by opportunities for direct participation in the services. Many joined
reading groups, where they discussed the Bible and theological issues. Early
Calvinist women worked diligently for the cause, not only converting their
husbands and families but also founding religious schools, nursing the sick,
and aiding the poor.
French aristocratic women also promoted the growth of Calvinism. As the
Renaissance moved north, many young French women were educated in the new
humanism and began to question the traditional Catholic dogma. Margaret of
Angouleme, Queen of Navarre (1492-1549) and sister of the French king, often
petitioned her brother on behalf of Protestants accused of heresy and kept
reformers at her court, where Calvin was sheltered at one time. Her daughter,
Jeanne d'Albret (1528-1572), who became queen in 1549, established Calvinism
in Navarre, having converted her second husband, the French aristocrat, Antone
de Bourbon. Because Calvinism had enlisted many French dissident nobles who
were intent upon resisting royal power, the Bourbon leader hoped to gain their
support and use it later to further his family's claim to the French throne.
Jeanne, however, was dedicated to Calvinist principles, raising money and
enlisting recruits among her contempories. She was a powerful member of the
aristocratic Huguenot clique, headed by Admiral de Coligny and the Bourbon
Prince, Louis of Conde.
Calvinism made gains elsewhere but did not win political power. In Italy,
the Duchess of Ferrara copied the Navarre church service for her private
chapel and harbored Calvinist refugees; and Zofia Olesnicka, wife of a Polish
noble, endowed a local Calvinist church. Strasbourg, in the 1530s, was a free
center for Protestant reformers such as Matthew Zell and his wife, Katherine,
who befriended many Calvinist preachers, including Martin Bucer, the
missionary to England during the reign of Edward VI. In the same period, John
Knox spread the Calvinist message in Scotland. Such efforts, however, were
most significant in preparing for later aggressive action.
Although Calvin himself was inclined to respect secular authority and to
oppose revolt from below, his political support naturally oriented him against
established governments. Calvin's solution to this problem, like Luther's, was
a compromise. He advised obedience to magistrates but argued that lower
officials were justified in resisting tyrants who commanded violation of God's
laws. He also insisted that the church, under its elected ministers and
elders, was superior to bishops or kings in religious matters. Although this
declaration defined "tyranny" almost exclusively in religious terms, Calvin's
theoretical system strongly implied the necessity for representative
government, an idea which would later challenge absolute monarchy.
Anabaptism And The Protestant Sects
Even more extreme than Calvinism were many divergent Protestant splinter
groups, each pursuing its own "inner lights." Some saw visions of the world's
end; some advocated a Christian brotherhood of shared wealth; some opposed
social distinctions and economic inequalities; some, like the Anabaptists,
repudiated infant baptism as a violation of Christian responsibility; and some
denied the need for any clergy. Most of the sects emphasized biblical
literalism and direct emotional communion between the individual and God. The
majority of them were indifferent or antagonistic to secular government; many
favored pacificism and substitution of the church for the state.
Women were prominent among the sects. They helped found religious
communities, wrote hymns and religious tracts, debated theology, and publicly
challenged the authorities. Some preached and delivered prophecies, although
such activities were soon suppressed by male ministers. More women that men
endured torture and suffered martyrdom. Their leadership opportunities and
relative freedoms in marriage, compared to women of other religions, were
bought at a high price in hardship and danger.
Persecution of the sects arose largely from their radical ideas, but
Catholics and other Protestants usually cited two revolutionary actions. Some
radical preachers took part in the German Peasants' Revolt of the 1520's and
shared in the savage punishments that followed. In 1534, a Catholic army
beseiged Munster, a German city near the northern Netherlands, where thousands
of recently arrived Anabaptist extremists had seized control and expelled
dissenters. Facing desperate circumstances, the new regime confiscated
property, institutionalized polygamy, and laid plans to convert the world.
John of Leyden, a former Dutch tailor who claimed divine authority, headed a
terroristic regime during the final weeks before the city fell. Many of its
defenders suffered horrible torture and execution.
Among the most damaging charges against the Munster rebels were their
reputed sexual excesses and the dominant role played by women in this
immorality. Such charges were mostly distortions. The initiation of polygamy
in the city, while justified by references to the Old Testament, was a
response to problems arising from a shortage of men, many of whom had fled the
city. Many other men were killed or injured in the fighting. The leaders of
the city required women to marry, so that they could be protected and
controlled by husbands. Most Anabaptist women acepted the requirement as a
religious duty. Although some women paraded through the streets, shouting
religious slogans, the majority prepared meals, did manual labor on the
defenses, fought beside the men as the city fell, and died by the hundreds, in
the fighting or at the stake. Many of the original Munster women, however,
fiercely resisted forced marriage, choosing instead imprisonment or execution.
For more than a century, memories of Munster plagued the radical
Protestant sects. They were almost immediately driven underground throughout
Europe. Their persecution continued, long after they had abandoned violence.
In time, they dispersed over the continent and to the New World, as
Mennonites, Quakers, and Baptists, to name only a few denominations. For
obvious reasons, the voices of the radicals were among the first raised for
religious liberty. Their experiences with established governments made them
even more suspicious of authority than were Calvinists. In both the
Netherlands and in England, they participated in political revolutions and
helped frame the earliest written demands for constitutional government,
representative institutions, and civil liberties.