Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sects – Part II:  An Anglo-American View of Western Christianity’s Splintering [c. 1547 CE – 2017 CE]

[This is the second of two notes tracing the history of Western Christianity].

This brings us to Martin Luther [1483 CE – 1546 CE], the grumpy monk.

He got so angry at Tetzel’s sales campaign that he posted a list of financial, doctrinal and religious abuses of the Catholic Church on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany on Halloween in 1517 CE.

A bunch of people had tried to reform the Catholic Church before.  Jan Hus [circa 1370 CE to 1415 CE] had started a vigorous reform movement in the part of the Holy Roman Empire known as Bohemia – the Czech Republic today.  Since this was eventually backed up by a well-organized military that featured a kind of horse-drawn tanks, the movement had some success before it was sold out by aristocrats who were bought off by the Catholic Church and its allies.

More usual were the sporadic peasant revolts against the financial exploitation and corruption of the Church and nobles.  The Church and nobles might disagree among each other as to who had the right to steal more money and have more power, but they were almost always tightly united against the peasants and the emerging middle class.

The revolutionaries, often called Anabaptists in the 16th century because many of them felt people should be baptized again as adults, as Jesus was by John the Baptist, were suppressed with incredible ferocity.

A temporarily successful Anabaptist revolution in 1534 CE in the town of Muenster, now known for a mild tasting cheese, resulted in wholesale slaughter by the aristocratic army that eventually took the city back.

But the Anabaptists were not always peaceful themselves.  One of their later leaders in Muenster, a former tailor, wound up marrying many women, like many of the Jewish leaders in the Old Testament.  One of these women laughed at the former tailor’s attempt to be recognized as a divine prophet.  He beheaded her in the Muenster town square.  I suspect his other wives kept their opinions to themselves after that.

When the aristocrats retook the town, the Anabaptist leader was locked in an iron cage and dangled off the town walls as a warning to other tailors who might get presumptuous ideas.

The Anabaptists surfaced again and again.  They are the spiritual and sometimes physical ancestors of the Mennonites who fled Europe to Canada, the American Great Plains, and Belize, where you can still see Mennonite women wearing long cotton print dresses and bonnets in the tropical heat.

Luther rightly saw rife corruption and superstition in the Catholic Church of his time.  And enough princes in Germany and other northern West European countries agreed with him to protect this fledgling Protestant religion – “protesting” the corruption of Christianity by the Catholic Church.  They agreed largely to keep the formerly Catholic taxes in their own territories.  So this time the reform of the Catholic Church, which had been gathering steam since the 1300s CE, really took off.

The Lutheran reformation resulted in a time of cuius regio, eius religio, meaning “whose realm, his religion.”  In other words, the local ruler got to set religious policy for his domains.  The proliferation and heterogeneity of principalities within Germany meant that most Christians could find a place to live and worship consonant with their beliefs.

Others were satisfied with adjusting their faith to their local conditions.  As a character in John Marston’s The Malcontent [1604 CE] replied when asked about his beliefs:  [I am] “Of the Duke’s religion, when I know what it is.”

Needless to say, when they heard Lutherans talk of freedom and fairness and honesty and fighting corruption, the peasants revolted again.  Luther joined the princes and churchmen of all major religious persuasions in condemning the peasants and supporting the vicious suppression of any attempts by these farmers to get a bit of justice [1524 CE – 1526 CE].

What did Martin Luther actually accomplish?  He broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church in Western Europe, and created a Protestant church that survived:  the Lutheran Church, often called Evangelical in Northern Europe.

He didn’t change the rituals or ceremonies much, except to translate them from Latin into the language of the people, in his case German, the development of which he strongly influenced.  He did try to get back to the Bible, and reduce the focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus.

And Luther wrote a nifty hymn in “A Mighty Fortress in Our God.”  He wound up marrying an ex-nun, and writing some amazingly scatological pamphlets.

And he provoked the Catholic Church into launching a Counter-Reformation that finally brought about most of the changes that reformers and Protestants had been trying to get for centuries.

The Catholic Counter Reformation started in earnest in 1545 CE.  But it was too late to stop the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on religious power in Western Europe, or reverse the Lutheran reforms in much of Northern Europe.

Common people were learning how to read and write – a trend the Catholic Church had fought for centuries – and most Northern princes were not about to start paying taxes to the Pope again.  The Catholics tried to undo Luther’s revolution in the 30 Years War of 1618 CE – 1648 CE, which left at least 10 million dead in Central Europe, especially Germany.

But the Catholic French came in on the Protestant side to avoid being encircled by the German and Spanish Catholic Habsburgs.  The Habsburgs controlled Spain, much of Italy, Belgium and some neighboring areas, and were threatening to take over all of Germany, much of it acquired through astute wielding of that deadliest of weapons, the wedding ring.

The 30 Years War ended in 1648 CE with the Peace of Westphalia, ironically negotiated in Muenster, the town of the Anabaptist revolt and its vicious suppression in the 16th Century.

One of Alexandre Dumas Père’s characters in The Three Musketeers summed up the Protestant-Catholic religious wars of the 17th century roughly as follows:  We’re fighting because we like to sing songs in Latin and the Protestants like to sing songs in French.

There is more than a slight element of truth to that description of the religious wars in France.  Conflicts between Catholics and Protestants kept civilized Europe busy for almost 200 years after Luther, and the Irish active even unto the present time.

The Counter-Reformation enabled the Catholic Church to hold on to the Latin speaking countries and some relatively backwards parts of Europe like the Slavic countries bordering Catholic kingdoms.  The Slavic territories nearest Russia often remained Orthodox.

But the magnitude of the achievement of the Catholic Church in just surviving should not be underestimated.  How many other organizations can claim more than 2000 years of operation?

It is no wonder Hitler studied its organizational principles as a model for his Thousand Year Reich.

Most important, Luther got people reading the Bible.  This was thought a better guide to the teachings of Jesus than the stories and traditions of the Catholic Church, many of which at that time had pagan origins.  Increased literacy ultimately was to have a profound effect on Western society.

Since every person had to read the Bible to be saved by God in Protestant lands, efforts were made for the first time to get every person to read and write.  This reinforced the scientific revolution in Protestant lands, especially England.

It was not that Protestants were more intelligent – Roman Catholic Italy probably had more scientists than the rest of Europe combined until the 17th century – but it was because Protestants were more literate, and their societies could transmit ideas more efficiently.

And the Italians persecuted their scientists in the name of the Catholic religion.  They hounded Galileo into publicly denying what he had discovered about astronomy.  They burned Giordano Bruno.  They threatened to kill people who suggested the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around.  Jesus was silent on this matter, but Catholic Church tradition was not.  And the Catholics made good on their threats all too often.

The Italian Catholic Church even persecuted a poor Englishman named Humphreys who had a circus act in which his horse Toby did addition and subtraction for the amusement of the crowd.  He earned lots of money in England and France.  In Italy the Church had him burned for witchcraft.

Witchcraft is a topic that deserves a detailed discussion of its own.  In part the witch-hunts were attempts to stamp out pagan survivals from the past.  In part they were local entertainment:  burning or hanging people whom the town didn’t like much anyways.  In part they were an attempt by local authorities to distract the populace from economic and political changes that were taking place.  But this note is already too long.

It is almost impossible to over-emphasize the importance of Protestantism in spreading literacy.  When I was a boy door-to-door Bible salesmen were still common.  You could always get rid of them, though, by saying “We’re Catholic.  We don’t read the Bible.”

John Calvin [1509 CE – 1564 CE] led a radical Protestant revolution in Geneva, Switzerland.  He fought corruption not only in the Church, but called for an unceasing battle against sin in each and every individual soul and mind.  This is where the Puritans got their inspiration.

Henry VIII of England at first defended the Pope against the Lutherans.  Then he decided to change his wife, and that story is well known.  This led to the creation of the Anglican Church in England, and its American counterpart, the Episcopalians.

Episcopalian means they have bishops, that survival of Roman bureaucracy.  They needed to emphasize this, because in the later 1500s and the 1600s a whole bunch of left-wing English Christians decided they could do without government bureaucrats in their churches.  This included the Puritans.

The Puritans felt Luther did not go far enough.  Charles I of England felt Luther went much too far.  They disagreed.  Charles lost his head in 1649 CE.

The Puritans who came to America were spiritual ancestors of the Congregationalists.  They did not want a universal church organized from the top down like the Catholic or Anglican model, with bishops telling them what to believe.  They wanted holy people to come together to form congregations for worship based on Biblical principles.  Some read the Old Testament more closely than the New Testament.

Similar people made up the bulk of Cromwell’s army.  Some felt Congregationalists went a bit too far, and there should be a group of leaders, though not bishops.  The Scots tended this way, and founded the Presbyterian Church, presbyters being the leaders.   Presbyter comes from a Greek word meaning “elder.”  They enjoyed meddling in other people’s lives and witch-hunts, not yet having fully developed the current Scottish passions for distilled whiskey and golf.

Others felt the Congregationalists did not go far enough.  The Quakers decided Jesus was a pacifist.  They were persecuted by Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists alike.  Their great leader George Fox, of the old leather breeches and the shaggy shaggy locks [1624 CE – 1691 CE] was thrown in prison 8 times between 1649 CE and 1673 CE, his health eventually broken by exposure to cold, the damp, and large quantities of human waste.

Roger Williams knew what he was doing when he fled Puritan Massachusetts for religious freedom in 1636 CE.  Another dissenter from the Massachusetts form of worship, Ann Hutchinson, was run off to New York, where Indians killed her in Westchester County [1643 CE].  She has a river and highway named after her.

A number of Quakers were executed for their beliefs in Boston.  The best known is Mary Dyer, hung in 1660 CE, a year after two of her Quaker friends were executed for their beliefs.  A statue commemorating her judicial murder can be seen in front of the State House in Boston.

Members of such Protestant minority traditions came to be known as Dissenters, and now include such sects as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Shakers, and by extension the Assemblies of God and arguably the Mormons.

By the 1700s people in England generally considered it to be tasteless to kill people over religious questions, unless the Irish were involved.  Much of this improvement in attitude can be traced to the influence of men like John Selden [1584 CE – 1654 CE], a leading English lawyer and legal historian of his day.

His posthumously published Table Talk [1689 CE] stopped many theological arguments and ignorant Biblical exegeses of the sort so popular in America today.  Selden noted the Bible may say something quite different in the Hebrew or Greek than it does in English, and that gentlemen were more temperate in their religious doctrines than the common crowd. We could use more men of his caliber today.  Then again, listening is not the strength of most American fundamentalists.

In the early 1800s the Congregationalists became more and more divided.  Some stayed Congregationalist, and others became Unitarians, people who believed in the unity of all aspects of God, including God the Father, God the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

Newton was probably a Unitarian by belief, but in his lifetime, 1643 CE – 1727 CE, you could still be butchered or barbequed in England for being a Unitarian, so he kept pretty quiet about the unorthodox conclusions of his investigations into religion.

Nowadays Unitarians tend to drive compact, hybrid, imported, and electric cars; support liberal social causes; experience liberal guilt; and often avoid talking about God at all.  They tend to emphasize development of individual values and morality rather than any defined set of beliefs.  In some ways modern Unitarianism is the next best thing to a religion.

With increased democracy, social mobility, and tolerance even the lower social strata were permitted to develop forms of Christian worship of their own choice.

Baptists were a 17th century offshoot of Congregationalism.  They usually followed the ideas of Calvin and one of Calvin’s followers, a Dutchman named Arminius.  In the early days they got caught up with Anabaptists and Mennonites.

The Americans have a number of Baptist Churches, including Southern branches that used to be very racist and anti-Semitic.  I guess they forgot Jesus was a Jew.

Methodism was started by John Wesley [1703 CE – 1791 CE].  He was Oxford educated, and a reformer of society as well as religion.  Like many believers of the Protestant denominations in the Dissenting tradition, he was very serious about Bible study and improving the lives of the poor and unfortunate.  When I was a graduate student I had dinner in his London home.

In the middle of the 19th century a Boston woman founded the Christian Science Church, which is an amazing hodge-podge of Hegelian Philosophy, Christian religion, and pseudo-science.  The woman, Mary Baker Eddy, managed to convince people that disease was all in your head, and that if you understood God and philosophy properly you would never get sick.

But she took medicine herself, and died [1821 CE – 1910 CE], so maybe she did not understand her own teachings well enough.  She helped found a great newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, later run into the ground to fund an unsuccessful television station, and probably improved the American gene pool by convincing some really dense parents not to take their children to physicians.

Many of these children died needless, painful, horrible deaths that could have been easily treated by modern medicine.

But the Christian Science Mother Church and the crystal walk-in globe in Boston are testaments to her legacy.  Mark Twain left us writings with some choice things to say about Mary Baker Eddy and her church.

Today in America most of the Christian denominations are popularly characterized by the social-economic traits of their believers and their views on political matters:

  • Catholics:  In America now largely the descendants of French, Italian, Irish, Polish, and Hispanic immigrants.  In a low period following the clergy sex abuse scandals, in which Boston’s Cardinal Law played such a shameful part.  They dominate the current Supreme Court, however.
  • Episcopalians:  Upper class Anglo-Americans for the most part, reasonably wealthy, socially conservative but not rabidly right-wing, prone to wearing odd shades of pink, green, and yellow in the summer.
  • Presbyterians:  Still a strong Scottish influence, much local social prominence, tend to be good golfers.  An African Presbyterian convert named Alice Lenshina [1920 CE – 1978 CE] revived witch-hunts in East Africa [Northern Rhodesia / Zambia], but most American Presbyterians found that a little too old-fashioned for their tastes.  She died under house arrest.  They could not execute her, as the mother of the president of the country was one of her followers.  The government of Zambia still persecutes her Lumpa Church religious followers, who started a rebellion that killed thousands of people.
  • Baptists:  Largely working class and literal minded, often opposed to drinking and dancing.  The Southern Baptists are often very right wing and very literal about the English language Bible.
  • Methodists:  Usually a bit better educated than the Baptists.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assembly of God, Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, etc.:
    Largely hard-working and serious people that ignorant college students like to make fun of.
  • African Zion Methodist Church:  The history of Afro-American Christianity is too rich and complex to adequately discuss here.  Christianity provided great comfort to the slaves, and inspiration to abolitionists around the world.  Many slaves focused on the sufferings of the Jews in bondage.  Many abolitionists focused on Jesus’ messages to help the needy.  The slaveholders found other passages in the Bible that justified slavery.  The Bible is not a consistent document.
  • Quakers:  The most consistently peace-loving of all Christians.  They refuse to fight in wars or enlist in the armed services.  They perform alternate service, often of a medical nature.
  • Shakers:  Dwindled to a couple of old ladies in the second half if the 20th Century.  No marriage permitted.  Started by a powerful and strange English woman called Mother Ann Lee in the late 1700s.  Active early in Harvard, Massachusetts and Niskayuna, New York.
  • Unitarians:  Upper middle-class liberals for the most part.

The modern spread of Christianity into Asia was largely carried out by European and American missionaries.  Converts in Japan were ruthlessly persecuted by the government, especially during the Tokugawa shogunate [1603 CE – 1867 CE].  Some were crucified.  In Nagasaki, the center of Japanese Roman Catholicism, the Church went underground.  After the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki [August 9, 1949 CE], new churches were built increasing the public presence of Japanese Christianity.

And all this does not even touch upon the heterodox Christian organization of the revolutionary Chinese movement, the Taiping Tian Guo, most active circa 1851 CE – 1864 CE.  Early in his life the man who was to become the supreme Taiping leader  flunked the Chinese civil service exam a couple of times, got really depressed, and then had a vision in which God told him he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and that he should change things on earth.  Most of the Taiping leader’s knowledge of Christianity appears to have come from missionary pamphlets. By the time all was said and done, at least 20 million people died, though some argue that number should be closer to 50 million.

The story of how the organizers of a Christian rebellion in 19th Century China became heroes to the militantly atheistic Mao Zedong is interesting, to say the least.


Further Reading: 

  • Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity: The First 3000 Years is, at a bit over 1,000 pages, a succinct, balanced, and scholarly introduction to its topic.
  • Finkelstein and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts discusses many of the anachronisms and historical problems involved in study of the Old Testament, and the role of Josiah and his scribes in creating the document we know today.
  • Roger Crowley’s 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West and Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople 1453 are useful introductions to this seminal event.
  • Peter Heather’s The Restoration of Rome, which includes a cogent and well documented discussion of The Donation of Constantine, charts the evolution of the Roman Empire into the Roman Church.
  • Gregory of Tours’ [c. 538 CE – 594 CE] History of the Franks provides a delightfully detailed if highly idiosyncratic portrait of his times, full of damning anecdotes about the royal households he knew.
  • Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has an incredible collection of stories set in a framework that is alternately magnificent and slightly ludicrous. The English translations do not do justice to the original.
  • R. Chamberlin’s The Bad Popes gives a lively account of some of the more colorful successors to St. Peter and the abuses that led to the Protestant revolt. Chamberlin’s basic thesis is that many popes squandered the Church’s spiritual authority by seeking to establish the territory of a papal state.
  • Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay Why I Am Not a Christian should be required reading for all believers and skeptics alike.
  • Read William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea for an introduction to early Byzantine theological and epidemiological history. It also covers architecture and politics.
  • Sherwin Nuland’s The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story if Ignac Semmelweis provides a brief introduction to a problematic character and troubling incidents in medical history.
  • Marvin Harris writes on witchcraft from an illuminating sociological perspective in his collection of essays Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture.
  • Anthony Arthur tells the tale of the Anabaptists’ takeover of Muenster, and their suppression, in The Tailor King.
  • The English Revolution and Commonwealth of the 17th Century were uncommonly prolific in terms of generating religious sects. Since the line between religion and politics was not entirely clear in many cases, it should not be surprizing that a political historian has written some of the most interesting books on the dissenting tradition of that time.   Start with Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution and his Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution.  Both Milton and Bunyan capture something of the spirit of the times: there are good reasons Paradise Lost was a bestseller in Russian translation during the 1905 Revolution, and that Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has been a perennial international hit.
  • Richard Francis’ Ann the Word provides a biography of Mother Ann Lee and a concise narrative of the early days of the Shaker movement.

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