Free Sects

In every territory and kingdom in Europe, political authorities had to decide for or against the Reformation – including in overwhelmingly Catholic regions such as Spain, where the Reformation was harshly, and violently, suppressed.

Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World, by Brad S. Gregory

City magistrates in Geneva would work with John Calvin; Charles V of Spain helped to foster what has come to be known as the Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation; throughout Christendom religion became a diving force instead of a uniting force.

Whether Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed, clergy inject new life into their sermons and catechisms – there is nothing like competition to awake one from complacency.  However, it is the political impact that is my concern here: Rebel in the Ranks: Ma... Brad S. Gregory Best Price: $5.05 Buy New $7.99 (as of 09:57 EST - Details)

…the net result in the early modern period is that European countries forge the dominant, state-supported religious identities of their subjects and carry them into the modern world.

You don’t need me to tell you that my focus is on the “state-supported” part of the sentence.  Church and king were separate prior to this; after this, there was not church and state.  There was only the state.  Lutheranism took hold in Denmark, Sweden and much of Germany; Reformed Protestantism in Scotland, England (in some respects), the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and Switzerland; Catholicism remained in Spain, Portugal, and the remaining parts of Germany and Switzerland.

Instead of the Bible interpreted by Rome, the Bible was now to be interpreted according to the political leader – be it prince, king, or civil magistrate.  It was the political leadership that gave cover to the sect – and he who has the gold makes the rules, so to speak.

This state-supported religion was desired by Luther: the laity will listen to pastors and support political authority, and political authority will ensure the proper understanding of the Bible.  Luther accepted Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 13; in my opinion, not a valid interpretation.

Sure, there were dozens of other Protestant sects.  Other than Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism, none would receive state sanction in any sense; most would receive harsh treatment at the hands of political authorities and to the cheers of the Magisterial Protestant religious authorities.

What was once the cohesive force of Europe now became the dividing force.  Christendom became Christianity.  Disagreements between Luther and the Church soon became disagreements between Luther and other Protestant leaders and eventually became disagreements of all against all – even within what was institutional Lutheranism.

Given the binding role that the Christian religion played in society, these were divisions that would rip society apart.  And it didn’t help that many princes, kings, and civil magistrates were happy to take advantage of the situation.

In the new arrangement, political authorities will exercise all public power and political sovereignty while the Church will exercise none. …the clergy, who depend on the princes for political support, are also their subjects, required to submit to their political control.

Would you complain if you found a way to not share authority?

These divisions led to war, but to call these “wars of religion” would be a mistake.  Prior to the Reformation, civil society was religion, and religion governed civil society.  Further, as noted above, there was no longer the condition of separate powers of Church and king; religion was now state-supported, state-enforced, and state-controlled.

In other words, to consider these wars as anything other than wars of state is a mistake.  Keep in mind who had the power during these wars – the monopoly power; it most certainly was not the Church or any of the new Protestant sects.  This should disabuse us from the notion that these were wars of religion.

The result to religious life was, perhaps, counter-intuitive:

Religious life is simplified and streamlined, with less of it left to individual choice than in the late Middle Ages.  Wherever the Reformation is established, the range of permissible religious options contracts in people’s day-to-day lives.

Read that again once or twice.  My recollection of the Middle Ages was one of relative tolerance: few, if any, witch burnings…things like that – even though there were plenty of what could be considered “opportunities” if one was so inclined.  Much of what we hear of witch-burnings and the like come post-Reformation.  Ask the Anabaptists, for example.

This doctrinal harshness is somewhat reflected via this passage regarding Calvinism:

…living under Calvinism is one thing when people who consider themselves among God’s elect embrace it willingly; it’s another thing to endure Calvinist rule if you regard the “godly” as insufferably self-righteous oppressors worse than lackadaisical papists ever were.


…scripture interpreted through the Spirit, as Luther emphasized, could come to mean almost anything.

And in such a situation – whatever one believes of proper interpretation – the benefits of a Church unified enough to stand in the way of monopoly-state-creation is lost.


Some of these new sects took individual Biblical interpretation to places previously unimagined:

…Ranters, like Ebiezer Copp, allegedly take Christian freedom and rejection of the Old Testament law to mean complete sexual permissiveness – for, as scripture says, “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15).  If you don’t think something is sinful, it’s not sinful for you.

“Complete sexual permissiveness.”  I guess these would be known as Homophonic Protestant sects.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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