Success and Failure During the First Century of the Reformation

I have quoted before this passage from Steven Ozment on the seeming failure of the Reformation due to man’s “indomitable credulity”:

The great shortcoming of the Reformation was its naive expectation that the majority of people were capable of radical religious enlightenment and moral transformation, whether by persuasion or by coercion. Such expectation directly contradicted some of its fondest convictions and the original teaching of its founder. Having begun in protest against allegedly unnatural and unscriptural proscriptions of the medieval church and urged freedom in the place of coercion, the reformers brought a strange new burden to bear on the consciences of their followers when they instructed them to resolve the awesome problems of sin, death, and the devil by simple faith in the Bible and ethical service to their neighbors. The brave new man of Protestant faith, “subject to none [yet] subject to all” in Luther’s famous formulation, was expected to bear his finitude and sinfulness with anxiety resolved, secure in the knowledge of a gratuitous salvation, and fearful of neither man, God, or the devil. But how many were capable of such self-understanding?

…Late medieval and Protestant reformers attempted to fashion a religion more in accord with human nature as well as with divine decree. That the Reformation adopted its own repressive measures was not the reason it failed. Its failure rather lay in its original attempt to ennoble people beyond their capacities – not, as medieval theologians and Renaissance philosophers had done, by encouraging them to imitate saints and angels, but by demanding that they live simple, sober lives, prey not to presumption, superstition, or indulgence, but merely as human beings. This proved a truly impossible ideal; the Reformation foundered on man’s indomitable credulity.:”(Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550 [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980], pp. 437-438.)”:

Another, similar take on the failure of the Reformation relative to its lofty goals is given by Geoffrey Parker in his article “Success and Failure During the First Century of the Reformation.”:”(Past and Present, No. 136 [Aug. 1992], pp. 43-82.)”: After surveying and dispensing with what he thinks are some caricatures about Reformation “failure,” Parker proceeds to analyze some areas where he thinks the Reformation did, in fact, fail during its first century.

For one thing, he writes, “there was a major problem inherent in the Protestant message itself, for Christian theology is neither simple nor self-evident. To understand the central doctrines – the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the New Covenant – requires instruction, reflection and (often) correction.” However, prior to the Reformation “the church had not insisted on the need for either priests nor laity to master theology, for it regarded as its first task the provision of the ‘mysteries’ (the sacraments) which enabled men to gain salvation.” Consequently, if many priests knew no more than the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the seven sacraments, and enough Latin to read the Mass, this was considered sufficient. The Reformation changed all this: “What had passed for piety in the fifteenth century – pilgrimages, processions, veneration of relics – was now normally execrated as superstition; instead, familiarity with the Bible and Christian theology were seen as crucial, because faith alone could save. In Patrick Collins’ terse phrase, ‘The successful practice of the Protestant religion required literate skills.’”:”(Pg. 52.)”:

This, of course, required heavy use of the printing press: Parker gives the phenomenal figure for the printed output just of Luther (excluding his German Bible) of over 3,100,000 copies.:”(Ibid., 53.)”: Logically, then, the next question is “How many people in this era could read?” Parker notes that most studies of literacy rates have tended to focus on counting signatures on documents and deriving percentages of literacy from these, but that these studies have been superseded by “Much new evidence…to prove that large numbers of people who could not sign their names nevertheless knew and understood the complexities of Christianity.”:”(Ibid., 54.)”: This occurred largely through memorization of Scripture and catechisms, but obviously, for someone who could neither read nor write memorization of written documents implies access to learned teachers.

However, it seems that “for some time after Protestantism took root in each country, the local production of clergy of any sort virtually ceased.” For example, in Saxony alone the figures for ordination look like this: 1515-1519, 368; 1520-1524, 113; 1525-1529, 12; 1530-1534, 10. According to Parker, there were three main reasons for this steep decline in clergy production as the Reformation gained ground.

First, the transition from the Catholic to the Protestant model of ministry entailed a downgrading of clerical status: priests lost their tax exemption, their immunity from secular courts, and much of their public financial support. These factors were serious problems for educated men desiring to be clergy. Second, even as the demand for theology skills skyrocketed, in the wake of the many uncertainties created by the breakup of the Church, university education seems at least initially to have declined, making educated clergy to teach the illiterate hard to find. :”(Ibid, 55-56.)”: Parker gives some figures here: while there were 0 graduates from St. Andrews in 1559-1560 and very few after that until 1565, religious education at the University of Leiden was so poor until 1600 that in one celebrated case Hebrew had to be taught by a mathematician who confessed he scarcely understood the rudiments of the language.:”(Ibid., 56.)”: Third, “once sound theological education got underway most universities seem to have produced a greater supply of cavalry than infantry for the early modern clerical army: that is, attention was lavished in many areas upon the training of court preachers and professional theologians rather than of humble parsons who would devote their lives to catechism classes and simple sermons.” Not to mention that “Many of the ablest reformed ministers followed Luther’s example and spent a large part of their time writing polemics.”:”(Ibid., 56-57. Does this sound familiar to anyone? Some things never change, indeed.)”:

This instability of the pastorates, in turn, is connected to the fact that some regions changed their religious affiliation multiple times depending on that of their secular ruler: the Rhine Palatinate changed four times (Lutheran to Calvinist, Calvinist to Lutheran, Lutheran to Calvinist, Calvinist to Lutheran) between 1546 and 1583. Things were worse in Scotland. Between 1639 and 1651, two hundred ministers were deposed, followed by three hundred more in 1662, and by six hundred more after 1689 – all of these depositions being for religious reasons. In England, some three thousand ministers were ejected in the 1640s for being episcopalist, followed by two thousand in the 1660s for the opposite reason. Parker says that in these conditions parishes might remain vacant for years.:”(Ibid., 58.)”: The bitter irony about all this is that one of the central features of the Reformation itself had been a protest about the deplorable state of the clergy!:”(On this, see my paper on this site “Protestantism and the Historic Episcopate.”)”:

Such is Parker’s analysis of the problems on the “supply” side of the Reformation in its first hundred years. But, he argues, further problems manifested themselves on the “demand” side. Even when preachers of sufficient quality were to be had, language barriers throughout the countries of Europe – and sometimes within single countries of Europe – posed immense difficulty for the preachers. Despite its championing of the cause of vernacular religion and its constant use of the printing press in the service of that cause, Protestants simply could not keep up with the demand for vernacular preaching and material. For instance, the first Protestant New Testament in Irish was not printed until 1602, and the first complete Bible not until 1685. A Protestant catechism in Gaelic did not appear until 1653, and was not followed by a psalter until six years later. Most ministers in Wales did not know Welsh, and the various local Celtic groups did not have proper ministry until the 18th century.:”(Ibid., 61-62.)”:

In this vein, Parker quotes two English ministers whose words simply have to be read for themselves. Remember, these are champions of the Reformation speaking, and they are speaking about the very mass of common people to whom the Reformation initially presented its ideas:

You meet with hundreds that had need to be taught their very ABC in matters of religion…Aske them the meaning of the articles of the faith, of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, or of other common points in Catechisme, and marke their answeres: you shall see them so shuffle and fumble, speake halfe words and halfe sentences, so hacke and hew at it, that…you would think verily they were born stark naturals and idiots.:”(Said by the Puritan William Pemble in the 1630s, ibid., 62.)”:

All generally, except they be catechized, or extraordinarily furnished with parts beyond their neighbors, find it an hard matter to understand the very common terms in which preachers must expresse themselves…For though a minister thinks he expresseth himself very plain, yet it is almost incredible what strange conceits most ignorant people have of common notions…I am sure most of our hearers are not arrived (nor even do to their dying day arrive unto the understanding of a child of twelve or fourteen years old, bred under means of Literature.:”(Said by an unidentified English minister in the 1650s, ibid.)”:

Such remarks are especially telling, Parker argues, since these mid-17th century Protestants explicitly refused to use some of the non-literary means that the earliest Protestants had used to reach the common man – means such as popular songs, woodcuts and engravings, and stage plays. Whereas Luther had approved of a limited use of images because “without images we can neither think nor understand anything,” although he had thought images essentialy “above all for the sake of children and simple folk, who are more easily moved by pictures and images to recall divine history than through mere words or doctrines,” Parker cites one scholar who says that Protestants in the 17th century suffered from “acute visual anexoria.”:”(Ibid., 64.)”: A bit later he cites J.J. Scarisbrick as follows: “The Reformation simplified everything. It effected a shift from a religion of symbol and allegory, ceremony and formal gesture, to one that was plain and direct: a shift from the visual to the aural, from ritual to literal exposition, from the numinous and mysterious to the everyday.”:”(Ibid., 66.)”: In this vein, the afore-quoted Puritan William Pembles is also cited as saying that the Reformation advocates have used “all means of knowledge” available, but significantly, he lists only verbal means such as preaching, catechizing, and printing.:”(Ibid.)”:

As Parker has it, trends such as these actually contributed to sectarian splits within Protestantism. For, while the early Reformers had truly used all means of communication available and had pitched their message to the popular masses in urban centers, by the time the message was firmly established, the culture it developed gravitated toward the learned elite who aimed most of their expository efforts at those they considered “true believers.” Thus, Parker shows us the example of a rural Dutch minister near Dordt who spent all of his weekday sermons for five months expounding the Book of Haggai – which, interestingly, contains only 23 verses. Other ministers seem to have hand-picked their congregations, even employing “bouncers” to keep the service pure. Says Parker: “Instead of trying to identify Protestantism with local values and practices, as Luther and his contemporaries had done, subsequent generations of reformers sought to suppress everything that was not rooted in Scripture.”:”(Ibid., 68-69.)”:

Intriguingly, Parker thinks his overall argument thusfar receives indirect support from the fact that when Catholics used the same purely verbal methods as the Protestants were using, they ran into exactly the same problems: “lamentable ignorance among the clergy and ‘incorrigible profanity’ among the masses, particularly in rural areas.”:”(Ibid., 70.)”: However, it seems that the Catholics were quicker to address the problems than the Protestants. In the aftermath of the Council of Trent, many bishops immediately began to put its reform decrees into effect, particularly in terms of organizing seminaries and synods in each diocese and confraternities in each parish. The number of qualified clergy quickly soared, and their quality greatly improved through regular visitations by the Archbishops responsible for the territories in question. All over the Catholic world schools were opened to teach the young the Faith; Parker’s noteworthy example here is Milan, which had only one school in 1564, but over 120 in 1599.:”(Ibid., 72.)”:

Parker has it that the much better success that Catholics had in educating and reforming their laity was due to three factors. First, the Catholics were ready to synthesize the Faith with local customs to the extent that such did not involve compromising the Faith. Second, they used every form of media available to spread the message, not just the written and spoken word. Third, they went out of their way to simplify Christianity for the laity, especially in terms of making sermons only once a week, for about a half hour, and focusing on elementary truths such as the Ten Commandments and expositions of the Catechisms.:”(Ibid., 74-75.)”: Nevertheless, Catholics did have their share of problems in the rural areas: in many such places the people had to be compelled by decrees of the government to attend catechism classes and church services.:”(Ibid., 76-77.)”: Even amidst such apparent success, Catholics as well experienced failure.

Returning to the Protestant side, Parker notes that by 1700 the only large Protestant state which had actually managed to achieve the goals of the Reformation was Lutheran Sweden. There each parish had at least two qualified ministers – one for religion and one for the schools – and every head of household was required by law to teach the catechism to his children at home. Parish schools built on this foundation, teaching reading and comprehension of memorized material and testing children annually before the ministers themselves. By the end of the 17th century, Lutheran Sweden had a tested literacy rate of 90 percent, and nearly as high on doctrinal tests as well. So thoroughly were the standards held that eventually licenses to marry were being denied to those who could not satisfactorily read and explain a given passage of Scripture to an examiner!:”(Ibid., 78.)”:

Parker outlines three reasons why Sweden seems to have succeeded where other Protestant states did not. First, Sweden did not have to deal with foreign invasions interrupting cultural continuity. Second, Church and State totally cooperated in the program of religious education. And third, Sweden was remarkably free of the sectarian squabbles that drained the energies of so many other Protestant groups in polemical battles against rivals and enemies.:”(Ibid., 79.)”: This is an important point which Parker has already mentioned at least once, and here he belabors its significance again. For instance, the cause of German reformation after Luther’s death was greatly hindered by the polemic wars between Philippists and Gnesio-Lutherans. Then there were the bitter squabbles of Calvinist factions in the Netherlands, the fierce conflicts between Presbyterians and Episcopals in Scotland, and the disruptive fighting between Puritans and Arminians in England. And all this, of course, on top of everyone spending vast amounts of time and effort attacking Catholics: in France until after the 1640s the publication of anti-Catholic polemics far outstripped that of devotional literature. Parker here quotes a memorable quip of Sir Henry Wotton: “The itch of disputing will prove the scab of the churches.”:”(Ibid.)”:

The early contentions of Catholic controversialists that Protestantism would rip itself apart in factionalism seemed to be justified, as even some Protestant leaders began to reluctantly admit. Parker writes of “the despondency among the leaders of the Reformation. They seem to have become obsessed with a particular set of religious values that left no place for any alternatives, and little space for any sense of satisfaction.”:”(Ibid., 81.)”: Although he admits that the Reformation did see much success in its first hundred years, including becoming “firmly established in large parts of Europe” and producing “a clergy whose morals, education, religious knowledge and preaching skills were, in general, far higher than ever before,” his conclusion is as pessimistic as the bulk of his essay: “For historians, as for many reformers, the considerable successes of the first hundred years of Protestantism will no doubt continue to be viewed within a broader framework of failure.”:”(Ibid., 81-82.)”:

I began with a quote from Steven Ozment which said that the Reformation had “foundered on man’s indomitable credulity.” Parker’s article offers much support for that conclusion, but I would be hesitant to take Parker as the last word on the subject. Parker seems right in his basic point about the degradation of the initially holistic and very catholic-minded Reformation program by the later 17th century into a militant “Bible Only” approach obsessed with words and a bizarre mode of intellectual reductionism by which theology was transformed from the Queen of the Sciences to the only Science worth talking about at all. And again he seems right on target in highlighting the fact that much of Protestantism for the first century spent itself vainly in incessant polemicizing. However, we should remember that his article is concerned only with the first hundred years of Protestantism, and in that light we should note that no great cultural movement, let alone no great work of God, comes to its best and fullest fruition in so short a period of time.

The conflict of the Reformation era, for which both Catholics and Protestants each bear their own shares of blame, was an epoch-making one. It shattered the world politically, economically, socially, and ecclesiologically, and acted as birth pains for what we call the Modern Age. No one could have foreseen what would come of Luther’s very catholic-minded protest, which itself was the last gasp of a centuries-long line of repeatedly frustrated reform work. No one could have known, but perhaps more importantly, no one could have stopped it even had they known. Five hundred years later, we are all still living in the world created by that conflict. Their successes are our successes, but then, so are their failures our failures.


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