The Protestant Reformation was indeed one of the most consequential events in modern history, and its 500th anniversary represents an excellent opportunity to take stock on how it has affected the nature of politics in the present.
There have been prolonged discussions about the Reformation’s impact on a variety of phenomena linked to modernity, but there are three that are of particular importance. The first concerns the Reformation’s impact on the development of modern states. The second has to do with the Lutheran Reformation’s role in shaping the modern concept of identity. And the third has to do with the Reformation’s impact on modern liberalism.
Before beginning this discussion, it will be helpful to distinguish between the two wings of the Reformation, the Lutheran/evangelical and Calvinist/reformed movements that had emerged by the middle of the 16th century. Whatever their theological differences, the two had distinct political effects in the long run.
The Lutheran phase began with Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, and his subsequent struggles with both the Papacy and the Empire that culminated in his confrontation with the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther’s doctrines, helped enormously by the recent invention of the printing press, had spread rapidly throughout Germany and to more distant parts of Europe on a grassroots level in these years. His ideas were highly attractive to both aristocrats and ordinary people who were disgusted with the behavior of the Catholic Church and ready to see its authority undermined. But his cause was taken up, critically, by a number of princes like Luther’s protector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and the subsequent consolidation of Lutheranism and the spread of Lutheran churches became the work not of primarily of grass-roots proselytizing but of Lutheran princes who simply imposed the doctrine on their subjects.
The second phase began with Calvin and a new generation of Protestant thinkers in Geneva in the 1550s and 60s. After several decades of attempts at a negotiated settlement with the Lutherans, Charles V decided that their differences were irreconcilable and initiated a long-awaited war that culminated in his defeat of the Schmalkaldic League in 1547. At the same time, the Catholic Church gathered its ideological resources at the Council of Trent (1545-63), and was energized by new movements like the Society of Jesus of St. Ignatius Loyola. Under these circumstances the territorial expansion of the Reformation was halted. The new Calvinist phase had to operate against a backdrop of much stronger political resistance from the Counterreformation, and tended to be organized on a more grass-roots, decentralized basis. Calvinism therefore did not spread in a territorially coherent way; it moved across central France to the Huguenot bastion of La Rochelle, to the Netherlands, to England, to parts of Switzerland and Germany, and indeed all the way to North America. If Lutheranism was the work of princes, Calvinism was the work of local congregations, disaffected aristocrats, and others who had to build political organizations from the bottom up with less princely support.
The Reformation and the Emergence of Modern States
The Reformation had huge impacts on the development of modern states in Europe, through a variety of causal channels.
The state was defined by Weber as a legitimate monopoly of force over a defined territory. A modern state is generally characterized by the existence of a centralized bureaucracy with direct taxing authority, that seeks to govern impersonally. This is distinct form from patrimonial states in which political power is held by friends and family of the ruler, in which access to the state is not a right of citizenship but a function of one’s personal relationship to the ruler.
While China laid the groundwork for a modern state already in the 3rd century B.C., the first modern states did not appear in Europe until the 16th century. The Medieval state in Europe was not modern. In the first place, sovereignty was divided under the theory of the “two crowns.” Princes were not sovereign; God was sovereign, and the prince shared political power with God’s representative on earth, the universal church of Rome. The Catholic Church possessed substantial worldly power, in the form of land, chattels, and direct taxing authority that each year sent enormous revenues directly to Rome. Feudalism further fragmented political power. Kings did not have the authority to directly tax the subjects of their vassals; the latter were independently powerful lords who exercised territorial authority and maintained their own armies, judiciaries, and bureaucracies. Within a particular lord’s domain, there were many classes of rights, dependent on the historical relationships that had developed between the lord and his vassals; hence even the local lord was not sovereign over the territory he nominally controlled. Feudalism was simply a formalization of patronage politics, in which kings traded rents for political loyalty.
State modernization in early modern Europe thus consisted of the building of centralized bureaucracies with direct taxing authority over a defined territory, growth in their scope and resources, and the elimination of a host of particularistic relationships between the state and the various bodies and individuals that inhabited it. In particular, it meant the unification of sovereignty in a single ruler who had at least nominal and uniform authority over not just his personal domain but over the entire territory that owed him nominal allegiance.
Patrimonial states were ubiquitous at the beginning of the Reformation; by the time it had established itself at the time of the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War, modern states had begun to appear in England, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. It is not an accident that all four of these countries were largely Protestant, and the Protestant legacy would be critical in later-modernizing states like Prussia. State modernization is not a binary condition; rather it occurs by degrees. The Lutheran phase of the Reformation laid the groundwork for a modern state, but did not in itself bring this about.
The Lutheran Phase and State Resources
The most obvious way in which the Lutheran phase of the Reformation aided in modern state-building was the way in which it added to state resources through the simple expropriation of the resources and taxing authority of the Catholic Church. This occurred first and foremost in England which, as is well-known, broke with the Church not over doctrinal issues but because of Henry VIII’s desire to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The Catholic Church at that point owned perhaps one-fifth of the territory in England, and possessed enormous moveable wealth in the form of gold, jewels, buildings, and the like. It was clear that as Henry’s despoiling of churches and monasteries continued that he and his noble allies were primarily interested in confiscating this property for their own uses. Henry himself had no particular interest in Luther or the doctrines coming out of Wittenberg; indeed, he was happy to suppress schismatics in his own realm. What he wanted first and foremost was to exert political control over a national church that would not challenge his authority as the Pope had done.
The beginnings of a modern state really began, perhaps unintentionally, under Henry’s powerful secretary Thomas Cromwell, who served from 1532 to 1540. Elton (1953, 1974) has argued that Cromwell led a “revolution in government” during this period. Prior to that point, the English state was run like a large private estate; afterwards, it became far larger, national, centralized, and uniform (Elton in Williams, 1963). The monies from the tithe that had gone directly to Rome now went to the English Exchequer; Cromwell created a bureaucratic system for managing this wealth and distributing it according to national priorities. Previously taxes had been linked to specific requirements (usually the fighting of wars); after Cromwell, they were imposed on a regular basis. One of the results was that the king and his circle of courtiers became increasingly detached from the task of raising revenues, which was delegated to a Privy Council with regular membership (Schofield 2004). The specifics of the Elton thesis have been much debated (see Block in Tittler and Jones 2004), but it is clear that England participated in a process of modern state-building that was taking place in other parts of Protestant Europe in that period.
The English Reformation had a huge impact on English national identity as well. National identity is crucial for social cohesion, and hence for state power. Henry VIII’s Reformation made the English monarch sovereign over all aspects of his subjects’ lives, both material and spiritual; the shift from Catholic ritual to Protestant worship through promulgation of works like Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer established a distinctive English national language and culture. This was reflected as well in English foreign policy, where Tudor England became the dominant Protestant power balancing would-be Catholic hegemons in Spain or France. According to Smith (1984, p. 89),
…the feeling of national identity and uniqueness continued to grow, reaching an apogee in the reign of Elizabeth when it was given classic expression in one of the most influential works in the whole of English literature. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments… was a resounding statement of the theory that Protestant England was God’s ‘elect nation’, superior to the enslaved Papists of the Continent and entirely independent of all authority apart from that of the Crown… That was the theory of English and later of British nationhood which was to prevail from then onwards until the 1970s, when membership of the European Community once more subjected the country to the decisions of an external authority.
The normative belief in the existence of a single English community was reinforced by events like the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and by the material interests of the nobility and gentry that had profited from the sale of confiscated Church lands.
The English experience was replicated in Denmark and Sweden. Like Henry VIII, Christian II was interested less in theology than in creating a national church under his control. The Medieval Danish Catholic Church was proportionately even richer than in England, controlling about one-third of Danish land and half of Norway’s (Lockhart 2007). Christian began this process with the Land Law of 1521-22, which cut off the right of bishops to appeal to Rome, and in his packing of ecclesiastical positions with his own political appointees. After the accession of Frederik I Lutheranism began to sink roots at a grass-roots level, as Lutheran preachers took advantage of the king’s tolerance and even encouragement. The Catholic Church began to disintegrate under this rule; the mendicant orders were driven from the towns and their goods confiscated (Elton 1990). Denmark became the first consolidated Lutheran state with Christian III’s victory in the Count’s War in 1536. In order to pay his enormous war debts, the king secularized church property and dismissed its bishops (Elton 1990). Henceforth prelates were no longer permitted to sit in the king’s Council. As Duke Christian of Holstein, the new king had already had experience of building a princely church in his territory similar to those of the Lutheran princes of Germany; he applied these lessons to the creation of a national church in the whole of Denmark (Grell 1995). This process continued under Frederik II, who increased state control over Church appointments in the face of a renewed threat form the post-Tridentine Catholic Church. As in England, these developments increased the resources available to the Danish state, and were critical in forming a distinct national identity.
A similar process unfolded in Sweden under Gustavus Vasa, who sought to weaken the Church through his control over appointment of bishops. He was not a particularly pious king, rather, “His church policy was determined primarily by the wealth of the Catholic Church rather than Luther’s teachings.” Luther simply “provided him with the theological rationale for crushing the church’s political power and confiscating its supercilious riches” (Grell 1995, p. 48). As in the case of Christian III, these revenue needs were driven by Sweden’s protracted war of independence. In 1527 he threatened the Church with resignation if it did not meet his revenue demands, to which it acquiesced (Elton 1963). Fiscal concerns were dominant throughout Gustavus Vasa’s long reign, as he discovered that income from his domain state were not sufficient to cover his expenses. He was hence driven to centralize revenue collection and create a system for the direct administration of taxation. To this end he was willing to trample on traditional values; according to Grell (1995, p. 51), “he was prepared to have beautiful, ancient ecclesiastical parchment manuscripts torn up and used for covers of his bailiff’s account books.”
Lutheranism did not spread as widely in Sweden as it did in Denmark, however. The top-down destruction of the old church provoked popular uprisings in the countryside to defend the ‘old religion,’ including a very serious one in the south of Sweden in 1542. This was quite similar to the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion experienced by Henry VIII in 1536 (Ackroyd 2014). Gustavus Vasa successfully put down these threats to his rule, but he was not as successful an institution-builder in terms of creating a national Lutheran Church as Christian III. The country was not declared an evangelical kingdom until 1544, and on Gustavus’ death in 1560 there were still unresolved doctrinal questions that his sons would have to deal with.
This article is based on a lecture given at Aarhus University, Denmark, on May 21, 2017.