The Radical Reformation and the Makings of the Modern World: I. In Pursuit of Christian Freedom, 1520-1790 (Menno Simons Lectures 2022)

Issue 2023, vol. 77

[Editor’s note: This is the first of two presentations in the 2022 Menno Simons Lectures delivered at Bethel College Oct. 16-17, 2022.]

I have chosen as my theme “The Radical Reformation and the Makings of the Modern World,” which I admit sounds somewhat grandiose, maybe overly ambitious for just two lectures. Indeed my first comment in this respect – here I sound like a stereotypical academic – is a qualification: what I have to say in these two lectures certainly won’t cover everything that could or even should be said about such a large theme pursued over five centuries. But I hope that it will be interesting, instructive, and coherent, and perhaps might lead you to reflect in some ways you haven’t before about the past and the ways in which it helps us understand the present. That’s why history matters so much: our present moment, right now, is the product of the past; we can’t understand where we are now, in October 2022, without understanding how in recent years political, cultural, technological, economic, and more realities besides have landed us where we find ourselves today in such a fiercely polarized country, for example. Similarly, and extending that same principle, we can’t grasp how what has transpired in the last few years in the United States – from the angry incivilities in public political life and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories to the opioid crisis and widespread anxiety about the future – without understanding the ways in which the last four decades-plus of neoliberal economic policies, deregulation, and globalization have precipitated the loss of millions of American jobs, devastated thousands of small towns, kept the wages of most still-employed workers close to flat while tech billionaires made staggering fortunes, and created levels of inequality that contrast dramatically with those of the three decades after World War II. In 1978, the average ratio of CEO to median worker in American corporations was 31:1; in 1989, it was 61:1; this year, across 300 major American firms, it was 670:1 (salaries of $10.6 million vs. less than $24,000). (1) Small wonder millions of Americans feel neglected, disrespected, and disdained – “left behind” like “strangers in their own land,” to quote the titles of recent books by two eminent sociologists, Robert Wuthnow and Arlie Hochschild. (2)

What I am going to do in these two lectures is to extend this same principle – of understanding the present as the product of the past – much further back in time, as well as geographically outside the boundaries of the United States, to Western Europe and the 16th century.  My basic and perhaps surprising claim is that we must do this if we want to understand ourselves here, today, in the United States. That is, we cannot well understand ourselves, our current situation, and how we have arrived here apart from understanding the Radical Reformation and certain critical changes and processes that the Reformation era set in motion – hence “the makings of the modern world.” What happened centuries ago continues to affect us today, but not in ways that are obvious at first sight. Seeing how will involve thinking about the Radical Reformation in relationship to the Protestant or mainstream or magisterial Reformation in some atypical ways. It will also entail tracing some critical respects in which what is usually regarded as “religion” has changed between then and now. And it will explore how long sought and hard-fought solutions to unintended problems of religious pluralism and coexistence, inherited from the Reformation period, themselves became the unintended foundation for many of the problems that confront us today. That’s a lot to cover, so it’s a good thing that I have at least two lectures!

This first lecture is entitled “In Pursuit of Christian Freedom, 1520-1790.” It will take us from the early years of the Reformation in Germany up to the time right around the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

The Radical Reformation has long been regarded as a minor, marginal, peripheral affair by comparison to the magisterial Protestant Reformation, the one shaped by Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and other major reformers, and reflected in the respective Protestant churches and traditions that they influenced so deeply: Lutheranism, Reformed Protestantism, and the Church of England. (3) By comparison, even the total of all those counted among the radical reformers and their followers of the 16th century – all of the various Anabaptist groups, certainly, but also those usually regarded under rubrics such as socio-political revolutionaries, “spiritualists,” and “rationalists” – add up to nowhere near as many persons as those catechized and imbued with a Catholic identity in Spain or Italy or with a Lutheran identity in the Scandinavian countries and the Lutheran territories of Germany. There were no Anabaptist states contemporary with Catholic and magisterial Protestant states that were embarked on sustained, collaborative efforts with their respective churches in the centuries-long processes that historians refer to as “confessionalization.” There were no Hutterite or Mennonite universities in the 16th or 17th centuries, and no Anabaptist or other radical Protestant tradition had a major culturally or socially transformative influence on any country in early modern Europe. Taken together, radical Protestants remained comparatively small in number and their wider societal, cultural, and political influence was minor.

This traditional view, confirmed by contemporary Reformation scholarship, is substantially correct – but it overlooks the subtler character of the Radical Reformation and the deeper, longer-term ways in which it discloses the essence of the Reformation itself. To see this, we need to uncouple specific forms of non-Catholic Christianity in Reformation Europe from their collaborative alliances with political authorities. Once we do this, the Reformation as a whole appears differently, like when we first see the picture in a dual-image optical illusion the other way around – and then it’s not Lutheranism, Reformed Protestantism, and the Church of England that appear as normative or normal. Rather, they stand out as the great exceptions among the 16th-century Christians that rejected Roman Catholicism, and the open-ended, diverse claims of the Radical Reformation are seen as typical.

How is this so? If we take as the key animating principle of the Protestant Reformation Luther’s insistence on scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the definitive authority for Christian faith and life – as I think we must – then it’s not his Reformation, or Calvin’s, or another major reformer’s views about the meaning of scripture that constitutes a standard we must accept or to which we must assent. No radical Protestants did so in the 16th century. What did the principle yield, as a matter of fact? Viewed historically rather than confessionally or theologically, the outcome was simply the full range of different, conflicting, rival views about the proper meaning, implications, and applications of God’s Word, in combination with the guidance of the Holy Spirit (however this supplementary principle was specifically expressed). There is nothing obvious, normal, normative, or inevitable about “justification by faith alone through grace alone” as the cornerstone truth of Christianity. Luther’s, Zwingli’s, Calvin’s, and other magisterial reformers’ views are of course among those in the full range of non-Catholic positions about the meaning of Scripture, but they are only a handful among the many 16th-century interpretations of what authentic Christianity was.

Most such assertions belonged to the Radical Reformation in the inclusive range of its expressions, which as I mentioned was much broader also than the subset of all Anabaptist leaders and groups. Anabaptism taken together, too, was itself remarkably fissiparous and variegated already by the later 1520s, a centrifugal socio-religious reality that persisted throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond (right down to the wide variety of Mennonite, Amish, Hutterite, Brethren, and other related churches in North America today). By the early 1530s, for example, socially divisive differences existed between a proponent of the legitimate use of coercive power such as Balthasar Hubmaier and the insistent pacifism of the former Benedictine monk Michael Sattler, as well as between most of the Swiss Brethren around Zürich and those South German Anabaptist leaders such as Hans Hut who were strongly influenced by Thomas Müntzer, and between the members of both of these groups and the community of goods on which Jakob Huter and his followers insisted in Moravia, not to mention the disagreements and therefore social separation there of the Hutterites from the Gabrielites, Philipites, and Austerlitz Brethren. There were far more divergent claims about God’s Word and will made by Anabaptists and other radical Protestants than were made by the magisterial reformers.

[Put bluntly and perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, then, Lutheranism, Reformed Protestantism, and the Church of England are the great exceptions of the Reformation.] Among all the many readings, interpretations, claims, and views about what the Bible meant and how it was to be applied, only they received political support and protection – which is how and why they were influential, and ended up having a broad, lasting influence on entire territories, countries, and populations, shaping society and culture at large. In this way they are structurally akin to medieval Catholicism and the continued alliance between the Roman Church and those rulers and states that remained Catholic in the Reformation period and beyond.

Among those Christians that rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, the vast majority of positions were not magisterial Protestant, but radical Protestant of one kind or another. The key difference between the magisterial and the radical Reformations is the respective presence or absence of sustained political support. The major watershed here is the so-called German Peasants’ War of 1524-26, which is not so much an expression of the Radical Reformation per se as it simply is the early German Reformation in its most widespread, socially and politically influential albeit short-lived expression. Years ago the great Radical Reformation scholar James Stayer showed how many of those who were or became Anabaptists were also involved in the “Revolution of 1525,” as Peter Blickle called it. (4) The separatism that soon thereafter became such a conspicuous feature of many Anabaptist groups was not present from the start; there was no initial, principled rejection of efforts to transform public life and civic institutions according to “the Gospel” as variously understood. Andreas Karlstadt in Wittenberg in late 1520 and early 1521, Wilhelm Reublin and Simon Stumpf in mid-1523 in Zürich, numerous participants in the uprisings of 1524-25, and Balthasar Hubmaier in Waldshut in late 1525 and then again in Moravian Nikolsburg between mid-1526 and mid-1527, are all examples of early anti-Catholic Christians who sought and in some cases briefly succeeded in exerting public political influence over religious matters, which was simply par for the course and overwhelmingly taken for granted as part of the medieval Christian inheritance. (5) It was their failure to sustain their efforts – starting before but especially after the Peasants’ War – that has resulted in the “radical” label.  And to be sure, after 1525 the revolutionary, subversive potential of “the Gospel” in political and social terms was unmistakable. Political authorities took note. Thereafter, everywhere in Western Europe, only collaborative, politically obedient, domesticated forms of the Reformation would be permitted to have a widespread social or political influence – such as Lutheranism or Reformed Protestantism. In case any reminder of the point were needed, a decade later the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster provided a powerful reinforcement. (6) Consequently, and understandably, any and all nonconformist Christians – which is to say any and all radical Protestants – were automatically suspect as socially or politically subversive, whether or not they actually presented any such threat.

Consequently, as is well known, those Christians who rejected both Catholicism and the politically protected forms of the Reformation were marginalized and frequently persecuted. A large percentage of all the Anabaptists known to have been executed for their religious convictions in German lands were killed between 1527 and 1535. (7) They loom large in the Mennonite martyrological tradition, including van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror. But most radicals were not put to death for their faith; they dissembled to begin with or recanted when pressured to do so under interrogation by Protestant or Catholic authorities. What characterized the Radical Reformation after 1535, seen as a whole, is 1) a wide, open-ended range of different views about the content of Christian faith and life; 2) much smaller numbers of adherents than in the growing, state-supported Lutheran and Reformed churches; and 3) a lack of support by (and often hostility from) political authorities.

It’s not surprising, then, that from the ranks of Radical Protestants, already in the 16th century but extending into the 17th, we see some of the classic arguments that find a place in accounts of the “rise of toleration” and the “separation of church and state” in early modern Europe. And it is here, in addition to the Radical Reformation’s display of an open-ended range of divergent claims about the meaning of scripture and inspiration by the Spirit, that we see one of its major influences on the makings of the modern Western world. In essence, as this view developed, it was argued that the “freedom of a Christian” shouldn’t just be the freedom to agree with Martin Luther’s view of justification by faith alone, doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist, fondness for religious images, and support for political authorities (following Romans 13) as “ordained of God.” No, the freedom of a Christian should apply to every Christian – an impulse that was widely shared in the early German Reformation, including its distinctive expression in the most widely printed manifesto of 1525, the Twelve Articles of the Upper Swabian Peasants: “Christ redeemed and purchased all of us with the precious shedding of his blood, shepherds as well as those of the highest rank, without exception. Therefore with the scripture it is established that we are and shall be free.” (8) More than a century later, near the end of England’s interregnum in 1659, John Milton stated that “the scripture only can be the final judge or rule in matters of religion, and that only in the conscience of every Christian to himself,” for “every true Christian, able to give a reason of his faith, hath the word of God before him, the promised Holy Spirit, and the mind of Christ within him.” (9)

The theorization of modern religious toleration (or more minimally put, religious co-existence) as it emerged out of the conflicts of the Reformation era and matured in the Enlightenment is one of the classic, and long-celebrated, strands in the intellectual history of early modern Europe.  It’s a rich, multifaceted story about which I want to make just two main points here. First, between 1524, when Balthasar Hubmaier published his pamphlet against the burning of heretics, and 1689, when John Locke published his very influential Letter Concerning Toleration, we can see three main strands interwoven in the emergent advocacy for religious toleration: 1) an opposition to religious persecution as fundamentally unchristian, criticizing above all capital punishment for unrepentant heretics, a practice that (regarding the offense of rebaptism in particular) went back to the Code of Justinian in the 6th century, was unpracticed for centuries in the West, and re-emerged starting in the 12th century; 2) an advocacy for individual freedom of conscience and belief, as we heard in the quotation from Milton, with arguments that matters of faith could not be mandated or coerced, and that no one should be compelled to assent to doctrines they didn’t willingly accept; and 3) the institutional element in arguments for religious toleration, namely that churches and states should be separate and that neither states nor churches should have any coercive power to prescribe or seek to compel religious belief, worship, or practice. In other words, the upshot of emergent arguments for religious toleration was that the very premise and practice of confessionalization at its most fundamental level, whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed, was entirely misguided. It was intellectually wrongheaded and morally repugnant. That’s the first point to be noted about the trajectory of these ideas in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The second point is that many of the key contributors to these ideas were either, on the one hand, inspired by the treatment of radical Protestants of one sort or another (the paradigmatic example is probably Sebastian Castellio writing his important treatise against the capital punishment of heretics in 1554, a year after the burning of the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus in Calvin’s Geneva). Or, on the other hand, the authors of the arguments were themselves radical Protestants of one sort or another – this applies in the seventeenth century, for example, to Milton, who besides his pioneering political and religious ideas was of course also a great epic poet, the author of Paradise Lost; to Roger Williams, in 1636 the founder of Providence colony, which became Rhode Island; and to John Locke himself, who was probably an anti-Trinitarian, and certainly was strongly rationalist and Latitudinarian in his Protestant views, despite never dissenting formally from the Church of England. What would eventually become standard arguments for individual religious freedom of belief and worship and the separation of church and state, ideas long legally protected and very familiar to us today, were in significant respects the products of radical Protestant protagonists or of those prompted to articulate their views because they objected to the persecution of radical Protestants.

History is more than intellectual history, though; it’s more than ideas and theories. And more was involved in the drive for the eventual political and legal protection of religious belief and practice. Because of the relatively successful Catholic or Protestant control and policing of religious orthodoxy across most of Western Europe for over a century, between Münster in the mid-1530s and the English Revolution in the 1640s, the number of radical Protestants remained relatively small. With the disruptions of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, however, effective political control of religion in England temporarily evaporated. What happened as a result? A return of the Reformation unfettered, which is to say a return of the “Radical Reformation.” The result was much like the early 1520s in Germany: in the absence of political authorities capable of enforcing a specific view of true Christianity, all manner of divergent, rival claims proliferated, like fast-growing mushrooms sprouting from long-dormant spores. In other words, the Reformation as such, unconstrained by political authorities, demonstrated its character – the “Radical Reformation” showed again that it simply was what followed from the principle of sola scriptura (augmented in whatever ways by “the Spirit”) in the absence of effective control by rulers. There is zero basis in the Reformation era for thinking that, once men and women were free to think and say for themselves what God’s truth or following Christ or being a Christian or true religion meant, most (let alone all) of them would come together in agreement or even move in such a direction. Far from it. In fact, it was exactly this obvious fact that led Catholic and Protestant authorities, political and ecclesiastical alike, to insist that orthodoxy had to be prescribed, policed, and enforced, lest their society’s most important cultural and social “glue,” inherited from the Middle Ages, be dissolved in a rivalrous cacophony of individuals and groups, all claiming Christian truth. If religion didn’t hold society together, what would take its place?

Across the English Channel, in the Dutch Republic, a different sort of experiment in religious pluralism was underway, one in which the Radical Reformation – or radical Protestantism, if one prefers this term by the early 17th century – also featured prominently. (10) In contrast to every other polity in Western Europe, the leaders of the Dutch Republic, from the time it was established during its war with Spain in the late 1570s, deliberately did not emphasize confessional uniformity. Although it was a Reformed Protestant country – the only officially sanctioned church was Calvinist, the ministers of which were all paid by the state – no one was required to belong to the established church. In effect and for the most part, those who believed differently, belonged to other groups, and worshipped discreetly behind closed doors were not harassed. As a result, above all in the cities of Holland, led by Amsterdam, we see in the early decades of the 17th century – as the Dutch were entering their Golden Age symbolized in the painting of Rembrandt and Vermeer – the widest proliferation of religious diversity anywhere at the time in Western Europe. The contrast with England in the 1640s is instructive: both countries saw a wide range of different, divergent Protestant groups (as well as Catholics, and in Holland’s cities Jews as well), but whereas their presence in England was the result of a breakdown of ordinary mechanisms and institutions that exercised control over religion, in the Netherlands their presence was the result of a deliberate de-emphasis on confessional uniformity for the sake of other priorities. As things turned out, those other priorities would prove no less critical to the makings of the modern world than were ideas about individual freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state.

What the Dutch Republic discovered, starting especially in the 1590s, was that religious toleration was good for business. It turned out that something nearly all Christians could agree on, whatever their differences about the Lord’s Supper, or ecclesiology, or the proper form of ministry, was that they wanted more and better stuff. Remarkably, in the very midst of an ongoing war with what, in the late 16th century, had been Europe’s most formidable military power – namely, Spain – and despite having very few land-based resources of their own, the Dutch, so much less numerous than the Spanish, French, or English, were getting rich. And they were doing it through the world’s first-ever global commercial empire. The insistence on confessional orthodoxy and religious uniformity that was intertwined with both the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the English Revolution (1640-60) simply wasn’t an issue for the Dutch. They had managed their own sharp religio-political clash among Dutch Reformed theologians and the respective supporters of “Remonstrants” and “Counter-Remonstrants” in the years leading up to and through the Synod of Dort (1618-19). The wealthy merchants of Amsterdam, keen on becoming even wealthier, were in effect the political rulers of Holland because of Amsterdam’s predominance among the cities of the country’s leading province; they prioritized commercial over confessional concerns. In 1673, the English ambassador to the Netherlands, William Temple, was amazed by “how all the violence and sharpness, which accompanies the difference of Religion in other Countreys, seems to be appeased or softened here, either by allowance or connivance.” (11) Everyone could get along better if everyone got richer together, if everyone stopped arguing so much about true doctrine and correct worship and just agreed to go shopping instead. Which is what they did. Including Mennonites, some of whom, such as the Waterlander deacon Arent Dircks Bosch, became through their entrepreneurial activities wealthy enough to build posh houses on the Herengracht, the ritziest canal street in Amsterdam. (12) Here was a sort of ecumenism of acquisition and aspirational affluence that seemed to suggest a shared basis, through a shift in priorities, for overcoming the religious conflicts of the previous century-plus.  Granted, as such it had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and indeed it looked positively antithetical to the New Testament’s clear emphasis on self-denial and relinquishing your possessions. But who could disagree that being able to worship as you pleased, with whom you pleased, when you wished, according to your conscience, was incomparably preferable to being persecuted and risking death for your Christian convictions, a reality that many Anabaptists in central Europe and the Low Countries had faced in the 16th century? And if the cost of leaving that behind was the pursuit of material prosperity that nearly all contentious Christians wanted to buy into anyway, wasn’t that a price well worth paying?

Some people did disagree; it turned out that these weren’t rhetorical questions. Some persons indeed found the new circumstances seriously troubling; in fact, a famous Mennonite minister from Dordrecht was among them. Thieleman Jans van Braght, the martyrologist – of all people! – was less than thrilled with the ascent of affluence made possible by a wide latitude in practice for men and women with diverse religious commitments. (13) What was the new prosperity doing to the members of Christ’s flock? In the prefatory material of the Martyrs Mirror, in 1660, van Braght lamented that whereas before, under the cross, Satan had assaulted their Anabaptist forebears directly with persecution and violence, now he seduced them gently and sweetly. In the Dutch Golden Age, the world was “very beautiful and lovely, more so than in any previous age,” what with the “many large, expensive, and beautiful houses, elaborately constructed,” and the “wearing of strange clothes from other regions, with their exotic fabrics, unusual colors, or rare shapes,” not to mention the “enormous meals, excessive banquets, parties, and feasts,” all of which derived from the many “wasteful and extensive transactions which stretch far across the sea to other parts of the world.” As counterintuitive as it might seem, van Braght concluded that “it is certainly more dangerous now [nu geevaerlijcker] than in the time of the fathers who suffered death for the witness of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (14) As he saw it, in other words, disturbing numbers of Mennonites had convinced themselves they were still being good Christians, when in fact they had been taken in by the world in precisely the ways about which the New Testament repeatedly warned. Luke 12:15: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 1 Timothy 6:10: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (15) And so forth. The actions and lifestyles of well-to-do Mennonites, in van Braght’s estimation, showed that their master had in fact become Mammon although they prided themselves in believing that it was still God. Remarkably, here was a Mennonite martyrologist waxing wistful about the good old days of persecution and the ways in which the hardships of the 16th century had strengthened the “little flock” in their faith against the seductive deceptions of the devil and the world. The huge change in the size and presentation of the Dutch Mennonite martyrologies paralleled to socioeconomic rise of Dutch urban Mennonites themselves – from the earliest collection, Het Offer des Heeren, an easily concealed pocket book in the early 1560s, to the second edition of the Martyrs Mirror in 1685, essentially a luxury “coffee-table book” with its famous engravings by Jan Luyken. (16)

Voices such as van Braght’s, however striking, like those of contemporary members of ascetic Catholic religious orders in Western Europe, had little to no influence on the dominant social, economic, and political trends of the later 17th and 18th centuries. In matters of political economy and religious toleration, the English learned from the Dutch. The more centralized British state and the British navy were the heart of what John Brewer called their “sinews of power,” and sustained their upscaling of what the Dutch had pioneered in terms of colonization and commerce, both of which were thoroughly intertwined with the burgeoning Atlantic slave trade. (17) Altogether, European merchants cargoed just over a million slaves from Africa to the New World during the 17th century, a major increase over approximately 288,000 during the 16th, but nowhere near the “progress” that would be made in the “Enlightened” 18th century, when the number soared to over 5.3 million. (18) There is no chance that the large-scale production of sugar, tobacco, and eventually cotton, all central to Britain’s economic growth, including the burgeoning consumption and enjoyments of British subjects, could have occurred without these millions of enslaved souls.

With Britain in the vanguard during its Restoration decades after 1660, and accelerating after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, the early modern consumer revolution gained momentum. It endured in and through the 18th century alongside the theorization of arguments for religious freedom and toleration and greater de facto toleration for most Protestant groups in Britain (although not Catholics, officially, until much later). In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke sharply separated states from churches in a manner parallel to a functional dualism of human bodies and souls. The English Toleration Act of 1689, passed into law the same year that Locke published his treatise, was intended to draw as many English dissenters as possible into the Church of England – its actual effect was just the opposite, to grant them sufficient freedom to remain outside it, as the vast majority did. Concerned to inject some evangelical zeal into what he regarded as a complacent Church of England, John Wesley, in the 1730s, started trying through his “method” to revivify the state church. He ended up creating yet another new church separate from it, the Methodists, whose numbers grew substantially over the remainder of the century. The same logic that had characterized the Reformation as such in its open-endedness from its early years in the 1520s was repeated everywhere that Protestant Christians were granted the latitude to interpret Scripture as they wished, believe what they thought was true, and worship as they judged best.

As is well known, besides commercial gain and profit, an important motive for emigration from Britain and other countries in Europe to North America was the desire for freedom of religious belief and worship. There was commerce-minded Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, and there were the pilgrims at Plymouth in Massachusetts in 1620. Many of the same dynamics that characterized the interplay among religion, politics, and society on the other side of the Atlantic are visible in the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain’s North American colonies. With its established Anglican church, Virginia became the colony that in this respect most closely resembled the mother country. In Massachusetts, puritans who arrived in 1629 sought to build their “city on a hill,” creating the disciplined, godly society that the established church made impossible back home. (19) Major problems ensued from the earliest years, in an echo of what had been going on for more than a century across the Atlantic; for example, early on, Anne Hutchinson defied the male puritan authorities and claimed the Holy Spirit’s direct inspiration. She joined another of the 17th century’s best-known theorists of religious toleration, Roger Williams, who headed south to form Providence colony, which would become Rhode Island, in 1636, and which from the start was a haven for dissenters of all stripes, including Baptists.

In the ensuing decades, Christians from other groups arrived and tended to cluster in different colonies along the eastern seaboard: Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, French Calvinists along the Carolina coast, even Catholics in Maryland, the one colony where they were least despised. The first Mennonites arrived in the early 1680s and settled in William Penn’s colony; the earliest Amish communities settled there, too, first arriving in the late 1710s. (20) The vast expanse of the Atlantic coast and its hinterlands, the drive to find places where you could live freely in religious terms, and the willingness of colonists to displace Indian tribes, often through violence, provided an outlet and a refuge, as it were, for divergent, distinct Christian churches and their communities. Still, there were tensions and conflicts. Four Quakers were hanged for their heterodoxy in Boston between 1659 and 1661. (21) In the same city, the puritan churches themselves divided and had less than amiable relations with one another – the Second Church split from the First in 1650, the Third from the other two in 1666. (22) Baptists and other nonconformist Protestants were discriminated against in Connecticut and Virginia in the eighteenth century, just as they had been in Massachusetts as early as the 1650s and 60s. (23) One of the paradoxes of Christianity in the colonies was that the quest for religious freedom included the freedom of authorities in respective colonies to define the boundaries of, and impose penalties for, permissible religious belief and worship. Not even in Rhode Island did Catholics or Jews have the same privileges that Protestants enjoyed.

Arguments for religious freedom of conscience from establishment authorities fused with arguments for political freedom from monarchical “tyranny” in the 1770s, just before and during the American war of independence from Britain. Mark Noll has referred to a “tidal wave of biblical rhetoric” in which many protagonists insisted that the American colonies throw off tyranny and claim the freedom that was theirs by both natural right and God’s will, referring again and again to Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Egypt in Exodus 14-15. (24) Yet at the same time, as had been true since the start of the Reformation, biblical texts could be and were marshaled in countervailing ways – in this instance by loyalists, in the American colonies as well as in Britain, who condemned rebellion as contrary to God’s will, predictably with reference to Romans 13.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) used the example of God chastising Israel for insisting on a king in 1 Samuel 8 to argue against the institution of monarchy itself; Anglican clergymen refuted Paine’s argument point-by-point, drawing on the Bible as a whole to criticize every interpretative move he had made. (25) Another position entirely – and no less biblical – was argued by small numbers of Pennsylvania Mennonites and Quakers against the war and against fighting in it altogether; in the summer of 1778, refusal to take a loyalty oath for the revolutionary cause cost a dozen Mennonite families, near Easton, Pennsylvania, their homes, farms, and possessions. (26) Whatever the cogency of biblical arguments for principled pacifism, they had no impact on the course of the conflict. Then again, as Noll remarks in a comment essentially applicable to American history ever since, “exegetical precision was not required in order to enlist the Bible for the patriot cause.” (27) Whatever “the patriot cause” might be taken to mean.

The enduring tensions and challenges related to the realities of religious pluralism remained after the Treaty of Paris (1783) formally concluded the war and Britain recognized the independence of the new United States. Indeed, in some ways, the problem perhaps became more pressing—with the monarchical enemy vanquished, the difficult issues involved were left for the former colonists, now Americans, to navigate. I want to highlight how many of the basic problems were not only still alive in the 1780s but essentially unchanged from what they had been in the 1520s during the early German Reformation.

The principal theorist of religious freedom in the fledgling United States was James Madison. In the debates in December 1784 about whether the state of Virginia should continue to support publicly (and financially) the Anglican church as it had throughout the colonial era, Madison’s notes reflected the persistent relevance of issues that had vexed Europeans since the 1520s and now impinged on Americans: “In what light are [the biblical books] to be viewed, as dictated every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only? or the matter in generall not the words?  What sense the true one, for if some doctrines be essential to Xnty, those who reject these, whatever name they take are no Xn Society? Is it Trinitarianism, arianism, Socinianism? Is it salvation by faith or works also – by free grace, or free will – &c, &c, &c.” (28) Nothing remotely approaching a consensus or even moving toward one was apparent, more than two-and-a-half centuries since the start of the Reformation, with respect to what the Bible meant, how it should be interpreted, who had the authority to say, or what its relationship to the exercise of power, the wider society, or culture at large should be – to quote Madison, “etc., etc., etc.”

To us, in retrospect, accustomed to living in a country in which individual freedom of religious belief and worship is a deeply embedded and politically protected legal principle and cultural value, one that has subsequently been institutionalized in various ways in the 20th century in many other countries around the world, the solution seems obvious.  Why not just extend Luther’s inspiring “Here I stand” to everyone, individually, allowing each person to believe, worship, and practice their religious commitments in whatever ways they wish in a manner consistent with the same for everyone else? Emphasis on the primacy and inviolability of individual conscience meant that no one should be coerced or pressured to believe anything they didn’t, in fact, believe. Accordingly, what William Temple had observed about the Dutch in the 1670s, and which others had echoed in general many times in the decades since, was elevated by Madison into a maxim: “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.” (29) So the solution essentially involved making each person the absolute sovereign over his or her own religious life, believing whatever one wished and worshipping with whatever community one wanted to join. Or decided to start oneself. Despite the concerns voiced by van Braght and others with similar views, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Christians much preferred circumstances in which they could freely believe as they pleased and worship as they wished to situations in which they faced discrimination and harassment, to say nothing of the Reformation era’s punishment, persecution, and risk of execution. This was obvious whether your ancestors had been Swiss Anabaptists, French Calvinists, or English Catholics.

Contrary to what is widely believed, the American Constitution did not establish a “separation of church and state” in the United States at large. It prohibited the federal government, via the Congress, from making any “law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise.” This still left individual states free to favor and indeed financially to support churches if their legislators so chose, as in fact transpired in Maryland, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont, Connecticut (until 1818) and Massachusetts (until 1831). (30) As Philip Hamburger has shown, the notion of Jefferson’s “wall of separation of church and state” as commonly understood today gained traction only in the 19th century, mostly as a function of Protestant anti-Catholicism as the Catholic Church’s influence increased along with the number of Catholic immigrants. (31) And notoriously, the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment, partly for its very terseness, has proven to be extraordinarily fraught in subsequent American constitutional and legal history when it comes actually to deciding cases that involve the “free exercise” of “religion” by individuals, churches, and church-related institutions such as schools. (32) Nevertheless, the American experiment in religious freedom is rightly regarded as a major, influential development in modern history, not only in the United States, but also around the world; many other countries have been inspired by it and enshrined freedom of religious belief and practice in their laws, whatever specific expressions they have assumed.

As I near the end of this first lecture, I want simply to draw attention to three important points – three “asterisks,” as it were – that are worth bearing in mind when we think about the American solution to the challenge of religious pluralism in a long-term historical perspective, one that looks back to the start of the Reformation. Their significance will become clearer in my second lecture.  First, the condition of religious freedom was political obedience: you would be free to believe and worship as you please so long as you obeyed the state’s laws, the same state that was extending to you the legal and political protection to believe and worship as you please. This would set up an ill-defined domain of contestation pertaining to the relationship between “religion” and “politics” that met, as members of the Anabaptist and other historic “peace churches” are aware, in matters of “conscientious objection.” Second, the politically and legally protected “religion” in the United States was individualized and its scope radically restricted compared to the place of religion in the Reformation era and the Middle Ages, when Christianity sought to inform social relations, cultural expressions, the exercise of power, education, and economic exchange. Seen historically, this was a severe narrowing of the scope of religion compared to what it had been for well over a thousand years – that is, compared to Christianity that was intended to influence and shape shared human life, the public sphere, and the common good. Now religion was limited individually to believing what you wished, worshipping together with others in whatever way you approved, and engaging in whatever individual religious devotional practices you liked. Third, and finally, we shouldn’t overlook the economic context of the period of the American founding: because of British commercial prosperity, critically dependent on the slave trade and slavery in America’s southern colonies-become-states as well as the seemingly limitless natural resources of North America, and the crucial transition to the large-scale production of cotton to supply the raw material for the first key industry in the Industrial Revolution, Americans just before and after the war with Britain had the highest median level of material prosperity in the world. Like the Dutch in their Golden Age in the century before, nearly all free Americans could and did buy into more and better stuff as the de facto cultural glue that not only helped the disparate colonies cohere during the war (33), but continued to provide cohesion during their fragile early years as a new nation.

Yet the fundamental American solution to the unwanted, unintended reality of Christian pluralism (the institutional separation of church and state and individual freedom of belief and worship) was the beginning of the end for the magisterial Reformation, early modern European confessional states, and the idea that political authorities should seek to police the religious lives of their subjects – or as they had now become, citizens.  In other words, to put it broadly, it was the triumph of the Radical Reformation – that is, of the Reformation in its open-ended essence, once the political shackles on sola scriptura and the inspiration of the Spirit were broken. Again, in Mark Noll’s words, by the time the Constitution was ratified in 1791, “the entire nation had become Rhode Island.” (34) Free at last! Or free at last? My second lecture will take up this question, starting from this point and bringing us up to the present.


  1. Lawrence Mishel and Jori Kandra, “CEO Pay Has Skyrocketed 1,322% Since 1978,” 10 August 2021, Economic Policy Institute,; for the figure of 670:1, see Sarah Anderson, “It’s Time to Crack Down on Excessive CEO Pay,” 27 July 2022, Institute for Policy Studies,, based on Sarah Anderson and Sam Pizzigati, Executive Excess 2022 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 2022)
  2. Robert Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018); Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016).
  3. This lecture draws freely and selectively on Brad S. Gregory, “The Radical Reformation,” in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation [hereafter OIHR], ed. Peter Marshall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 115-151, including the argument about reversing the way in which the magisterial and radical Reformations are regarded.
  4. James M. Stayer, The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991); Peter Blickle, The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants’ War from a New Perspective, trans. Erik Midelfort and Thomas A. Brady, Jr. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University, 1981).
  5. Gregory, “Radical Reformation,” in OIHR, ed. Marshall, pp. 120-127; Stayer, German Peasants’ War.
  6. Gregory, “Radical Reformation,” in OIHR, ed. Marshall, pp. 132-133.
  7. See Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 201.
  8. “Die Zwolf Artikel,” in Flugschriften der Bauernkriegszeit, ed. Adolf Laube and Hand Werner Seiffert (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1978), p. 28, lines 13-18.
  9. J[ohn] M[ilton], A Treatise of Civil power in Ecclesiastical causes Shewing That it is not lawfull for any power on earth to compel in matters of religion (London: Tho[mas] Newcomb, 1659), pp. 7-8, 9.
  10. This paragraph and the one following draw on my discussion of the United Provinces in Gregory, Unintended Reformation, pp. 163-166, 274-277, and idem, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: Harper One, 2017), pp. 220-229.
  11. William Temple, Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands (London: A. Maxwell for Sa. Gellibrand, 1673), p. 181.
  12. On the 17th-century Amsterdam Waterlanders, including Bosch and his son, see Mary Sprunger, “Waterlanders and the Dutch Golden Age: A Case Study on Mennonite Involvement in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Trade and Industry as one of the Earliest Examples of Socio-economic Assimilation,” in From Martyr to Muppy (Mennonite Urban Professionals): A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands: The Mennonites, ed. Alastair Hamilton, Sjouke Voolstra, and Piet Visser (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994), pp. 133-148, esp. pp. 136, 140-142; see also eadem, “Hoe rijke mennisten de hemel verdienden: Een eerste verkenning van de betrokkenheid van aanzienlijke doopsgezinden bij het Amsterdamse zakenleven in de Goude Eeuw,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, n.s., 18 (1992): 39-52.
  13. This treatment of van Braght draws on Gregory, Salvation at Stake, pp. 245-247, including the quotations from Thieleman Jans van Braght, Het Bloedigh Tooneel der Doops-gesinde, en Weereloose Christenen . . . (Dordrecht: Jacob Braat, 1660).
  14. Quoted in Gregory, Salvation at Stake, p. 246.
  15. The biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
  16. Gregory, Salvation at Stake, pp. 244, 245.
  17. John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1788 (New York: Knopf, 1989).
  18. For these figures on the shipment of African slaves, see the impressive range of data assembled in the Slave Voyages database,
  19. On the early puritans in Boston, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams, I have drawn on Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  20. See Richard K. MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985); William K. Crowley, “Old Order Amish Settlement: Diffusion and Growth,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 68, no. 2 (1978): 249-264 at pp. 251-252.
  21. See John T. Noonan, Jr., The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 51-52.
  22. See Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize.
  23. Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 138-139, 336; Scott D. Gerber, “Law and Religion in Colonial Connecticut,” American Journal of Legal History 55, no. 2 (2015): 149-193 at pp. 175-179, 190-191.
  24. Noll, In the Beginning, p. 280.
  25. Ibid., pp. 307-315.
  26. Ibid., p. 274.
  27. Ibid., p. 303.
  28. Quoted in Noonan, Jr., The Lustre of Our Country, pp. 61-62.
  29. James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” in Madison, Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999), p. 30.
  30. David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 20.
  31. Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  32. See, e.g., Steven D. Smith, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, 2nd ed. with new preface (2005; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
  33. See Timothy H. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  34. Noll, In the Beginning, p. 331.