How Protestants Made the Modern World

By Eric C. Miller | February 20, 2018

(Getty/Ullstein Bild) A monument of Martin Luther stands in Wittenberg, Germany.

Last fall marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, an event with profound consequences for the development of both religion and politics across the globe. Arising in sixteenth-century Europe, migrating into seventeenth-century America, and expanding by degrees across the remainder of the planet, Protestantism has achieved a level of international influence that is difficult to fathom.

In his latest book, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World, historian Alec Ryrie takes on a formidable challenge: how to survey the history and assess the significance of a centuries-long and worldwide religious tradition. A professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in northeast England, Ryrie also serves as an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. He is the author of six previous books, all of which focus on British religious history since the Reformation. This latest effort was released last spring, to correspond with the Reformation’s anniversary.

Eric C. Miller spoke with Ryrie about the Protestant tradition, its victories, its failures, and its ultimate importance. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

R&P: The subtitle of your book states that Protestants “made the modern world.” How? 

AR: The Protestant Reformation is a huge event in the history of the modern world. You can find its fingerprints almost everywhere. But I’m not just saying that this is a really big thing that is woven deeply into the story. I’m saying that there are some specific parts of modern life that derive directly from the Protestant Reformation. We couldn’t have these features if it hadn’t happened. In the book, I pick out three in particular.

The first is free inquiry. It’s not quite the idea of freedom of speech, but it is the idea that nobody can compel anyone else to think something. In the end, no intellectual authority can force you to think that you are wrong. There’s nobody who stands authoritatively between you as a human being and God. That’s Martin Luther’s great insight, and that refusal to accept human authority over other people’s minds is something that he established—despite himself. He was not out to create an age of intellectual freedom, but nonetheless, that’s what he produced.

The second is what I would call—and I use this term warily—democracy. Not that Luther or the early Protestant reformers were democrats in any sense. They would have been horrified by the notion. But the idea that the individual believer has a right—even a responsibility—to stand up against a tyrannical or an anti-Christian ruler is implicit in Protestantism from the beginning. It led Protestants who really wanted nothing more than to live in peace into a series of religious wars and revolutions against leaders with whom they could not live on religious terms. They developed new political theories, and carved out a theory of defiance against anti-Christian secular authority, as well as an insistence that they should be able to legitimate and even create appropriate government. You can see how that might have led to theocracies, and there are times—famously in Puritan New England—when Protestantism seemed to be moving in that direction. But in practice it tends to go another way.

Which brings me to the third feature, which is the notion of limited government. It’s the idea that a ruler, no matter how legitimate, has jurisdiction only over outward things, over practicalities, over people’s bodies but not their souls. There are certain spheres where the authority of the government simply does not apply. And it creates a sense that even the godliest government should be strictly limited in the amount of authority that it can exercise over people.

That combination of free inquiry, democracy, and limited government is pretty much what makes up liberal, market democracies. It runs the modern world. And though it seems obvious to us that liberty and equality should go together, it is not at all an obvious combination. It is that distinct heritage of Protestantism in holding those models together that is its most significant contribution to the modern world. 

R&P: When Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Church, he—perhaps unwittingly—inaugurated a tradition of challenges to authority. How has that rebelliousness shaped the faith? 

AR: It was definitely unwitting. Luther didn’t want people to be free to believe what they wanted; he wanted them to be free to believe the truth. He assumed that truth would be self-evident to everyone who picked up the Bible to read it. But he discovered very early on, to his horror, that people were reading the Bible in wildly different ways, sometimes discovering messages that were much more socially and politically radical than he anticipated. It inaugurated this tradition of using the spiritual insights you gained from a direct encounter with God, through the words of the Bible, to stand up against human authority. It goes right back to the beginning.

The most obvious example concerns one of the great crises in Luther’s life. In the years 1524-1525, seven or eight years after his first emergence as a public figure, the so-called “Peasants War” broke out in Germany. This was the biggest mass rebellion in European history prior to the French Revolution. It was largely tied up with all the standard issues that peasants would sometimes rise in rebellion about—land holding and tenancy and that sort of thing. But what really held it together, unifying what might otherwise have been a series of isolated incidents into a continent-spanning mass rebellion, was the religious glue that Luther provided. He made it possible for peasants to reflect that, as Christians, they should be free, but the conditions that defined their lives were not freedom. And although that rebellion was suppressed—with Luther’s assistance—that notion that spiritual freedom has to have political consequences is one that recurs right through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and on into our own day.

R&P: And yet, Protestants have demanded a certain degree of structure and stability—especially in contexts where religion determined politics. How much Protestant doctrine was fashioned specifically in the interest of good civic order?

AR: That’s a tricky question to answer because it’s such a contentious issue. It really depends upon how much of a devil’s bargain you think that Luther and the other so-called “magisterial” reformers made when they reached an accord with their princely protectors. My own view is that this runs really deep. From the beginning, Luther and his allies and colleagues and some of his rivals effectively felt that they had no choice but to call in the protection of various secular powers, and though they intended to keep those powers at arm’s length, it proved very difficult to do so. They badly needed the support. It was necessary for their survival, given the fate of the smaller groups that had tried to forego political protection. These groups were very badly persecuted and driven to the margins. And as you say, this meant the creation of a series of established Protestant churches across parts of Germany, in Scandinavia, and in the British Isles, where the deal between those churches and their political protectors shaped them profoundly.

That’s pretty much the story until you get to the very end of the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century. At that point, the subplot of the story that had been running up until then—of these groups that were trying to distance themselves from the state and to operate without it—became much more dominant. You started to see these groups flourishing in their own right, while some that had succumbed to state authority began to wriggle free. That’s the beginning of many of the movements that we now cluster under the name evangelicalism. Methodism is the best known of those movements, but there are a great many others as well. So there you began to get a movement away from that alliance with the state. It made some progress in Protestant Europe—more in some places than others—but its real heartland was North America. And it was that principle which underpinned the Protestant enthusiasm for the separation of church and state that the United States wrote into its constitution in 1791.

R&P: You refer to the United States as “Protestantism’s Wild West.” Why was it so wild? And did the new American strains have any influence on the European original? 

AR: That’s a great question. One of the recurrent features of Protestantism’s history that struck me as I was writing this book is that there are a series of moments—usually when political control has relaxed or been broken—when there is an explosion of creativity within Protestantism, and a whole series of different prophets and movements and sects and denominations appear. You have Luther’s own lifetime in the 1520s, England in the 1650s, and the United States in the early nineteenth century, when the freedom that was offered by the First Amendment was beginning to be explored, and all this against an ethos in the new republic of refusing to accept the authority of foreign priests and creeds, just as you would refuse to accept the authority of foreign kings.

In this period from the 1810s to the 1830s, there was a tremendous explosion of Protestant variety that we often group together as the Second Great Awakening. Not that the first Great Awakening had ever stopped—it just picked up and reaccelerated. One feature of that, in particular, was the creation of a whole series of utopian, apocalyptic, sectarian, and anti-denominational movements, the last of which were trying to get away from the denominational soup to create a pure and simple Christianity.

One of the ironies is that everyone who tried to abandon denominations by setting up a non-denominational group simply ended up founding another denomination. That has produced a lot of different churches and a lot of distinct movements, including the Seventh-day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and—the exception that proves the rule—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which came out of a Protestant milieu but is so radically and profoundly new, so utterly different from the rest, that I think we need to distinguish it from the rest of the Protestant world. In my view, it is an entirely new religion, as different from Christianity as Christianity is from Judaism.

R&P: For all of its virtues, Protestantism has also been invoked to support some pretty despicable vices, including slavery in the American South and Nazism in Germany. Is it an infinitely malleable faith tradition? Is there any cause it can’t be made to embrace?

AR: I don’t think it’s infinitely malleable, but it is pretty malleable. One of the things I was determined to do in this book was to look at both sides—to explore the side of Protestantism’s history that looks to us as heroic and that which looks despicable, slavery and Nazism included. There were Protestants deeply involved on both sides of those quarrels and I think we need to recognize that duality. Because Protestantism doesn’t accept any sort of overarching, final religious authority that can tell people definitively that their reading of scripture is wrong, it does have this tremendous adaptability and flexibility. And that has been one of its great strengths historically—it is able to find a place in almost any social or cultural situation. I don’t think that power to be adapted is completely limitless, though.

In some ways, the Nazi example tests that hypothesis to destruction. In the 1930s, a group of German Protestants set up what they called a De-Judaization Institute that tried to create a de-Judaized version of Christianity that might be acceptable to the Nazis. By the time they finished their project, there was virtually nothing left. They tried to produce a de-Judaized Bible and ended up having to throw out virtually the entire thing. Even what was left was still criticized by some, because Jesus was still quoting Jewish psalms, teaching in a Jewish temple—and there was no avoiding the fact that Paul was Jewish. They produced a Protestant hymnbook, the bulk of which was comprised of secular German lyrics. The hymns that actually were Protestant hymns in origin had been purged of most of their content. And it didn’t work! The regime still did not want to touch this because they still saw it as tainted with Judaism and they found the project ridiculous. So although we can’t avoid the grim lesson of how desperately these Protestants tried to sell their souls to the Nazi project, I think it’s also significant that the Nazis weren’t buying. In fact, by the time they had tried to strip Christianity of all its content, and to adapt it to this new world, they really had nothing left.

I don’t think we can identify a fixed, doctrinal core of what Protestantism is, but there is a certain mood, a sense of the immediacy of God’s grace that goes back to Luther and keeps recurring through Protestantism’s history. What you can do with that sense is very flexible, but not infinitely so. 

R&P: Having made its way West, Protestantism is now expanding into other corners of the globe. Is it just moving around? Or do you see a more broadly international Protestant future?

AR: Well, I think we need to recognize that the twenty-first century story of Protestantism is going to be an African and an Asian and also a Latin American story. The old heartlands of Europe and North America are now a sideshow. And of course, that’s the case for Catholicism as well. These are the regions of the world that are making the news in terms of the religious trajectory.

Protestantism is changing in the progress. It is moving away from a lot of the old denominational structures. A lot of the growth is happening through decentralized networks, through Pentecostal and renewalist, charismatic, and independent churches that are often very lightly regulated and whose contacts with each other are provisional, and that embrace a huge amount of variety—and rivalry—with one another. So the stable world of the big international denominations that we’ve grown up with does not have a bright future. We are looking at a much messier scene of individual congregations vying with one another.

One of the big questions is whether the secularizing trend that we’ve seen strongly in Europe and pretty strongly in North America will affect the rest of the world or whether it is specific to these regions. I think that may be the big question of the next century. For a long time we’ve assumed that secularization—the trend of religion becoming steadily less important and credible—is just the drift of modern history and that all societies will move in that direction. I think that now looks a bit implausible. We need to recognize that this trend in Europe and America has come out of some very specific historical circumstances.

In particular, I would link it to a crisis of the moral authority of the historic religions of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in the wake of the various crises of the last three centuries. If you look at the rate at which Christianity is expanding in China right now, or the rate at which Catholics are converting to Protestantism in Latin America, the whole feel of the religious developments in those parts of the world seems very different. What I don’t think you will see—even in Africa where there has been some talk of this—is the emergence of new Protestant countries, in which national identity is defined by Protestantism in the way that used to be the case in Europe during the era of religious wars, and even in America until relatively recently. I think the sense of Protestantism being woven into national identity is not where we’re going. It’s going to be more individualized and more denominationally splintered than that.

R&P: You are both a scholar and a practitioner of the Protestant faith. Has studying this history deepened your faith? Has the scholarship ever made you doubt the practice?

AR: Certainly, there has been a kind of disillusioning process. It’s difficult to go through the kind of histories that I have been looking at and come away thinking that this is a great religious tradition in which everything is perfect. I hope I wasn’t going into it thinking that way either.

I am a licensed minister in the Church of England, which was founded by a tyrannical king who wanted a divorce. So one of the things that you quickly learn in this church is that it was not created by a direct act of God, and you’re not going to begin harboring those illusions about yourself. It’s always good to be confronted with the messy reality of the moral compromises that your tradition involves. Better to confront them than to pretend that they’re not there. But I also have to say that, in reading these materials, I have repeatedly come across cases of individuals whose struggles and spiritual insights in the midst of very messy circumstances are kind of moving. And though this faith isn’t wholly admirable or perfect, it remains something that contains real spiritual power. That’s one of the things that the history of religion is able to teach you. When you do encounter those individuals, those flashes of something extraordinary in the midst of all the mundanity and mess, you think yes, this tradition does have something to it after all.

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