Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

A History of Christianity


1500 to 1725

This chapter covers the following topics:
The Counter-Reformation
The Jesuits
The Council of Trent
Consequences of the Reformation
Cross Versus Crescent: Africa
Cross Versus Crescent: Asia
Catholicism in America
Orthodox Growing Pains
The Thirty Years War
The Puritans and the English Civil War
Some Statistics on Religion in the Early Eighteenth Century
Go to Page Navigator

The Counter-Reformation

As the tidal wave of Protestantism swept across Europe, it seemed that nothing would stop it from replacing the Catholic Church completely. By the middle of the sixteenth century, most of northern Europe was firmly Protestant, France was wavering, and even Italy had a few pangs of heretical doubt. In 1558 a report from the Venetian ambassador estimated that the Catholics of the German empire made up only one-tenth of the population. For twenty years no student of the University of Vienna became a priest.

The Church of Rome did not stand idle in the face of this threat. Even before Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, many dedicated Catholics examined their Church and called for improvement. We looked at a few of them previously: Savonarola (the "Catholic Calvin"), and humanists like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. At the other extreme, on the side of the establishment, were Church leaders who had become alarmed at the ignorance of priests who did not understand the Latin of the Mass, and by the moral laxity that allowed men of the cloth to keep mistresses and run businesses on the side like taverns and even brothels. These men agreed with the humanists that if they were going to prevail against heresy they would have to clean their own house first.

The first clergyman to take successful action was Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros (1437-1517), a cardinal from Spain (always the most loyal of Catholic countries). Ximenes spent his early years as a routine ecclesiastical administrator before deciding suddenly, at the age of 48, to become a Franciscan monk. He followed the monk's life of sanctity and self-denial so faithfully that he got the attention of Queen Isabella, and she made him her confessor. By 1495 he was Archbishop of Toledo, and after the king and queen, the most powerful man in Spain.

As archbishop, and finally as cardinal, Ximenes devoted the rest of his life to straightening out and educating the clergy. He cleansed the monasteries of corruption, and because he had the government on his side, went so far as to imprison clergymen who resisted, or if they really refused to change, banished them to lonely service among the infidels in Morocco. All this time he continued to live a life as disciplined as that of an ordinary monk. When Pope Alexander VI told him he should wear the fine red robes appropriate for a cardinal, Ximenes reluctantly complied, but under that finery he continued to wear his grey Franciscan habit and under that a hair shirt. Because he saw education as an essential tool for his reform to succeed, in 1500 he established the University of Alcala, which soon became the best school in Spain; Spaniards proudly called it the eighth wonder of the world. By the time of his death in 1517, the Spanish Church rested on a moral foundation of iron, months before Luther had fired his opening shot. Had Ximenes done his work in Germany instead of Spain, we might never have heard from Luther.

In Italy, the reformers started by founding new monastic orders, since the old ones had grown lax in their duties. First among these was the Oratory of Divine Love, a pious brotherhood founded in 1517 to promote prayer, self-reform and service to the poor. The Theatines were a body of devoted priests who worked to regenerate faith among the clergy; from their ranks would come more than 200 bishops. The Capuchins, so called because of their capucini (hoods), revived the Franciscan goals of preaching and ministering to the poor and the sick. In 1540 some priests in Rome founded the Fathers of the Oratory, an association dedicated to preaching and singing religious music.

Societies of women also promoted reform. The Ursuline order of teaching nuns, founded by St. Angela Merci (1473-1540), educated girls in morality and the faith. Even more renowned were the Carmelites, founded by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82), whose determination and selfless devotion were legendary in her own time. A nobleman's daughter who became a nun, Teresa was troubled for years by convulsive seizures. After one long sickness which left her partially paralyzed, she suddenly recovered, and afterwards experienced mystical trances and ecstatic visions. These compelled her to restore the vigor of monastic life, so she founded 30 convents dedicated to this purpose. She also inspired mystical faith and reforming zeal in written works, such as Interior Castle and The Ladder of Perfection. Her nuns were models of Christian charity and compassion who helped restore the pride and integrity of the Church.

Top of the page

The Jesuits

The most significant of the new orders was the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. It was founded by Inigo Lopez de Recalde, better known as St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). The story of his conversion is one of the most moving in the history of the Catholic Church. Originally he was a tough and brave Spanish soldier. Like the knights of old, he looked for a glorious quest, and had many love affairs on the side. In 1521 there was a war between France and Spain, and the French captured the town of Pamplona. In that battle Loyola's leg was smashed by a cannonball, and he was taken prisoner. The leg was badly set and had to be rebroken, and the doctors nearly finished him off in the process. Expecting the worst, he received the last sacraments. The following night, as he began to mend, he contemplated a life on crutches and thought of a certain great lady, and how he might recover, perform some amazing feat, and win her affection. Then he imagined himself a knight of Christ, and a great new lady entered his vision: the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Christ in her arms. When that happened, he became disgusted at all his former deeds, and resolved to spend the rest of his life in service to the mother of God.

When Loyola recovered, he became a real life version of Don Quixote, wandering in the Spanish countryside with no goal except to make a pilgrimage and live like a monk. He was a penniless soldier of fortune with little but his arms and the mule he rode upon. After a while a Moor joined him.(1) They talked about many subjects, until the topic turned to religion. The Moor was the better-educated man, so he dominated the argument, made some offensive remarks about the Virgin Mary, and rode off triumphantly. The young Knight of Our Lady boiled with shame; he didn't know whether the Christian response was to go after the Moor and kill him, or continue the pilgrimage he had in mind. When he reached a fork in the road, he let the mule decide; the mule continued on and spared the Moor.

The next stop was the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, near Manresa. Here Ignatius kept an all-night vigil before the Altar of the Blessed Virgin. Then he gave up all his worldly possessions; the mule was donated to the abbey, his clothes went to a beggar, and he laid his sword and dagger on the altar. In their place he put on a rough sackcloth garment and shoes made of hemp fiber. For the next week he fasted and gave himself over to scourging. After these austerities came a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Upon his return he came up with the idea of an order of clergymen with the discipline and organization of soldiers, like the Knights Templars of Crusader times and today's Salvation Army. At first, though, he did not know how to put it into practice. Over the next few years he became aware that his illiteracy was holding him back, and the Inquisition, which had begun to take an interest in his activities, forbade him to do any teaching until he had received at least four years of education. Since the Inquisition is responsible for so much cruelty and intolerance, it is pleasing to point out one instance where it acted in a positive way. It recognized that Loyola could be useful, but without an education he could also be dangerous.(2)

After studying in various places, including Salamanca and Paris, Ignatius Loyola was finally ordained a priest in 1538, at the age of forty-seven. Then he and a little band of like-minded priests, who called themselves "The Society of Jesus," went to Rome to submit themselves to whatever assignment the pope had for them. The Romans were not used to visitors as dedicated as this, and greeted them with suspicion. Finally in September 1540 Pope Paul III decided that Ignatius was trustworthy, and gave his blessing to the group, which quickly became the most effective organization in the Catholic Church.

The Jesuits succeeded because of their organization along military lines; self-discipline and obedience to their leader, commonly called "the General," were the most important rules. To the medieval monk, obedience meant withdrawing from the world and following a program of self-improvement; for the Jesuit it meant service through an active life in the world. As preachers, teachers, confessors, organizers, diplomats, and spies, they took the field everywhere, founding schools and colleges, serving as missionaries on every continent, and working their way into government wherever possible. Following the example of the Dominicans, Jesuit clergymen received no less than ten years of education and indoctrination; their schools became the best in Europe. As Sir Francis Bacon put it: "As for the pedagogic part . . . consult the schools of the Jesuits, for nothing better has been put into practice." As the "shock troops" of the pope, they probably did more than anyone else to stop Protestantism in its tracks around 1560. We can accurately credit the Jesuits with saving Poland, Hungary, southern Germany and Austria for Catholicism; because of them every nation that was predominantly Catholic in the 1560s is still Catholic today.

Although the Jesuits failed to recover those parishioners in Europe who had been lost to Protestantism, they made enough converts overseas to more than make up for the loss. In America the Jesuits converted many natives nearly two centuries before Protestant missionaries could do the same, and helped strengthen the control of Spain and Portugal over their immense new empires. Under the leadership of St. Francis Xavier, they won thousands of souls in India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Korea; in fact, Japan might have become the first Catholic country in Asia if the Japanese shogun had not become afraid of Christianity and driven it underground in a vicious wave of persecutions, at the end of the sixteenth century.(3) In China, the education of the Jesuit priests quickly won the respect of the Chinese, and one of them, Father Matteo Ricci, got to have a private meeting with the emperor, at a time when other Europeans were not allowed to go anywhere in China besides Macao and Canton. In the seventeenth century Jesuits found employment in the emperor's court as mathematicians, astronomers, diplomats, and even cannon makers. Their biggest success was in the Philippines; because of their efforts, that country is 85% Catholic today.

Top of the page

The Council of Trent

The first pope to support reform in the Catholic Church was the one who commissioned Ignatius Loyola, Paul III (1534-49). Born Alexander Farnese in 1468, and educated at the Medici court in Florence, he shared the tastes, habits and ambitions of his Renaissance predecessors. When he was only 25 he was chosen to be a cardinal even before he became a priest, and before his election to the papacy he fathered four illegitimate children, whose political careers and privileges were a continuous embarrassment to him. However, Paul was also a man of great ability and culture (he commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel). Realizing that issues raised by the Protestants would have to be resolved and errors corrected to restore integrity to the papacy, he attacked the indifference, the corruption, and the vested interests of the clerical organization. Fortunately, Paul III was stubborn and bad-tempered enough to get his way.

In pursuing these reforms, he appointed a commission which reported the need for correcting such abuses as the worldliness of bishops and cardinals, the unsavory traffic in indulgences and benefices (church appointments with guaranteed incomes), and episcopal absenteeism (many bishops lived the good life in Rome, while collecting a salary from the dioceses they were supposed to lead). In 1537 he called for a church council, an idea which he continued to press against stubborn opposition for years. One problem was that he and Emperor Charles V couldn't agree on whether they would hold the council in central Italy or Austria; they finally settled on Trent, a town in northern Italy.

Paul III was succeeded by Paul IV (1549-59), who had been Gian Pietro Caraffa, the founder of the Theatines. His passion for reform, stern purpose and unrelenting energy caused an acquaintance to write, "The pope is a man of iron, and the very stones over which he walks emit sparks." He ended the practice of nepotism by firing from the cardinalate two of his own relatives who were accused of corrupt behavior. As a cardinal he led the Inquisition under Paul III, and as pope he continued to attend the weekly Thursday meetings of the Inquisition tribunal to make sure there was no leniency. Here his fervor went too far; when he died the people of Rome celebrated by rioting in the streets, destroying the headquarters of the Inquisition, and throwing the pope's statue into the Tiber River.

A gentler man, Pius IV, became the next pope, and under him the work of reform from within was completed. This was done by the Council of Trent, which met in three sessions between 1545 and 1563. Political turbulence in Europe, a threat of plague, and Paul's personal reform campaign caused lengthy interruptions; during the eighteen years of the Council's existence, it only actively worked for four and a half of them. Nevertheless, it was the most important Church convention between the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Second Vatican (1962).

Those attending the Council of Trent were clergymen of high rank, who numbered between 60 and 250. A few Protestants attended the first session, when there was hope that it would reunite Christendom, but as in previous meetings, it turned out both sides had gone too far for any compromise to be widely accepted, so afterwards only Catholics came. The Jesuits played a prominent role in defending almost every doctrine challenged by the Protestants, including the ban on clerical marriage, the importance of all seven sacraments, the use of only Latin in the mass, and the spiritual value of pilgrimages, veneration of saints, and the cult of the Virgin. The Council also added the fourteen books of the Apocrypha to the Bible (which is why they appear in Catholic Bibles but not others) and introduced the Index, a list of books Catholics are not allowed to read.(4) Finally they declared that the chair of St. Peter should never again become a throne for atheists, poisoners, thieves, murderers, blasphemers, adulterers, but men of such personal purity, holiness of life, and uprightness of intention as to command profound respect. Those scandals that had previously disgraced the Church began to disappear, a true reformation without a schism, occurring through all ecclesiastical grades. Had Protestantism produced no other result than this, it would have been a great blessing to the world.

The full significance of Trent became evident after 1565, when the Catholic reaction to Protestantism found new vigor and militancy. Having steeled itself within, and armed itself with the Jesuits and the Index of prohibited books, the Church went to war against Protestants and other heretics. The new crusade was both open and secret. In Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, the Inquisition, more than ever before, became the dreaded scourge of Protestants. Jesuit universities trained scholars and missionaries, who served as both priests and organizers in Protestant countries, such as England. Many died as martyrs, condemned by Protestant tribunals; others suffered similar fates at the hands of pagans in America or Asia. Whatever the price of security, the church paid in blood and treasure. Consequently, it was Catholicism, not Protestantism, which expanded after this, particularly overseas.

In this uncompromising and bloody conflict of faiths, women were both unappreciated heroines and victims. Out of 41 heretics executed in Spain during 1559, 26 were women. A typical earlier example, in 1534, was Maria Cazalla, accused of laughing at Aristotle, scoffing at scholasticism, reading Erasmus, and being familiar with Luther's ideas. Other Catholic women who defended the faith faced frustrating problems. In Protestant lands, some dispossessed nuns, with no place to go, stubbornly resisted the closing of their convents. Many of them wrote and preached against Luther, and others tried to organize against the Protestants. An order of Jesuit nuns became quite active, though it never received papal approval. Such efforts, moreover, alarmed church leaders. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the prohibition against women preachers, and after Trent, the church forced the Ursulines into convents. The Catholic prejudice against the female orders is illustrated best by the ordeal of St. Teresa of Avila, who struggled for years and was even brought before the Inquisition before her Carmelites were approved.

Top of the page

Consequences of the Reformation

By the 1570s, the first phase of the Reformation was over; it had not eliminated Catholicism, but it had permanently destroyed the unity of Western Christianity. No sixteenth-century religious reformer on either side had envisioned this result. Protestant reformers, particularly, were disturbed by the worldliness, pleasure-seeking, commercialism, and sophisticated complexity which they saw increasing around them. They sought salvation, not happiness or progress in this world, and expected to approach heaven through early simplicity and mystical faith. Although rejecting the authority of priests, bishops, and popes as restrictions on Christian liberty, they still believed in Christian fellowship.

One reason for the sudden loss of expansive force in the Reformation is found in its nature as a dissenting movement. For a short season the attention of Protestantism was altogether directed to the papal authority from which it had so recently separated itself, but when it gained strength and independence, its members started to disagree among themselves. This was helped in part by those Protestant leaders who encouraged everyone to study the Scriptures, without realizing the (1) two people, for various reasons, are not going to understand the Bible the same way, and that (2) true believers are likely to take those differences of interpretation very seriously. The bitterness once directed against the Papacy lost none of its intensity when pointed at rivals or enemies nearer home. Nor did the process end; Protestantism has continued to divide into smaller sects until this day. By the seventeenth century the process of decomposition had advanced to such an extent that minor sects came into existence on very unessential points. Yet even among these little bodies there was just as much hatred as among the great. Some of these sects, like the Amish, saw the need to form a society of its own, and abstain, as far as might be, from associations with its rivals. If union gives strength, division brings weakness, and this by itself was enough to deprive Protestantism of its aggressive power. An army divided against itself is in no condition to make warfare against a watchful and vigorous enemy, and this was an enemy which had seen every government and every institution of modern Europe come into existence (many of them at its bidding), which had extinguished paganism from the Roman Empire, compelled the Caesars to obey its mandates, turned back Islam's finest warriors from the heart of France, made the Vikings renounce warfare, and caused Europeans to descend on the Holy Land like a swarm of locusts.

Another early promise of the Reformation remained unfulfilled for a long time. Encouraged by a few humanists like Erasmus, many women had seen in the reformers' message of Christian equality a hope for new recognition and status. Many were moved by religious fervor, suffering hardships and even martyrdom for the Protestant cause. They were to be disappointed. Protestantism, by abolishing religious convents, made marriage more necessary for women than before; there were fewer choices for women who could not marry. Protestant leaders, including both Luther and Calvin, expected women to submit to the overlordship of their husbands, who would reign as patriarchs and interpreters of the Bible in the new Protestant family. On the other hand, the woman's role in the family improved because both Protestants and Catholics began to talk of the family in more positive terms, not simply as an institution necessary for procreation. Love between husband and wife was encouraged. As one English writer put it, "When love is absent between husband and wife, it is like a bone out of joint: there is no ease, no order."

A side effect of the Reformation was the revision of the calendar. Europe had used the Julian calendar since the days of Julius Caesar, which gives each year exactly 365 days. However, it gave every year a few too many minutes, which added up to three quarters of a day every century. By the sixteenth century it was ten days off, just enough for farmers and astronomers to have problems. To fix this problem astronomers calculated that they should drop three leap year days every four hundred years. Pope Gregory XIII accepted this change, so now we call this revision the Gregorian calendar. In 1582 he ordered that October 15 would be the next day after October 4; ten days were "lost" and the world was put back on schedule. Protestant countries, however, because of their dislike of the pope, took a lot longer to adopt the new calendar. England did not accept it until 1752; when that happened a young man in the colonies named George Washington suddenly found his birthday changed from February 11 to February 22. Where the Orthodox Churches were dominant, acceptance took even longer; in Russia they did not adopt it until 1918, one year after the communists took over.(5)

Even in the countries which remained Catholic, the power of the popes was permanently broken. Because of the Council of Trent, we no longer hear much of doctrinal activity, nor of any imaginative and lively popes like Gregory VII, Urban II or Innocent III. With that the Catholic Church became just another religious organization, with little political power outside the Papal State in central Italy; the scepter had departed from Rome.

Top of the page

Cross Versus Crescent: Africa

In 1463, ten years after the Turks captured Constantinople, Pope Pius II announced a crusade to liberate the headquarters of eastern Christianity. No secular leader offered him encouragement, so he decided to lead the crusade himself. He traveled to Ancona, on the east coast of Italy, where he expected the crusaders to gather. Finding almost no soldiers there and already ill, Pius died and the crusade was abandoned.

This attempt at a crusade failed because Europe had outgrown the idea of crusading nearly two hundred years before. In other parts of the world, however, the crusade and its Moslem equivalent, the jihad, remained in fashion for a long time to come. For the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth century religion continued to dominate international politics: bad relations between Christian and Moslem was expected, and warfare between the two was continuous.

Though they now had the edge in technology, the Christians did not do very well at first; the initiative lay with the Ottoman Turks, who did most of the attacking and most of the winning. The Turks made some of their gains at the expense of other Moslem powers--the largest being the complete overthrow and conquest of Egypt's Mameluke Sultanate in 1517--but they never turned their back on the Christians for long. In the Balkans Turkish arms swept all before them, and only the distance and bad weather kept Vienna in Christian hands. Not until the 1680s could Christendom begin the long task of rolling back the Turks, thereby recovering the Balkans for Christianity. In North Africa Turkish intervention turned the growing Spanish control over that anarchic area into a bitterly contested struggle.

Under the greatest Turkish ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), the Ottoman Empire expanded vigorously on every front. After conquering Egypt, the Turks quickly imposed their authority over the Bedouins of Libya, pushed up the Nile into the Sudan, and gained control over the southern entrance to the Red Sea by putting a garrison at Zeila (the northernmost town in modern Somalia) in 1520, and another at the Yemeni port of Aden in 1538. They also supplied a corps of musketeers to Adal, a Moslem state in what is now Djibouti, which the sultan of Adal used to win a crushing victory against Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia). The unfortunate king of Abyssinia found himself hounded from one mountain stronghold to another as the Moslems established themselves on the Ethiopian highlands.

This was a disappointment for the Portuguese. Their control over the Indian Ocean was based solely on sea power, and though the Portuguese admirals were brilliant at using what resources they had--for example, they kept the Arab cities of the East African coast in line without ever committing more than a handful of men ashore--they badly needed an ally on the mainland. In Christian Abyssinia they thought they had the ally they were looking for; they even kidded themselves that the Abyssinian monarch was Prester John.(6) Unfortunately, Prester John and his kingdom never existed, and Abyssinia was no substitute. Instead of uniting with "Prester John" to crush Islam, the Europeans found themselves rescuing the king their ancestors had once dreamed would rescue them! To stop Abyssinia from being overrun completely the Portuguese had to mount the sort of operation they normally tried to avoid, landing troops for a campaign in the interior. This little army of 400 men, commanded by Christopher da Gama (a son of the great explorer Vasco da Gama), came ashore at Massawa in 1541.

The Portuguese expedition got off to a bad start, losing its commander and half its men in its first campaign, but in the next year it redeemed itself by winning a complete victory over the forces of Adal. This allowed the Abyssinian king to recover his kingdom and there were enough Portuguese left to keep Abyssinia on top of its foes for the next generation. The Ottomans responded to this Christian success by occupying all of Eritrea, including Massawa (1557), which cut off Abyssinia from further reinforcement.

Meanwhile in the Mediterranean the Turks had things all their own way. They cleared the Spaniards from Tripoli by 1551, from Algeria (except Oran) by 1555 and from Tunisia by 1574. Not until Spain--with the help of the Pope and some Italian city-states--broke the Turkish fleet at the battle of Lepanto (1571), did Europeans take seriously the idea that the Ottomans might not always be invincible.

In Black Africa Christianity had even less success. Though the king of the Kongo accepted baptism, his kingdom could not be called a Christian one; unlike Europe and the Middle East, where two creeds cannot coexist in the same mind, the African converts added the new beliefs to the animism they still practiced. Moreover, the political alliance between the Kongo and Portugal was useless to both sides. On the east coast the situation was different but the results were the same: the Arabs of the trading cities sullenly accepted Portuguese leadership but always remained Moslem. In the interior the Bantu tribes remained untouched by either Islam or Christianity.

In fairness to the Portuguese it must be admitted that the resources committed by Lisbon were so small that it is not surprising they had little impact. On the mainland, Portugal built only a few forts: Elmina, Axim and Shama on the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), Luanda in Angola, Tete and Sena on the Zambesi River, and an outpost called Mozambique on the east coast. These outposts had between them a commitment of perhaps 1,000 men in all. Traders and missionaries were active, it is true, in the hinterland between the forts, but here again the number involved in the sixteenth century could not have been more than one thousand. The truth is that the voyages of discovery had opened up parts of the world that offered an easier chance of a profit than Africa did and Portuguese energies were now directed to those countries: Brazil, India, Indonesia, China and Japan.

While Spain and Turkey fought a big war in the Mediterranean, Portugal and Morocco waged a smaller version of the same thing. Morocco was usually on the losing end of this because the Portuguese had command of the sea and could thus decide when and where to fight; because of this, for most of the sixteenth century Portugal controlled nearly as much of the Moroccan coastline as the Moroccans did. In 1578 the Portuguese attempted to follow up on this by landing in Morocco the biggest army they had ever sent overseas. The king of Portugal commanded it and he brought along his own candidate for the Moroccan throne. The idea was to make Morocco a satellite state and they were in a hurry to beat the Turks to it.

The expedition came to grief at the battle of Alcazar el Kebir, also known as the battle of the three kings because both the Portuguese king and his tame sultan were killed in the fighting and the sultan on the home side, already mortally ill, expired before it was over. It was a disaster for the Portuguese; all but a handful of their 26,000 men were killed or captured. At a stroke Morocco got the prestige it needed to keep out of the Turkish embrace; Portugal, by contrast, was so shattered that it spent the next sixty-two years under Spanish control.

Top of the page

Cross Versus Crescent: Asia

In the Far East, Portugal conquered the leading Islamic state, the Sultanate of Malacca (on the Malay peninsula), in 1509, and used it as their advance base for trade with the valuable "Spice Islands" of eastern Indonesia. They remained there for a century, and for much of that time Malacca was on the defensive against its Malay neighbors. First there was the ex-sultan of the city, who established himself on a small island near Singapore and attempted unsuccessfully to regain his lost throne. A more serious threat was Acheh on Sumatra, which made four major attacks on Malacca itself, nearly capturing the city the last time (1574-75). There was also trouble with the other Moslem states: Johore (south Malaya), Brunei (Borneo), Bantam (west Java), Mataram (central Java), Demak (east Java), and Makassar (southern Sulawesi), to name a few. All these states had pirates in the local waters, making travel through the Java Sea unsafe for Europeans. To add to the danger, the sultan of Demak sent Moslem missionaries to Borneo, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas, converting the natives to Islam with increasing speed; Islam was popular because it could be used to express political opposition, either against the Hindu-Buddhist kings who ruled Southeast Asia previously, or against the European newcomers. The Portuguese first attempted to counter this threat by seeking allies among non-Moslems. They thought they found one when the Hindu raja of Sunda Kalapa let them build a fort in his city-state, on the northwest corner of Java, but when the Portuguese returned in 1527 they found that Sunda Kalapa had been conquered by Bantam and renamed Jakarta.

Eventually the Portuguese paid tolls to the sultan of Brunei so that they could sail around north Borneo and through the Sulu Sea to reach the Spice Islands without being molested. Catholic missionaries like St. Francis Xavier tried to stop the spread of Islam by converting the non-Moslem Indonesians to Christianity, but time was not on their side; usually they came to an island only to find that the natives had converted to Islam shortly before their arrival. The missionaries were only successful on islands like Amboina, where Islam had not yet established itself; if Islam got to a community first, Catholic missions had no hope of success.(7)

The real reason why the Portuguese colony survived was because its Moslem rivals could never get along with each other. By supporting the moderate sultanates in their quarrels with the religious extremists (Acheh and Demak), Malacca kept all of Indonesia from attacking it at once. But Portugal's early victories gave it more empire than it could handle. Portugal itself, with a population of 1.5 million, never seemed to have enough people to manage everything it had claimed in Africa, Asia and Brazil; often other Europeans like Italians, English and Dutch had to be hired to fill all the crew positions on Portuguese ships. The money made on Far Eastern ventures was spent immediately, either on payments of the king's debts or on policing the Indian Ocean. When other European nations went out to sea, Portugal could not compete, and soon its empire sank into obscurity.(8)

As noted previously, it was the Jesuits who most aggressively sought converts in Asia. At first they were all from Spanish and Portuguese backgrounds, like St. Francis Xavier, who was Portuguese. After 1600, though, the Spanish and Portuguese empires withered away, so French missionaries took their place. The most important of these was Alexander de Rhodes, who labored in the Far East from 1623 to 1645 and gave the Vietnamese language the Western alphabet it uses today.(9)

The Middle East was not fertile ground for mission work. French and Italian explorer-missionaries won some Lebanese and Armenians to the Catholic faith, but here they were converting people who were Christians already. The Middle East, like most of Indonesia, belonged to Islam.(10)

The Catholic missionaries to Asia were divided by the question of how to deal with native culture. Most of them, like the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians, expected a convert to make a complete break with his heritage, because these customs were non-Christian in origin; they should avoid anything hinting of paganism. The Jesuits, however, took the opposite approach, arguing that such an attitude would alienate most of the people they met. Consequently these clergymen dressed as native scholars, and conducted worship in local languages. In China, for example, they declared that the Chinese word tian, which means "heaven," was really another name for God. They studied the writings of Confucius, and concluded that Confucius was not a Chinese god and that his temples were really meeting places for scholars; then they declared that a person offering incense and prayers to his ancestors is not practicing idolatry, but showing a healthy respect for his elders. In India the adaptation went even further; Jesuits dressed as Hindu holy men and used Hindu terminology. They gained many nominal Christians this way, but missionaries from other orders rightly complained that this form of Christianity was little more than another pagan sect. The pope banned Jesuit practices in 1704, and most of the congregations they founded in China and India disappeared, forcing the missionaries of the nineteenth century to start from scratch.

The first Protestants to visit the Far East were the Dutch and English, businessmen who had no burning desire to spread Christianity; in fact, they thought too much missionary activity would be bad for business. The English, for example, were not motivated to send missionaries until the time of John Wesley's evangelical revival (late 18th century). Only in 1813 was the British East India Company compelled to admit missionaries as a condition for the renewal of its charter.

Top of the page

Catholicism in America

The conquistadors who came to the New World were ruthless. Natives who resisted them were massacred; those who did not were enslaved. Driven to work on their new owners' plantations and mines, these unfortunates died by the thousands. The tribes of the Caribbean, who had originally numbered something over 100,000, were completely wiped out; in many mainland areas the population fell to a third of the pre-Columbian level. At the low point, around 1600, there were probably only half as many people in the Americas as there had been a century before.

The ruthlessness of the conquistadors was exceptional even by sixteenth-century standards. It was the Indians' misfortune that the first Europeans they met were not the diplomatic French, nor the practical English and Dutch, but Spanish soldiers who had no scientific curiosity, and only wanted "Christians and gold." The "no quarter" tradition of the Crusaders was very much alive in Spain, and the Spaniards did not waste much pity on the godless. Fear of native numbers and devilish religious practices also encouraged the use of terror. They made few intelligent observations of the peoples and customs that disappeared under their assault. They were as destructive as the first British settlers in Tasmania, who shot on sight the Aboriginal natives and put out poisoned meat for them to find.

Yet if the Spaniards were harsh men, they compared favorably with the murderous Aztecs; tyranny was nothing new in Mexico. In truth, the conquistadors were not directly responsible for most of the native deaths; no sixteenth-century people could commit genocide on such a scale. The killers were European, but microbes, not men: smallpox, measles, typhus, the whooping cough, and diphtheria. Two other deadly scourges, yellow fever and malaria, were brought by ship from Africa, and these mosquito-borne infections quickly made the jungles of Central and South America uninhabitable. The natives had no inherited or acquired immunity to the new diseases and, in Mexico, were overcrowded, so mortality was exceptionally high from the start. It was only after several generations that the Indians began to acquire resistance; by that time the European newcomers and their African slaves outnumbered them.

In spite of Spain's professed interest in winning souls for Christ, we do not hear much of missionary work in the Americas until the second half of the sixteenth century.(11) Here, as in the mother country, the cross and the crown worked together; a government department in Madrid called "the Council of the Indies" controlled all important appointments in the Latin American churches. Tens of thousands of priests worked to Christianize Latin America, but in most areas they only did a superficial job. The Indians were not willing to give up their pre-Christian heritage, so they altered Christianity to fit in; veneration of both Mary and ancient gods like Quetzalcoatl was not seen as inconsistent, for instance, and today's street festivals are a bewildering mixture of Catholic and pagan symbolism. This may have happened because all the Spanish missions stubbornly refused to train local native clergy.

On a positive note the Latin American missionary effort also included many dedicated people who fought against the political and economic oppression of the natives imposed by the country which sent them. In the mid-seventeenth century, for example, Antonio Vieira, a Portuguese Jesuit, won concessions for Indians and blacks in Brazil from the Portuguese government. In Paraguay between 1650 and 1720, the Jesuits tried an ambitious social experiment to both Christianize and protect the Indians. They gathered natives into self-sustaining villages called reductions, and they received schedules telling them when it was time for instruction, prayer, work in the fields or at trades, religious festivals and recreation. At the peak there were over 60 reductions, containing more than 100,000 people. The controversial experiment collapsed in the eighteenth century because of Spanish-Portuguese disputes over the boundary between Paraguay and Brazil, and increased opposition to the Jesuit order.

The first efforts to convert the Indians in what is now the southwestern U.S. were wiped out by a revolt of New Mexico's Indians in the early 1680s. The Spanish priests returned, and by 1692 they had rebuilt their churches in New Mexico. In 1686 a Franciscan, Father Kino, began working with the Pima Indians of Arizona, while another Franciscan, Father Damian Massanet, built a mission in Texas in 1690. Thirty years later there were six flourishing missions along the San Antonio River; the most famous of these is the Alamo.

The Spaniards claimed California in the sixteenth century, but for over two hundred years they did nothing with what is now considered one of the most desirable places in the world to live. Finally in 1769, they started settling this region, using a missionary, Father Junipero Serra, to lead the way. By 1823 twenty-one missions had been founded along the California coast.

Because Canada was first explored and colonized by France, the missionaries who went there were French from the start. The Church of New France grew from 3,000 believers in 1650 to just over 75,000 in 1763, the year France handed over Canada to England. During this time some courageous priests tried to convert the local Indian tribes, like the Hurons and the Iroquois; many of them lost their lives. The French attempt at evangelization only succeeded in the St. Lawrence valley, since that is where most of the French citizens lived. One reason was the activity of the fur traders; they brought alcohol and venereal disease to the Indians, which killed many and created a moral climate that worked against the establishment of an Indian church. Another was the fact that there were so few people to do the work. France, unlike England, was never willing to send more than a few thousand settlers to North America.(12) The French explored the Mississippi River a hundred years before English-speaking settlers got there, but because of their numbers, the only part of this region where you can find evidence of their presence is the state of Louisiana.

Top of the page

Orthodox Growing Pains

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Moscow grew to become the dominant city of Russia, helped in part by the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1300 the leader of the Russian Church, the Metropolitan of Kiev, transferred his see (headquarters) to the northeastern city of Vladimir; then in 1325 he moved it to Moscow. From this time on the clergy actively helped manage the state, and they used the weapon of excommunication against Moscow's enemies.

Under the first tsar, Ivan the Great (1462-1505), a monk named Philotheos proposed the "Third Rome" theory. According to this, when Rome fell to the barbarians in the fifth century, God gave His earthly authority to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. But eventually Constantinople also fell into sin, culminating with its submission to the pope in 1438, in a last-ditch effort to bring in help from the West before the city fell to the Turks. Now, because Ivan had married a niece of the last Eastern Roman emperor, God made Moscow, the capital of the last Orthodox Christian nation, His city on earth. As Philotheos put it, "Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, and a fourth there shall not be." To those who subscribe to this theory, the Roman Empire's final end came when a Bolshevik goon squad gunned down the last tsar in a basement in 1918.

For thirty years after the death of the next important tsar, Ivan the Terrible, civil war and foreign invasions tore Russia. During the last three years of this period, called "the Time of Troubles," a Polish prince sat on the throne in Moscow, because the royal family had died out earlier. Russia was saved because in 1610 the Church got a clever new patriarch, Philaret from the Romanov family. He used the pulpit to rally the people in the name of patriotism and Orthodox Christianity; Holy Moscow, the "Third Rome," must not be allowed to fall to the Catholic "heretics" of the West. The people in surrounding cities gave up one third of their possessions to finance a crusade, and soon a great national army--which to the Poles must have appeared to spring spontaneously out of the earth--marched on Moscow, led by a poor butcher named Kuzma Minin and a boyar named Dmitri Pozharsky. Praying, fasting, and implacable, it wiped out the Poles and liberated Moscow. Then Philaret proposed that his sixteen-year-old son, Michael Romanov, become the next tsar, and because the wife of Ivan the Terrible had also come from the Romanov family, he was acceptable to everybody. Michael's descendants ruled Russia for the next 304 years, until the Russian monarchy was ended by the revolutions of 1917.

The late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century saw Russia explore and colonize Siberia. Behind these explorers, traders and Cossacks came the Orthodox Church. Then in 1782 they crossed the Bering Strait and set up three settlements on the other side: Kodiak Island and Sitka in Alaska, and Ft. Ross in northern California. Thus Orthodoxy got its first foothold in America; its church in Sitka is now a national monument, and today Orthodox churches have icons dedicated to "St. Herman of Alaska."

The Orthodox Church was not affected by the Protestant Reformation, but it underwent a serious controversy of its own in the mid-seventeenth century. It began in 1652 when the patriarch Nikon, perhaps the most brilliant man who ever led the Russian Church, declared he would reform its practices; he had been to the monasteries of Greece and was appalled at the differences between Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. Among the changes Nikon proposed were:

  1. Making the sign of the Cross with three fingers, instead of two.
  2. Having outdoor processions face toward the sun, instead of away from it.
  3. Spelling the name of the Savior Iesus in Cyrillic letters, not Isus.
Since this was not a reformation of beliefs, these differences look trivial to us, but to the Russian who lived by ritual, they put one's salvation on the line. Most Russian Christians refused to accept these changes, feeling that it was the Greek Church that was in error, not the Russian; furthermore, many felt that it was a sure sign that the Second Coming was near if the "One True Church" fell into error. Those who opposed Nikon's reforms found a leader in the extremely pious archpriest Avvakum. The tsar, who favored the reforms, struck back savagely, equating resistance with both heresy and treason. Avvakum was exiled to Siberia, and later burned at the stake; his memoirs of his experiences are still emotion-gripping today. Nikon's reforms were imposed upon the Church by force, but eventually Nikon himself was exiled because he was too independent-minded for the tsar's liking. Those Christians who never accepted the reforms are called "Old Believers," and a few million of them still live in Russia today.

When Peter the Great (1682-1725) modernized Russia, the Church became his greatest critic.(13) Peter removed the Church's tax-exempt status to help pay for his projects, like the building of St. Petersburg. When the patriarch died in 1700, Peter refused to appoint a successor. The patriarch's office was replaced with a "Holy Synod," a committee of ten priests led by a tsar-appointed lay member. For the next two hundred years the Church was just another branch of the tsarist government.

Top of the page

The Thirty Years War

Despite the treaties promising religious toleration in the sixteenth century, religion continued to dominate politics for the first half of the seventeenth. In England, the Crown defended the Church of England against radicals who thought it needed to make a complete break with the past, and against Catholics who remained loyal to their faith and dreamed of returning England to the Roman Catholic fold. In 1605 eight Catholic extremists gained access to the cellar of Westminster Palace and filled it with nearly two tons of gunpowder, intending to blow it up when the king and Parliament held a meeting in the rooms above. The "Gunpowder Plot" was discovered and thwarted only at the last moment when one conspirator told his brother-in-law not to attend the meeting, arousing suspicion. In 1610 France's beloved king and ex-Huguenot leader, Henry IV, was murdered by a fanatic who claimed that Henry was preparing to destroy the Catholic Church. Finally there were two big wars started over matters of religion: the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War.

The most devastating conflict in European history before the twentieth century was the Thirty Years War (1618-48). It started over the question of whether a state in the Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, should have a Catholic or Protestant ruler, and continued long after most people had forgotten the cause, because it suited the interests of France and Sweden. Nor was the fighting restricted to a line of battle; the participating armies were too small to hold a line, so they wandered all over Germany, causing destruction wherever they went. A horde of servants, dependents and other civilians followed each army, looking to sell goods & services to the soldiers or to snatch something the soldiers left behind in their looting, like remoras riding a shark in search of leftovers. By the time the war ended two thirds of the population had perished in some areas, and Germany was so wasted that it took two centuries to recover.

Another factor in the war's devastation was that many soldiers were mercenaries. In the sixteenth century the medieval armies of knights and peasant levies went out of fashion because a combined unit of musketeers and pikemen could beat them. However, such a unit required considerable discipline and drilling; a five-foot-long muzzle-loading musket was inaccurate, not easy to handle, and the pikemen had to protect the musketeers while they reloaded. Most states did not know how to draft and train competent musketeers and pikemen, so they resorted to hiring professionals, who didn't care what nation or religion they were fighting for. Now battles were fought by soldiers who saw war as a business, and they could change sides at the drop of a hat (a hat filled with silver, that is).(14) Since the participating states often did not have the money to pay their soldiers, looting and pillaging became an accepted practice around every camp; many civilians joined the army so that in this eat-or-be-eaten society they would be the looters, not the looted. It got to the point that the arrival of an army in a neighborhood was always an unwelcome sight, and small groups of soldiers who strayed from the main body were likely to be attacked by peasants wielding pitchforks and shovels, no matter what side they were on.

The stage was set in the opening years of century by the Holy Roman emperor, Rudolf II (1576-1612). He destroyed many of Germany's Protestant churches, placed restrictions on the rights of Protestants to worship freely, and used the Treaty of Augsburg as an excuse to persecute those Protestants still living in Catholic-ruled states. The Protestants responded by creating an alliance of princes and cities called the Evangelical Union (1608), and when an anti-Protestant alliance called the Catholic League was formed in the following year, central Europe was polarized to the point that another war became inevitable. The spark that set the continent ablaze was lit in Bohemia, where memories of the Hussites were still strong. Bohemia's Protestants wanted to be ruled by one of their own, but Bohemia had been under the rule of the Catholic Hapsburgs since they inherited the land in 1526. The next emperor, Ferdinand II, felt compelled to show them who was in charge. On May 23, 1618, a mob of enraged Protestants broke into the palace in Prague, seized two of Ferdinand's ministers and their secretary, and threw them out of a third-story window. This event was called "the Defenestration of Prague," and Catholics called it a miracle because the Hapsburg agents were only slightly injured (Protestants noted that they landed in a great rubbish heap).

We divide the war into four parts: the Bohemian, Danish, Swedish and French phases, each named after the leader of the Protestant side. Bohemia did not receive much help from outside, while the Austrian Hapsburgs received men and money from their Spanish in-laws. The result was that Bohemia was quickly overrun, and Protestantism was eradicated in the first country to successfully challenge Rome. This woke up German Protestants to the prospect of a Catholic emperor attacking them too, and Denmark's King Christian IV announced he would champion the Protestant cause. He marched an army into northern Germany, but Denmark was no longer a powerful nation (that ended with the Vikings), and Ferdinand didn't find it difficult to drive him out again.

Now the Hapsburg victories alarmed most German princes who--despite religion--had no wish to see an emperor with real power ruling a reunited Germany. At this point Cardinal Richelieu, who ran the foreign policy of France, stepped in. France profited from the continuation of the war in Germany, and Richelieu had no intention of letting peace break out just because the Germans wanted it. At the very least the war consumed the resources of France's rival, the Hapsburgs, and since he was subsidizing the Dutch in their ongoing rebellion against the Spanish Hapsburgs, so he would now pay someone to fight the Austrian Hapsburgs. Consequently he would spend the rest of his life backing the Protestant cause, despite his high position in the Catholic Church. In Sweden's King Gustavus Adolphus he found the perfect instrument for his plans.

Richelieu's envoys offered to pay Gustavus a subsidy equal to his country's entire annual revenue if he would invade Germany. Being a Lutheran himself, Gustavus needed no prompting; he had watched the Hapsburg advance with dismay. In 1630 he landed on Germany's Baltic coast with 20,000 men. During the next two years Gustavus marched up and down Germany and won every battle the Swedes fought, even the one he got killed in!

The death of Gustavus Adolphus caused what was left of the Swedish expeditionary force to withdraw to the north, and after the Hapsburgs won a big victory the German princes agreed to a general peace. Richelieu saw that something new would have to be added to keep France's enemies from solving the equation. To do that he transformed the war from a religious dispute to a political struggle; in 1635 France declared war.

Though Spain had the strongest army in Western Europe, the Spaniards were unable to participate fully in the war because the ongoing revolt in the Netherlands kept them busy. France's entry into the war turned this distraction into a serious liability. In 1643 the French attacked and destroyed Spain's best soldiers in Belgium (the battle of Rocroi). This was followed by a Swedish victory, and Emperor Ferdinand III (who had succeeded his father in 1637), decided the game was up. He declared that he was dropping the imperial idea, and a peace conference opened in Westphalia. Since Richelieu had died the year before, the French no longer tried to keep the Germans from coming to some form of agreement. Eventually, after four years of negotiations, they reconciled the conflicting claims of the various belligerents and they signed the treaty (October 24, 1648).

The final score was that France and Sweden won and the German people as a whole (though not all of their princes) lost. The borders of the Empire shrank so that the Low Countries, Switzerland and north Italy were no longer within it. Finally, they agreed that all Christians in the Empire would be tolerated, no matter what their creed or place of residence.

Top of the page

The Puritans and the English Civil War

Calvinism got a different name in each country where people tried it. In England its followers earned the name Puritan, because they believed that the Church of England must be purified of its "popishness." As noted last week, the Anglican Church was a curious sort of compromise: its doctrine was Protestant, but its sacraments and organization were not. Anglican bishops presided over dioceses, just like their Catholic counterparts, and the Sunday services closely resembled Mass. Puritans not only wanted to do away with this, but also with symbols like the crucifix and wedding rings (the latter reminded them of the pope's ring).

The Puritans first appeared in the 1560s, early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Though she was also anti-Catholic, the queen thought the Puritans went too far, declaring that Calvin's followers were "overbold with God Almighty, making too many subtle scannings of His blessed will, as lawyers do with human testaments." She repressed them, because she saw the Calvinist practice of lay participation in Church affairs could also lead to a bigger voice for ordinary people in the government, an indirect threat to the monarchy. Because of the queen's reaction, the Puritans split into two factions, which had the same beliefs but offered different solutions: the main branch continued its efforts to reform the Church at home, while the smaller, more radical "separatists" decided the Church of England was unredeemable, and sought to replace it with their own.

Though Elizabeth's successor, King James I, gave us the King James Bible, which was considered the last word in English translations of the Scriptures for the next three hundred years, he didn't like the Puritans either. Insisting on his royal prerogatives as head of both Church and state, he passed laws requiring conformity to the Church of England. In 1607 the separatists decided they couldn't take any more of this, so they sailed to the Netherlands. Here they could practice their faith freely, since Amsterdam was the most tolerant city in Europe. However, a few years later they concluded that Amsterdam was too tolerant. They didn't want their children growing up to be Dutch, so in 1620 they pulled up roots again, chartered an English ship, the Mayflower, and sailed across the Atlantic. These became the Pilgrim Fathers, and we will come back to them when we look at the spread of Christianity in colonial America.

Despite the derision of less committed Englishmen, and the royal measures taken against them, the Puritans were very influential. Like other Calvinists, they believed that a person can prove his fitness for salvation by being law-abiding, industrious, sober and thrifty, so they prospered in the new capitalist society of England. As they made their way into the House of Commons, their sober and responsible behavior imprinted itself on English society. These are the same qualities that would soon tame the American wilderness.

England was delighted in 1613 when James I gave his daughter Elizabeth in marriage to Frederick V, a Protestant German prince. It was outraged five years later, when James announced that his son Charles would marry Infanta, the Catholic Spanish princess. James pursued this strange proposal for years, despite the opposition of Parliament and the common people, even arranging for the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, a notorious Spanish foe.(15) He finally declared war on Spain in 1624--after Spain's Infanta rejected his son. All his reign he quarreled with Parliament over who should run foreign policy, dissolving it once when he could not get his way.

Some have said that James I steered the ship of state straight toward the rocks, but left his son Charles I to wreck it. Like his father, he believed in the absolute authority of kings, and in addition was pro-Catholic in his sympathies, and totally incompetent where foreign policy was concerned (somehow he managed to get England involved in a war with France before it could get out of its hopeless war with Spain). These wars left the royal purse empty, and since the king's only income came from the royal family's personal estates, he would have to turn to Parliament for more money. Parliament was now largely Puritan, and in return for financing the Crown, it called for the elimination of "papist" practices from the Church of England.

For Charles this was too much, and he decided that if he could not get along with Parliament, he would get along without it. For the next eleven years (1629-40) he ruled on his own, not allowing Parliament to convene. The only thing that kept him from being an absolute monarch was the lack of money. With no Parliament to approve new taxes, the king became very clever at finding other ways to make money. He fined citizens eligible for knighthood who did not become knights, pawned the royal jewels, sold trading monopolies in various fields of commerce, and made the entire country (not just the ports) pay the "ship money" tax, which supported the Royal Navy.

Charles might have gotten away with this indefinitely had he not insisted on imposing his own religious views on everyone. In 1637 he and the Archbishop of Canterbury decided to make everyone in Scotland join the Church of England. The Presbyterian Scots swore to resist to the death. Charles decided to raise an army against Scotland, but this would cost more than a million pounds, a sum of money that could only come from the body which controlled England's purse--Parliament. He allowed Parliament to convene for this purpose in 1640, but it insisted on talking about eleven years of grievances, so three weeks later the king dismissed it; this was called the Short Parliament. A few months later a Scottish army invaded the northern counties of England, so Charles, now desperate, allowed Parliament to meet again. This was the beginning of the Long Parliament, which held a nearly continuous series of sessions for the next thirteen years.

The Long Parliament permanently destroyed the power of the king. It took away his right to dissolve Parliament, and declared all taxation without its consent invalid. The king accepted these measures and many more, but balked when the religious question came up again; Parliament also wanted to do away with the Church of England's bishops and the Book of Common Prayer.

By 1642 relations between the king and Parliament were so bad that the king, fearing for his safety, moved the royal court from London to York. Parliament voted to raise an army, and Charles called upon his loyal followers to join him. That marked the beginning of the English Civil War. The king's followers, mostly aristocrats, were called Cavaliers because of their fancy hairstyles and clothing, and a dashing, "devil-may-care" attitude; they believed in a strong monarchy and the Church of England. Parliament's champions were called "Roundheads" because they had short hair and simple helmets; they wanted to limit or destroy the monarchy, and favored either a Presbyterian-style church running the whole country, or independent Puritan congregations.

The first two years of the war saw both sides evenly matched, with neither gaining a clear advantage over the other. That changed when a Puritan member of Parliament, a country gentleman named Oliver Cromwell, turned out to be a military genius. He organized and trained an army in his native East Anglia so effectively that it got the nickname "Ironsides," because as Cromwell said, it could not be "broken or divided." When this unit won a major victory in 1644, Cromwell was promoted to command all Parliamentary forces, so he could convert them into "Ironsides," too. He succeeded, and one year later the Roundheads were unstoppable.

The secret behind Cromwell's success was a remarkable combination of humility, arrogance, tolerance and firmness. He always believed he was doing the Lord's will, and that God knew it. At another battle he won, the battle of Naseby (June 1645), he showed the same kind of faith expressed by the heroes of the Old Testament. Afterwards he wrote, "I can say this of Naseby: that when I saw the enemy draw up and march in gallant order toward us, and we a company of poor, ignorant men . . . I could not . . . but smile out to God in praises, in assurance of victory, because God would, by things that are naught, bring to naught things that are. Of which I had great assurance. And God did it." His sense of divine mission forged an army that fought for a cause, rather than pay or spoils, but he never expressed to the common soldiers his own tolerance for other men's beliefs, so his army also became an army of fanatics; this would be Cromwell's great tragedy.

After Naseby, King Charles surrendered, but he surrendered to the Scots, thinking that he would be treated better in the country of his ancestors. Then the Puritans started arguing; moderates in Parliament wanted a (limited) king and a national Presbyterian Church, while radicals in Cromwell's army wouldn't stand for either. Seeing his enemy divided, Charles made a deal with the Scots, promising to make England join the Scottish Presbyterian Church if they would take up his cause, but Cromwell easily beat the Scottish army in August 1648. This second war only served to destroy the compromise which many still believed was possible. Now Cromwell started the country on a course which could not be halted until it had reached its conclusion. When the victorious soldiers returned to London they expelled 140 Presbyterian members from Parliament, leaving only a "Rump Parliament" of 60 Puritans. Then they put Charles on trial for his life, knowing that if the king had won he would have shown no mercy toward them. They beheaded him on January 30, 1649, and he went to his execution with a dignity rarely seen in his 24 years on the throne.

For the next eleven years England was a Puritan "commonwealth," run by a military junta in which Cromwell was the dominant figure. The force that ultimately made this government fail was the intolerance of those who ran it. Determined to destroy all ungodliness, they established what they called a "rule of the saints," based on the Biblical laws of Moses. These men had no patience with checks & balances or secular laws, and put in their place a tyranny of the saints.

Cromwell did everything he could to control them. In 1653 he persuaded Parliament to adopt England's first written constitution, the Instrument of Government. It declared Cromwell to be the state's Lord Protector, and under him was an executive body called the Council of State. It also guaranteed religious freedom to all Christians except Anglicans and Catholics. The Puritan-run Parliament, however, refused to abide by its terms, and Cromwell had to rule as a dictator, using military force to get things done.

Oliver Cromwell died on a stormy day in 1658 that did not fail to impress the superstitious. By this time England was tired of revolution and Puritanism, and when Charles II, the son of the executed king, promised to rule as a limited monarch, he was invited to return from exile in France.

The twenty-five-year reign of Charles II (1660-85) was the most successful of the Stuart kings. Under him the whole tone of English life changed. The young king brought to England the extravagant art and lifestyle of the French court (we are now up to the time of Louis XIV). The drab, serious clothes of the Puritan era gave way to elegant fashions and enormous wigs, and Charles imitated Louis by keeping a series of mistresses.(16) Even the physical appearance of London changed; after two thirds of it was destroyed in the great fire of 1666, it was rebuilt fancier than before, with 52 churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral. The theaters, once banned as sinful and godless places, reopened. Occasionally there was a voice from the Puritan past (John Bunyan and John Milton wrote their great Christian novels, Pilgrim's Progress and Paradise Lost, during this time), but it was seldom heard in the constant party at the court of Charles II.

Charles II, like the previous rulers of England, believed in a moderate Church of England with himself in charge of it, but he also had the diplomatic and political skills the other Stuarts lacked. He succeeded where his father and grandfather had failed in doing two things: living with Parliament and living without it. He accomplished the first by making sure a bunch of men who agreed with him were always in Parliament, and organized them into the first modern political party--the Tories. Getting along without Parliament was more difficult, since it meant getting along without money (Charles had a reputation for spending more than he should), but he figured out a way to do this, too. Louis XIV of France wanted to see Parliament as inactive as possible, since an active Parliament full of Protestants was likely to start a war with France. In 1670 Louis and Charles signed a secret treaty which gave the English king an annual subsidy of $10 million in return for a promise from Charles to never call Parliament to session except when required to by law. Charles also promised English non-interference in French foreign policy (Parliament wouldn't let him keep this), and to turn Catholic, which he finally did on his deathbed.

Long before Charles II died, rumors of his treaty with the French leaked out, and enough people were afraid of the prospect of an absolute, Catholic monarch to form England's second political party, the Whigs. The Whig platform promised both limited government and toleration of all Christians except Catholics, who were considered foreign agents. They saw their worst fears realized when the next king, James II, announced that he would make England a Catholic country and run the government without Parliament's interference. At first the Tories thought they could live with the monarchy, because James was old and didn't have a male heir, but on June 10, 1688, James became father to a son. The unthinkable had happened--England had a hereditary Catholic ruler! Protestant England united against this threat, and invited William of Orange, the current Dutch leader and husband of James' Protestant daughter Mary, to become the next king of England. William accepted, and when he arrived, the king's army and government deserted him, forcing James to flee to France. Englishmen called this event the Glorious Revolution, because they won it without firing a shot. Thus, Protestantism was saved in both England and America.

Top of the page

Some Statistics on Religion in the Early Eighteenth Century

On the map of Europe Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Moslems still held pretty much the same territories in 1700 that they had in 1600. The most visible changes were the Ottoman Empire's loss of Hungary to Austria, and the expansion of Russian Orthodoxy from the Baltic to the Pacific. Russia annexed eastern Poland just in time to prevent Poland's Orthodox Eastern Slavs from converting to Catholicism, and Peter the Great took Estonia and Latvia from Sweden. A tendency towards religious uniformity in every state was the main trend of the time. Everywhere pressure was put on those minority groups who subscribed to a different faith from that of their rulers; this pressure ranged from simple discrimination in laws and taxes to active persecution. The less sure and the less concerned changed their habits; the faithful either moved to a friendlier country or were expelled outright. As they exchanged minorities, the Dutch steadily became more Calvinist, the Belgians more Catholic. The same thing happened between the Protestant and Catholic areas of Germany. This continuing process was more important than the dramatic persecutions: a quarter of a million Moslems expelled from Spain, 200,000 Jews killed in the Polish-Ukrainian war (1648-67), 200,000 Huguenots expelled from France.

The Huguenot expulsion was caused when Louis XIV meddled in religious affairs. Since Protestants by nature tend to question authority, he didn't like them much. Louis also wanted to mend relations with the Papacy, which had been hostile to France since the Thirty Years War. In 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes, and thousands of Huguenots fled the country to escape a new round of persecution, taking arts and industries with them. (E.g., French Protestants founded the English silk industry) Those who chose to stay were ordered to give their children a Catholic education or none at all. They gave it, no doubt with a sneer and an air of sarcasm that destroyed all faith in it. Consequently, France became the first nation of non-practicing Catholics. The next generation produced that supreme mocker of Christianity, Voltaire (1694-1778), who lived in an age when all Frenchmen conformed to the Roman Church and hardly anyone believed in it.

Religion also played a role in determining who could be king. We have already chronicled the conversion of France's Henry IV and the English examples from the Tudor & Stuart periods. Another example came from Sweden; since the Swedes would not accept a Catholic monarch, Queen Christina had to abdicate when she became a Catholic in 1654. She doesn't seem to have missed the crown much; she spent the rest of her life in Italy as a swashbuckling adventurer, in the manner of the Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac.

Listing religious statistics gives the impression that religion played as large a role in European life as ever. This is true of the first half of the seventeenth century, when the increasingly effective machinery of the state was frequently employed in the support of bigotry; it is not true of the second half, though. The Thirty Years War made Europeans sick of the idea of killing in the name of God, and the treaty of Westphalia put mutual tolerance of Catholicism and Protestantism in writing, making sure that religious wars would go from current events to just a bad memory. Gradually tolerance spread to include Jews and the not-so-religious; the fear of God, religious fervor and institutions of the Church entered a definite decline; from this time on the proportion of behavior determined by religion has decreased with every generation. The eighteenth century produced its own equivalent of John Huss and Martin Luther in the person of John Wesley, but nowhere could it produce someone with enough passion to burn him. Royal politics replaced differences in faith as the main cause of conflicts, and at the end of the eighteenth century, ideology would emerge as just a potent force for starting wars as the name of God had once been.

From the burning ordeal of the Reformation era, one book alone came out unscathed. It was the Bible. It spontaneously vindicated for itself what Wycliffe in the former times, and Luther more lately, had claimed for it. And not only did it hold its ground, but it became more powerful than ever it had been before. The press multiplied it in every language without end, until there was scarcely a cottage in reformed Europe that did not possess a copy.

As the Church's grip loosened on the common people, the men of science made their appearance. Before 1600 their numbers were pathetically few, their thought hobbled by medieval ideas, their language contorted by the need to express every idea in Latin and to avoid teaching something the Church might call heresy. In the seventeenth century their numbers grew, their freedom to speculate increased, their language simplified and their discipline became more organized and respectable (e.g., astronomy could no longer be confused with astrology and the exact science of chemistry was separated from the magic known as alchemy). Even Louis XIV patronized them--though he probably didn't care much for their ideas--to keep up with the thriving schools of science supported by the kings of England. The roll call of names in seventeenth-century science is that of the founders of the modern world: Galileo, Descartes, Harvey, Hooke, Newton, Huygens, Malpighi, and Leeuwenhoek. Most of these names are familiar to us, while most of the kings, statesmen and generals of their time are only remembered by historians, so we can argue that the scientists were really the most important figures of the seventeenth century.

As knowledge increased the centers of higher learning moved from the ancient colleges of Italy to Amsterdam, Paris and London. This happened because the continent's economic center had also moved northward. Here was the most wealth, here were the largest cities, here were the trades that demanded it. Above all, here was the largest concentration of literate people. Surplus wealth is necessary if education is to be available for everyone; so is the printing press. The equation is not literacy = scientific genius, though many Protestants would dearly like to think so; it is literacy = a progressive society and more responsible government. Protestantism emphasized the need for every believer to have a Bible in his own language and to study the scriptures, so they considered literacy important, and the Protestant third of Europe was more literate than the rest. Yet the same area was probably more richer and more literate at the beginning of the Reformation. The Reformation, scientific revolution and the move from divine-right monarchy to representative government can all be seen as consequences of Gutenberg's printing press.(17)

This is the End of Chapter 6.


1. I noted previously that the last part of Moslem Spain had been conquered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. The Moors (Spanish Moslems), however, took a lot longer to uproot; many of them hid in the mountains, until the last of them were expelled in 1609.

2. During the next few years he was charged with heresy and acquitted ten times; by now Lutheranism had made the Inquisition suspicious of anyone whose behavior was unusual.

3. Francis Xavier called the Japanese the "best people [the Europeans had] yet discovered," but he and other missionaries had an awful time with the Japanese language. The problem was that the grammar is very complicated, using different forms which depend on whether the user is speaking to a social equal, inferior, or superior; they decided that the devil invented the language just to make their job more difficult! The priests ended up using native interpreters, so we do not know for sure if their Japanese converts understood what they were joining. They may have thought Christianity was a new and interesting Buddhist sect.

4. Among the books banned by the Index were the Koran, which had been printed in Venice in 1530, forty-eight editions of the Bible, and every publication from sixty-one printers. Today Catholic authors writing about doctrine still submit their works for review, and if approved received endorsements which read nihil obstat ("nothing conflicts") and imprimatur ("it may be printed"). A Catholic friend of mine told me that to keep track of what is prohibited, the Vatican keeps one copy of every banned book in its library; consequently the Vatican library has the world's largest collection of occult literature!

5. Communists refer to their coup in Russia, which took place on November 7, 1917 (according to our reckoning), as the "October Revolution," because it was October 25 on the Russian calendar at the time.

6. In the twelfth century, Europeans got the idea that somewhere in Asia was a Christian king named Prester John, who was richer and more powerful than all other kings put together, and terrorized Moslems everywhere. Crusaders dreamed that if only they could join forces with this awesome king, they could eliminate Islam once and for all. Actually there was an anti-Moslem king coming their way, but it was Genghis Khan! After the Mongol terror came and went, Europeans decided that they had been mistaken; Prester John was real, but he lived in Africa, not Asia. By 1500 Portuguese explorers narrowed down his possible location to the northeastern corner of that continent; when they found a Christian king in Ethiopia in 1520, they rejoiced. That neither the lion-guarded king nor any of his subjects had heard of Prester John did not faze the Portuguese at all, so elated were they to have found him at last.

7. It was a similar story in the Philippines. Spanish priests converted most of the country, but not the southwest corner, which became Moslem a few years before they arrived. In fact, a sultan named Suleiman had to be ousted from Manila before Spain could make it the capital.

8. Their Southeast Asian interests were taken over by the Dutch in the early seventeenth century.

9. Even before the French conquered Vietnam in the second half of the 19th century, it was one of their favorite missionary enterprises; they succeeded in converting 10% of the population.

10. Robert Bruce, a nineteenth-century Irish missionary to Persia, explained how difficult it was to spread the Gospel in that country with these words: "I am not reaping the harvest; I can scarcely claim to be sowing the seed; I am hardly ploughing the soil; but I am gathering out the stones. That, too, is missionary work; let it be supported by loving sympathy and fervent prayer."

11. In at least one case it was done out of fear that the Protestants would beat them to it. In 1564 a French Huguenot colony, called Ft. Caroline, was established where Jacksonville, Florida now stands. This was in an area already claimed by Spain, so one year later Don Pedro Menendez wiped out this nest of heretics and founded St. Augustine nearby.

12. There was such a shortage of women that at least once France shipped its prostitutes to the colonies, in the hope that this would make the male colonists stop flirting with Indian women.

13. One of Peter's reforms included shaving the whiskers off all his subjects. Russians were very attached to their beards, and the Church called shaving an offense against God, because man had been created in God's image, hair and all. Later Peter moderated his stand, and allowed Russians to keep their beards if they paid a special beard tax first.

14. Machiavelli never cared for mercenaries; he warned that a poor mercenary commander will ruin his employer, and a good commander will destroy him!

15. Raleigh's tobacco plants, however, were allowed to live, dooming future generations to lung cancer.

16. The most famous mistress was Nell Gwyn, whose irrepressible wit and fondness for shocking people made her a seventeenth-century version of the rock star Madonna. Once, when a jeering crowd mistook her for a Catholic mistress of the king, Nell leaned from her coach and shouted, "Be silent, good people, I am the Protestant whore!"

17. In the Middle Ages literacy was confined to the clergy and a few merchants; it cannot have exceeded 5% of the adult male population. By 1715, thanks to widespread printing, percentages reached 50% in the Protestant north, a maximum of 25% in the Catholic south. Some--but by no means all--of this difference was caused by increasing urbanization in the north, since townspeople by nature have always been more literate than country folk.

Support this site!

© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A History of Christianity


Other History Papers

Beyond History