book review · history · Learning · Philosophy

A brief history of Christianity (Part 3 of 4)

Based on the book Dominion by Tom Holland. This post covers The discovery of the New World, the reformation period from c1500 to c1750 and overlaps with what we now call the Renaissance era…

In Spain Isabella is queen of Castile, and her husband, king Ferdinand of the neighbouring realm of Aragon have pushed back the Saracens to the kingdom of Grenada on Spain’s southern most shore. In 1478 they ‘dedicate Spain to the service of God’ and get papal consent to establish an inquisition under royal control. The Jews were given the choice of becoming Christians or leaving to exile. By 1492 they have taken Grenada back from the Saracens and in that same year they finance Christopher Columbus to find a Western route to the Orient when he pledges the profits from such a venture to the re-conquest of Jerusalem.

He goes on by Christmas of that year to have found the West Indies and the New World though not India.

By 1519 Hernan Cortes with 500 soldiers, travels to America as it is now known. He heads for the capital of the Inca’s, Tenochtitlan, and in an audacious move captures the city and deposes its emperor. Of course they find the Inca traditions of human sacrifice abhorrent and its temples and pyramids of razed to the ground. Between putting many to death by the sword and many others dying of exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity, millions died. Others were forced into slavery.

There were some colonists who took issue with this. In 1514 a colonist Bartolome de las Casas found himself convicted of the sinful mistreatment of the ‘Indians’ as they were known, freeing his slaves and fighting for the freedom of others. He used arguements from Thomas Aquinas stating ‘for they are our brothers, and Christ gave his life for them.’ The head of the Dominicans at the time, Thomas Cajetan attempted to shift the tide on this. He argued that the teachings of the Church were universal in their reach; that the kingdoms of the Indians were legitimate states; that Christianity should be imposed, not by force but solely by means of persuasion; that neither kings, nor emperors, nor the church itself had any right to ordain their conquest.’ However he is ignored.

From there the Spanish and Portuguese conquests proceed at a pace, with Peru, Brazil and the Philippines, with the doctrine espoused by Aristotle, that it was to the benefit of barbarians to be ruled by ‘civilised and virtuous princes’ and in the name of eliminating idolatry, human sacrifice and paganism. De las Casas continued to argue that every mortal, Christian or not had rights derived from God: ‘Derechos Humanos’ or ‘human rights’.

In Rome in 1506 work begins on an immense new church, the largest in the world on the opposite side of the Tiber from the Lateran (where he Popes had held court), in the Vatican, where St Peter lay buried. This is to become St Peters Cathedral. Taxes are raised both for the building of the church but also to raise an army in Germany against the Turks.

In 1517 a theological dispute about the methods the Dominicans employed to raise funds for the papal building program led a particular Dominican friar and professor in biblical studies, Martin Luther in Wittenberg to issue a formal objection in the form of 95 written theses. He was helped in publicising these by issuing pamphlets to the populace produced on newly minted printing presses. These are declared heretical, particularly that Luther viewed Scripture (as defined in the Canon) as more important than the words of the Pope, or other cannon law. Thomas Cajetan, the head of the Dominicans attempts to convince him to recant his views, when he does not he orders him to leave and not return unless he will recant. Luther takes this to mean he is freed of his vows. Luther is free to pursue a new and personal understanding of religion and privately holds his suspicion that ‘the true Antichrist mentioned by Paul reigns in the court of Rome’.

Among his beliefs were that the ceremonies of the church could not redeem men and women from hell, only God possessed that power. So lost were mortals in sin that nothing they did could possibly save them. Salvation was not a reward, it was a gift. God did not treat sinners according to their just deserts – for, where he to do so, then none could ever be saved.

Luther heads back to Wittenberg and there he and some colleagues very publicly burn whole sets of cannon law books, together with the papal decree condemning his teachings. Luther has a protector in the form of Friedrich of Saxony, founder of the university in Wittenberg and one of 7 electors who, on the death of the emperor, were charged with choosing the new Emperor. He wants to have Luther tried by the emperor rather than the Pope. A great assembly called a ‘diet’ of the empire’s power brokers is taking place in Worm, including Charles V, grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand. Luther is promised safe passage to Worms. On his arrival thousands turn up to hear him preach. But Charles V and the Bishops continue to ask him to recant his writings. He will not do it. ‘My conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’

Charles V stayed true to his title, defender of the Catholic Faith, and declares Luther is excommunicated. But under the grant of safe passage, Luther is free to depart back to Wittenberg. On the way back to Wittenberg his party is ambushed and Luther and two companions are abducted. In fact he had been brought by Frederick’s men to a castle in the Wartburg, disguised as a knight with two servant boys.

During this period he decides to render a new translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into simple, easy to understand German (completing the task in just 11 weeks), making it accessible to the masses.

Over the next few years there are several peasant uprisings across Germany justified as obedience to the bible, with the lords and abbots oppressing them ‘as Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites,’ including a particular rebel Thomas Muntzer who was executed. The imperial nobility of course put these down to brutal effect, slaughtering an estimated several hundred thousand rebels, and blaming Luther for their deaths. Luther attempted to distance himself from the rebels condemning the rebellions, knowing that he needed the support of princes if he was to achieve a reformation.

Princes of the German states who chose to embrace Luther’s reformation, were able to set up a model of their states that no longer ceded any authority to Rome, since Christians now had direct communion with the Almighty, they no longer needed a church state. Ironically these leaders still needed Law to operate justly and in many cases simply adopted much of the cannon law as their local law system.

(As an aside Luther remained particularly hostile towards the Jews, demanding that they be rounded up and put to hard labour, a stance far beyond anything the papacy ever sanctioned).

In England Henry VIII (who is given the title of Defender of the Faith by the Pope for having written a pamphlet against Luther) in 1527 demands an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and aunt to Charles V. This is denied, the Pope not wanting to offend Christendom most powerful rulers. By 1534 an act of parliament formally repudiates papal authority and Henry is declared head of the Church of England.

Hans Hut preached against infant baptism not found in scripture. In 1526 on Pentecost, the day commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, he received a second baptism: an ‘anabaptismos’. Jan Bockelson, a compatriot of Hans Hut also called ‘John of Leiden’ a Dutch tailor, was the leader of the rebellious city of Munster, instituting several policies banned by the church but which their reading of scripture licensed, including polygamy and communal property. His rule become more repressive, he beheaded a suspected spy. In June 1535 Munster finally fell to the forces of several Lutheran princes who joined together with the forces of the former expelled Bishop of the town! John of Leiden was tortured. The word Anabaptists had become assosciated with violence and depravity, and other Anabaptists, despite not being associated with the violence of John of Leiden and in many cases interpreting the scripture in quite the opposite pacifist way and aiming to withdraw from society rather than rebel, were hunted down and condemned by both Lutherans and Catholic’s.

In 1529 at an imperial diet, 5 Lutheran princes seek to make clear their beliefs in contrast to the Catholic Majority by issuing a formal ‘Protestation’, hence the collective description of all these movements as Protestant. By 1537 Denmark is Lutheran and Sweden is destined to become so.

In essence Luther had set off a chain reaction of protest against the Catholic Church, but with as many variations as there were interpretations of the scriptures.

Luther dies in 1546. Charles V crushes several of the Lutheran princes and Protestants flee to England where Henry VIII’s son (by Jane Seymour), Edward VI, comes to the throne in 1547 aged only 9. Raised Protestant, his uncle Edward Seymour leads the regency council that governs, and as staunch supporters of the Protestants institute many changes. However by 1553 when he dies he is succeeded by Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and a staunch Catholic. Many of the reformers are burned at the stake and others flee. When Mary dies in 1558, and her half sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boylan, Henry’s second wife, comes to power England swings back to its own unique form of Protestantism though England’s church still has bishops, choirs and crucifixes which appalls other Protestant nations as the trappings of popery.

Jean (John) Calvin, a French legal scholar, is forced into exile from France due to his Protestant beliefs. He aims to set up a godly community, and in 1541 the city of Geneva, he is backed by the local city magistrates to do so. He sets about quickly reforming both the church and the civil authority. Calvin wrestled with the practicalities of defining godly order with the ‘privilege of liberty’. He believed every Christian had to be free to join or leave the church, to follow their conscience, that not everyone would be saved, but only an elect few, reaching out to God in faith, would be met by God with his grace. All people were predestined either to heaven or eternal death.

He set up 4 offices in the church: 1. Ministers to preach the word of God, 2. Teachers to instruct the young, 3. Deacons to meet the needs of the unfortunate and 4. Elders or ‘Presbyters’ to guard the morals of the laity. This model is still widely used in Protestant churches today.

The Presbyters and the cities ministers would hold a Consistory court each Thursday. Any congregation member who failed in some way, regardless of rank, would get called before it in order to ‘rectify sinners’ and this became the hallmark of a strict Calvinist discipline.

In accordance with scriptural teaching the Calvinists offered charity to anyone needing it including Jews. But Calvin himself was not above persecuting heretics, he approved in 1553 the burning of a heretic who denied the trinity.

In 1559 John Knox brings Calvin’s teachings back from Geneva to Scotland. A year later there is a brief civil war and the Scottish Parliament vote to reform the Church in Scotland along a Calvinist model.

This set of changes in the Christian church comes to be known as the Reformation, seen by its admirers as a liberation of humanity from ignorance and error, and painting what had been before as a misty dark age (with no mention of the previous Reformatio under Gregory VII).

The Catholic Europeans fight back of course. In 1572 a thousand Protestants in Paris are killed on the feast day of St Bartholomew, with similar slaughters in Lyon and other Catholic cities of Calvin’s followers.

The Dutch rebel against Spanish Rule, with a particularly famous episode being the relief of the city of Leiden in 1574 (nothing to do with John of Leiden who was in Munster other than he originated from there) in which the Spanish Charles V besiegers are forced to turn back after rising floodwaters. (Celebrate each year by eating Herring and bread!) In the Netherlands the Calvinists create the ‘Reformed Church’. By 1620 there are disputes in Leiden on different factions with different beliefs.

The Catholic emperor raises an army to retake Prague from the Protestants. The Dutch send 5000 men to fight for Prague but they and the city are defeated. Back and forth fighting goes across Europe between Catholic and Protestant kings and princes with millions perishing over 30 years from c1618 to 1648.

In England some fear that the English church under Elizabeth has not gone far enough in reforming, and come to be known as ‘Puritans’. They particularly wanted all symbols and idols eradicated. They saw the connection of the Church and the Monarchy and called into question the authority of the monarchy. They leave England in 1607 to go to Leiden in the hopes that it represents the New Jerusalem. When even Leiden is felt to be too impure they choose to move to the New World, and in 1620 the Mayflower lands in the New World packed half full with Puritan ‘pilgrims’ and founding a new city of Plymouth in ‘New England’. Believing themselves to be the elect Of God, they form a very exclusive community with very strict discipline. Similar old patterns repeated, with some Puritans applying themselves to bring the Word of God to the native Indians (as they called them), though it did not take long for them to end up in wars eg. At one stage teaming up with another native tribe to attack a hostile tribe called the Pequots, killing 400 men woman and children.

A new order formed in the Catholic Church In 1540, the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits: Global in scope, they are sworn to undertake any mission given to them by the Pope.

Galileo Galilei is a flamboyant professor at the university in Padua, the second oldest in Italy after Bologna. Galileo had used a telescope (originally developed by a Dutch man) to view craters on the moon, and four moons of Jupiter. In addition Venus is observed to have phases which implies it circles around the sun. His discoveries are corroborated by other Jesuit mathematicians and he is widely celebrated as a great natural philosopher within Chruch circles.

The model that most promoted by most Jesuits at this time for the solar system speculated that the planets orbited around the sun and the sun and moon orbited around the earth. Though Wenceslas Kirwitzer and Galileo promoted a Heliocentric model postulated by the polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus in 1543. The trouble was that this model contradicted Aristotle’s beliefs about the world being the centre of the universe and potentially also parts of the bible: in Joshua God commands the Sun to stand still, and in the psalms it says that the world cannot be moved. Galileo argues this need not be seen as contradictory ‘Thus, given that in many places the scripture is not only capable but necessarily in need of interpretations different from the apparent meaning of the words, it seems to me that in disputes about natural phenomena it should be reserved to the last place.’

In 1616 after some investigation the Inquisition condemn it as a ‘foolish and absurd philosophy’. But Galileo is allowed to continue his studies provided he doesn’t publicise more on this topic.

A number of years later Galileo convinces Pope Urban VIII to allow him to continue work on the theory, which Urban permits so long as he calls it a hypothesis. Unfortunately he publishes a book where the defender of the case against heliocentricity is an Aristotelian of transparent stupidity called Simplico who is modelled on Urban. This is seen as an affront to the church, more because of his insult to the Pope than because of the underlying theory, and Galileo is out on trial in 1633 and condemned for defending the probable hypothesis that the earth moves and is not the Center of the world. Galileo spends his remaking 9 years under house arrest.

The Protestants see this as further evidence of the corruption of the Catholic Church: as fanatics too bigoted to permit study of the heavens. John Milton, a young English Puritan visits Galileo Florence and says ‘For there it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.’ The Protestants hailed Galileo as one of their own, dispelling with brilliance the murk of popery and Aristotle.

Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit arrives in China in 1582, learns the language and transforms himself into Li Madou, hailed by Chinese mandarins as a peer. Ricci believes Confucians can be led to Christ. Xu Guangqi, a senior scholar in China realised that the western astronomers had been able to more accurately forecast the heavens. Ricci sends to Rome for Johann Schrek, a polymath astronomer, physician, mathematician and Jesuit who studied at Padua under Galileo, to help the Chinese emperor with recalibrating their calendar. Their predictions are able to forecast more accurately eclipses and other phenomena. In 1603 Xu is baptised as a Christian. Unfortunately Schrek dies in May 1630 after testing out a poisonous herb on himself. In 1634 the Chinese emperor is presented with a telescope, sealing Galileo’s international fame.

In 1649 the king of England Charles I, is beheaded and in 1653 Oliver Cromwell is appointed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and there is a civil war in England.

There are many new Christian practices: Baptist’s, who dismiss infant baptism; Quakers (or Friends as they called themselves) who shake in fits when possessed by the Spirit; Ranters, who believe every human is equally part of God. Presbyterians fought against these diverse beliefs. But Milton , the Puritan, warned against this ‘no man or body of men in these times can be the infallible judges or determiners in matters of religion to any other men’s consciences but their own.’

How, in this Protestant country of England was religion to be defined? To the royalists, Charles I and the Presbyterians it was ‘The only firm foundation of all power: that cast loose, or depraved, no government can be stable.’ To others, including Cromwell it was an intimate, personal and private relationship that the Protestant had with the Spirit. The founding constitution of the Protectorate made clear that those who professed faith should ‘not be restrained in the profession of the faith and the exercise of their religion.’

Cromwell declared that ‘he would rather see Islam practised in England, then one of God’s children should be persecuted.’ Books might be burnt: but not the men who wrote them. Even a papist, despite his loathing for their religion were known to be guests at his table. In 1657 he moved to ensure that the son of the founder of Maryland – a colony established in the new world specifically to provide a haven for English Catholics – should not be deprived of his rights to the province.

In 1655 a rabbi from Amsterdam, Manasseh ben Israel, travels to England and appeals to Cromwell to allow the Jews residency in England. Though he failed to convince parliament to give formal rights of admission, in practice they were allowed to return.

In Germany and Europe after the 30 year war from 1618 to 1648, thirty years of slaughter of between 4.5 and 8 million (many due to disease and famine) a general peacekeeping was sealed in the series of treaties forming the Peace of Westphalia, where the German princes pledged themselves not to force religion on their subjects: Catholic’s, Lutherans or Calvinists were all granted freedom to worship as they pleased. Toleration of religious difference was being enshrined as a Christian virtue (though this was very much opposed by the Pope Innocent X)

In 1658 two years after Cromwell’s death, the monarchy is restored in England and an Act of Uniformity restores the Church of England’s supremacy and marginalises sects like the Quakers.

In 1688, 150 “Huguenot” Calvinists are expelled from France and make there way to the Cape Colony, founded by Dutch Settlers.

In the New World, New England, Massachusetts, Boston and Plymouth are the providence of the Puritans (A law in 1661 prescribes that Quakers must be tied to a cart and flogged), but to the south a colony named Philadelphia or ‘Brotherly love’, a much more accepting philosophy is taking route. It’s founder William Penn was the son of one of Cromwell’s admirals and a Quaker. It was an experimental city set up to be at peace local Indians, and welcomed all who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

Slavery continued to be an issue. In 1670 when a Irish Quaker called William Edmundson tours Barbados and New England, he asks why ‘if it is unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, is it lawful to enslave the Africans?’ Benjamin Lay and his wife Sarah, both Quakers and both hunchbacks sail from Scotland to Barbados, a largely Quaker colony. There Sarah Lay is shocked to find the quakers engaged in shocking treatment of slaves. Slavery was regarded by the majority of Christians as a brutal fact of life. Like Las Casas, Lay is convicted of the injustice of slavery. They make themselves very unpopular and are forced to leave Barbados in 1720. But they are shocked to find slavery happening in Philadelphia when they arrive therein 1731. He continues to be an activist on this topic, and by 1759 when he dies the Quakers have voted to discipline any Quaker to trades in slaves.

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