The Reformation: The Mother of All Revolutions?
by Dwight Longenecker
A Catholic friend of mine is fond of referring to the Protestant Reformation as “the Deformation.” Well, perhaps. Certainly the Reformation in England was a deformation. Henry VIII’s stripping of the altars was not only a monumental act of iconoclastic vandalism, but the cultural revolution brought about by his break with Rome—which included the dissolution of the monasteries and his daughter Elizabeth’s reign of terror—was a precursor of the horrors of the French Revolution or Mao’s cultural revolution in China centuries later.
The year 2017 will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It is right therefore to look again at the events and their consequences, and assess our terminology, for what historians benignly call the “Reformation” was indeed not only a revolution, but the mother of all revolutions.
Before the Protestant Revolution, Europeans were united by a shared allegiance that transcended individuals and nation-states. To be European was to be Catholic. Whether you were Spanish or Swiss, Swedish or Scottish, your spiritual, intellectual, and cultural roots were first and foremost in the Catholic faith. Likewise, whether one was a prince or a peasant, a monk or a milkmaid, one ascribed to a higher loyalty that transcended national, ethnic, economic, class, and linguistic boundaries. Through the diocesan system of administration, the monastic infrastructure, and the shared Latin language, a genuinely trans-European culture existed. City-states and petty princes might go to war with one another, but there was a higher unity rooted in a shared spiritual and cultural patrimony.
The Protestant Revolution broke all that. As nation-states emerged, canny kings and grasping princes adopted the Protestant revolutionaries and used their spirit of religious independence to power their own temporal ambitions, which led to rapacious vandalism, social chaos, and ultimately persecution, bloodshed, and war. Henry VIII and Elizabeth’s tyranny in England is the prime example, but the German princes lining up with Martin Luther and the Protestants sparked first the Schmalkaldic War, after which various conflicts simmered for decades, finally breaking out into the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War, which tore Christendom into shreds for good.
Shattered Christendom was then plunged into a series of seemingly endless conflicts, culminating in the American and French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution, and the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Were all these wars and revolutions directly caused by Protestantism? The causes are complex, but it can be argued that the Protestant Revolution was the breach in the dam breast that allowed the subsequent flood.