George Walford: Protest Begins

Witing on recent political events Ernest Gellner [1] traces their beginnings to the Reformation / Counter Reformation in division in Europe. One side moved towards limited and accountable government, high status for commerce and production, a generalized individualism and freedom of thought. The other favoured inherited status, martial honour and political domination. Paul Johnson had already made much the same observation, saying of protestant states that they tended to be more tolerant, had no equivalent of the Inquisition and rarely undertook systematic persecution, were not clericalist, allowed books greater freedom and accepted ‘private’ religion. [2] In the 16th century William of Orange, a notable protestant, was insisting that freedom of conscience was essential for commercial success.’ [3]

From the viewpoint of systematic ideology, the rise of protestantism was the first appearance in Europe, as a significant social influence, of the ideology of precision, combating the domination / principle ideology of the formerly universal Church. The development had its complications; when a major ideology first appears, or first appears is a new field, it does not displace its predecessor but represses it, and the earlier one fights back.

Luther started out as a heresiarch, pleading for tolerance and (a new expression) for ‘freedom of conscience.’ But he found himself in much the same double bind as the Bolsheviks were later to experience, faced with the choice between holding to his principles and going under or departing from them in the effort to ensure their survival. He made the same choice as they did, proclaiming that people should be driven to the sermon and eventually agreeing that anabaptists and other protestant extremists should be done to death by the civil authority. After Luther, as protestantism became a state religion, accepting principle / domination with less reservation, its practice approximated still more closely to that of the Roman Catholic Church. Not only ‘extremists’ but also Catholics were burnt alive, and although there are now differences between Rome and Canterbury, they do not turn, to any great extent, on the power and authority that ought to be exercised by the Church.

[1] ‘From the Ruins of the Great Contest’ TLS 13 March.
[2] Johnson, P. 1978, A History of Christianity Harmondsworth: Penguin.
[3] Kamen H. 1967. The Rise of Toleration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 149.

from Ideological Commentary 56, May 1992.