Roger Williams and the tumultuous 17th century

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertyRoger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barry writes an incredibly detailed and readable history of England and New England during the time of Roger Williams. The book is really well-crafted for a non-academic audience, explaining the major issues roiling the churches and states of 17th-century England and New England with appropriate (but not overdone) drama. He clearly admires Williams’ stance, but makes a substantial effort to get beyond the stereotypes of the Puritans and portray them in a three-dimensional way, which does not seem to be easy for modern writers.

Like many writers, he has some trouble portraying Calvinist theology in an accurate way. He does better than I usually see (in my limited reading), but he sometimes falls into the trap of being so focused on predestination that he doesn’t see how Calvinism fits into the larger Christian theological tradition. It’s understandable (after all, Calvinists themselves sometimes can treat predestination in isolation from other doctrines), but think that he could have done better in this area.

View all my reviews

The Anglican Non-Jurors

Last spring, Philip Jenkins wrote about the Non-Jurors, who reacted against the replacement of James II with William and Mary. From his first post:

High Churchmen were aghast at the outcome of the Glorious Revolution, and the new constitutional settlement. In their eyes, when the church’s new leaders consecrated the change, they had abandoned God’s truth in the name of political expediency. Worse, the new order was demanding that all clergy and office holders take oaths to the new king. Many clergy, including some of the church’s greatest spiritual and intellectual beacons, found that they simply could not accept. They refused to swear those oaths, and by dint of that, became non-swearers, “Non-Jurors.” They began a domestic schism from the established church, and ordained their own succession of bishops.

That is the political background, but the consequences were lasting. The Non-Juror movement continued into the early nineteenth century, and it developed a potent High Church ideology. I do not mean that in the Victorian or Oxford Movement sense of quasi-Catholic liturgy, “bells and smells.” (Although some Oxford Movement thinkers, notably Newman, did look back fondly on the Non-Juror inheritance). Rather, the Non-Jurors struggled to create a kind of Christian practice that was fully in tune with the Bible and the Fathers, with “Primitive Christianity,” and which did not just depend on the good will of a state or king. They agonized over issues of ecclesiology, and at the same time sought new ways of leading a pure Christian life. Taking sacramental life very seriously, they were devoted to the ideal of small-c catholic Christianity. At so many points, they have much in common with their very influential near-contemporaries, the German Pietists.

One of the Non-Jurors, Thomas Ken, wrote the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”).

The most surprising element of the story is described in Jenkins’ second post: “around 1716, the English Non-Jurors approached the Eastern patriarchs to be acknowledged as a church under their jurisdiction, whether that of the Patriarch of Alexandria or Jerusalem. Although resident on English soil, they would nevertheless obey these distant masters, who represented authentic ancient Christianity.”

Jenkins quotes from Reverend H.W. Langford’s 1965 paper on the subject:

The Non-Juror bishops showed in their correspondence a strong reluctance to ‘go behind’ the English Reformation Settlement, and were obviously very ill at ease in dealing with Orthodox belief on such subjects as transubstantiation and invocation of saints. With regard to the nature of the worship due to Our Lady, the patriarchs replied with some sympathy but with a possible touch of ridicule. “It is not to be wondered at for being born and bred in the principles of the Luthero-Calvinists, and possessed with their prejudices, they tenaciously adhere to them like ivy to a tree.”

As you can surmise from the current ecclesiastical arrangements, things didn’t work out.

Folk religious practices in World War I

Philip Jenkins writes that there is quite a bit of evidence that World War I soldiers were quite a bit more attuned to the supernatural than is often portrayed:

Numerology came into its own, as soldiers tried to calculate the war’s end by adding together the digits in special dates such as the beginning and end of the war of 1870–71. One popular attempt cited by Bächtold-Stäubli predicted the end of the current war as November 11, 1915—an impressive coincidence in terms of the month and day, although off by three years on the actual year. The prophecy demonstrates the widespread expectation that such a war could not conceivably last more than a year or so, which helps to explain the stupefied despair that resulted as it dragged on into its fourth and fifth years.

Catholics in particular had access to a rich arsenal of protective supernatural resources, in the form of rosaries and holy medals. A German soldier tasked with burying the dead noted that most of the soldiers bore a medal of the Immaculate Virgin. Devout Catholics wore the scapular, a pair of simple holy images worn over the chest and back and tied together with light woolen cloth over the shoulders. As scapulars were believed to give protection, from 1914 they became hugely popular among the soldiers and sailors of all the fighting nations.

Whether French or German, Irish or Austrian, Catholic groups sent scapulars and holy images to the fighting forces, and anecdotal evidence suggests these were widely accepted, even by individuals whose peacetime politics might have been strongly anti-religious. Protestant soldiers too developed a real affection for crucifixes and the protection they could afford. French Catholic papers delighted in reporting miracles attributed to scapulars and sacred images—of units escaping casualties during artillery barrages, of vital supplies kept safe by the Sacred Heart. Orthodox Russians, Romanians, and Serbs followed their own traditions of supernatural intervention, commonly by the Virgin or the saints.

Even these resources proved inadequate for believing families who sought to equip their menfolk with still stronger spiritual weapons. Bächtold-Stäubli tells of German mothers and wives pronouncing ritual verses and spells before sending men to the front. They even gave them a Schutzbrief, a heaven-sent letter of protection, in a model that would not have been out of place in the Thirty Years War.

Robin Hood or catechism?

Aaron Denlinger recently wrote about a 16th-century English catechism by Robert Legate in which a husband was to catechize his wife:

In his opening letter to the “Christen reader” Legate provides a brief apology for his catechism. He notes that many parents fail to properly instruct their children in the knowledge of the Lord because they “knowe not themselves wherein the ryght and true Chrstendome consysteth.” “How is it than possyble,” he continues, “that they shulde instructe and geve good example to their chyldren, whan they knowe not themselves the wholsome learnynge and will of their loadesman & master Jesus Christ, of whose name not withstandynge they boaste and bragge themselves?” Part of the problem, he seems to think, lies in Christian folk’s gravitation towards tomfoolery and entertainment over thoughtful theological conversation. “Ye fathers and mothers, learne your children these [Christian] thynges, and not tales of robyne hood with suche other vayne fables.” Legate’s goal, in sum, is to see parents sufficiently versed in Christian doctrine to fulfill God’s command to bring children up “in the instruction and discipline of the Lord” (Eph. 6.4).

He has some of the text from the catechism, but to my odd mind the reference to Robin Hood was unexpected, and as a fan of Robin Hood stories I wanted to note an early modern reference to them.

P.S. I’m also a fan of catechisms.

Fictive baptism

Aaron Denlinger recently wrote a post at Reformation 21 describing his daughter’s recent interest in baptism after seeing a baptism in church. He referred to some stories from church history related by Marcia Colish in her recent Faith, Force and Fiction in Medieval Baptism Debates:

In the early church stories arose of pagan persons who pretended baptism as part of Roman plays enacted on stage in mockery of Christian beliefs. In other words, water was applied to individuals in the Triune name not in the interest of actually conferring the sacrament, but in ridicule of Christian faith and ritual. But, according to Christian legend, the actors undergoing baptism in mockery of Christian practice were on more than one occasion actually converted by the sacrament, and then immediately announced as much to their fellow-actors and audiences, and — without fail — were martyred either by the unimpressed crowds or civil authorities who happened to be in attendance. This apparently happened to one Ardalion in 293, one Gelasinus in 296, and one Porphyrius in 362.

Roman actors weren’t the only ones engaging in pretended baptisms. The fourth-century historian Rufinus tells a story of the Alexandrian Bishop Alexander observing several young boys mimicking Christian baptism on the banks of the river Nile. Intrigued (and somewhat troubled) by the scene, Alexander had the boys brought to him and interrogated them regarding their play. When one boy among them who had assumed the role of “bishop” described to Alexander the words and rite he had employed in baptizing his friends, Alexander concluded that the baptisms administered were in fact valid, and that the baptized boys should subsequently be catechized. The young baptizer (who himself came under care of the church) was no other than Athanasius, the future (real) bishop of Alexandria who championed the cause of Nicene orthodoxy for much of the fourth century.

The stories of actors and children pretending — whether innocently or not — baptisms which, by one judgment or another, proved valid if not effective, figured significantly into later patristic and medieval conversations about the proper criteria for baptismal validity and efficacy. So Augustine, for example, reckoned that pretended baptisms were genuine and that recipients of such, even if genuine faith came later, should not be re-baptized, but denied that such baptisms were ultimately effective (as instruments for those spiritual realities which baptism signifies, such as the remission of sins) until the persons so baptized came to genuine faith and repentance (See Augustine’s On baptism 1.12). This of course complemented Augustine’s position on baptisms administered by profane or heretical persons — such baptisms, according to Augustine, were likewise valid (but ineffectual unless or until the baptized joined himself to the true church). Thomas Aquinas took a slightly stricter view on these matters, arguing that proper intent to receive baptism was a criterion for baptism’s validity (at least for those of sufficient age to intend), thereby raising doubts about the authenticity (and so, by implication, the purported efficacy) of at least those baptisms received by Roman actors.

Luther and his critics

On the Freedom of a Christian: With Related TextsOn the Freedom of a Christian: With Related Texts by Martin Luther

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had only read excerpts of On the Freedom of a Christian before, so I was glad to read the whole thing. Luther explains not only the place of faith but also of good works in his theology. The accompanying documents were also helpful. There were lengthy excerpts of criticisms of Luther by his nemesis Johannes Eck and English bishop John Fisher. From another angle, the editor (Tryntje Helfferich) included the revolutionary theologian Thomas Muentzer’s harsh assault against Luther for not siding with the peasant rebels in the mid-1520s, as well as Luther’s call for the nobles to suppress the peasant rebels. The commentary by the editor was helpful, too.

View all my reviews

The classic biography of Luther

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Classic Biographies)Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can see why this book is considered a classic. Bainton gives great insights into Luther’s times, ideas, and personality, and surveys the incredible amount of work that he accomplished: founding a church, translating the Bible into German (which had a similar effect on German language to the King James’ effect on English), writing catechisms, prayers, tracts, and lectures. He doesn’t shy away from Luther’s flaws, either. And he does all this while writing so that any adult (not just a history buff) could pick up the book and really enjoy it.

I would have liked more focus on Luther’s last years, and I disagreed with some of Bainton’s comments that were influenced by modern liberal theology, but this is definitely a five-star book.

View all my reviews