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Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation
Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation
Nicholas Terpstra
Cambridge University Press, 2015
353 pp., $34.99

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David Neff


Fear, Hospitality, and the Common Good

A revisionist account of the Reformation.

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This worked to the disadvantage of Rome. Although key publishing centers Europe were in Catholic cities—Venice, Paris, Cologne—Catholic authorities were opposed in principle to lay discussion of doctrine. Thus Catholic polemic did not flourish.

After that wave from Luther's pen, publishing continued to be overwhelmingly religious, but the tone shifted from polemical to devotional—volumes of sermons, vernacular Bibles, devotional commentaries, and catechisms. Catechisms and creeds, of course, had been around since the early years of Christianity, but until the Reformation, these were largely aimed at literate clergy. Now catechisms became public documents that allowed each new religious community to spell out its beliefs about how one belonged (baptism or profession of faith), how one experienced the divine presence, and who or what served as a source of religious authority. There came a quick succession of new creeds: the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession (1527), the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), the Calvinist Belgic (1561) and Helvetic (1566) Confessions. Each of these communities produced teaching materials that allowed parents to teach the faith to their children. Catholics, at first, resisted promulgating any new statement of faith, but by 1564, Pius IV issued a new profession of faith to sum up the responses of the Council of Trent to the rapid fracturing of Christendom.

While these new confessions were supposed to be spiritual documents, they everywhere "became standards of citizenship" and instruments of exclusion. Christian Europe, though more fractured than ever, had not yet lost the idea that a society should be religiously homogeneous in order to flourish politically and economically. Thus Geneva welcomed religious refugees whose views were agreeable to its Calvinist confession, but (as the notorious burning of Michael Servetus shows) mere disagreement with Catholic teaching did not create fellow feeling. English proto-Puritans were welcomed, but other religious outcasts were forced to move along.

Activists, such as the volatile preacher Martin Luther, the Anabaptist prophet Jan of Leiden, or the Grand Inquisitor Cardinal Ximenes, "framed the legitimating discourse that preceded and incited violence, or that might even be used to justify or explain violence which had just happened." Their rhetoric seems to presage the divisiveness that has invaded American politics, "as friends are described as purely good and enemies as purely evil. This kind of black and white contrast," writes Terpstra, "was the staple of popular religious rhetoric of the period, and did much to shape popular attitudes to religious others."

The Radicals, after their failed millennial kingdom in Munster, were forced to find new homes—small, rural, voluntary, and self-sufficient communities in Moravia, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. And as new groups multiplied over the next few centuries, migrations to Europe's more hospitable cities (Amsterdam, for example) were followed by visions of new world cities set upon a hill. But even these used their newly minted confessions as engines of exclusion and created their own religious refugees.

Terpstra reports that the cities that received religious refugees and found paths to peaceful co-existence (though not toleration in the modern sense) prospered. Amsterdam and Salonika are prime examples. (The bitter fate of Salonika in the 20th century lay in the distant future.) One of my favorite tourist sites in Amsterdam is the "secret" Catholic church known as "Our Dear Lord in the Attic." Between 1661 and 1663, when open Catholic worship was still illegal in Amsterdam, the prosperous merchant Jan Hartman joined three adjacent attics to create a narrow nave with two balconies that would seat 150 people. It must have been an open secret. The construction activity itself would have made the project obvious. Amsterdam's Protestant city fathers developed a strategy of "tacit toleration" for Catholics, Jews, and Anabaptists. As long as they didn't practice their religion too publicly, difference was tolerated, and Amsterdam flourished culturally and economically.

Cities that were devoted to purity, like Basel, Munster, Geneva, and the Massachussetts Bay Colony, closed their doors to refugees who were not like them, and thus became monocultural and "were left with smaller populations and economies." Creative misfits were expelled and brought their new energies to other places.

The United States, France, Germany, and England are all struggling with questions of cultural and (to a lesser extent) religious identity as floods of migrants from the world's hot spots knock on their doors. Terpstra's account of early modern Europe suggests a calculated tilt in favor of exploiting the opportunities for economic and cultural vitality these migrant populations offer.

David Neff is the retired editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine.

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