Jamaica Gleaner / Ideas have consequences. And some of those consequences are unintended consequences.
The Protestant Reformation had massive consequences for the 16th century, in which it occurred, and in every subsequent century up to now. We live in a world in which some of its better features are products of the Reformation.
The Reformation put an end to the Medieval Ages and to much of the darkness. Martin Luther has been described as “the last medieval man and the first modern one”.
The question naturally arises as to how the ascendancy and dominance of a religion founded by one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the light” could have co-existed with the darkness of the age. Indeed, some would argue that it created the darkness.
An immediate consequence of the Protestant Reformation was the wars of religion, which lasted for more than 100 years, between Protestant and Catholic states. “The wars were strongly influenced by the religious change of the period and the conflict and rivalry that it produced. Nevertheless, the combatants cannot be neatly categorised by religion, nor were they divided by religion alone, and in most cases, religion was only a part of the causes of the wars.” (Wikipedia).
And they vigorously persecuted each other. Which is why freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are so important and should be strenuously preserved in modern society as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of our Constitution, like what the United States Constitution seeks to do.
The newly invented printing press, first used by Johannes Gutenberg, by 1440, was turned to good advantage to get Protestant ideas out. At the peak of his output, Luther’s works were accounting for one-fifth of published material in Germany. The Reformation was good for printing and printing, was good for the Reformation.
A stream of other technological advances would follow in the climate created by Reformation ideas. The Mediaeval Church actively discouraged access to the Bible by the common people, which was only available to scholars and clergy in the Latin Vulgate version. Luther translated the Scriptures in vigorous vulgar German. ‘Vulgar’ just means from the Latin, the language of the common people; what was generally spoken in the marketplace. Others translated into the other languages of Europe, at peril of their lives from the established Church. The famous Authorised King James version would be released in England in 1611. There were earlier English translations. More than any other book, the vulgar translations of the Bible served to standardise the languages and give them legitimacy.
With sola scriptura as their guiding light for faith and practice, the reformers wanted people, all people, to read the word of God for themselves. The Established Church wanted them not to. This called for mass literacy, mass education, including of girls. The records, which some may want suppressed, or at least ignored, are very clearly showing that for the next 300 years, well into the 20th century when secular states took fuller and more direct charge of education, Protestant states had higher levels of literacy than Catholic ones.
“James Bowen, in A History of Western Education , estimates early sixteenth-century literacy rates in England to have been less than 1 percent; yet by the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) … it was getting close to 50 percent. The Reformation, then, was a major spur to education and to literacy … Protestant countries generally had better literacy rates than Catholic ones” (Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society/Literacy )
“Before the twentieth century regions with more Protestant individuals within the same European countries did have higher literacy rates, especially among non-elites and women, than their Catholic counterparts … . The type of religion was more important than economic prosperity. Scandinavia, lowland Scotland, and Iceland were all very poor and yet had broad-based literacy. What they had in common was the Protestant religion, which resulted in both religiously financed literacy campaigns and support for public education through the state … Protestant countries, largely because of their higher levels of education, had lower levels of land inequality than did Catholic countries in the nineteenth century” (Eric M. Uslaner The Historical Roots of Corruption: Mass Education, Economic Inequality, and State Capacity ).
The Protestant bedrock principle of the priesthood of all believers not only threw down and trampled upon papal authority, but destroyed absolute monarchy, paving the way for the rise of democracy. To this day, the pope claims supreme authority in all human affairs as the presumed inheritor of both the imperial power of the Caesars and of Christ.
It may have taken a long time, but, ultimately, feudalism, serfdom, and, finally, slavery were abolished under pressure created against them primarily by a reformed Christianity. In each case, these evils were denounced and cancelled first in Protestant states, well ahead of Roman Catholic and Orthodox ones. Slavery was only abolished in Cuba by royal decree of the Spanish government in 1886, compared to a half-century earlier in 1834 across the British Empire, including Jamaica.
Propelled by its notions of equality before God and direct access to God, the Protestant Reformation gave impetus to the core idea of human freedom.
One of the greatest scholars of slavery and of freedom, Jamaican Harvard-based Orlando Patterson, writes in Freedom in the Making of Western Culture , “No one would deny that today, freedom stands unchallenged as the supreme value of the Western world.” Freedom, he says, “is also the central value of Christianity.” But “for most of human history, and for nearly all of the non-Western world prior to Western contact, freedom was, and for many still remains, anything but an obvious or desirable goal. Indeed, non-Western peoples have thought so little about freedom that most human languages did not even possess a word for the concept before contact with the West.”
Western civilisation, which has become globalised, historically, has been shaped by at least five great forces: science and technology, democracy, the rule of law, capitalism, and freedom – all products of the Christian faith, particularly the Protestant reformed version of it.
Science historian Stephen Mason has a chapter on “The Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation” in his book, A History of the Sciences . After empirically demonstrating the sheer dominance of Protestants in the early scientific societies of Europe, Mason writes, “Apart from the absence of an Inquisition in Protestant lands, the predominance of Protestants … among the great scientists of modern Europe may be ascribed to three main factors: first, to a congruence between the early Protestant ethos and the scientific attitude; second, to the use of science for the attainment of religious ends; and, third, to an agreement between the cosmic values of Protestant theology and those of the theories of early modern science.”
ROOT CAUSE OF REVOLUTION
Mason uses the rest of his brilliant chapter to pile up a mountain of empirical evidence in defence of his thesis that the Protestant Reformation was a root cause of the Scientific Revolution.
Max Weber, with respect to the emergence of capitalism, came to essentially the same conclusion in his famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . As Wikipedia explains, “The Protestant work ethic is a concept in theology, sociology, economics, and history that emphasises hard work, frugality, and prosperity as a display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith.”
Weber argued that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant (particularly the Calvinist) ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprises and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment.
In the abstract of their paper, ‘Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History’, Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Wossmann of the University of Munich, wrote: “Max Weber attributed the higher economic prosperity of Protestant regions to a Protestant work ethic. We,” they say, “provide an alternative theory, where Protestant economies prospered because instruction in reading the Bible generated the human capital crucial to economic prosperity. County-level data from late 19th century Prussia reveal that Protestantism was indeed associated not only with higher economic prosperity, but also with better education. We find that Protestants’ higher literacy can account for the whole gap in economic prosperity.”
Either way, Protestant principles and values have delivered major positive economic consequences.
But we mustn’t forget that despite these signal successes across multiple domains of society, the Protestant Reformation was not a political, economic, or social revolution in its primary intent. It was a salvific response to the accumulated errors of the Church of the Middle Ages, errors that persist. Sinful humans are saved By Grace alone, through Faith alone in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone. And every person can by himself access this freely offered salvation without human mediation and not have to work to be justified with God.
FOOTNOTE: The Reformation marks 500 years. This column marks 30 today.