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The Birth of a Revolution 
by Steven Ozment 
Doubleday, 270 pages, $20

I am a Catholic, but I married Protestant. My husband has steeped me in Protestant lore: Protestants get results. Protestants think ahead. Protestants save (Catholics spend). My Protestant in-laws had to endure our Catholic wedding, their faces rigid with polite distress as they took in the crucifix over the altar with its bleeding Christ and the candles flickering in front of the portrait of the dusky, brilliantly garbed Virgin of Guadalupe. In turn, I politely endure my mother-in-law’s Protestant cooking: no garlic, no onions, no spices, no wine at the table. Catholics invented Cotes du Rhone and cannelloni; Protestants invented the airplane and the thirteen-week T-bill. 

In this militantly secularized age, in which all faiths have been dampered down into vague “traditions,” Catholics and Protestants who actually believe in their respective religions have more in common, certainly on moral issues and probably on doctrinal ones as well, than either group has with the creed of the feel-good humanism that has invaded and displaced much of American Christianity. Nonetheless, even the most irenic of Catholics and Protestants continue to differ as sharply on the issue of what Christ meant when He talked of His church as they did in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Because religion is the basso continuo of culture, this difference still cuts as sharply as it did five hundred years ago, even here in Protestant America, where embarrassed, over-assimilated Catholics have lately lost much of their old immigrants’ pride of religious distinctiveness. It cuts a divide even in my own marriage, as my husband good-humoredly nails his own theses onto the door of the Catholic home I keep. 

That is why Steven Ozment’s book, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution, is not just a superb piece of Reformation history but a shrewd examination of how the theory of Protestantism translates into the pragmatic, respectability-driven Protestant culture that prevails to this day on the prosperous Protestant lands of northern Europe and North America. Ozment is a professor of history at Harvard who claims a Catholic mother and a Protestant father—hence his evenhandedness in approaching his subject. He sees his task as analyzing the Reformation not as a theological but as a cultural phenomenon: how the coming of Protestantism affected family life, how ordinary Protestants were different from their Catholic neighbors. Ozment also writes clear, cant-free prose, a remarkable feat these days when to read most products of academia is to slash one’s way with a machete through a canefield of deconstructionist jargon. Not surprisingly, several of Ozment’s previous books. When Fathers Ruled and Three Behaim Boys among them, got much play in the popular press and are still in print, even though Ozment’s specialization, sixteenth-century Germany, is not exactly a field with mass appeal. Protestants looks at the Central Europeans who took so readily to the reformers’ doctrine and tries to explain “what it meant then to be Protestant.” 

It was Max Weber, of course, who first pointed out the cultural implications of the Reformation in his famous study of Protestantism and capitalism. Weber assumed that the capitalist ethos—aspiration for worldly success combined with monkish self-denial—was merely a decadent version of the Reformation belief in justification by faith alone. According to Weber, when Protestants lost that faith, as so many did just before the Industrial Revolution, they unconsciously clung to a belief that wealth was a sign of divine favor.

Drawing on a vast library of pamphlets, catechisms, sermons, diaries, and letters surviving from Luther’s era, Ozment shows that individualism, the work ethic, and an orientation to tangible results were part of the Protestant worldview from its very beginning. Pace Weber, that view was present in Lutheranism as well as in Calvinism. For Ozment, the Reformation was above all a revolution of consciousness and culture that practically overnight swept away the sensuous, theatrical, otherworldly Middle Ages from the cities whose inhabitants took up the reformers’ brand of Christianity. Furthermore, Ozment believes, the Reformation turned its adherents into permanent revolutionaries who, armed with their Protestant belief in the primacy of individual conscience over authority and tradition, would continue to question all givens, even those of their own new faiths. 

“The original intent of the reformers and pamphleteers who invented the Reformation was not to create docilely devout Christians, but to raise less credulous ones,” Ozment writes. “In revolutionary literature that defined the Reformation at its inception, the image of the good Christian was preeminently that of a Bible-savvy layperson internally in control of his or her own spiritual life, immune to spiritual manipulation, uncoercible in conscience, able to see through Christian Utopias and sociopolitical pipe dreams, and while respectful of tradition, never one to trust uncritically.” 

The long-prevailing view among historians has been that by the beginning of the sixteenth century the Church of Rome was sunk in worldly decadence and completely alienated from its laity. Ozment takes note of some recent revisionism on this score among historians who stress the socially integrative aspects of medieval Christianity and view even the indulgence-peddling that Luther decried as feeding a vigorous popular piety that fostered trust in God and a sense of continuity between the living and the dead. 

Now, Catholicism tolerates a good deal of slack, but even the revisionists have to admit that the ropes were loose indeed in Luther’s time. The worst offenses seem to have been those of the clergy: bishops who never visited their sees, priests who flaunted concubines and bastards while charging money to hear confessions, monks and nuns whose preoccupation was worldly power rather than the self-emptying life St. Benedict prescribed. There was certainly a huge number of clergy and religious—6 to 10 percent of the population of the great cities of central Europe, according to Ozment—which suggests that rather more people were entering religious life than actually had vocations for it. Franciscan and Dominican friars stood on every corner begging alms from passersby. 

Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation, at the end of the fifteenth century contained a veritable Madame Toussaud’s of relics, some 19,000 of them, including a skeleton of one of the Holy Innocents massacred by Herod and a piece of Moses’ burning bush, all housed next door to the very church on whose door Luther posted his theses. Add to this a proliferation of holy days on which work was forbidden and feasting mandated and a proliferation of shrines and pilgrimages that crammed the cities with the devout, the desperate, the mountebanks, and the good-time seekers. Urban life in the late Middle Ages sounds like, well, a lot of fun, if fun of a garish nature—Euro Disneyland without the ersatz. 

Nonetheless, it is easy to see how the reformers could fire resentment up to the simmer among sober and hardworking lay people at all levels of society who had to pay for this running spectacle of exaltation and vice. “People who left the old religion for the new either had spiritual needs the church did not fulfill or religious grievances it failed in their minds to redress or both,” writes Ozment. He shows how the pamphleteers painted the church’s rules and its calendar (which contained as many fast days as feast days) as instruments of social control that prevented tradespeople from eating what they wanted and maximizing their honest earnings; monks, nuns, and friars as parasites; elaborately decorated churches as built on theft from their congregations; masses for the dead (paid for with contributions) as simony; and the religious hierarchy as a bullying, self-aggrandizing, non-biblical superstructure whose main function was the amassing of wealth. “They have taken the things of our world over into theirs, so that everything of ours has become theirs,” complained Eberlin von Guenzburg, a former Franciscan friar who became the most prolific Protestant pamphleteer after Luther. 

The Reformation shut down the whole St. Bartholomew’s fair of medieval life. Protestant theology obliterated the distinction between the clergy and laity. The doctrine of justification by faith made confession, fasting, pilgrimages, and masses for the dead pointless. Almsgiving was also pointless unless it actually improved the condition of the poor. Venerating the saints (and keeping their feast days) was idolatry, as was decorating churches with expensive statues and stained-glass windows. 

Ozment describes the startling transformation a visitor to one of those medieval cities would perceive just a decade or two after Luther’s revolt: the churches stripped and whitewashed; the monasteries and convents closed except for a few cloisters housing elderly religious who could not be pensioned off; the clergy—those who were left—married; musical instruments, Latin, and hymns to the Virgin banished from the Sunday service; lay boards operating the charitable and educational institutions and enforcing a sober moralism combined with a strong sense of civic purpose. Everyone was expected to earn a living by an honest trade. Prefiguring the Victorian social reformers, the Protestants drew a firm line between the deserving and the undeserving poor and reserved their almsgiving for the former. No Mother Teresas they; the reformers turned charity into a rationalized welfare system. 

Ozment draws vivid portraits of some of the ordinary Protestants of the sixteenth century. The most striking is that of Thomas Platter, a sickly, morally punctilious son of a Swiss peasant who was studying for the Catholic priesthood in Zurich while Huldrych Zwingli was turning that city into a Reformation stronghold. Platter’s first Protestant act was to throw a painting of St. John into the stove for firewood. After several years of internal struggle, he abandoned his priestly studies and married a housemaid, Anna. The two led lives of grueling poverty for several years, he taking in students, she spinning and making rope. Finally the Platters moved to Basel, where Thomas learned the printing trade. He ultimately climbed up to prosperity and honor, becoming Basel’s schoolmaster—a post he held for thirty-one years—successfully staving off efforts by the local university to control his school’s curriculum. Unbendable and resourceful, Thomas and Anna Platter were quintessential Protestants, ever ready to break with tradition, family, and higher authority for the sake of conscience and personal happiness. Like all good Protestants, no matter how poor they started out, they ended up well off. 

Because they rejected as unnatural the Catholic concept of a vocation to celibacy, the early Protestants, especially Luther, were preoccupied with married love and family life—a sphere of human existence that the Catholic Church had ignored or had at least taken for granted. Luther revered his wife, the former nun Katharine von Bora, who bore him six children. Katharine was an accomplished housewife and businesswoman who remodeled the former cloister where they lived to accommodate paying guests and was renowned for the excellent beer she brewed (this was long before Protestantism so closely allied itself with the temperance movement). To matters of the relations between spouses and the raising of children to be both good Christians and responsible adults the Protestants brought earnestness and care. Luther loved his children so much that after two of his daughters died in childhood, he spoke about almost losing faith in God. The Catholic Church, by contrast, did not concern itself institutionally with family life until the nineteenth century, when the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution had already started ravaging families. When Pope John Paul II speaks nowadays of the Christian home as a “domestic Church,” he is using an image borrowed directly from Luther. 

It was not long into the sixteenth century when the Protestant reformers discovered that they had, in Ozment’s words, “sown the wind.” Once the initial break with Rome occurred, there was no stopping the proliferation of Protestant sects, some far more millennial, Utopian, and radically egalitarian than the fundamentally conservative Luther could have ever imagined. One manifestation of the revolutionary spiritualism the Reformation unleashed was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, an anarchic commoners’ rising against German landholders that, with Luther’s approval, the Protestant princes promptly crushed. Luther’s doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” rigorously separating the spheres of ecclesiastical and secular authority, led eventually to the thorough secularizing of Western society, the privatizing of religion, and, save for such notable exceptions as the Amish, the draining of the sense of the sacred out of everyday life. Not surprisingly, Protestants were the first Western Christians to lose their faith en masse to modernity (Catholic have lately been catching up, however). 

Protestantism offered a radically simplified religious life but not an easy one. Of its initial converts, Ozment reports, half returned to the Catholic fold by the end of the sixteenth century. “The slack had gone out of religion, but with it went also, as the passage of time confirmed, some of the familiarity and comfort,” he writes. “The reformers in the end created a version of what they had originally vehemently opposed: an elite religion.”

Because today’s Protestants so strikingly resemble their Reformation forebears, Protestants offers a prophetic picture of what could happen to the Catholic cultures of Latin America, through which evangelical Christianity is now sweeping like a firestorm, its clergy preaching sobriety and the road to prosperity. 

The book is also instructive for Catholics in another sense, for Ozment’s picture of the Protestantized German towns during the early Reformation resembles nothing so much as post-Vatican II American Catholicism, both as it is now and as church liberals would like to see it in the future. We Catholics too have empty cloisters now, and churches whose statues have become firewood. We have our own agitators for a married clergy and a dissolution of hierarchy. “The fear of God will vanish forever/Together with the whole of Scripture,” warned an anti-Lutheran pamphlet of the sixteenth century. One of the lessons of Protestants is that all reformers bear swords and that swords can cut unexpectedly deep.

Charlotte Allena frequent contributor to First Things, is an associate editor at the Washington City Paper.

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