Tan­gled branches, sin­gle trunk

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Do­minic Sand­brook

In early 1534, the king­dom of God came to the Ger­man city of Mun­ster. Un­der the in­flu­ence of a Dutch baker called Jan Matthys, the city’s lead­ing fig­ures con­verted en masse to An­abap­tism, a rad­i­cal Protes­tant creed that taught that the end of the world might be only days away.

To its neigh­bours, it seemed as if the city had gone mad. The ex­iled Catholic prince-bishop gath­ered an army and re­turned in force, but the An­abap­tists were be­yond rea­son.

On Easter Sun­day Matthys, suf­fused with apoc­a­lyp­tic fer­vour, led a sui­cide mis­sion be­yond the walls and was killed. His head ended up on a pole, his gen­i­tals were nailed to the city gate. But Mun­ster held out.

Matthys’s suc­ces­sor, a tailor called Jan Bock­el­son, pro­claimed him­self the heir of King David, an­nounced the abo­li­tion of pri­vate prop­erty and be­gan ac­cu­mu­lat­ing wives, 16 in all.

At last, in the sum­mer of 1535, Mun­ster fell to the be­siegers. Bock­el­son and his friends were tor­tured, their bod­ies hung from poles by spiked col­lars, their tongues ripped out, their flesh torn apart with red-hot tongs. You can still see the iron cages in which their corpses were ex­hib­ited, hang­ing from the city’s cathe­dral tower.

In Eng­land where, for al­most 500 years, Angli­can­ism has been the of­fi­cial creed of the monar­chy, it is easy to for­get how ter­ri­fy­ingly rad­i­cal Protes­tantism once seemed. Yet Mun­ster’s de­scent into anar­chy was a vivid re­minder of the ex­tra­or­di­nary power of the move­ment per­son­i­fied by Martin Luther, John Calvin and their suc­ces­sors.

In essence, con­tends Alec Ryrie in Protes­tants: The Rad­i­cals Who Made the Mod­ern World, Protes­tantism is an “ill-dis­ci­plined ar­gu­ment” that has raged since Luther first de­nounced his lo­cal arch­bishop’s fi­nan­cial cor­rup­tion.

For Ryrie, Protes­tantism’s driv­ing force has al­ways been this spirit of free in­quiry, of­ten un­ruly but al­ways rest­less. At its heart, he thinks, has al­ways been the idea of love, specif­i­cally the ex­pe­ri­ence of God’s love.

To cover the story of Protes­tantism in 5oo pages may seem a reck­less task. But Ryrie, a church his­tory pro­fes­sor at Durham Univer­sity, has suc­ceeded mag­nif­i­cently. A lay preacher in the Church of Eng­land, he writes with the af­fec­tion of an in­sider and the judg­ment of a first-class his­to­rian, and is ex­cel­lent at con­vey­ing the ex­cite­ment, pas­sion and vi­o­lence that have marked Protes­tantism’s story.

There al­ways have been rad­i­cals, heretics and free­thinkers, of course. But Ryrie shows that Protes­tantism emerged at a par­tic­u­lar time, when the de­vel­op­ment of print cul­ture was shak­ing au­thor­ity all over Europe.

Although his­to­ri­ans still quar­rel about what Protes­tantism means, Ryrie prefers what he calls a sim­ple “ge­nealog­i­cal” def­i­ni­tion: Protes­tants are Chris­tians whose re­li­gion de­rives ul­ti­mately from Martin Luther’s re­bel­lion against the Catholic Church. They are a tree with many tan­gled branches but a sin­gle trunk.

From the be­gin­ning, this was not merely a re­li­gious move­ment but a po­lit­i­cal one. And partly be­cause it was so po­lit­i­cal, it was ac­com­pa­nied by ex­treme vi­o­lence, with Protes­tants usu­ally cast as the vic­tims. In France, its surge in the 1560s was checked only by an orgy of blood­shed, with thou­sands mur­dered in the St Bartholomew’s Day Mas­sacre in 1572.

It was fear of such bru­tal­ity, Ryrie sug­gests, that in­spired one of Protes­tantism’s most im­pres­sive lega­cies, its ac­cep­tance of plu­ral­ism.

By and large, the early Protes­tants did not en­joy be­ing tol­er­ant, but they did it for fear of some­thing worse.

Civil ser­vant and poet An­drew Marvell may have de­plored the tol­er­ant pub­lic cul­ture of “Am­s­ter­dam, Turk-Chris­tian-Pa­gan-Jew / Sta­ple of sects and mint of schism”, but the civil wars of the 1640s had taught his boss, Oliver Cromwell, that it was safest to al­low a lit­tle dis­si­dence.

For Ryrie, Cromwell was “the first Protes­tant leader any­where to sup­port re­li­gious tol­er­a­tion as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple”. It was Cromwell, af­ter all, who in­vited Jews back to Eng­land af­ter cen­turies of ex­clu­sion. He once said that he would have ac­cepted Mus­lims, too, if any had wanted to come.

The ob­vi­ous dif­fi­culty of writ­ing about Protes­tants is that there are so many dif­fer­ent kinds. Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, how­ever, Ryrie is an im­pres­sively tol­er­ant nar­ra­tor. Ran­ters and Quak­ers, Pi­etists and Methodists, they all get a fair hear­ing.

And although he writes with a keen sense of irony, he never de­scends into cheap mock­ery. He is gen­er­ous, for ex­am­ple, to the lead­ers of the Ad­ven­tist move­ment, who told their Amer­i­can fol­low­ers that the end of the world was sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 22, 1842, only to be em­bar­rassed when the fol­low­ing day (the “Great Dis­ap­point­ment”) dawned as nor­mal.

Mod­ern Protes­tantism is, of course, a global phe­nom­e­non: as Ryrie shows, the most dra­matic growth has oc­curred in coun­tries such as China and South Korea, as well as Latin Amer­ica, where Pen­te­costal­ism’s em­pha­sis on the in­di­vid­ual’s unique, pri­vate re­la­tion­ship with God has proved enor­mously suc­cess­ful. We still think of Latin Amer­i­cans as de­vout Catholics, yet one in four Brazil­ians and al­most half of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans are Pen­te­costal Protes­tants.

Per­haps their wildly ec­static rit­u­als would strike Luther and Calvin as shock­ing or ab­surd. Yet Ryrie thinks the Protes­tant ex­pe­ri­ence re­mains at heart “the same old love af­fair: a di­rect en­counter with God’s power, whether as a lived ex­pe­ri­ence, a mem­ory, or a hope”.

More than any other ver­sion of Chris­tian­ity, Protes­tantism holds out the prom­ise of in­di­vid­ual and so­cial change.

And as this learned, hu­mane and en­ter­tain­ing book sug­gests, the ap­peal of that prom­ise will surely never wane. is a his­to­rian and au­thor.

An il­lus­tra­tion de­picts the burn­ing of 16th­cen­tury Dutch An­abap­tist An­neken Hen­driks, who was charged with heresy by the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion

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