Enlightened despotism as a form of secularization

At best, Enlightened despots ruling in the various Protestant states of central Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century advocated religious tolerance; very often, however, they had no interest in religion other than as a matter of traditional decorum on certain holidays and on special occasions. For example, Enlightened despots ordered that burial grounds which up until then had often been placed in churchyards located in town centres should be closed for hygienic reasons, and that new cemeteries should be opened outside of towns and villages. Sacred ground mattered little to them. Sacred objects they valued as art forms. Just as many Catholic rulers of the time dissolved the monasteries of those orders that did not provide useful services to society, for many Protestant rulers pastors were only helpful and necessary as long as they told people to live an orderly life, to work hard, and to obey the authorities. More often than not the Enlightened despots lacked respect for religion, or any substantial emotional tie to religion. It is not wrong, therefore, to view the rule ofthe Protestant Enlightened despots as a major step towards secularization. Had these rulers opened the door for a gradual separation of state and church, and had they extended effective political support to religious minorities, absolute rule combined with Enlightened insight might have served, at least temporarily, a useful function. But as these rulers insisted both on absolute obedience in political matters and on imposing their authority over church life, their regimes challenged the sanctity ofindividual conscience in a manner that contradicted their Enlightened precepts, and that resulted in regimes that could not be upheld for very long.

Before new forms of political rule had been established, opposition, particularly in Protestant regions of Germany, against the church policy of Enlightened despots began to grow. As early as 1780 a Society of Defenders of True Christianity (the 'ChristentumsgesellschaJt') was founded. Within a decade, branch societies had sprung up in many parts of central Europe. At first, the members of these societies published tracts in which they disputed Enlightened views on theology. After a few years, however, and especially from the early 1790s, they actively opposed Enlightened church policies. For example, when Protestant consistories introduced new hymnals or new liturgies that followed Enlightenment principles, the societies organized local resistance. Furthermore, they provided support when a missionary society was founded

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