Persecution And The Shaping Of Protestant Identity

As Protestantism began to expand in the early 1560s, it encountered resistance from a renewed Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation, long delayed by the Habsburg-Valois conflict, had begun to make an impact. Although some degree of internal reform had been under way since the 1490s, the rise of Protestantism catalyzed a systemic review of the church's life and thought.3 Clerical abuses were remedied; new religious orders—such as the Society of Jesus—were established, and others reformed; and the reforming Council of Trent gave a new sense of theological direction and intellectual security to the church.

Although this renewal was partly driven by an internal agenda, based on the recognition of a need for change, the importance of external factors cannot be overlooked.4 In northern Europe, the Catholic Reformation generally expressed itself as the Counter-Reformation, whose main concern was neutralizing and reversing the impact of Protestantism in hitherto Catholic territories. Peter Canisius's Catechism (1555) proved an especially effective riposte to its Protestant rivals. When the Catholic Reformation assumed this polemical nature, Protestantism was "the other." The term "Protestant" came to mean a third, deficient, and deviant form of Christianity that was neither Catholic nor Orthodox. Paradoxically, Catholics regarded the movement as an essentially homogeneous "non-church" that posed a clear and present danger to the real church. A group of essentially distinct, even potentially divergent, movements were thus bracketed together for essentially polemical reasons to encourage Catholic unity and vigilance. Their obvious differences were glossed over in a generally successful attempt to portray Protestantism as a single, well-defined enemy—a serious threat that demanded Catholic unity if it was to be blocked.

A similar process of mutual identification took place on the Protestant side. Especially in times of international tension, "Protestantism" became the emblematic ideal that gave a group of otherwise quite disparate religious movements a shared sense of identity—above all, through fear of a common enemy. This belief in a pan-European Protestant religious identity was at its greatest and most persuasive when the Catholic response took the form of violence. As Renan rightly noted, communal identities are forged and consolidated in many ways, but above all through a sense of solidarity in suffering.

The role of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1559) in catalyzing a sense of shared grievance and suffering illustrates this point perfectly.5 Foxe was a Marian exile who had settled in the city of Basel. Like many at that time, he was shocked by the violence of Mary Tudor's persecution of Protestants, especially the barbaric deaths of the three leading Protestant bishops of the age—Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley. Many of those whom he had known personally were executed. Foxe's account of the final days of England's leading Protestant martyrs was avidly read, hardening attitudes within the community and strengthening its resolve to resist and eventually to overcome this evil. The addition of woodcut illustrations of the deaths of England's martyrs made this one of the most effective works of propaganda of the age.

The violent deaths of possibly as many as thirty thousand French Protestants (the figures are disputed and impossible to verify) in the

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 further radicalized many Protestants. The outrage created a powerful, if ultimately temporary, sense of shared identity between Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican Christians, accompanied by a profound sense of grievance. Catholicism was "the other"; its violence was perceived to be directed against Protestantism as a whole. The fate of Protestantism in France did much to provoke indignation in its Protestant neighbors and create a sense of a righteous religious minority being persecuted by a Catholic juggernaut, directed from Rome. The portrayal of Protestants as the innocent victims of Catholic brutality and repression reinforced both the stereotype of Catholicism as "the other" and a sense of shared anger and solidarity throughout international Protestantism.

Protestantism's prejudices against Catholicism were reinforced by the bizarre reaction of the papacy to the massacre in France. Gregory XIII's celebration of the massacre was as jubilant as it was undiplomatic: the bells of Rome rang out to mark a public day of thanksgiving, the guns of the Castel Sant' Angelo were fired in salute, and a special commemorative medal was struck to honor the occasion. Gregory even commissioned Giorgio Vasari to paint a mural depicting the massacre. Such tactless actions could not fail to produce a reaction of total distaste and disgust, and the "anti-popery" that subsequently spread throughout Protestant regions of Europe remained a persistent element of Protestant self-definition until very recently.6

In England, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the dismantling of the "Gunpowder Plot" increased the perception that Protestantism was defined primarily by its hostility to Catholicism, and especially the figure of the pope.7 The figure of the pope thus became an icon of hostility and resistance (in much the same way that hostility toward the American president is talked up in Tehran).

Yet other conflicts led to quite different outcomes. Anabaptists were perceived as a threat by both Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, who were in turn regarded as oppressors by those who were allegedly so dangerous. As the religious geography of Germany became unsettled after the Peace of Augsburg, Lutheran and Reformed communities found themselves forced to define themselves over and against several "others." It was not merely Catholicism that threatened to overwhelm them; they faced a significant challenge from rival visions of Protestant identity. So severe were these internal tensions within Protestantism that it was at times difficult to believe that any common ideology united the factions.

The essential dynamic of Protestant identity, as disclosed by the events of the second half of the sixteenth century, was that of a fragmented and largely disunified movement that was able to set its internal divisions in their proper perspective by the very real threat of being overwhelmed by Catholicism. So great was this threat, and so fragile any sense of commonality, that the removal of this external constraint would unleash the forces, hitherto contained and constrained, that threatened to break Protestantism into warring factions. Historically, Protestantism has always needed an "other," an external threat or enemy, imagined or real, to hold itself together as a movement.

These tensions between different understandings of Protestantism finally erupted openly in the English Civil War (1642-51). Although this conflict possessed many dimensions and elements, at its heart it pitted two rival visions of Protestant identity against each other. Puritan and Anglican battled for the soul of England—and arguably, for the future direction of English-speaking Protestantism. The Puritan military victory could not be sustained politically, and Anglicanism regained the ascendancy after a remarkably short and ineffective interregnum. Yet while other intra-Protestant tensions might not have led to violence or warfare on such a dramatic scale, the tensions were real and seemed incapable of resolution. Protestantism was a house divided against itself—regionally, culturally, and theologically.

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