Christianity and the Reformation

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Here is the current pope, Francis I, as he visted Haemi Castle in Korea in 2014.

Here is the exterior of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The tomb of the explorer Ponce de Leon is here. A hurricane destroyed the first cathedral, built here in 1521, and this one was built in 1540. Although Puerto Rico is not an American state, it is United States territory, so this is the oldest church in the United States. Most people don't count Puerto Rico, though, so...

This is the interior of the San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe. Built by Spanish missionaries in the early 17th century, it is often supposed to be the oldest church in the United States. It is a "church" but not a "cathedral" because it only had ordinary priests; no bishop was resident there.

This is St. Louis's Cathedral in New Orleans, built in the early 18th century and often supposed to be the oldest cathedral in the United States.

This is St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Saint Patrick is the "Patron Saint" of Ireland. The Archbishop of New York's "cathedra" is here.

This is Martin Luther, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529.

This is the interior of the First Baptist Church in America. Note the lack of art on the walls.

This is the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, founded in 1794, the first A.M.E. church.

This map shows the way religion has sorted out in Europe: Predominantly Muslim areas appear in green, Eastern Orthodox areas in red, Roman Catholic areas in blue, and Protestant areas in purple. As you can see, Roman Catholicism remained the most common religion in most European states.

(If you need a really basic review of European history, see the first few paragraphs of European Exploration and African Slavery before Columbus. This page assumes you already know the material on that page!)

By 1492, Christianity had spread all over Europe (and also east as far as China), and it had split into two rival traditions: Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism:

Eastern Orthodoxy was the official religion of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, and from there it spread to most of the Slavic countries such as Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. When Muslims conquered these areas, many of the conquered people remained Orthodox Christians. The Muslim conquerors oppressed the Christians, but they did not force conversions to Islam.) Most Christians of Asia and East Africa, such as the Copts of Egypt, were either Orthodox or similar to Orthodoxy. For American history, you don't need to know much about these traditions.

Roman Catholicism was the official religion of Western Europe until the sixteenth century. This tradition has been very important in American history, and in fact the largest religion in the United States today is Catholicism.

But in 1517, the Roman Catholic Church started to break up. New Christian traditions appeared and took over in many Northern European countries. We call the new traditions “Protestantism,” and we call the event, one of the most important in all of European history, “the Reformation” or “the Protestant Reformation.”

These new traditions didn't develop in peace. Violence between Catholics and Protestants shook Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. We won’t learn very much about the wars of religion in Europe, but they matter to us a little because the European colonies in the Americas were born during the violence of the Reformation, and the Reformation played a large role in the histories and characteristics of those colonies. So, from the very beginning of American history, we’ll need to understand some basic things about Catholicism and Protestantism.

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has a hierarchical organization, with the Pope at the top. The office of the Pope is "the papacy," and anything associated with the Pope is known as "papal."

Below the Pope are the cardinals and archbishops, then bishops, and at the bottom, ordinary priests. (The Pope is also called the Bishop of Rome.) Almost every local Catholic church has a priest, and large churches might have several priests; most large cities have a bishop (a “cathedral” originally meant a church with a bishop: the “cathedra” is a special chair for the bishop to sit in); and often a country has an archbishop. In standard Catholic practice, none of these religious leaders are allowed to marry.

In addition, some Catholics become monks (if they're men) or nuns (if they're women). Instead of marrying, they devote their lives to serving the Church. Many monks and nuns live in "monasteries," and the tradition of being monks or nuns is known as "monasticism." The Catholic Church has several "orders" of monasticism, with slightly different rules for the monks and nuns to follow. The most famous orders of monasticism are the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits. All of those orders and some less famous ones will play a role in American history, but we don't need to worry about the differences between these orders.

The Catholic Church emphasizes traditional sources of authority: not only the Bible but also the Pope and the Church’s tradition. According to Catholic doctrine, both faith and works are necessary for salvation. ("Salvation" basically means going to heaven.)

The main Catholic worship service is known as the Mass (the root of words like “Christmas”). The main event of the mass is the worshippers receiving Communion, the bread and wine that (according to Catholic doctrine) have been “transubstantiated” into Jesus’ body and blood. Catholics also pray to Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, and to the rest of the saints.

Spanish Catholics founded many places in the Americas, as you can tell by their names: “San Francisco” means “Saint Francis” in Spanish, and “Los Angeles” is “The Angels,” and so on. “Santo Domingo,” the colony founded by Christopher Columbus’s younger brother that has become the capital of the Dominican Republic, was named for Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order of monasticism.

In the Catholic countries of the New World, missionaries often converted the Native Americans and Africans to Catholicism, but these converts always kept parts of their own religious traditions as well. Rather than adopting European Catholicism unchanged, these converts created dynamic "syncretic" traditions. We'll learn about some of them, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, Vodun, and Voodoo.

Roman Catholicism remained the most common religion in Southern Europe, and also a few other European states, and their colonies. For American history, the important Catholic countries are Ireland, France, Spain (and its former colonies such as Mexico and Cuba), Italy, southern Germany, and Poland. As we will see, immigration from those countries has made Catholicism the largest religion in the United States today.

That’s enough about Catholicism for now! Let's turn to Protestantism.

Protestantism

A couple decades after Columbus’s journeys, about the time that Cortés conquered the Aztecs, many western Europeans began leaving the Roman Catholic Church, creating new organizations known as Protestant denominations. This "Reformation" had many important affects on American history. (It did not significantly affect the Eastern Orthodox Church.) In the 16th century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also the King of Spain, and his son, King Philip II of Spain, spent much of the wealth they acquired from their American colonies fighting against Protestantism.

Protestants rejected many things about Catholicism, but most strongly they rejected the Pope’s authority. They even believed that the Pope was "the Anti-Christ." Terms like “Papist” became terms of abuse that Protestants used to describe Catholics.

The first Protestant denomination was Lutheranism, named after Martin Luther, who started the Reformation. Luther’s most distinctive beliefs, “salvation by faith alone” and the Bible being the only religious authority, later became common to most Protestant denominations. (By contrast, the Catholic Church believes in salvation by faith and works, and believes in the church hierarchy and tradition as authorities along with the Bible.)

Lutheranism is most common in northern Germany and Scandinavia, and in the United States in places settled by Germans and Scandinavians, such as the Midwest.

The next new kind of Christianity was Calvinism, named for John Calvin, who accepted most of Luther’s ideas but also emphasized predestination (in fact, “double predestination,” the idea that God predestines some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell even before they’re born). Calvinists are famous for emphasizing the sinfulness of humanity, our “total depravity,” our inability to do anything to contribute to our salvation. Calvinists also reinterpreted the Mass (the bread and wine of the main Christian ritual) as purely symbolic rather than a miraculous event of "transubstantiation." Besides predestination, Calvinism is also famous for iconoclasm (oppostion to religious art) and rejecting the church structure of bishops and priests. Calvinists replaced traditional Catholic ritual with sermons and singing Psalms or hymns.

The Calvinists have had a lot of influence on other Protestants, so although there are exceptions to everything and things get enormously complicated in detail, for the purposes of American history we can basically distinguish between most Protestants and most Catholics along these lines:

CatholicismProtestantism
Authorities include the Bible, the Pope, and the Church’s traditionThe Bible is the only authority
Popes, Bishops, Priests, Monks and nunsPreachers or Ministers
Fancy robes and hatsJust normal clothes, or maybe a black suit
Lots of statues and pictures, stained glassPlain white walls, maybe some stained glass windows (iconoclasm)
Short sermons or no sermonsLong Sermons
Hymns mostly sung by the priest or choirThe congregation sings hymns together
The bread and the wine served at every massRarely serve the bread or the wine
Babies baptizedOnly adults baptized
Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Southern Germany, AustriaEngland, Scotland, the Netherlands, Northern Germany, Scandinavia

Calvinism was most common in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scotland; in addition, many cities all over Europe had significant Calvinist populations.

For some reason, French Calvinists were known as “Huguenots.” In the late 16th century, France endured a series of horrible civil wars between Huguenots and Catholics known as the French Wars of Religion. It was during those wars that some people, most notably Montaigne, who essentially invented the genre of the essay, began to doubt that people should kill each other over religion. The Huguenots almost won those wars, but at the last moment their leader, King Henry IV of France, switched sides! A few decades later, King Louis XIV banished them from France: a good example of religious intolerance harming a society, for French industry never recovered. Some Huguenots migrated directly to North America, and some others migrated to the Netherlands or England, from where some of them eventually made their way to North America.

(Some of those Huguenot migrants became my ancestors! My great-great-grandfather’s family name was “Elsass,” a variant spelling of “Alsace,” a region in France from which her Huguenot ancestors migrated. Alsace would also later be an important part of the conflict that led to World War One, which my great-great-grandfather lived through from his home on the American prairie.)

Two major branches of Calvinism developed: Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. They disagreed primarily about how to govern and organize their churches: Presbyterians believed in councils of elected elders (or “Presbyters”) that would have authority over local congregations, while Congregationalists believed that each congregation should govern itself independently.

The main Presbyterian country was Scotland, and a lot of Scottish or Scots-Irish Presbyterians migrated to the British colonies in North America.

A famous and much-debated theory from Max Weber’s 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism holds that Calvinists had a stronger "work ethic" than other Europeans, so their beliefs helped them develop capitalism. This theory certainly has limits, since all kinds of people were Calvinists, and many Calvinists were not capitalists, and some capitalists were not Calvinists! Nevertheless, the Calvinist communities in Europe and North America were often very active in commerce and developing capitalism. The best example must be the Dutch. Through their colony New Netherland, Dutch Calvinism played a role in the development of American culture.

Next came the Anabaptists, named for re-baptizing people because they didn’t believe in baptizing babies. In the sixteenth century the Anabapitsts were the most radical Protestants, and although the Anabaptists initially put up a good fight, both Catholics and other Protestants opposed them. After some really brutal warfare, the Anabaptists turned to pacifism, refusing to fight. Many of them migrated to North America, where the most famous group of Anabaptists are the Amish, though there are others.

Originally, most Anabaptists were located in Germany and the Netherlands; they were never a majority anywhere, but they had an enormous influence on Evangelical Protestantism in the United States.

Finally, in order to get a divorce, King Henry VIII of England made the Church of England independent of the Catholic Church. This Church, also known as the Anglican Church, was not created for a religious reason, and its members disagreed about what kind of church it should be: King Henry wanted it to resemble the Catholic Church in most ways, but his son (who reigned very briefly) wanted it to be Protestant. Then Queen Elizabeth I compromised, creating a church that had "a Catholic body and a Protestant mind." In other words, it looked Catholic—-it has bishops and priests and almost the same rituals as the Catholic Church—-but its doctrines were Protestant.

That worked pretty well for several decades: Elizabeth’s compromise managed to avoid a civil war just at the time that France was torn by its religious wars. Elizabeth’s compromise was still working in the early 17th century when the first successful English colonies were founded in North America. But some people, the “Puritans,” weren’t satisfied. They wanted to “purify” the Anglican Church, getting rid of all the Catholic elements, making it a purely Calvinist church. A much smaller English Calvinist group called “Separatists” assumed that the Church of England would never be properly Calvinist, so they wanted to separate from it and make their own church. Whether Puritan or Separatist, most English Calvinists were Congregationalists.

So the Pilgrims (a group of Separatists) and the Puritan migrants to New England were Congregationalists, and as we’ll see later in American history, many American Congregationalists have continued to be Congregationalists long after they abandoned Calvinism: today, strongly influenced by the Transcendentalists of the mid-19th century (such as Emerson and Thoreau) they identify as "Unitarian Universalists." The Baptist tradition was also influenced by the Congregationalist tradition. (We'll learn more about this when we study the Great Awakening of the 18th century.)

Elizabeth's compromise didn’t work forever. In the 17th century England experienced a civil war largely over religion. The English Civil War had very important consequences on the political tradition that eventually led the colonies to declare independence.

That's enough about Protestantism too! We'll get to review these concepts several times during the course of American history.

Timeline

Key Concepts

Key Terms

mess (don't worry, I'll fix this):
Here is a painting by the famous Renaissance painter El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The bottom half shows the count being buried, and I want you to notice the robes and especially the hat that the bishop is wearing—that hat is called a “mitre” and is one of the more famous Catholic hats (although priests in some other churches also wear similar hats): Here is a painting by the famous Renaissance painter Raphael of Pope Leo X, who was the Pope when the Reformation started, with two cardinals: The Catholic Church emphasizes traditional sources of authority: not only the Bible but also the Pope and the Church’s tradition. According to Catholic doctrine, both faith and works are necessary for salvation. The main Catholic worship service is known as the Mass (the root of words like “Christmas”). The main event of the mass is the worshippers receiving Communion, the bread and wine that (according to Catholic doctrine) have been “transubstantiated” into Jesus’ body and blood. Catholics also pray to Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, and to the rest of the saints. Michelangelo’s famous statue of the Pietà, carved just a couple decades before the Reformation began, is a good example of a Catholic statue expressing devotion to the Virgin Mary: You can see from many place names that they were founded by Catholics: “San Francisco” is “Saint Francis,” in Spanish “Los Angeles” is “The Angels,” and so on. It’s worth reviewing that in the Catholic countries of the New World, the Native Americans and Africans usually kept some of their own religious traditions, and dynamic syncretic traditions emerged. But not long after Columbus’s journeys, the religion of western Europe shattered into many pieces in an event known as “the Reformation.” The religious conflicts that resulted were very important to American history. During the Reformation, western Christianity split into the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations. (It did not affect the Eastern Orthodox Church.) Protestants rejected many things about Catholicism, but most strongly they rejected the Pope’s authority. For that reason, terms like “Papist” and “Popery” became terms of abuse that Protestants used to describe Catholics. The first Protestant denomination was Lutheranism, named after Martin Luther, who started the Reformation. Luther’s most distinctive beliefs, “salvation by faith alone” and the Bible being the only religious authority, later became common to most Protestant denominations. (By contrast, the Catholic Church believes in salvation by faith and works, and believes in the church hierarchy and tradition as authorities along with the Bible.) Lutheranism is most common in northern Germany and Scandinavia, and in the United States in places settled by Germans and Scandinavians, such as the Midwest. The next new kind of Christianity was Calvinism, named for John Calvin, who accepted most of Luther’s ideas but also emphasized predestination (in fact, “double predestination,” the idea that God predestines some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell even before they’re born). Calvinists are well-known for emphasizing the sinfulness of humanity, our “total depravity,” our inability to do anything to contribute to our salvation. Calvinists also reinterpreted the Mass (the bread and wine of the main Christian ritual) as purely symbolic rather than a miraculous event. Besides predestination, Calvinism is most famous for iconoclasm and rejecting the church structure of bishops and priests, as well as most of the liturgy—replacing it with sermons and singing Psalms or hymns. The sermons were particularly important. The Calvinists have had a lot of influence on other Protestants, so although there are exceptions to everything and things get enormously complicated in detail, we can basically distinguish between most Protestants and most Catholics along these lines: Catholicism Protestantism Authorities include the Bible, the Pope, and the Church’s tradition The Bible is the only authority Popes, Bishops, Priests Preachers or Ministers Fancy robes and hats Just normal clothes, or maybe a black suit Lots of statues and pictures in the church Plain white walls (iconoclasm) Short sermons or no sermons Long sermons Hymns mostly sung by the priest or choir The congregation sings hymns together The bread and the wine served at every mass Rarely serve the bread or the wine Babies baptized Only adults baptized Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Southern Germany, Austria England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Northern Germany, Scandinavia There were two kinds of Calvinism: Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. They disagreed primarily about how to govern and organize their churches: Presbyterians believed in councils of elected elders (or “Presbyters”) that would have authority over local congregations, while Congregationalists believed that each congregation should govern itself independently. As we’ll see later in American history, American Congregationalists have continued to be Congregationalists long after they abandoned Calvinism. Calvinism was most common in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scotland; in addition, many cities all over Europe had significant Calvinist populations. French Calvinists were known as “Huguenots;” some Huguenots migrated to North America when Louis XIV outlawed their tradition. The main Presbyterian country was Scotland, and a lot of Scottish or Scots-Irish Presbyterians migrated to North America. A famous and much-debated theory from Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1905, holds that Calvinists had a stronger “work ethic” than other Europeans, so their beliefs helped them develop capitalism. This theory certainly has limits, since all kinds of people were Calvinists, and many Calvinists were not capitalists, and some capitalists were not Calvinists, and so on. Nevertheless the Calvinist communities in North America were often very active in commerce. Next came the Anabaptists, named for re-baptizing people because they didn’t believe in baptizing babies. For awhile in the sixteenth century they put up a good fight, but Catholics and other Protestants opposed them, and after some really brutal warfare eventually they became known for their pacifism, their refusal to fight. The most famous group of Anabaptists in America is the Amish, but there are others. Originally, most Anabaptists were located in Germany and the Netherlands; they were never a majority anywhere, but they had an enormous influence on Evangelical Protestantism in the United States. Finally, in order to get a divorce, King Henry VIII of England made the Church of England independent of the Catholic Church. So this Church, also known as the Anglican Church, was not created for a religious reason, and its members disagreed about what kind of church it should be like: King Henry wanted it to resemble the Catholic Church in most ways, but his son (who reigned very briefly) wanted it to be much more Protestant. Then Elizabeth compromised, creating a church that had a Catholic body with a Protestant mind. In other words, it looked Catholic—it has bishops and priests and almost the same rituals as the Catholic Church—but its doctrines were Protestant. That worked pretty well, and Elizabeth’s compromise just managed to avoid a civil war. But some people, the “Puritans,” weren’t satisfied. They wanted to “purify” the Anglican Church, getting rid of all the Catholic trappings, making it a purely Calvinist church. A much smaller English Calvinist group called “Separatists” assumed that the Church of England would never be properly Calvinist, so they wanted to separate from it and make their own church. Whether Puritan or Separatist, most English Calvinists were Congregationalists. Elizabeth’s compromise didn’t work forever, and in the 17th century England too experienced a civil war largely over religion. During that time, a new religious tradition appeared in England with many similarities to the Anabaptists. The Quakers were known for their radical belief in equality—since they believe every person has an “inner light,” even women and children can speak in their meetings, and there are no priests. Quakers call themselves “Friends,” and their organization “the Society of Friends.” All of these splits didn’t happen without bloodshed. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were filled with religious wars, most famously the Dutch Revolt, the French Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years’ War, and the English Civil War. The sixteenth century Spanish monarchs (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II) spent their wealth from the New World trying to stop Protestantism. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, many elite Europeans had become much less enthusiastic about fighting over religion. Still, even in the eighteenth century, more new kinds of Protestantism appeared. In American history, two especially important ones were the Baptists and the Methodists. The Baptists didn’t have any particular founder, but as we’ll they’re associated with Roger Williams of Rhode Island. Today the Baptist denomination is very common in the United States: in particular, Southern Baptists are the largest religious group in the USA except for Catholics. John Wesley, who spent some time in colonial Georgia though he mostly lived in England, founded Methodism. Methodism is also very common in the United States today, and especially in the South Methodists churches are often considered the main rival to the Baptists. Then, as we’ll see in more detail later, in the 19th century several more new denominations appeared in America, including the Mormons. At the same time, American Congregationalists started new religious movements like the Unitarians or Universalists. We’ll learn about the Transcendentalists, who tended to join the Unitarian movement, leaving behind their Puritan backgrounds. Another term that is often used to describe many American Christians is “Evangelical.” That can be a very confusing word, because sometimes people use it to refer to all Protestants. Usually, however, it refers to the kind of Protestant that emphasizes conversion experiences—being “born again,” becoming a Christian, “accepting Jesus,” and so on. Evangelicals typically work hard to “evangelize,” or get other people to convert to Evangelical traditions or have those conversion experiences. Evangelical churches emphasize preaching and hymn singing. Influenced largely by Calvinism and Methodism, usually the Bible is the only religious authority they recognize, and they usually emphasize the idea that Jesus died in our place to satisfy God, enabling him to forgive our sins. Evangelical churches are usually Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian, but they no longer care very much about those labels, and for the past few decades, Evangelical ties to previous denominational labels like “Baptist” or “Methodist” have become so weak that many Evangelicals do not use them anymore, often rejecting them entirely. Often they don’t belong to any organization larger than their local church. Another confusing label you might see is “fundamentalism.” As we’ll see, fundamentalism appeared in the early twentieth century among Evangelicals who rejected modernist ideas like evolution. But the word “fundamentalism” is now used very widely to describe people of any religion or ideology who reject scientific ideas, cultural pluralism, or western culture. It is especially used to describe groups willing to use terrorist violence to promote their beliefs. That is unfair to most Christian fundamentalists, who have almost never resorted to violence (though of course a few have: for instance, a few Christian fundamentalists have murdered doctors who perform abortions). By far the most important information in this chapter is that in the sixteenth and seventeenth century religious ideas and identities were very serious topics: all or almost all European wars of those centuries were fought at least partially over religion. Religion and politics were inseparable—almost no one could imagine separating them yet—because the political rulers of those times depended on religion to legitimize their power. The devout Catholic Spanish kings Carlos I (the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and his son Philip II spent much of their wealth from the New World fighting Protestantism in Europe. Most of the Europeans who went to North America, including the British settlers in North America, brought these attitudes with them. When these labels come up in American history, if you’ve forgotten any of them you will want to review this section. Timeline • Quakers • the Society of Friends • Methodists • John Wesley • Baptists • Unitarianism • Evangelicalism • fundamentalism

Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History

Index to Jonathan's Guides