Magazine | September 26, 2016, Issue

The Birth of the Modern

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650, by Carlos M. N. Eire (Yale, 920 pp., $40)

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has occasioned a slew of books, lectures, conferences, reenactments, and so on, starting several years ago and scheduled to reach a climax in the fall of 2017. Of the books I’ve seen in this cavalcade (there are far too many for any single reader to keep up with), Carlos M. N. Eire’s Reformations is one of the best.

It’s a very long book, and at first you may be daunted by its sheer bulk. (I discovered that I couldn’t read it in bed, my favorite spot: I needed to have it lying flat on a desk or table.) But unlike all too many books these days, Reformations is not bloated with verbal filler, lazy repetitions, or self-indulgent digressions. The writing, while deeply informed by scholarship, is beguiling, as one might expect from the author of the memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003). And the book is long because it needs to be, to flesh out Eire’s thesis that we should speak of Reformations, plural, rather than “the” Reformation, singular, symbolized by Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. (Eire, like many historians, describes this famous scene as a legend; in any case, Luther sent his theses to clerical authorities, so the challenge was given.)

In the canonical account of the Reformation, Luther’s scathing critique of the selling of indulgences — in effect, selling God’s mercy — stands for a more thoroughgoing condemnation of ecclesiastical corruption and a revolutionary emphasis on Scripture alone as authoritative for the Christian life. Moreover, believers were to read the Bible in their own language — Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was as important as his theological works.

This is the essence of the Reformation as it has long been understood, both by those who trace their heritage to it and by those who continue to deplore its consequences — those for whom the bumptious individualism (so they see it) implicit in Luther’s defiance leads straight through the centuries to American Evangelicals’ love affair with Donald Trump. The story has long been complicated, as Eire acknowledges, by subplots: the increasing conflict among early Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli and the traditions that flowed from them over the centuries; the Anabaptists and the heirs of the so-called Radical Reformation (whose present-day descendants include the Mennonites and Amish); the Catholic response to Luther and his ilk, commonly referred to as “the Counter-Reformation”; and — a theme especially strong in recent scholarship — the many and wildly varied reform movements that preceded Luther, such as that of the Waldensians (beginning in France in the late 12th century), who embraced poverty, rejected the authority of the pope and the veneration of relics, and argued that the Bible was the supreme authority.

Still, both in everyday conversation and in academic settings, we continue to speak of “the Reformation.” This vexes Eire. He’s convinced that his objection is not merely a matter of scholarly hairsplitting. To speak of “the Reformations,” he insists, is much truer to the reality we are seeking to understand, one in which “all of the different reform movements and churches that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries” were interrelated. And here we should note the subtitle of Eire’s book: “The Early Modern World, 1450–1650.” As Eire tells us at the outset, “we cannot begin to comprehend who we are as Westerners without first understanding the changes wrought by the Reformations of the early modern era.”

Though Eire lays out his argument quite clearly, this is not a thesis-driven book. Rather, it is a detail-rich cross-cutting narrative that encompasses the “Scottish war on witchcraft” (Chapter 13), Catholic missionaries to India (Chapter 19), the “age of devils” (Chapter 23), and much more. Whether or not you end up agreeing with Eire that we should stop talking about “the Reformation,” and whether or not you agree with his summing up of the impact of this period (see the epilogue and Eire’s concise account of “three revolutionary shifts” that shaped the West as we know it today), you will learn a great deal and be entertained along the way.

Eire is quick to note the “contingency of all summations.” Still, in the spirit of his project, which complicates a familiar story, let me complicate the story he tells in its place. Some of what he says about Protestants in the early modern era fits very well with my own experience growing up in a Protestant household in the 1950s with my mother, my grandmother, and my younger brother. (We mostly went to Baptist churches, and historians of American religion would describe our milieu as Evangelical with some fundamentalist traits.) But in other respects his summation doesn’t fit my experience.

Eire makes a great deal of Protestantism’s desacralizing and disenchanting of the world, especially through its “rejection of miracles.” But most of the Protestants I grew up with (and certainly those in my own family) would have been loath to reject miracles. My grandmother, who had absorbed a good deal of dispensationalism (she read every day in her worn Scofield Bible), explained that “cessationists” believed that miracles were restricted to the period of the early Church and that God did not choose to work that way in the present age, but she — and, again, the vast majority of believers I grew up with — strongly believed that God still worked miracles, even as they were skeptical about the claims of faith healers and such. Moreover, my grandmother had been a missionary in China (where my mom lived until she was eleven years old), and we often had missionaries visiting our house in Southern California as well as speaking in church. Many of them related miracles that they claimed to have witnessed.

So the world in which I was raised was emphatically not desacralized and disenchanted. Both my mother and my grandmother spoke without any embarrassment about the presence of angels. They were equally matter-of-fact about the Devil and his minions. I was raised (and here I will no doubt appall some of my readers) to believe in the personal reality of the Devil, a belief I’ve never been persuaded to abandon. (Quite the contrary.)

Please be assured, if all this sounds a bit fantastic to you, that the setting in which I went to church and Sunday school was not highly idiosyncratic. Of course it was different from growing up in a Catholic setting, and different again from the Lutheran setting I came to know when (I was partway through fourth grade at the time) my mom took my brother and me out of the public school we’d been attending and enrolled us in a Missouri Synod Lutheran school, even though we weren’t Lutherans. (There weren’t so many Christian schools to choose from in those days.)

It was at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Pomona, Calif., that I first learned about the Reformation and Martin Luther. (In the largely ahistorical Baptist churches where we worshiped, the Reformation was never mentioned.) To this day I remain very thankful for my first immersion in another stream of the faith. How different many things formerly taken for granted looked from that angle. And I am equally grateful to Carlos Eire for an immersion (no mere sprinkling) in the Reformations from which we have inherited so much, for better and for worse.

– Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.

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