The burning of Anabaptist Christians, the 16th Century
It is startling how much the first half of the 16th century calls to mind the 20th and 21st centuries. Islamic jihad threatens the West, even laying siege to great cities like Vienna (in 1529). Central Europe—the Holy Roman Empire—is divided into warring and bloodthirsty factions. There is widespread racial and religious distrust, often leading to military action and ruthless ethnic cleansing (the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the forced conversion of its Jews, the burning of heretics). Arrogant civic leaders behave like swaggering bravos wholly convinced that God is on their side, or even in their pocket. New communications technology—the printing press—speeds the dissemination of information and subversive ideas. Visionaries like Savanorola and John Calvin call for a total recasting of society, a return to fundamentalist principles and a rejection of the modern worldʼs gross secularism. Other dogmatists, fanatics and martyrs arise, reinforcing the eraʼs disorientation, pervasive uneasiness and latent hysteria. Inevitably, extremism results in heavy-handed government regulation and a call for order from the lofty ecclesiastical powers that be. More and more people choose to die for principles and beliefs that strike an outsider as utterly trivial, if not insane. It is widely believed that the world is coming to an end.
— From a review of Diarmaid MacCullochʼs The Reformation: A History that appeared in The Washington Postʼs Book World (See also MacCullochʼs more recent work, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years)
There was a time [during the Reformation] when religion played an all-powerful role in European politics with Protestants and Catholics organizing themselves into political factions and squandering the wealth of Europe on sectarian wars. English liberalism emerged in direct reaction to the religious fanaticism of the English Civil War. Contrary to those who at the time believed that religion was a necessary and permanent feature of the political landscape, liberalism vanquished religion in Europe. After a centuries-long confrontation with liberalism, religion was taught to be tolerant.
In the sixteenth century, it would have seemed strange to most Europeans not to use political power to enforce belief in their particular sectarian faith. Today, the idea that the practice of religion other than oneʼs own should injure oneʼs own faith seems bizarre, even to the most pious churchmen. Religion has been relegated to the sphere of private life—exiled, it would seem, more or less permanently from European political life except on certain narrow issues like abortion.
Religion per se did not create free societies; Christianity in a certain sense had to abolish itself through a secularization of its goals before liberalism could emerge.
Political liberalism in England ended the religious wars between Protestant and Catholic that had nearly destroyed that country during the seventeenth century: with its advent, religion was defanged by being made tolerant.
— Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man
The Thirty Yearsʼ War: The Worst Thus Far in European History?
By the division of Christianity at the Reformation, religious authority itself became the cause of conflict. The Protestant states thereafter rejected the right of the Universal Church to judge their actions, while the Catholic states took that rejection as grounds to make war against them in clear conscience. The outcome was the Thirty Yearsʼ War, the worst thus far in European history, which may have killed a third of the German-speaking peoples and left Central Europe devastated for much of the seventeenth century.
— John Keegan, War and Our World (the Reith Lectures, 1998, broadcast on the BBC, recorded at the Royal Institution, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Kingʼs College, London)
The last great spasm of the Reformation was its worst. The Thirty Yearsʼ War, from 1618 to 1648, killed millions in Central Europe and left Germany a wasteland of misery. It began because Catholic Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire tried to suppress growing Calvinism in regions already smoldering with Catholic-Lutheran tensions. Evangelical princes formed a defensive alliance, the Protestant Union. The other side formed the Catholic League. They faced each other like ticking bombs—which finally exploded over a trifle: Protestant nobles entered the imperial palace in Prague and threw two Catholic ministers out a window onto a dung heap, touching off war.
Catholic armies quickly slaughtered the Protestant forces. The conflict might have ended then, but Catholic Emperor Ferdinant II decided to eradicate Protestantism entirely. The faith was outlawed and cruel persecution was inflicted.
Protestants appealed for foreign help, and Protestant King Christian IV of Denmark, sent an army to their rescue. Lutheran and Calvinist German princes joined him. Once again the Protestants were defeated, once again Ferdinand resumed religious oppression, and once again the victims sought outside aid.
Next, Protestant King Gustav Adolph of Sweden marched into Germany to rescue his fellow believers. His soldiers sang Martin Lutherʼs hymn “Ein Feste Burg” in battle. Terrible slaughter occurred. A Catholic army captured Magdeburg and massacred its Protestant residents. King Gustav was killed, and his troops weaked vengeance on Catholic peasants.
Eventually the war turned more political than religious. Catholic France entered on the side of the Protestants, in an attempt to cripples the rival Habsburgs. The killing dragged on decade after decade until both sides were too exhausted to continue.
The Thirty Yearsʼ War was a human catastrophe. It settled nothing, and it killed uncountable multitudes. One estimate says Germanyʼs population dropped from 18 million to 4 million. Hunger and deprivation followed. Too few people remained to plant fields, rebuild cities, or conduct education or commerce. This disaster helped break the historic entwinement of Christianity and politics. The concluding Peace of Westphalia prescribed an end to the popeʼs control over civil governments.
— James A. Haught, Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990)
The terrible Thirty Yearsʼ War had evolved out of religious as well as political differences. It ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The provisions of the Treaty having an effect upon the idea of tolerance were few. In the first place, all stipulations regarding tolerance that the Peace produced pertained only to the Christian denominations; these were the religious parties that were granted equality in the eyes of the law. Only the Reformed (Zwinglians and Calvinists), the Catholics, and those who associated themselves with the Augsburg Confession (the Lutherans) were to enjoy equality and religious liberty according to the provisions of the Peace. As for all other faiths, Article VII, 2, expressly declared, “Besides the above-mentioned religions no other ones may be introduced into or tolerated within the Holy Roman Empire.” It was on this account that Pope Innocent X, in the Bull Zelo domus dei of Nov. 20, 1648, protested that dissidents were being allowed to express their heresies freely… The idea that religious liberty is an inalienable right of man, first officially pronounced by a state in North America, was doubtless an effect of the Enlightenment. It influenced the French Nation Assemblyʼs famous Declaration on Human Rights of Aug. 26, 1789. The Assembly also demanded freedom of religion and worship as human rights.”
— Gustav Mensching [one of Europeʼs most respected comparative religionists], Tolerance and Truth in Religion, trans., Hans-J. Klimkeit (Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1971), p.98, 99.
Herbert Langer in The Thirty Yearsʼ War, says that more than one quarter of Europeʼs population died as a result of those thirty years of slaughter, famine and disease. Ironically, the majority of Europeans who killed each other shared such orthodox Christian beliefs as Jesusʼs deity, the Trinity, and even “creationism.” So you cannot blame the horrific spectacle of the Thirty Yearsʼ War on modern day scapegoats like atheism, humanism or the theory of evolution. Such a war demonstrates that getting nations to agree on major articles of faith does not ensure peace, far from it. Some of the most intense rivalries exist between groups whose beliefs broadly resemble one another but differ in subtle respects.
Although Catholic and Protestants were mortal enemies during most of the Reformation, they united to kill certain Christians [named derogatorily, “Anabaptists”] for the crime of double baptism. “A larger proportion of Anabaptists were martyred for their faith than any other Christian group in history—including even the early Christians on whom they modeled themselves,” British scholar Bamber Gascoigne wrote. [p.109]
— James A. Haught, Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990)
It is a fact recognized by many recent historians that the persecution of the Anabaptists surpassed in severity the persecution of the early Christians by pagan Rome. Persecution began in [Protestant] Zurich soon after the [Anabaptist] Brethren had organized a congregation. Imprisonment of varying severity, sometimes in dark dungeons, was followed by executions. Felix Manz was the first martyr to die in Zurich, but at least two Brethren had been martyred earlier in other cantons of Switzerland by Roman Catholic governments. Within a short period the leaders of the Brethren lost their lives in the persecution…
Anabaptism was made a capital crime. Prices were set on the heads of Anabaptists. To give them food and shelter was a made a crime. In Roman Catholic states even those who recanted were often executed. Generally, however, those who abjured their faith were pardoned except in Bavaria and, for a time, in Austria and also in the Netherlands. The duke of Bavaria, in 1527, gave orders that the imprisoned Anabaptists should be burned at the stake, unless they recanted, in which case they should be beheaded. King Ferdinand I of Austria issued a number of severe decrees against them, the first general mandate being dated August 28, 1527. In Catholic countries the Anabaptists, as a rule, were executed by burning at the stake, in Lutheran and Zwinglian states generally by beheading or drowning. [p.299-302]
— Persecution, a chapter in Mennonites in Europe (Rod & Staff Publishers)
During the Reformation, Protestants rejected early cures for malaria and syphilis because Catholics were the first to come up with them.
From a review (of Diarmaid McCullochʼs The Reformation: A History) that appeared in The Washington Postʼs Book World
In 1844 in Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love,” Protestants besieged Catholic neighborhoods with cannon fire and pistols, and also set houses aflame, because the Catholics had protested the use of the Protestantʼs King James Bible in public schools. Martial law was declared, and it took two thousand federal troops to quell the rioting; eighteen people were killed and scores more were injured.
— Michael Feldberg, The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflicts
Neighbors say the trouble began eight years ago when a second storefront church opened next door to an existing one in Brooklyn. From that time on there were accusations of slashed tires, hung-up phone calls, and parking in each otherʼs driveways. The differences were resolved, however, when the pastor of the Prince of Peace Disciples and his three sons confronted members of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and accused them of firing gunshots at their building. The pastorʼs sons then took out their guns and fired away, killing one of the parishioners and wounding the other two.
A holy war was set off in Brazil when a Pentecostal pastor, opposed to the “image-worship” of the nations 110,000 Catholics, displayed a statue of a black version of the Virgin Mary called Our Lady of Aparecida, and referred to it as “a horrible, disgraceful doll” while kicking and slapping it. Screaming, rock-throwing crowds surrounded the church of the Pentecostal pastor while thousands of Catholics protested by carrying images of the Virgin through the streets.
— J. D. Bell, “Nuts in the News,” The American Rationalist, May/June 1997
There has never been a kingdom given to so many civil wars as that of Christʼs.
— Charles de Montesquieu
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