This article was written by Kevin Lindberg (Texas A&M International University) as part of the Sites of Cultural Stress from Reformation to Revolution Summer 2003 NEH Institute directed by David Cressy and Lori Anne Ferrell. For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.
The Protestant Reformation was a religious and cultural movement, beginning in the early sixteenth century, through which several European states threw off the authority and modified certain doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation came to England at a time when the newly introduced printing press was allowing advances in literacy and in the dissemination of ideas. As Henry VIII (who reigned 1509–47) removed England from the pope's jurisdiction, and as reformists caused many to rethink their understanding of spiritual things, significant religious tensions arose in England. One special anxiety concerned the issue of salvation: how did Lutherans and Calvinists believe that sinners could be rescued from an eternity of damnation? How did their views differ from those of Roman Catholics? What role did advancing education play in the common person's understanding of these questions?
While calls for reform had periodically surfaced throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church, in the early-sixteenth century the former German monk Martin Luther (1483–1546) launched the movement we now call the Reformation. Regarding the issue of salvation, Luther stated that since "all have sinned and are justified without merit . . . by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in his blood," then "faith alone justifies us . . . a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law" (Smalcald Articles, Part 2, Article 1). Rooted in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Paul, Luther's view assumed that humankind's fall from grace had left it so depraved that individuals could do nothing to satisfactorily atone for their sins. Because of this, a person could only enter into God's saving grace through his or her belief in Christ's intercessory death on the cross, and not through the Roman Catholic doctrines of confession, penance, and priestly absolution.
While other thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, would contribute to the theological debate, the perspective of John Calvin (1509–1564), a Frenchman living in Switzerland, had the greatest impact in England. Calvin's systematic theology agreed with Luther's about God's total sovereignty, the individual's inability to affect their salvation through their own actions, and about salvation through faith alone in Christ's sacrificial intervention on behalf of humanity. Noting that some failed to place their faith in the gospel, Calvin decided that everyone was predestined, before the universe began and irrespective of their personal virtues or vices, either to salvation or damnation.
A central difficulty with Calvin's theology involved one's inability to know whether he or she was saved (elect) or damned (reprobate). How could a person find spiritual comfort in such a system? As Lori Anne Ferrell notes, England's conversion to Protestantism owed much to the work of an energetic Calvinist clergy who "came remarkably well prepared, supplied not only with university educations, but also with an unprecedented number of praxis-oriented pastoral textbooks. These were state-of-the-art publications, equipped with such innovative and attractive pedagogical aids as pull-out charts, color-coded tables, and handy indexes" (165). "How-to" books of all kinds were popular in early modern England, and Calvinist writers, assuming that theology could be taught systematically, noted that while one could never be completely sure about one's status, the fact that one desired to develop his or her understanding of spiritual things was a good sign. In the 1600 edition of his very popular "how-to" work, A Golden Chaine: OR, the Description of Theology, William Perkins included not only an extensive written schematic of the process of salvation, but a diagram, as well. This "ocular catechism" could be removed from the book and tacked up like a poster: "Without the ocular catechism, the reader must advance through page after page of text, making the act of reading uncomfortably akin to the Calvinist experience of prolonged uncertainty. But if the nail-biting conclusion to [Calvin's] Institutes was that no one in this world could be certain he was saved, the encouraging conclusion to A Golden Chaine was that no one in this world could be certain she was not" (Ferrell 174). Thus Calvinist divines provided not only the comforting doctrine of salvation, but also a reassuring template in print to individuals of various literacy levels; the university educated pastor using the diagram as a coaching tool, the newly literate employing it to supplement textual reading, the less literate using it as a mnemonic device.
The social and religious changes experienced in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England forced people to consider new notions of Christian salvation, generating a significant amount of tension. At stake in the various arguments was the eternal status of one's soul; to be forced or led into error was the ultimate danger. Over the course of two turbulent centuries, anxieties over issues like this one significantly affected events in England, and the civil wars and the collapse of the established church in the 1640s only further contributed to the shaking of ideological foundations for many.
Texas A&M International University
Suggestions for further reading:
Dickens, A.G. The English Reformation. Second edition. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964; third printing 1993.
Ferrell, Lori Anne. "Transfiguring Theology: William Perkins and Calvinist Aesthetics." In John Foxe and his World, ed. Christopher Highley and John N. King, 160–179. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.
Greene, Vivian. A New History of Christianity. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Cloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing LTD, 1996, rev. 1998.
Luther, Martin. "The Smalcald Articles (1537): II Art. 1." Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Booksof the Ev. Lutheran Church. Trans. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.
Moynahan, Brian. The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2002.