As Hugh Trevor-Roper asks as a guiding question of his The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (1967) how it happened that great power and influence resided in one part of Europe marked by the Catholic religion at the start of the Renaissance had by 1700 power lie in Protestant England, Switzerland, Germany and the Low Countries of Belgium and Holland at the other end of Europe. He points out the topic of this essay that “religion is deeply involved in this shift” (1). That, at least, is generally recognized, but usually follows a central theme according to which in the persuasive argument of Max Weber that Trevor- Roper contests, there was surely some quality in Protestantism itself which led directly to the Enlightenment and Capitalism upon which in the end United States was built. The following essay will employ Donald Vinney and Trevor-Roper to question this common view.
It is Hugh Trevor-Roper’s belief that Protestant Calvinism sweeping Europe belong actually to the opposition to Enlightenment thinking in the direction of fundamentalism which accounts for strong passions that led, among other distortions to the persecution and burning of witches as a distortion of humanism and certainly no benefit to trade and commerce ( 1967; 83-179). Indeed, he goes on, it may well be that in Calvinist societies advance was achieved in spite of Calvinism, not because of it, as he had masterfully demonstrated ( 1967; 179-218). True, it is well-known that Martin Luther who was until then a virtually unknown Augustinian monk and lecturer at the University of Wittenberg, benefitted in opposing the sale of indulgences at a time of great power struggle among the Emperor, the Pope and the territorial lords of the Empire as well as within the intellectual and technological networks that had carried and amplified Luther’s message. Only, it was the peasants, knights and the poor of the cities that had embraced the message, while the commercial and aristocratic elite upon which the Enlightenment’s progress depended had mixed allegiances to the Puritan faith that eventually expanded to the American colonies ( Cantoni 2015: 561-569).
It will be remembered that the early years of the American colonies subject to extreme Protestant spirit had not only a revulsion among common people at the Catholic Church and their own witches, but at representatives of other sects among them. The early experiences of Madison and Jefferson rejected the very intolerant churches of their day to write variously A Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom and The Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, thus beginning with their confirmed deism a tradition of religious liberty which, it may be added, was not as some suppose today the freedom to pursue religion, but a freedom of thought whatever form it might take.
Along these lines, Donald Wayne Viney (2010) gives a detailed description of how well outside of the bitter religious wars and dynastic struggles that were shaking Europe, the influence of Enlightenment thinkers like Kant and Voltaire hardly given to religious enthusiasm contributed to the deistic spirit of the Founding Fathers in general, and specifically to some of our founding documents, especially the Constitution of the United States and in the first article of the Bill of Rights, pledging religious liberty and freedom of thought for all. Along these lines, Jefferson wrote “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free enquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither king nor priest, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian” (99).
These lines are worth recalling when we hear the intolerant arguments of the extreme right claiming the Fathers of the American Constitution as their own.
- Cantoni, Davie. “The Economic Effects of the Protestant Reformation: Testing the Weber Hypothesis in the German lands.” Journal of the European Economic Association 13.4(2015): 561-598. Wiley Online
- Trevor-Roper, Hugh Redwald. The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. Harper & Row, 1967.rpt. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001. Retrieved from http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/719>
- Viney, Donald Wayne. “American Deism, Christianity, and the Age of Reason.” American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 31.2 (2010): 83-107. 10.1353/ajt.0.0005