It’s one of those cold and rainy winter days where you decide that a bit of a clean up is in order. Not much of one, just a little one. While sorting some things on my desk, I came across some old university papers that I had put aside to type out and put up here, more as a way for me to keep them, but also that I thought some of you may be interested. I have already posted a couple before.
This one is my very first university paper. Yep – hand written. We could afford a computer at the time. I remember being so nervous writing it up and handing it in. I had two babies at home so getting the time to research and write was not easy. But the subject material was interesting, so I was often sitting up very late at night reading through the reference books I had borrowed from the library, making notes that I thought were appropriate.
Looking back on it now as I was typing it out, there are a couple of places where I cringed. But I have typed it as I handed it in, with the exception of using in-body citations rather than footnotes. They don’t transfer very well. It must have been okay – I got a High Distinction for it!
So here it is:
The Protestant Reformers preached ‘the equality of all believers’. To what extent was this the case?
For the European population of the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church was not an inspirational source of guidance. Many people had been dissatisfied for a long time. In many instances, the clergy were corrupt, and the Great Schism had shown the papacy in a bad light (H. G. KOENIGSBERGER 1987, p.61)
All over Europe, people were finding that their need for a more personal relationship with God was not being met. The Protestant Reformation emerged with promises of equality and faith not being offered by the established Catholic Church. “The Reformation message attracted immediate and widespread support from [both] peasants and princes.” (CAMERON 1991, p.419) However, while some surface equality was gained, many converts found themselves no more ‘equal’ than they had been in the Catholic Church. This does not necessarily mean that they were dis-satisfied with the essence of the Reformation message, but that the equality that many had hoped for was not forthcoming.
Evan Cameron suggests that the Reformation message did not cater to the needs and ambitions of the majority of its followers (CAMERON 1991, p.419). He further suggests that rather than offering comfort for its lay followers, it put more restrictions on them. This added to their emotional discomfort while promoting the role of the clergy, who in turn made further demands on the laity (CAMERON 1991, p.419). An example of the pressure put on people would be the doctrine of Predestination. Rather than believing that by living a good life everyone could get to Heaven, they now had to worry about whether they were one of the elite ‘chosen few’.
Protestantism held the belief that the individual was responsible for himself before God (BAINTON 1956, p.85). This suggests that the individual had the freedom to judge for himself what the appropriate dogma to follow were. This does not appear to be the practice however, with church officials dictating the practices of believers.
Despite appearances that nothing was different from the rule of Rome, there were beliefs and practices introduced by the Reformers which did issue some equality. Luther, for example, believed that all believers were ‘priests’ and he did not believe that ordinations were necessary; in fact, he thought them harmful in that they set the clergy above all other people (BONNEY 1991, p.18).
Vernacular language was used in the Calvinist liturgy and there were Psalms that could be sung by men and women together (DAVIS 1987, p.86). The Protestants saw laymen and laywomen singing together in church as illustrating the “… lack of distance between pastor and congregation.” (DAVIS 1987, p.86) In fact, allowing women to sing in church was an advancement for equality in itself; the Catholic Church would not allow it.
It was explained by Paul Vinet in 1560 that believers were all “… equal in that they were called to be Christian and faithful.” (DAVIS 1987, p.83) However, women were not permitted to speak in Christian assembly. Pastor Vinet further explained that the woman’s position within the church was to give her young children religious instruction. For although the Reformers allowed and, in fact, encouraged women to know and study the Scriptures, they would not allow them to preach from the pulpit. It was the idea of the Reformation movement to overthrow the church hierarchy and have well-trained pastors in charge of their place. This in itself was considered enough upheaval without allowing women to preach within the church (DAVIS 1987, p.83).
The Protestant authorities became alarmed when women started wanting to preach in churches. Wiesner suggests that “… in their view, female preachers clearly disobeyed the Pauline injunction against women speaking in the church and moved … close to claiming an official religious role.” (MARSHALL 1989, p.15) The only equality in this stance was that even female members of the royal family, such as Renée de France, could not fully participate in the church either (DAVIS 1987, p.84). In some areas, the men even went up to take communion before the women (DAVIS 1987, p.87).
The Protestant reformers offered equality to everyone who held their beliefs in that they asked people to know and understand the dogmas they offered (CAMERON 1991, p.420). William Tyndale was a great believer in the Scriptures being available to the laity. For this reason, he translated the New Testament into English between 1524 and 1535.
The Predestination theory and the controversy surrounding it presents many inequalities. Luther’s theory of justification by faith alone is taken further by Calvin and his Double Predestination theory. Calvin said that “…all men are not created in equal condition, rather eternal life is fore-ordained to some, eternal damnation to others.” (BONNEY 1991, p.45) While this would appear to make all believers equal because they ‘believed’ that they were amongst the ‘chosen elite’, many would have privately worried about this. To complicate matters further, Calvin emphasises that those who question predestination and/or try to delve into it “… will enter a labyrinth from which he will find no way to depart.” (ENGLANDER and Diana NORMAN 1990, p.200)
Predestination also led to a form on inequality by passing moral judgement on those who were lower in the hierarchy. The opinion was that the people further down the scale could not possibly understand the doctrine but must accept it (BAINTON 1956, p.85). This suggests that the ‘chosen’ people who received the message were the ones to set the doctrine and pass it on to the ‘lesser’ members of the faith. Subsequently, they had not, again, no equality.
Calvin would not tolerate his doctrine and interpretations being questioned. He had Sebastian Castellion ordered from Geneva in 1543 for questioning “… the canonicity of the Song of Songs and critiz[ing] Calvin’s interpretation of Christ’s descent into Hell.” (CHAUNU 1990, p.131) He had Michale Serventus burned at the stake as a heretic for destroying the Trinitarian dogma (CHAUNU 1990, p.131) (H. G. KOENIGSBERGER 1987, p.71).
Anabaptists were the most radical of the Protestant groups. One historian described Anabaptism as the “Protestantism of the poor.” (BONNEY 1991, p.24) It possibly evolved as a result of antagonism toward authority (ELTON 1958, p.6). Although Anabaptists never actually formed into an ‘official’ group, they had one thing in common; because they thought differently from all other established religions, they offended people wherever they went (ELTON 1958, p.6). Melichior Hoffman, who almost single-handedly spread the movement into northern Europe, did not believe in a church without a hierarchy (BONNEY 1991, p.24). Anabaptists believed, that church and state should be separate (TANNENBAUM 1971, p.89). Anabaptists were not tolerated by Protestants; they were, in fact, drowned by them for heresy (TANNENBAUM 1971, p.89). Even within the Anabaptist movement there was inequality. Some groups of Anabaptists allowed or even encouraged polygamy which discriminates against female members.
Marriage was encouraged and recommended by the Protestant churches. Ironically, this led to inequalities and discrimination for some. For both men and women, marriage issued both status and function (ROPER 1989, p.31). “A master who never married was a contradiction, a dishonourable figure whose leadership abilities and sexual competence were deeply suspect.” (ROPER 1989, p.31) Wiesner adds that an unmarried woman was also suspect because not only was she believed to be denying her natural sexual urges but she was not subject to a man as they believed was right (MARSHALL 1989, p.13).
A major benefit for equality that came from the Protestant belief in marriage was that their preachers could marry. Not only did this benefit the clergy but women were, at least, seen as worthy to be the partner of a man of God (DAVIS 1987, p.32). According to Wiesner, however, both Luther and Calvin believed that women and men were spiritually equal in that faith could save them, but in every other respect women were subordinate to men (MARSHALL 1989, p.12).
Calvin said, “Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.” (DAVIS 1987, p.91) Women were required to be obedient both to God and her husband. This illustrates the Reformed church’s attitude to women in marriage; they were still not considered equal (DAVIS 1987, p.88).
As suggested by Wiesner, the one area where the Protestant reformers truly offered equality was in education. They were great believers in education and opened schools for girls as well as boys. The subjects taught to girls were different (sewing, reading, singing and religious instruction) (MARSHALL 1989, p.15) but the principle remained the same; everyone was entitled to an education.
Except in the area of education and knowledge of the Scriptures, those who left the Catholic Church in the anticipation of equality with the church hierarchy or even, in the case of women, with men, had been misled. Ultimately, the Protestant reformers offered no more that the Catholics; the clergy were still set above the laity and, except for hymn singing in church, women were unequal to men. Those who gained equality in the Reformed churches were very few and far between.
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BONNEY, Richard. 1991. The European Dynastic States 1494 – 1660. Oxford.
CAMERON, Evan. 1991. The European Reformation. Oxoford.
CHAUNU, Pierre, ed. 1990. The Reformation. New York.
DAVIS, Natalie Zemon. 1987. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Cambridge.
ELTON, G. R., ed. 1958. The New Cambridge Modern History: The Refromation 1520 – 1559. Vol. 2. Cambridge.
ENGLANDER, David, and Rosemanry O’DAY and W. R. OWENS Diana NORMAN, . 1990. Culture and Belief in Europe 1450 – 1600: An Anthology of Sources. Oxford.
HISA, R. Po-Cha. 1989. Social Discipline in the Reformation. Central Europe 1550 – 1750. London and New York.
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LEE, Stephen J. 1984. Aspects of European History 1494 – 1789. 2nd. London.
MARSHALL, Sherrin, ed. 1989. Women in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe and Private Worlds. Bloomington.
MYERS, A. R. 1971. England in the Late Middle Ages. 8th. London.
ROPER, Lyndal. 1989. The Holy Household. Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. Oxford.
SHIELS, W. J. 1989. The English Reformation 1530 – 1570. New York.
TANNENBAUM, Edward. 1971. European Civilization Since the Middle Ages. 2nd. New York.
Kerry A Waight - Author
A writer of historical fiction and paranormal stories.