The Biggest Myth About the Protestant Reformation

The big, bad, backwards Catholic Church had it coming, and Europe's world-wide ascent was thanks to the opening of minds by Protestantism.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

This month marks the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther defiantly nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle church and, in the process, giving birth to the Reformation and Protestantism. Luther’s hammer changed Christianity forever; but around this iconic event swirls a great deal misinformation and mythology about the positive and negative effects of Luther’s actions.  

Many believe that, in 1517, when Luther struck a blow for faith and Biblically based Christianity, Europe was stuck in an era of spiritual lethargy. The Roman Catholic church, we are often told, was not only corrupt, it was in a state of religious atrophy. The Reformation, we are told, prompted a renewal of religious piety led by devoted God-fearing monarchs who were willing to abandon the politically expedient idea of the Divine Right of Kings in order to follow their conscience. But as Rodney Stark has shown in his recently published Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (some) Misfortunes, Lutheran Germans were as uninterested in church attendance after the Reformation as they had been when they were Roman Catholics. 

Those monarchs who converted to Protestantism did so for a medley of motivations that included political gain as much as it did religious interest. The Swedish monarchy, which converted in the first half of the sixteenth century, enforced Lutheranism in an almost absolutist fashion: using military power to promote church attendance and (from 1527 onwards) seizing the wealth of the monasteries. This isn’t to say that Roman Catholic monarchs didn’t choose Rome because it suited them politically, of course they did, but this did not make them less pious than their Protestant counterparts. 

Moreover, Stark argues, the Roman Catholic Church had always tolerated medieval Italian democracies and seems not to have had a strong interest in the promotion of the monarchy in these city-states. As for the Divine Right of Kings, he writes, this was an exclusively English and Lutheran ecclesiastical idea and not something central to Catholicism.

The most well-known example of religious conversion is that Henry VIII of England, who famously broke with Rome in order to marry Ann Boleyn. Henry had been a dedicated Catholic who actually received the title “Defender of the Faith” from the Pope for his defense of the Church against Luther. But Protestant reformers told a very different story, in which Henry had rejected corrupt, pseudo-Christianity. In 1563 John Foxe published the first edition of his best-selling Book of the Martyrs. The volume, which was sponsored by Elizabeth I’s government, was a propagandistic tale in which the Protestant martyrs of the Reformation were the rightful heirs to the legacy of Jesus, his disciples, and the early Church. The struggle between Protestants and Catholics was merely the final stage of a cosmic conflict between God and Satan.

As British historian Eamon Duffy has shown, the myth of the English Reformation took root not just in public consciousness but even in English history writing. It is only relatively recently that historians have begun to see the destruction of English Catholic monasteries, libraries, and artwork as a cultural disaster. 

One of the things that the Reformation is supposed to have done is granted all kinds of personal and intellectual freedoms to those who became Protestant. Martin Luther’s idea of the “freedom of a Christian” is sometimes seen a forerunner to the way that we think about individual freedom today. If we think of individual freedom as essential for personal autonomy and self-determination, Martin Luther had something very different in mind. Professor Brad Gregory, author of Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that continue to Shape Our World, told the Daily Beast that Luther’s theology has no substantive relationship to our understanding of individual freedom because Luther thought that people were inescapably bound by their social and religious obligations. “Luther’s freedom of a Christian is paradoxical: a bound obligation to freely serve your neighbor in endless selfless service,” Gregory said, “[This is] quite a ways from do your own thing.” Ironically, even though Luther’s ideas created a legacy that allowed for self-determination and moral relativisim, he would have been horrified at the way that his ideas are used to promote the freedom to practice no religion at all. 

Not only does Luther receive too much credit for modern notions of individual freedom, there’s a widespread misconception that it was Protestantism that allowed and engendered the rise of science. Prior to the Protestant reformation, we are often told, the world lived in a dark age in which scientists were persecuted and condemned merely for daring to question religious dogmas about the world. No one thinks that Galileo’s theories about the movement of heavenly bodies were happily embraced by the Catholic Church. 

But it’s a mistake to think that scientific inquiry did not happen prior to the Reformation or among Catholics in its aftermath. As the nineteenth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Faith in the possibility of science … [was] derivative from medieval theology.” It was precisely because religious people thought that God had implanted the rational potential to understand the universe in their minds that Christians thought it possible and prudent to try to discover the laws of nature. Key thinkers, like Descartes, who coined the famous phrase “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am), justified their work on the basis that if God is perfect, God must have created a universe with constant and unchanging laws. In his book Stark includes data suggesting that in the aftermath of the Reformation, there were more Roman Catholic scientists than there were Protestants. 

In academic circles the intellectual shift for which the Reformation is most commonly credited is the rise of industrial capitalism. This idea comes from Max Weber’s famous Protestant Work Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism (1958). Weber’s theories have been scrutinized, examined, and interpreted by generations of political scientists and sociologists. But whatever nuance we should or could add to Weber’s argument, the common interpretation of his thesis is that Protestantism spurred the growth of industrial capitalism in European countries in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Even before the Reformation, the wealth of highly productive Catholic monasteries created opportunities for trade that laid the groundwork for capitalistic systems. Nor was it the case that there was a direct correlation between Protestant countries and prosperity. In a paper published in the journal Social Forces Jacques Delacroix and Francois Nielsen conclude that “there is little empirical support” for the common interpretation of Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic. This idea probably comes “from selected anecdotal evidence fortified… by the perceived well-being of contemporary Protestant countries.” In other words, Protestantism does not make people rich even if, in some cases, Protestants think that it does.