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1500 - 1625: The Protestant Reformation history on the European Continent


In analyzing the forces which affected the colonization of America, the depth of the impression made upon Europe by the Protestant Reformation can hardly be overestimated. Although the direct and immediate influence of this great movement upon the fortunes of America was great, its indirect and remote effects have been still more important. One of these effects was the creation of a religious motive for emigration which, in conjunction with other incentives, was one of the earliest and most constant causes for the peopling of America.

It is true that the desire for religious freedom was only one among many such impelling forces. The desire to better their fortunes was perhaps the most fundamental and enduring consideration that influenced emigrants. Many settlers came because at home they had failed or were burdened with debt, or had become involved in ill repute or crime, and hoped to make a new start in a new land. Many sought the New World as many still press to the frontier, from sheer restlessness and recklessness, from the love of adventure, the hope that luck will do better for them than labor. Many came as a result of urgent inducements offered by projectors of colonies or agents of shipmasters, as in the case of the early "company servants" or the later "redemptioners" or "indentured servants."

No inconsiderable number came because they were forced to come: the earlier planters of colonies and patentees of lands received permission to seize for their uses men and women of the lower classes, much as men were pressed into naval service; paupers were handed over to the colonizing companies to be shipped to their settlements; repeatedly the prisons were emptied to provide colonists, and commissions were appointed, as in England in 1633, "to reprieve able-bodied persons convicted of certain felonies, and to bestow them to be used in discoveries and other foreign employments."

Somewhat later, transportation to the colonies to labor for a fixed number of years became a familiar form of commutation of the death penalty, and after 1662 it was made the statutory penalty for certain offences.

Yet among this multiplicity of motives for emigration to the colonies religion held a peculiar place. Many men for whom the dominant inducement was a more material one were partly led by religious motives; many of the changes in Europe that unsettled men and made them more ready to leave their old homes were results of the Reformation. Religious motives were the earliest to send any really large body of settlers to the English colonies, and they remained for more than a century probably the most effective motives.

During the first twenty years of the settlement of Virginia, where the religious incentive was least strong, less than six thousand settlers came over; during the first twenty years of the settlement of New England, where it was strongest, there were more than twenty thousand. The later churchmen of Virginia and the Carolinas, the Catholics of Maryland, the Quakers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and a great body of Presbyterians, Huguenots, Mennonites, Moravians, and adherents of other sects which were products of the Reformation, sought tinder the more liberal laws of the colonies the religious liberty which they could not find at home.

The working of this influence in England will appear in a later chapter on the religious history of that country during this period; its peculiar development in Germany seems to demand a further word of explanation here. Three forms of reformed doctrine and organization - Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Zwinglianism - grew up on German soil in the years between 1517 and 1555, and obtained more or less extensive recognition and power from imperial, princely, or city authorities. Lutheranism, the most moderate and widely accepted form of Protestantism, was officially established in most of the central and northern and in some of the southern states and cities; Calvinism, less widely extended but more strictly organized, held a similar position in the southwest; while the doctrines of Zwingli, which had been adopted and were enforced in the greater part of Switzerland, spread to a number of those southern regions of Germany from which Switzerland was as yet indistinctly separated.

A vast number of earnest souls were not satisfied with any of these forms of official religion, and even in the earliest days of the Reformation, preachers arose who went beyond the moderate reforms of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin, and whose teachings gained a ready acceptance. In Saxony, in Hesse, in South Germany, and in Moravia; in the cities of Constance, Strasburg, Augsburg, and Nuremberg; in the Netherlands and in Switzerland, there was much preaching and formation of independent religious communities quite apart from, and indeed in opposition to, the official Reformation. These radical preachers and their followers represented very different beliefs and practices. That which was common to them all was an acceptance of the Bible literally interpreted as a guide both to doctrine and to church organization. The effort to return to the apostolic organization of the church led them to reject any but an unpaid ministry, and to insist that none should be members of their congregations except such as were personally converted and who conformed their lives to the teachings of the Bible.

Their idea was, therefore, the formation of little companies separated from the surrounding people of the world rather than the Lutheran or Zwinglian plan of a reorganization of the national church on Protestant lines en masse. An austere piety, the wearing of plain clothes, the avoidance of forms of social respect, the refusal to take an oath or to hold civil office, an assertion of the sinfulness of paying or receiving tithes or interest, an approach to communistic practice in matters of property - some or all of these were widely disseminated among the lower classes of the people to whom such teachings principally appealed.

The doctrine which came nearest to being a point of uniformity and a possible bond of union among these reformers was their objection to infant baptism. To them baptism was the mark of a personally attained relation to Christ, and was, therefore, meaningless when administered to an unconscious infant. Certain "prophets" who came to Wittenberg from Zwickau confronted Luther and Melancthon with this principle as early as 1521; and radical reformers proclaimed it in opposition to Zwingli at Zurich in 1523. Everywhere advocacy of an exact adherence to the verbal teaching of Holy Writ and a rejection of the claims of an established church, were accompanied by opposition to infant baptism. In 1525 for the first time the logical deduction from their premises was made; those baptized only in their infancy were asserted not to have been effectively baptized at all, and were rebaptized as a sign of their conversion. From this time onward re-baptism, or, from the point of view of its advocates, the first valid baptism, became the test and mark of adoption into many communities of true believers. Those who practised this rite were, therefore, called "Anabaptists" - that is to say, those who baptized a second time - or, more frequently, merely "Baptists."

The rebaptism of a person who had been already once baptized was not only in the eyes of the established church an impiety, it was in the eyes of the established law a capital crime, and the history of Anabaptism in Germany is the history of a long martyrdom. In Catholic and Protestant countries alike these radicals were persecuted. From Strasburg and Nuremberg they were expelled, in Zurich their leaders were drowned, in Augsburg they were beheaded, in Austria, Wittenberg, Bavaria, and the Palatinate they were burned at the stake.

In 1534 their sect was brought into sudden and fatal prominence by the revolt in Munster and its vicinity. Here a body of adherents of radical religious doctrines added to their creed a tenet not common to the general body of Anabaptists - that is to say, the duty of taking up temporal arms to overthrow the existing powers and to introduce the New Jerusalem. The old episcopal city was seized by the Anabaptist leaders, bloody battles were fought, and after a six months' orgy of fanaticism, libertinism, and violence the rebels were defeated by the united troops of Catholic and Lutheran powers and a terrible vengeance taken.

Anabaptists everywhere, no matter how peaceable and moderate their principles, suffered under the imputation of holding such doctrines as had led to the terrible excesses at Munster, as they had long before been held to sympathize with the Peasants' Revolt; and their persecutions became correspondingly harsher. Nevertheless, they continued to form communities and to spread through Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The attractiveness of the teachings of wandering Anabaptist preachers long continued unabated, and their regularly organized congregations or communities, because of their thrift, honesty, and plainness of life, survived and flourished, wherever they could obtain even the barest and most temporary toleration.

They were necessarily a people without a national home. Seldom for a whole generation did any considerable body of Anabaptists or Pietists remain undisturbed in any one locality. Expelled by imperial edict from Bohemia, they made their way to Hungary and Transylvania; fined, imprisoned, and in danger of death in Protestant Switzerland, they migrated to the Tyrol, to the Palatinate, and to the south German cities, only soon to be visited there with still worse persecution. During the two great religious wars they suffered especial hardships, and in the midst of the Thirty Years' War they were rigorously expelled by the emperor from all his hereditary dominions, even from Moravia, where they had been allowed to exist for almost a century. Either from original differences of doctrine and personal influence, or from later divisions and reorganization, grew up those bodies which, although often, as has been seen, grouped under the general head of Anabaptists, have become known in Europe and America as Mennonites, Amish, and Dunkers; and each of these bodies has experienced various divisions. The Schwenkfelders, Boehmists, and other mystics or pietists, are habitually grouped with these sects, rather because of their similar historical origin and attitude to the established churches than of any identity of religious belief.

By the close of the seventeenth century the condition of these dissenters from the established churches had become more tolerable; but they were at best a remnant, narrowed in spirit by persecution, repeatedly separated from their earlier homes, still under the ban of ecclesiastical disapproval, and even where tolerated living under burdensome restrictions. The rising colonies of the New World, especially those which promised religious liberty, and above all that one of them whose Quaker founder held doctrines so like their own, must have exerted, notwithstanding their alien race and tongue, an almost irresistible attraction upon them. In view of the political and religious history of Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is therefore no wonder that a vast number of Germans emigrated to America, and that in Pennsylvania were soon to be found numerous representatives of every religious sect that existed in the fatherland.

The religious divisions which sprang from the Protestant Reformation were not restricted to the Old World. In America, also, religion was a centrifugal influence, splitting up old colonies, and establishing new centres of population, which in turn attracted other groups of emigrants from Europe, and brought into existence still other types of government and society. The results were shown in the characteristics of Rhode Island and Connecticut, of Germantown and Bethlehem, in some of the principal contrasts between New France and New England, and in many of the lesser diversities that have distinguished different sections of America in their subsequent history. Many influences combined to give form and character to each American settlement: its race elements, the commercial requirements of the controlling chartered company, the demands of the home government, the theoretical ideas of the founder, the habitudes of the colonists in the lands from which they came. Among these influences, as among the motives for emigration, the religious experiences and desires of the settlers were a prime factor.

The Reformation indirectly affected America by wars which soon led to the rise of some nations, the fall of others; they pitted Catholic states against Protestant states, they weakened Germany, France, and the southern Netherlands by a sanguinary civil struggle, and were avoided in England only by harsh persecution.

In the Iberian peninsula the progress of Protestantism was so slight and so quickly crushed out that it played no part in the colonization of Portuguese or Spanish America. It is true that the somewhat outworn machinery of the Inquisition was rejuvenated in the sixteenth century, so as to reach a Protestant movement in Seville, the sailing-point for the American fleets; and this was made an excuse for the introduction of a stricter and more vigorous policy of orthodox uniformity in Spain. The Inquisition also found occupation in looking after heretic foreign merchants and sailors in Spanish seaports, and Jews and Protestant Germans in the American colonies; but no Spaniards ever emigrated to America to escape religious persecution.

As for France, the terrible religious wars of the sixteenth century weakened her projects of colonization, as they did all her other activities, and divided her people into two hostile parties, one of which must ultimately crush out the other. The short-lived colonies established in the middle years of the sixteenth century in Brazil and in Florida were due largely to the hope that they might be places of refuge for oppressed Huguenots. The first French colonies which had any successful outcome, however, were the creation of the other religious party; for Richelieu, when he took up the establishment of colonies in 1624, insisted on Catholic orthodoxy in the religion of the colonists. This precaution was doubtless due to the Huguenot efforts for independence and their treasonable negotiations in France. In founding distant colonies as extensions of the power of the home government, a minister could hardly permit the domination in the new colonies of a party with which he was in deadly conflict at home. Whatever his motive, orthodoxy was insisted on; and New France, like New Spain, became unbrokenly Catholic.

The English colonies, however, ultimately profited by what the French colonies had lost. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, persecution sent a stream of Huguenots to the various English colonies of America, and added thereby a valuable and interesting strain to the richly mingled blood of the American race.