Half a Millennium of Modernity and Exceptionalism?

By Frederik Seidelin

Last week, 31 October marked the fifth centenary of Martin Luther sending his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz. This particular action (and his alleged nailing of his theses to the church door in Wittenberg) is now seen as the beginning of the reformations of the Catholic church that swept across Northern Europe during the sixteenth century in a series of religious-political movements which have had broad ramifications across the world. Indeed, Protestantism has been used to explain national exceptionalisms as well as the historical developments towards modernity. However, on further inspection, many of these explanations seem to be oversimplifications of very complex problems.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, for instance, Max Weber proposed that the rise of capitalism and the economic success of Northern Europe were essentially due to the Protestant work ethic. While it is true that some institutional underpinnings of western capitalism—such as central banks—originated from Anglo-Dutch financial expansionism, capitalism was also fuelled by the colonial expansions started by Catholic Portugal and Spain and initially encouraged and overseen by the Vatican. Moreover, Catholic France was Britain’s largest economic and military rival until at least 1815.

In 1992, Linda Colley published her seminal work Britons, in which she suggests that the Protestant fear of invasions from the Continent played a primary role in creating a British identity. On the face of it, this explanation seems sound given the Catholic Jacobite attempts after the Glorious Revolution to seize the Anglo-Scottish throne and revert Great Britain to Catholicism. However, Colley’s conclusion that British unionism was essentially a Protestant and largely English attempt to stave off Catholicism is at least partly challenged by Colin Kidd. He finds that unionism as an ideology originated on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border from the beginning of the sixteenth century—thus predating the Protestant reformations in Great Britain.

The anniversary of Protestantism has been celebrated and commemorated in various ways. The continued perceived importance of the Reformation to modernity is evinced by the state ceremonies in Germany and Denmark. In a speech in Wittenberg, the epicentre of the Reformation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel linked the Reformation to modern-day values, including religious tolerance, democratic education, and a compassionate role in global politics. Danish Queen Margrethe II claimed that the Reformation founded modern Denmark, and that together with the Enlightenment and popular movements, Protestantism has shaped the modern understanding of society and the individual. Ironically, neither of these powerful women mentioned Luther’s views on women—greatly influenced by Christian teachings and biblical representations—which were wholly incompatible with the modern value of gender equality, and, consequently, our view of the individual.

Luther’s ideas and the use of them throughout the past 500 years have undoubtedly affected cultures across the world. The effect has been felt not only in countries which reformed during the sixteenth century but also in countries which remain predominantly Catholic—and indeed in many of the former European colonies, where missionaries sought to and succeeded in spreading the Christian faith. Nevertheless, using the Reformation and Protestantism as a monocausal explanation of immensely complex cultural, historical, and political developments is, as is usually the case with monocausal explanations, an oversimplication. In other words, we need to challenge explanations such as those in the examples above in our quest to find fuller explanations.

Image Credit: Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach The Elder