Thursday, February 24, 2011


In this book, Steven Ozment has attempted a new look at the history of the very earliest phase of the Reformation, running from 1517, the date of Luther's famed 95 theses, up to about 1520-21, when reforms started to be instituted in the German towns. His concern is to find out the why Luther's ideas were so appealing to city dwellers of Germany, and his answer is that it appealed for positive worldly and "urban" reasons. In doing this, Ozment paints a particular picture of Protestantism, making it free of its later religious excesses, its Calvinist strictness, its occasional Messianism, its later concrete forms with their organized rituals too reminiscent of Catholicism. He is sometimes overly eager to separate this undeveloped, early phase from the later developments within the churches.

The first section of the book deals with the reception of Luther's ideas by the laity. For practical reasons of the historian, this means mainly literate lay monks and preachers, the kinds of people who could write books and pamphlets explaining Luther's ideas to a wider audience.

Ozment starts with the admission that it is difficult to say whether the early sixteenth century was a time of great religious fervor or the opposite. His belief is that the important issue to to figure out what religion meant right before the Reformation. He takes confession to be its defining practice, and shows that many people felt their religion to be oppressively focused on identifying sin. He is probably right that confession shaped people's attitudes about the clergy, as their resentment did much to push the Reformation forward. But whether anyone's religion was properly defined by this practice is questionable. Nonetheless, Ozment documents a great amount of resentment of the clergy. There were great efforts to curtail such privileges as immunity from taxes and to end the financial benefits of the indulgence system and of the sale services such as burials. We find out that money was raised by the Church from its own members by such means as fees for clerical concubinage. Ozment also documents the increase in an interesting occupation -- the "endowed preachership." These were positions paid for by wealthy private citizens and held by secular clergy, who would give many sermons a year, and their rise indicates a swelling distance between the populace and the regular priesthood.

The next section, "The Original Protestant Message," is the heart of Ozment's book, and it is where he sometimes pushes his case a little too far. He documentary evidence comes from "apologetic instructions by Protestant reformers, lay defenses of the Reformation, vernacular catechetical literature, and popular plays and dramatic writings," which, he says, "may be taken as dependable gauges of the appeal of Protestant ideas during the years of Reformation's inception." This is true as far as it goes, but Ozment can go too far, and he sometimes mistakes the appealing aspects of the Reformation--the ones his sources understandably focus on for persuasive purposes--for the essential aspects the Reformation, as when he concludes, "Whatever else Protestantism may have become in later Calvinism and Puritanism, it began as an uncompromising rejection of the acquisitive religious motive and the religious anxiety that propelled it." But this is to leave out Luther's very serious theological concerns--his theory of grace, for instance, or his view of the sacraments--that were quite present even in the origins of Protestantism. Still, Ozment paints a very intriguing picture in this chapter. The appeal of Protestantism, he shows, lay largely in its ability to capitalize on that gulf between the clergy and the lay community. Protestant writers focused on clerical hypocrisy and extolled the virtues of the common people, giving a moral purpose to work, and arguing that kindness to one's neighbors and one's community was more important than religious ritual and superstition. In short, they put religious ideals within reach of the city. He gives support for a statement of his introduction, that "whereas the late medieval church measured lay by clerical life, the Reformation went a long way toward subjecting clerical to lay values." Clerical marriage, for instance, is not merely the easing of a restriction but an encouragement toward full membership in the community.

In the last section, "The Pattern of Reformation," Ozment tries to show how the Reformation actually won out where it did. This section is more of a defense of certain ideas than an identification of the pattern, which is well-known enough already--Protestant reform from below, later accepted by those above, and then instituted as the law of the land. Ozment's real concern is to show that this process did not distort the ideals of the Reformation as much as some might believe, and that it was not merely haphazard scheming that shaped Protestantism. So he shows us that Luther's social conservatism was not borne out of his opposition to the Peasants' War but came from his own ideas, and that the imposition of Protestantism by higher powers was very much shaped by the original reforming activists. He makes a fairly good case but is at best inconclusive.

Ozment's gift--which is that of a good historian--is in making abstract notions historically concrete. He makes it clear just what Reformation meant for those who were attempting to institute its ideals, and he uses a wide range of fascinating source materials to do it, many of which are quoted at length and interesting in their own right. His picture of the early Reformation is incomplete, as it doesn't give  the more obviously "religious" aspects of the Reformation their due--the inner struggles or the outer theological issues--but with that in mind it is a useful guide to the period.

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