Protestant Clergy

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The Reformation did not produce a new style of clergy full-grown on its first emergence. It only gradually became clear that a radically new concept of the church and its ministry, distinct and separate from the Roman Catholic obedience, would come into being. The first leaders of the Reformation were in most cases already ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Rare but important exceptions were Philipp Melanchthon, a lifelong layman, and John Calvin, who resigned his Catholic benefices before taking priestly orders. Both exerted immense influence as theologians and church leaders despite never being formally ordained.


Those who had already become priests were trained through the traditional procedures of the pre-Reformation medieval church. Parish priests gave informal practical instruction to trainees who might be in minor orders, as acolytes or altar assistants. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, increasing numbers of schools were founded to train an elite of prospective priests, including some of the English schools like Winchester or Eton and the schools annexed to the houses of the Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands. Theological instruction, if received at all, was found in the universities or the studia of the orders of mendicants. Dominican friars held many of the most prominent positions in the theology faculties of the major universities of Europe except in Italy, where the universities taught little theology.

Diocesan bishops were expected to examine ordinands for their competence, morals, and conformity to canon law before conferring holy orders. In practice the absence of many bishops and the reliance on suffragans made this examination sometimes perfunctory. The provision requiring prospective priests already to have a title to a benefice was often by-passed, so large numbers of relatively indigent priests were ordained and eked out a meager living as chaplains and mass-priests. Nevertheless, many bishops on the eve of the Reformation strove to improve the selection and quality of the priests in their dioceses. Surviving addresses to clergy, like those preached by William Melton, chancellor of York, in 1510 or by Bishop Christoph von Stadion of Augsburg in 1517, attest the ideal standards of the later medieval church.


Radical changes in the culture and theology of the post-Reformation church required, by their own inner logic, a different kind of clergy from those of the past. First of all, Martin Luther stripped away the theological rationale for the ritual and legal separateness of the clergy. Spiritual people, he argued in 1520, were not a separate class of mortals, ritually set apart by their orders; indeed, ordination was not a sacrament. Priestly celibacy was unnecessary, ungodly, and unrealistic. The legal immunities that protected the clergy from secular law and taxation were unjustified and should be removed. A priest was simply the representative of the community appointed and chosen to lead its spiritual life.

Secondly, the core theology of the Reformation shifted the emphasis in church ministry away from the sacraments and ritual ministrations toward preaching, teaching, and moral discipline. The abolition of private masses, celebrated in vast profusion in the churches, colleges, and chantries of the later Middle Ages, drastically reduced the number of clergy needed to conduct worship. A whole class of clerical proletariat effectively disappeared. In most Protestant countries, the clerical elite, including monks and friars as well as secular collegiate priests and canons of chapters, was either completely abolished or at least much reduced in size (for instance in England). The Reformation church required a less numerous, well-trained cadre of preaching ministers in the parishes. They were to be supervised by a small class of superintendents, whether committees or individuals, and whether called bishops or not. They were to be educated by their intellectual leaders in the universities and academies.


This new vision of a better-educated and more specialized ministry required money and challenged the complex and disorderly endowment and patronage systems inherited from the past. Luther initially appeared to favor congregational election, but rapidly retreated from that stance and upheld the traditional systems of patronage at local level. Theory and political reality sometimes clashed. Protestant theologians often hankered after a church run autonomously by its members in their capacity as Christians, rather than as magistrates. In practice the secular power, whether urban, princely, or royal, normally assumed ultimate control over the endowments and resources used to pay the clergy. In Lutheran states a "consistory" functioned effectively as the prince's department for religious affairs. In Zwinglian Zurich the clergy were managed by, and worked in close concert with, the city magistrates. Even in Geneva, despite Calvin's strongly expressed aspirations for an independent self-governing church, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541 reserved ultimate authority over the church in the hands of the city council.

Funding the new style of clergy was a constant problem in the early years of the Reformation. In most countries the state or the municipality amalgamated the wealth of monastic foundations and of all sorts of charitable establishments into "common chests" or the ruler's treasury. At least some of this wealth was to be used to enhance the livings of parish clergy. However, problems arose even in quite fully reformed countries. In Scotland, where the adoption of the Reformation was relatively sudden and bloodless, the vested interests of the old possessors of church benefices were largely protected. In 15611562 they were allowed to keep twothirds of their income, and only one-third was assigned to the state to support new ministers. In England, uniquely among reformed countries, the entire medieval structure (apart from monasteries) stayed more or less intact. Many livings could not support preaching clergy; new anomalies were created when laymen bought tithe rights and church patronage along with monastic lands. In the century after the Reformation, reform-minded laypeople sometimes tried to use this flexibility to endow a better preaching ministry. They diverted revenue formerly assigned to monastic foundations to enrich vicarages, or set up additional "lectureships" for preaching sermons outside the structures of parochial ministry.

In some countries reformed clergy, especially in the reformed or "Calvinist" tradition and among all the non-established sects, were entirely unable to acquire any of the resources of the old church for their support. They might depend on the voluntary contributions of their congregations or (in France or parts of Eastern Europe) on the patronage of favorably disposed members of the nobility. Such support was, needless to say, precarious and fickle.


Several detailed studies of the Protestant clergy in the early Reformation have agreed that ministers were usually drawn from the ranks of the mostly urban lower-middle classes. Aristocrats aspired to better careers or to none; most peasants could not attain the education required. Reformed parish clergy were publicly, legally, and almost without exception married. Their families, their education, their need for books, all ensured that they became the most cultivated and among the most wealthy inhabitants of many rural parishes. To sustain an acceptable standard of living, many had to exploit their parish lands or "glebe" to enhance their incomes. Sometimes clergy combined the role of minister with that of schoolmaster, though customs varied.

After a generation or two, however, there was a marked tendency for the ministry to propagate itself. Amongst the most learned and prestigious, whole dynasties of clergy might establish themselves. Examples include: in Lutheranism, the Osiander family, descended from the early reformer Andreas Osiander (14981552) of Nuremberg and Koenigsberg; in Calvinism, the Turrettini family, theologians in Geneva through the era of orthodoxy (roughly 15601720). Cases have been found in England of not only parish ministers but even bishops being related through descent and by intermarriage as well as invisible lines of clientage. This increased cultural homogeneity must, to some extent, have made the reformed clergy a profession and a class apart. They became like each other and culturally different from the society around them to a degree not seen in the economically and intellectually diverse medieval priesthood.


A new approach to ministerial education greatly enhanced this cultural distinctiveness. Protestant ministers had to know their Scriptures and theology. While change came gradually, the trend in the early modern period was toward an all-graduate, or at least uniformly trained, body of ministers. In the first generation, the question was not how to train new recruits but how to remedy the often deplorable ignorance of those already in some form of parish ministry. Luther gained his first horrified insights into conditions on the visitation of the Saxon churches in 15271528. His response was to issue in 1529 two Catechisms, a shorter and a longer version, from which clergy and laity alike could learn. In Zwingli's Zürich from 1525 regular meetings, known as the Prophezei, were held in both the main city churches, in which Old and New Testament texts were expounded by the most learned town clergy for the edification of the remainder. In Calvin's Geneva the "congregations" of clergy served a similar purpose, alongside many other available forms of instruction and exhortation. In Elizabethan England zealous clergy, laypeople, and some bishops held "lectures by combination," "exercises," and "prophesyings" to serve as continuous rolling seminars to teach Protestant theology and exegesis. These drew the ire of Queen Elizabeth, who ordered their suppression in 1577. Archbishop Edmund Grindal of Canterbury refused to cooperate and was suspended from his functions.

In Lutheran states of Germany and Scandinavia, the existing structures of schools and universities were reformed and re-shaped to serve the needs of the new churches. The duchy of Württemberg offers an interesting example. The ducal university at Tübingen was reformed, along with the rest of the duchy, when it embraced Protestantism after 1534. Monasteries were closed down; their buildings and endowments were used to create what became the "cloister schools," boarding schools for future ministers. After at least ten years of study, pupils entered the ducal university with not only a strong grasp of Latin and religion but also a powerful cohesive group mentality.

Where a medieval university continued to function in a reformed country, its teaching had to be restructured to meet new demands. The reform of school and university curricula constituted one of the most vital and least recognized aspects of the Reformation. Philipp Melanchthon earned the informal title of "Preceptor of Germany" for his tireless and polymathic work in generating new textbooks for higher education. He personally wrote new textbooks on logic, rhetoric, natural philosophy, and history as well as the definitive text of Lutheran theology, the Loci Communes (Common places). He gave his full support to a wide range of academic subjects, including a reformed Aristotelianism, against some anti-intellectual spirits who wished to have nothing taught but the Bible and theology.

In Britain the medieval universities were similarly reformed. In England, however, the process was more gradual. Old collegiate foundations persisted under their old charters. In Oxford and Cambridge colleges, even clerical celibacy survived until the nineteenth century, with the curious effect that many fellows of colleges served only a short term before moving out into parish ministry. Individual donors shaped the ideological cast of their foundations. Sidney Sussex and especially Emmanuel College in Cambridge, under its charismatic head Laurence Chaderton (c. 1536/15461640; head of Emmanuel 15841622), had a distinctly "puritan" character. Scotland's three medieval universities were reformed in the late sixteenth century (St. Andrews, founded 1413; Glasgow, 1451; and Aberdeen, 1495), and a fourth, at Edinburgh, was added (1582).

In a number of countries it proved impossible to take over the medieval academic establishment. In Geneva and Zurich there was no university to reform. Here specialized academies for the training of future clergy were set up, though with varying degrees of success. One of the earliest and most influential was the academy or Gymnasium founded in 1538 at Strasbourg under the guiding hand of Johann Sturm (14891553), the educational theorist and reformer. Sturm inaugurated many educational practices (a hierarchical curriculum, tests to be passed at the end of each grade before progressing to the next) that later became normal practice. In the 1530s Zurich organized its ministerial training in what became known as the college or Lectorium. The famous academy of Geneva was inaugurated in 1559, partly as a result of the expulsion of teachers from nearby Lausanne (whose academy dated from 1537) following a dispute with the overlord, the city of Berne. It comprised a more junior Latin school or "private school" and the senior, more famous "public school" to train ministers. Under Théodore de Bèze, its first rector and Calvin's theological heir, it acquired immense prestige as the theological school of reformed Europe. However, it was controversial in the city itself: the magistrates wished it to become a quasi-university teaching the higher disciplines such as law and medicine, while Calvin wished it to focus on vocational training in theology. The academy did not award degrees, and attendance in the early years was often informal and brief, with students and ministers sometimes returning later to refresh their knowledge. Under Geneva's influence, many of the towns of reformed France created academies to train their own reformed clergy, at Nîmes (1561), Orthez (1566), Montpellier, Montauban, and Saumur (all c. 1600).

Protestant clergy education tended to be inclusive and varied. Many future ministers studied at more than one university or academy. Except in strict confessional Lutheranism, churches rarely ensured that students only attended doctrinally homogeneous institutions. Calvinist students attended Lutheran universities without difficulty; Lutherans of one cast attended institutions of another. In the century after the Reformation, student travel became a common feature of Protestant Europe, contributing to the diversity and cosmopolitan culture that many of the reformed clergy acquired.


Once installed in ministry, Protestant clergy were subject to the oversight of their peers and superiors as to their orthodoxy and good conduct. Like contemporary Catholics, Protestant leaders wished to see more effective discipline than in the past. Usually some form of consistory or standing council was set up to perform this oversight. Whether independent of the state like the Company of Pastors of Geneva, or with lay participation and state control like the Zurich synod or the Wittenberg consistory, these bodies consisted chiefly of senior ministers and dealt with complaints as they arose.

Much recent research suggests that once the older generation that had been ordained as Catholics died off, the second generation of reformed ministers was generally dedicated and competent. Repeated disciplinary failings were rare: between 1532 and 1580 Zurich deposed only eleven ministers, though a much larger number were more gently disciplined. In England, clergy discipline was more contentious, because more political. Under Archbishop John Whitgift (15831604) those over-zealous Protestant clergy who refused to use the Book of Common Prayer, or who repudiated the hierarchy or discipline of their church, were investigated and in many cases deprived of their places.


All that has been said so far applies to the main established churches produced by the so-called "magisterial" Reformation. The reformers had no difficulty, theological or political, with the idea that a minister should be a highly trained expert individual distinguished by linguistic and intellectual gifts. In the early modern "radical" movements that believed the Holy Spirit guided the church directly, these assumptions did not hold. Leadership in the various Anabaptist churches was diverse and at times disputed. There was a suspicion of book learning, and sometimes outright hostility to the reformed educational establishment. Nevertheless, most Anabaptist communities had some identified spiritual leader or leaders. A few, like Georg Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier, or Menno Simons, were already ordained Catholic priests before their conversion. Among the highly communitarian Hutterites in Moravia, the "shepherd" or "servant of God's Word" was chosen by a vote of the whole community, as was the "overseer" Leonhard Lanzenstiel, who served continuously from c. 1542 to 1565. There was also a "servant for temporal affairs" who managed community goods and property. However, the absence of a fixed hierarchy meant that schism and separation of the various groups of Anabaptists, especially the Dutch Mennonites, was a constant threat.


The clergy of Protestant Europe rapidly acquired a distinct cultural, social, and economic character. Ministers were marked off from the rest of society by their dress, their book learning, and their family and social contacts. While instances of all these kinds of distinctness had existed before, the rise of the Protestant clergy generated a clear trend toward the rise of a professional middle class. While many important details (celibacy, for instance) were quite different in Roman Catholicism, some of the same broad lines of evolution occurred in that church also.

See also Anabaptism ; Bèze, Théodore de ; Bible ; Calvin, John ; Calvinism ; Church of England ; Geneva ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Reformation, Protestant ; Universities ; Zurich ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


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Euan K. Cameron

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Protestant Clergy

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