Protestant Culture in the Seventeenth Century

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Protestant Culture in the Seventeenth Century

Protestant Aesthetics.

While significant differences continued to exist between Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, Protestant notions about art and culture differed vastly from their Catholic counterparts. Protestants generally placed a higher emphasis on the word and the sense of hearing than they did on visual stimuli. These developments resulted, in part, from the Protestant churches' elevation of the sermon, scripture reading, and the study of devotional works over and against the rich ritual life of the late-medieval Church. Of all the Protestant religions, only Lutheranism kept some place, although in a drastically reduced form, for the commissioning of religious art in churches. In the Calvinist churches of Switzerland, Scotland, and the Netherlands, the frescoes of the Middle Ages were destroyed with coats of whitewash. Stained glass, sculptures, indeed all art that tried to represent the biblical story or the history of the church was removed. A similar situation prevailed throughout much of England, where Puritan influence dominated from the late sixteenth century onward. Archbishop Laud's reintroduction of rood screens in English churches in the 1630s was one exception to this general trend. These traditional screens had been richly decorated, covered with wood sculptures and had obscured the High Altar from the congregations' view. The general furor that Laud's actions caused meant that rood screens were to be definitively eliminated in the wake of the English Civil Wars. They survive today only as a rarity in English churches. Thus in place of the rich ritualistic and intensely visual experience that the church had fostered in the Middle Ages and which expanded during the Catholic Baroque, Protestant worshippers were presented with a situation that was undoubtedly severe. Yet at the same time it was not without its own aesthetics. Great churches were built in Protestant Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the wake of the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren, a prominent mathematician and scientist, turned his attentions to architecture and planned an ambitious rebuilding of the city. Wren's own father had been a clergyman who had served the monarchy in the enviable position of Dean of Windsor, that is, he had been the administrator of one of the most important royal chapels in England. He understood that Protestant services called for interiors in which good acoustics allowed parishioners to hear the sermon and appreciate the service music. He rebuilt London's churches with clean sight lines, bathed them in light, and endowed these churches with spaces that provided a clear and un-obstructed appreciation of the sermon, the central focal point of religious worship in these years. Wren's masterpiece, the great Cathedral of St. Paul's, was the largest church ever constructed in Protestant Europe and a truly noble building. If its interior today seems strangely unadorned—or in the words of Queen Victoria "dreary"—its aesthetic restraint attempted to remain faithful to one of the Reformation's central teachings: that the word of God, rather than human representations, should predominate in the life of the church. In many places where the new Protestant teachings were adopted, they gave birth to attempts like those of Wren. That is, Protestant architects labored to find ways to endow congregations with spaces of sufficient dignity that nevertheless held true to Reformation teachings.

The Sermon.

Still no one could argue that Protestantism's greatest achievements lay in the realms of art or architecture. Instead the monuments of the era were concentrated in literature, in sermons, and devotional works. The seventeenth century witnessed a great flowering of the sermon in both English and in German, with this literary form reaching a level of complexity and sophistication from which it has consistently fallen since then. It became a common custom for devout Protestants to attend sermons almost every day of the week which were as much performed as they were spoken. Since they invariably involved disputes with other preachers, they resembled intellectual sporting contests. In Germany, the fashion for oratory gave birth to the custom in Lutheranism for elaborate funeral sermons, a genre that ministers in the church used to supplement their otherwise meager incomes. Governments regulated the fees that German ministers might charge to deliver a sermon at the funeral of a loved one, but the greatest of these literary productions were printed and circulated to mourners in the weeks after the funeral. They were collected and read in the months and years that followed. The most expensive kind of funeral sermon provided its listeners not only with a detailed exposition of biblical texts but also with a Lebenslauf, a summary of the deceased's life, which in many ways resembled a modern eulogy. Lutheran ministers used these short biographies moralistically to point out the pious virtues that the deceased had exhibited during his or her life. The surviving printed texts, of which more than 100,000 printed examples exist from the seventeenth century, points to the widespread popularity of sermons as a kind of entertainment, even if that entertainment occurred in the otherwise dark hours of a funeral.

Hymn Singing.

If the visual arts played a relatively minor role in Protestant churches during the seventeenth century, the era did witness an enormous flowering of religious music in those countries that adopted Reformation teachings. In German Lutheranism the age of the Baroque was also a great age of hymn writing, with thousands of hymns being written and regularly performed. In the course of the seventeenth century, these tunes, which were known then as chorales, grew steadily more complex in performance. Polyphony, orchestral accompaniments, and organ interludes were added to their performance in church, preparing the way for the still widely performed cantatas and chorales of figures like Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). At the same time Calvinists rejected hymn singing and removed all instrumental music from religious ceremonies as a vestige of "popish" religion. To their minds, Christians only legitimately came together in order to pray and to listen to learned disputation on the Word of God. Although they might have wished that religious music completely disappear from the church, Calvinist ministers generally conceded some ground to its widespread popularity. They allowed the singing of the psalms set to simple tunes that were sung in unison. In the Church of England, Anglicans allowed music at both ends of the spectrum. In the simplest services influenced by Puritan sensibilities little or no music was performed. But at court and in London's greatest churches, elaborate service music often accompanied the celebration of worship.


The periods of quiet and introspection that seventeenth-century Protestantism afforded helped to inspire a new genre: the diary. The diary was particularly popular among Calvinists, whose church services and devotions were spare in the extreme and demanded that the faithful spend a great deal of time looking inward to examine their own consciences. Among Calvinists, diary writing fulfilled a role similar to that which it had played for figures like Saint Augustine. In his Confessions Augustine had pondered his spiritual autobiography, setting down his deepest and most inward thoughts to encourage readers to avoid his mistakes and to emulate whatever virtues he had achieved. By contrast, many Calvinist diaries were private affairs in which the writer recapped his thoughts on a daily basis, setting down the spiritual trials he had faced and trying to see the hand of God in the events that he experienced that day. These diaries in turn became the source materials for the spiritual autobiographies that began to be published during this era. Aimed at inspiring others along the path of righteousness, these autobiographies narrated in minute detail the struggles of their authors with faith and its obligations. Modern sensibilities cannot grasp the spiritual edification Protestants received from these "play-by-play" accounts of another Christian's life. But over and over again, Protestants in the era recounted the "godly" inspiration that they derived from these accounts, contrasting this inspiration against the "popish" rituals of Catholics.


introduction: Although the numbers of Calvinists in Europe remained small throughout the seventeenth century, their impact was far greater than the size of the movement. In later sixteenth-century French Calvinism, a theory of resistance to the state had already developed. In his Vindicia contra tyrannos (1579), Phillippe Duplessis-Mornay (1549–1623) had argued that the movement might oppose the actions of the king when royal authority violated true religion. Seventeenth-century Calvinists, as well as political theorists like John Locke, relied on the argument to counter the absolutist pretensions of kings. Duplessis-Mornay's work was reprinted in England during 1689 and used to justify the recent exile of the Catholic King James II (r. 1685–1688). This excerpt is from its later seventeenth-century English translations.

There was much danger to commit the custody of the church to one man alone, and therefore God did recommend, and put it in trust "to all the people." The king being raised to so slippery a place might easily be corrupted; for fear lest the church should stumble with him, God would have the people also to be respondents for it. In the covenant of which we speak, God, or (in His place) the High Priest are stipulators, the king and all the people, to wit, Israel, do jointly and voluntarily assume, promise, and oblige themselves for one and the same thing. The High Priest demands if they promise that the people shall be the people of God that God shall always have His temple, His church amongst them, where He shall be purely served. The king is respondent, so also are the people (the whole body of the people representing, as it were, the office and place of one man) not severally, but jointly, as the words themselves make clear, being incontinent, and not by intermission or distance of time, the one after the other …

It is then lawful for Israel to resist the king, who would overthrow the law of God and abolish His church; and not only so, but also they ought to know that in neglecting to perform this duty, they make themselves culpable of the same crime, and shall bear the like punishment with their king.

If their assaults be verbal, their defence must be likewise verbal; if the sword be drawn against them, they may also take arms, and fight either with tongue or hand, as occasion is: yea, if they be assailed by surprisals, they may make use both of ambuscades and countermines, there being no rule in lawful war that directs them for the manner, whether it be by open assailing their enemy, or by close surprising; provided always that they carefully distinguish between advantageous strategems, and perfidious treason, which is always unlawful. …

source: Phillippe Duplessis-Mornay, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos: A Defence of Liberty Against Tyranny or of the Lawful Power of the Prince over the People and of the People over the Prince. Trans. Hubert Languet (London: Richard Baldwin, 1689; reprint, London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1924).

Impact of Calvinism.

If the Jesuits dominated seventeenth-century Catholic piety, it was Calvinism that exercised the greatest force over the religion of seventeenth-century Protestants. While the number of territories in Europe that accepted Calvinism was quite small and Calvinists found themselves at odds with kings and princes, the movement exerted an influence far greater than mere numbers suggest. Generally, Calvinism was a creed popular among the middling ranks of people in the city, those with incomes far above the poverty level, but who otherwise possessed little political power. In the countryside, the gentry and members of the minor nobility were often drawn to Calvinism. Even in Germany, where Calvinist influence was relatively minor, the appearance of Calvinist states prompted Lutherans to develop ways of imitating Calvinist piety for their parishioners to avoid disaffection. Peasants and urban workers were generally not drawn to the movement. At the same time, the men and women who embraced Calvinism were disciplined and focused, and thus the movement had an impact on society far greater than its numbers would suggest. The social character of Calvinism gave Protestantism a rebellious character on the international scene. Everywhere during the Age of the Baroque international Protestantism was the voice of political opposition, the voice of political challenge. It was a French Calvinist, Phillippe Duplessis-Mornay (1549–1623), who wrote the first political treatise that maintained subjects' rights to rebel. It was from Calvinists like Duplessis-Mornay that key seventeenth-century political theories were to be derived. In his Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos or A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants (1579) he argued that rulers entered into a contract with their subjects, and if a ruler did not live up to his contractual obligations then subjects might rebel. It was ideas like these that proved so troublesome to seventeenth-century kings, while at the same time these very Calvinist impulses helped to give birth to the ideas of figures like John Locke (1632–1704), who insisted that the contractual nature of government legitimated subjects' rights to rebel. Fueled with ideas like those of Duplessis-Mornay, Calvinist-inspired Puritans proved to be more than willing to sign the death warrant of King Charles I in England, and their criticisms of arbitrary government were only to grow in the decades that followed. The serious, sometimes dour piety of their most articulate leaders tended to spill out from their movement, helping to shape the religion and politics in all Protestant states at the time.


Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars, 1559–1715. 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1979).

Paul C. Finney, ed., Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts in the Catholic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe, 1550–1750 (London: Routledge, 1989).

Craig Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Germany, 1450–1700 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000).

Larissa Taylor, ed., Preachers and People in the Reformations and Early-Modern Periods (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2001).

see also Music: Oratorio and Cantata

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Protestant Culture in the Seventeenth Century

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