The State Church in Early-Modern Europe

views updated

The State Church in Early-Modern Europe


By far the most important development in the history of European Christianity during the early modern age was the emergence of the state church. A series of measures pioneered in France, England, and Spain during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had anticipated its development. For much of the Middle Ages the Papacy in Rome had considered local churches as provinces in a Christian Empire under its control. The rising power of kings at the end of the period, though, brought Rome increasingly into conflict with the growing power of the secular state, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, national governments had begun to usurp authority the Pope had once claimed to exercise. In England, the Statute of Provisors (1351) attempted to limit the pope's authority to make appointments to English church offices, while the Statute of Praemunire passed two years later tried to prohibit the king's subjects from appealing their cases in the Roman church's courts by insisting that all such cases had to be submitted to the crown for approval before being referred to the papal judicial system. In France, the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438) and the Concordat of Bologna (1516) limited the pope's powers over the church in that country in ways that were similar, but even more thorough than in England. But it was in Spain where a truly national church began to develop at the end of the fifteenth century. As a result of their marriage, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille came to govern over a large part of the Iberian Peninsula, a European region with a wealthy and powerful church establishment. By 1485, the couple was already secure enough in their control of the Spanish church to found their own version of the Inquisition and they charged the office with eradicating the secret practice of Judaism and Islam among the conversos, those they had forced to convert to Christianity. This Spanish Inquisition, as it later came to be known over time, was staffed with members of the clergy, but it answered directly to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and not to the pope at Rome. It became in the sixteenth century a powerful weapon in the fight against heresy, and helps, in part, to explain the relatively limited appeal that Protestantism had in the country.

Protestant Influences.

During the sixteenth century the reforms advocated by Protestant leaders came alternately to support and discourage the increasing trend toward state control of religious institutions. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) Martin Luther recommended that the German princes take up the cause of reforming the churches within their own territory, since he judged the contemporary clergy too entrenched and reactionary to oversee the job of eradicating abuses and corruption. In the first generations of the Protestant Reformation, Luther's appeal to state authority proved to be one of the attractive features of the developing Lutheran church, as German princes and kings in Scandinavia accepted the movement's evangelical teachings, in part, because of the greater degree of control that it afforded over their clergy and the church's wealth. In 1527, for example, Philip of Hesse became the first German prince outside Saxony to introduce a Lutheran-styled reform in his lands. Philip set a standard that was often repeated in Protestant countries during the years that followed. He dissolved the monasteries and convents within his territory and sold off their possessions, reaping the benefits of the sale for his own government. His example was soon to be imitated in Scandinavia, and most decidedly in England where the Dissolution of the Monasteries during 1535 and 1536 resulted in a huge windfall for Henry VIII's treasury. Henry's move against the monasteries was merely the last in a series of measures resulting from his desire to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the legacy of that famous dispute was to establish his effective control over almost every aspect of the church's life in England. But if Protestant kings and princes often freely interfered and tinkered with the church, the attitude of Reformation theologians was not always as accepting of state control as Luther's had been. In Swiss Geneva, the French religious reformer John Calvin advocated for a very different pattern of church-state relations. Calvin insisted that the church's ministers and officials meeting in synods had the right to define church practices and teachings, and that the state was responsible for enforcing the decrees and decisions of religious leaders. Calvin's ideas served as the basis for a great international movement, today known as Calvinism, which spread throughout Europe in the century after 1550. But it was only in Scotland where the movement came to fashion the national Presbyterian church that Calvinism became accepted as the basis for a state church. Elsewhere Calvinists succeeded only on a much smaller scale: their influence dominated in Holland, a country that was a loose confederation of cities and rural provinces; in the Swiss cantons, which were also ruled by urban governments; and in a few German principalities. Even in these small territories, princes often significantly altered Calvin's notions concerning the need for a Consistory, a committee of churchmen and lay elders, to regulate all issues having to do with church and state. The type of church control implemented in these small territories thus frequently came to mirror more that of Philip of Hesse than of the original Genevan model. In England and France, Calvinist disciples agitated for the establishment of their positions in England and France, but rulers in those countries long resisted their pleas. Thus while Calvinism was to remain a significant minority movement—the most significant minority movement in seventeenth-century Europe—its ideas about political authority and the relationship between church and state always proved to be stumbling blocks to its establishment as a national religion.

Catholic Influences.

It seems at first a paradox that the greatest impetus to the development of the state church came, not from within Protestantism, but from forces at work within the Roman Catholic church, an institution that had long resisted attempts to encroach upon its prerogatives. During the sixteenth century the rise of competing Protestant churches throughout Northern Europe had been a significant blow to the Roman church's prestige and authority. As a result the very multiplication of new churches throughout Europe meant that those who supported reform from inside the Catholic church were forced to rely on state power as never before to ensure that the task of internal reform was carried forward. In the years between 1545 and 1563 members of the church's hierarchy had met at Trent on the border of northern Italy to consider issues of church reform. Prompted by the attacks of Protestants the prescriptions they formulated at this Council of Trent resisted Protestant innovations but at the same time attempted to answer Protestant charges by supporting the elimination of abuses and corruption in the church and by fostering a new discipline among the clergy. At the council's conclusion, the church possessed a series of decrees that were a definitive rejoinder to Protestant teaching, but the church's officialdom also faced a dilemma. In order for the decrees to be established in the various countries of Europe that remained faithful to Rome, the Council's prescriptions had to be adopted and promulgated by kings and princes. Thus in the wake of the Council of Trent, Rome was forced to rely as never before on Europe's remaining Catholic princes, who came to promulgate the decrees and who also supported the establishment of Trent's program through rich financial subsidies. In this way the very complexity of the sixteenth-century religious situation helped to breed a new enhanced state control over the entire apparatus of the church's administrative and spiritual bureaucracy. In the years that followed Trent, the Catholic church was, in effect, to become ever more a department of state within those Western European kingdoms that retained their allegiance to the pope.

Character of the State Church.

By 1600, the legacy of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the ambitions of kings and princes meant that the development of the state church was well advanced in every major European state. These new institutions were officially sanctioned and publicly supported, but in most cases they retained the parish structure that had flourished in the medieval church. A parish was a geographical unit with boundaries, and every individual who lived within those boundaries was expected to worship within the parish's church. In the Roman church and the Church of England (often referred to merely as the Anglican church), parish priests administered the church and celebrated the sacraments. These priests were often called "curates," because they practiced the "cure of souls." In larger parishes, a curate might also have a vicar or a vice curate who assisted him. Catholic and Anglican priests were customarily addressed with the title "Father," while in Lutheran kingdoms and territories ministers served the congregation, rather than priests. The term "minister" had its origins in the reforms of sixteenth-century Protestant leaders like Martin Luther, who insisted that a special category of clergy was unnecessary to intercede between humankind and God. In Lutheran churches ministers were not considered a special legal caste, governed by their own laws and privileges. Instead the same laws that bound everyone in the state were also binding on Protestant ministers, although a great deal of prestige was still attached to being a member of the clergy and oftentimes the distinctions between a Lutheran minister and a Catholic or Anglican priest were minimal. Lutheran ministers were addressed as "Pastor" (Pfarrer in German). By contrast, Calvinist churches did not retain a parochial structure, but instead divided the faithful into congregations according to the place where they worshipped and not according to where people lived. Ministers or pastors were in charge of Calvinist congregations. To men and women of the time, the most visible difference between all the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church revolved around the issue of clerical celibacy. All Protestant churches allowed their clergy to marry, while Roman priests were expected to renounce all sexual activity. While these requirements were an ancient feature of Latin Christianity, priestly celibacy had often been lightly observed in many places in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Many priests had kept concubines, and had merely paid annual fines to their bishops for breaking the church's laws. As a result of the reforms of the Council of Trent, clerical celibacy was becoming more strictly enforced in seventeenth-century Europe, although even then there were some regions in which concubinage (the keeping of mistresses) was common. By 1700, observance of clerical celibacy had grown to be the norm in Catholic lands, and concubinage had become very rare, a mark of the success of the program of the Catholic Reformation.

Enforcing Morality.

State churches served as the eyes and ears of the royal government. Priests and ministers kept records of births and deaths, as well as immigration into and emigration out of the communities under their supervision. It was among their responsibilities to note down the names of all individuals who did not appear at church services on Sunday morning. They also investigated and reported any deviant social or cultural activity. Priests and ministers passed on this information to state authorities, who sometimes, as in witchcraft investigations, interrogated entire villages based upon the information they received from the clergy. A key innovation of the new state churches that flourished in Europe at the time was the increased use of the Visitation, a type of inspection that had been more rarely practiced by bishops in the Middle Ages. The Visitation first became an element of state policy during the early years of the Lutheran Reformation in Saxony and Hesse, the two earliest states to convert their church establishments to Lutheran teaching. To assess the level of religious knowledge among their peoples, the Saxon and Hessian Visitors were charged with examining villagers and ministers. To do so, they were armed with a standard questionnaire with which they interrogated those in the countryside. While clerical officials conducted the visitations, the reports that these forays in the countryside generated were given to princes and state officials, who formulated plans and responses to the generally low level of religious discipline and knowledge that these Visitations often revealed. Weekly catechism for the young was usually the most common prescription that arose from the Visitation and this practice of conducting schooling sessions in church doctrine came to be adopted, not only in Lutheran states, but in Catholic and Calvinist ones as well. In the Duchy of Bavaria, a large and powerful state within the Holy Roman Empire, these initiatives gave birth already in the 1570s to an institution known as the Clerical Council, a permanent body of the state that met regularly for more than 200 years in the Duchy's capital of Munich before being abolished. The Clerical Council regularly received reports about those who held dangerous religious opinions, about priests who were ineffective and poorly trained, and about parishes in which the level of religious knowledge seemed to be low. They responded by disciplining, reassigning, or removing ineffective priests and by requiring that efforts at indoctrinating the laity be redoubled in particular parishes. Eventually, they designed an ingenuous system in which priests gave out certificates to those who made their confessions, and then, each year lay people were responsible for presenting these tickets to state officials when they paid their taxes. The Bavarian Clerical Council was one of the earliest state offices to appear in Northern Europe that was charged with inspecting religion at the local level in ways that were similar to the Inquisition in Spain and Italy.

Allegiance to the State.

The state churches that flourished in seventeenth-century Europe also played a major role in fostering new wellsprings of affection for national governments. At the local level, the minister or priest often served as the "king's man," a spokesman for the government. In the days before the development of radio, television, newspapers, or the Internet, it was consequently assumed that one of the duties of the clergy was to communicate to their parishioners news from the outside world as well as the king's proclamations and edicts. Patriotism is an anachronistic term when applied to the early-modern era. To the extent to which loyalty existed, it usually involved attachment to a ruler or a community, not a land or state. Early modern priests and ministers still can be credited, however, with building in the communities they served a nascent sense of patriotism for the state through the sermons they gave and the devotional activities they organized. Thousands of sermons survive from the period in which priests and ministers intoned the necessity of obedience to the reigning prince as a Christian virtue. In a more positive vein, the religious ideas of the period celebrated the benevolent, but effective king as "the father" of the national household. Just as an effective head of a house bred respect for his authority by chiding and chastening his recalcitrant children, so, too, was it the responsibility of the prince to discipline and supervise the activities of his subjects. Thus in this way, religious notions of authority tended ever more to sanction and buttress the rising power of kings and princes in the early-modern world.

The Role of Print and Education.

In the early-modern state church the practice of religious rituals also came to be more firmly fixed than previously. The seventeenth century was the great age of what the historian John Bossy has labeled "typographical tyranny." During this century state churches first gained the power to insist that congregations strictly observe the liturgy, the body of rites prescribed for public worship, as set in type in books of liturgical order such as the Roman Catholic missal, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and the Presbyterian Book of Common Order. In every state, on a given Sunday, every congregation across the land was quite literally on the same page in terms of the devotions it was performing. While the subjection of religious worship to this kind of formalism assaults modern sensibilities, the new typographical tyranny had its positive side: it was a boon to the spread of literacy. In order to make sure that members of congregations could read what was on the page, churches became committed to teaching members to read, if not necessarily to write. Universal public education systems did not exist in Europe until the nineteenth century. But even before this time, what schooling that did flourish did so largely under the supervision of churchmen. Typically, the priest or minister, or, in large churches, his assistant, would hold school for a few hours each day for local youth. The education in these schools was quite rudimentary. Its primary goal was to equip students with sufficient skill to read simple devotional works and most importantly to master their catechism, a manual that summarized the beliefs of a given creed. Only the brightest and usually the wealthiest students went on to grammar schools, and the "colleges" or secondary schools that were similar in many respects to modern American high schools. These schools were rarely maintained by the state church, but were "private" institutions funded by fees and maintained by churchmen who had no public responsibilities. In Catholicism, these secondary schools were often the preserve of the Jesuits, the most influential of the many religious orders that emerged from the Catholic Reformation. In Protestant lands many of the schools that first appeared during the Middle Ages to train clerics survived the Reformation to see new life as the training ground for lay people. This was the case with the English public schools. These institutions had originally been founded in the later Middle Ages under the auspices of the church and had been called "public" because the education occurred outside the homes of the nobility and gentry who sent their sons there. These "public schools" had long trained clergy for careers in the church, but in the seventeenth century institutions like Eton, Harrow, and Rugby became the training ground for more and more members of the elite anxious to participate in government.

The State Church and Competition.

The priests and ministers in charge of state churches did a good deal of what today would be recognized as the state's work. In return they acquired an enormous amount of cultural power and influence. While churches became the eyes, the ears, and the voice of government, the state church's clergy regularly appealed to and encouraged their governments to beat back forces of religious competition. The state clergy made sure, in other words, that the government penalized those who, for whatever reason, chose not to attend the state church. Minority or "dissenting" churches existed in many parts of Europe, but usually these churches' members were granted only limited rights to worship, and these awards of limited religious toleration usually restricted dissenters' civil rights and fostered either subtle or overt patterns of religious persecution. The state clergy often vigorously lobbied for such injunctions, and they tried to protect their own religion's favored position against attempts to grant religious freedom to dissenters. Adherents of outlawed Christian movements, such as Anabaptists (those who rejected the validity of infant baptism, and thus practiced re-baptism as an adult as a necessary condition for participating in the church) were almost never allowed even a limited right to worship. Almost everywhere, Anabaptism was a crime punishable by death.

Problems of Established Religions.

While a tool of state domination and control, the established church in early-modern Europe satisfied the devotional and spiritual needs of the majority of Christians. Over time, however, as Europe's society and economy grew more complex and variegated, these institutions proved incapable of accommodating the increasingly diverse religious opinions that multiplied in society. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many parts of Europe were undergoing rapid urbanization and a transformation to a capitalist economy that would eventually spell the death knell for the old feudal order. In these cities commerce and merchant industries fostered new and increasingly divergent religious landscapes. On the one hand the new commercial economy often bred a dour and austere sense of discipline in many of the new "men of commerce," as Dutch traders, French artisans, or English industrialists came to evidence an almost "monkish" devotion to their pursuit of worldly wealth. Certainly, their seriousness did not preclude religious belief; in fact, it sent many in these groups in search of new forms of devotion that were more personally relevant in the context of their rapidly changing lives. For others, the new commercial economy, with the possibilities that it opened up for high standards of consumption and leisure time made the traditional ideas of both Protestantism and Catholicism more and more irrelevant. Thus as the seventeenth century drew to a close, the state churches of Europe appeared to be increasingly assaulted from two directions. On the one hand, many felt that their religious and ritualistic formalism was inadequate and they searched for new religious movements that offered a more personal and internal spirituality. From the opposing direction, Europe's state-sanctioned religious establishments came as well to seem increasingly irrelevant to those who were less concerned with "storing up treasures in Heaven" than they were with enjoying them in the here and now. Among those who persisted as devout believers, the demand arose for a more vital and enthusiastic religious experience, a demand that was to give rise as a persistent chorus. And at the same time non-believers chafed to be free of the obligations of church attendance, catechism, and the other, often minimal requirements that the state church imposed upon its subjects. This dynamic—born of an increasingly pluralistic society in which religious beliefs were expressed in terms of personal relevance—was to make the state church seem more and more an outmoded relic of the European past as the eighteenth century progressed.


Thomas A. Brady, et al, Handbook of European History, 1400–1600 (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1994).

Euan Cameron, ed., Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Jean Delumeau, Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977).

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

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

Gerald Strauss, Luther's House of Learning. Indoctrination of the Young in the German Reformation (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

Williston Walker, et. al, A History of the Christian Church. 4th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985).

About this article

The State Church in Early-Modern Europe

Updated About content Print Article