Church and Society

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Andrew E. Barnes

Change in the relationship between church and society in Europe is best examined by trying to get a sense of why and in what ways the European understanding of the word "church" has changed. From the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, the social face of the Christian church underwent four significant transformations. First, the unitary international church of the Middle Ages gave way to what in the twentieth century was a plurality of national and purely denominational churches. Second, the personality of the clergy became more distinctly pastoral. Third, in most European states religious life came to be centered around the parish church. Fourth, Christian churches implemented and perfected two overlapping strategies for social outreach.

These religious transformations did not take place in a political vacuum. The political face of Europe changed even more radically than did the social face of Christianity during the centuries in question. These political changes in turn shaped the nature of religious change. To recount the transformations in the institutional character of Christian life, it is helpful to think of processes of change that occurred over three time periods, those periods determined by the general thrust of political evolution. During the first period, the Middle Ages (850–1500), national governments were nonexistent or relatively small and weak, with little ability to directly influence the lives of their subjects. The international church was independent of and often antagonistic toward these governments. During the early modern centuries (1500–1800), the centuries of the old regime, national governments grew powerful and successfully asserted their right to regulate every aspect of their subjects' lives. Early modern governments were monarchical and officially Christian, and they used national churches as vehicles through which to monitor and regulate social and cultural behavior. The French Revolution issued in the modern centuries (1800–2000), bringing into existence the "new regime" governments that continued into the twenty-first century. Modern governments were "republican," that is, they were directed by duly elected representative assemblies, and they were "secular," that is, they were officially disassociated from all religious organizations. Modern governments went beyond regulating existing social and cultural behaviors to attempting to instill new ones, an example being patriotic behavior. For this reason modern governments sought to perform many of the functions early modern governments assigned to churches. While national churches no longer received government support, they still functioned as community churches in much the same way that they always had.


Of the four ways in which the social face of Christianity changed, the most important was the multiplication of churches. Until the end of the Middle Ages, Europeans everywhere recognized the authority of the pope in Rome, and in theory if not in practice every church everywhere was understood to be a branch office of a single firm. During the early modern age every European state developed a national church. In the modern era those national churches competed with other Christian denominations as well as other religious creeds for adherents.

The medieval Christian church was recognized by contemporaries as catholic and universal, meaning that they saw it as a single, all-encompassing entity. To a certain extent this image was deceptive. Within the church were many religious orders that had nothing in common except obedience to Rome. Also, as demonstrated in England by the Lollard movement and in Bohemia (Czech Republic) by the Hussite movement, by the end of the Middle Ages it was possible to see, beneath the Latin-speaking hierarchy at the top of the church, the emergence of nationalist clergies concerned with the communication of the gospel in the vernacular.

During the early modern centuries, in the context of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, national churches became the order of the day. Protestant churches were explicitly under the authority of territorial rulers, whether the latter were royal, princely, or municipal. These national churches may have followed the reforms of Christian worship mandated by reformers such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, or John Calvin, but in every instance, even in Geneva, the city personally reformed by Calvin, eventually ultimate authority in church matters came to rest in the hands of civil governments.

The European states that remained Catholic and went through the Counter-Reformation continued to acknowledge the authority of the pope in Rome, but in these states also control over most aspects of religious life was claimed by state governments. In kingdoms such as France and Spain, royal governments took the initiative in proposing replacements when positions for bishops and abbots became vacant. Royal governments also took over church institutions and made them serve royal purposes. This process is seen most spectacularly in the Spanish monarchy's creation of its own version of the Roman Inquisition. The more important example, however, was the governmental appropriation of parochial institutions discussed below. As for the effort of Rome to direct church reform, this happened on the national level only at the discretion of rulers. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was the key event of the Counter-Reformation. It produced a series of reform decrees aimed at addressing most of the major complaints about Catholic church practices. Yet these decrees were only officially proclaimed in France, for example, at the discretion of King Louis XIII in 1614.

One legacy of the emergence of national churches was an increase in the readiness of Europeans to demonize their neighbors. The appearance of national churches made the question of spiritual uniformity an important issue for rulers and their peoples, both of which shared two assumptions. One was that social nonconformity was inspired by Satan. The other was that religious beliefs dictated political allegiances; thus subjects who maintained a set of beliefs different from those of the ruler were predisposed toward treason.

The first assumption led to the witch craze of the early modern centuries. During the Middle Ages the Roman Inquisition had been developed to suppress heresy or heterodox religious beliefs, and then had evolved to claim an expertise in the detection and eradication of maleficarum, or witchcraft. The medieval Roman Inquisition was an elite, international institution that intervened in local situations with relatively little local support. Still it provided Europeans with a vocabulary for representing those perceived as different as a threat to family and state. In early modern Europe local agents both of the government and of the church made use of this vocabulary to explain the threat to the community posed by social deviants. That label might be applied to anyone whose behavior did not conform to communal mores, but sadly it was mostly applied to solitary, poor, and, because of these two conditions, cantankerous old women. The actions of these women, especially when they invoked their rights as members of the community to a share of local charity, triggered social discord, which was understood to anger God. Motivation for such divisive behavior could only come from Satan. In fact the manuals on witch finding that early modern European officials inherited from the Inquisition taught that Satan had launched a campaign to conquer the world and that women were prime recruits for his army. Determined to take the battle to Satan, local officials prosecuted female malcontents with an enthusiasm that occasionally bordered on the maniacal.

The witch craze ended quite abruptly in the second half of the seventeenth century. A variety of developments contributed to its end. Mostly, though, skepticism on the part of government officials about the reality of Satan's conspiracy for world conquest brought the trials to a halt. Beginning in the eighteenth century, belief in witchcraft was dismissed by Europe's educated elite as superstition. Among some of the common folk, however, the belief remained alive into the twenty-first century.

The second shared assumption among the rulers and the ruled led to religious persecution. Just as the medieval Inquisition identified the dangers posed by social diversity, it also identified the dangers posed by cultural diversity. Religious beliefs contrary to those of the state church were heretical. In inquisitorial manuals heresy was a sin of pride that, through its repudiation of the true faith, angered God. For early modern European governments it was equally important that heresy provided a justification for political resistance to authority, even political collaboration with enemy states. The demonization of those who followed another confession or version of Christianity helps explain why, even though from the sixteenth century onward many states had religious minorities who declined to participate in the national church, it took so long for governments to accept or tolerate religious diversity. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries most major European states fought wars over religion. Significantly, these wars were treated by contemporaries as both civil wars and wars against foreign aggression. The Peace of Augsburg (1555), which brought an end to the first series of religious wars fought in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), introduced the political principle that each ruler had the right to dictate the version of Christianity practiced in his or her realm. Wars continued to be fought, but this principle remained the compromise most often adopted at the end of the fighting.

Catholic subjects of Protestant princes could always relocate to a Catholic land, and Protestant subjects of Catholic princes could go to a Protestant land. During the early modern centuries one group of Christians had nowhere to turn. Most early modern Christians accepted the idea that the church and the community were synonymous. Baptism for them was simultaneously the religious act of becoming a Christian and the social act of joining the community. Because it served both these functions, they supported the baptism of babies, even though it was recognized that babies could not consciously embrace Christianity. Believers in adult baptism only, known collectively as Anabaptists, rejected the connection between the church and the community. Anabaptists argued that the only true way to be a Christian was to leave the community and the rest of the world behind, and that only an adult could reach such a decision. Implicit in their arguments was the idea that Christians owed no loyalty to the community or the state. For this reason both Protestant and Catholic governments hunted down Anabaptists and burned them. Anabaptist groups found some refuge in eastern European enclaves. Most, however, found space to thrive and grow only when they moved to North America, where they had a tremendous impact on New World Protestantism.

It was not until most wars over religion ceased, toward the end of the seventeenth century, that the principle of religious toleration, the idea that it was possible for participants in more than one creed to live in the same state, gained political support. It gained support primarily in commercial states, like Britain and the Dutch Republic, where mercantile middle classes exerted real political influence. Even in these states religious toleration was selective. In Britain, for example, Protestant dissenters were permitted to maintain their own churches though they were prohibited from participating in the political process or from attending church schools or national universities. Catholics, or "papists" as they were labeled, continued to suffer persecution.

During the eighteenth century national churches were a favorite target of Enlightenment thinkers, especially French philosophes. They did not so much celebrate toleration as condemn the idea of a national church as chauvinistic. Still they questioned the notion that followers of a creed different from that of the ruler would necessarily be disloyal. In France, during the Revolution, legislation stripped away all civil penalties for worshiping outside the state church. Napoleon and his troops applied the idea of religious toleration implicit in this legislation in all the states they conquered. By the start of the modern age, freedom of religion was regarded by liberal Europeans as a civil liberty that every individual had a right to demand.

Few individuals demanded it, however. The secularization of governments did not prompt religious diversity. Unlike in the New World, where competing Christian churches throve in the same locale, in Europe, with some notable exceptions, the typical pattern of worship remained that of a national church with almost a monopoly of local believers and a group of smaller churches competing on the local social fringe. When national churches were suppressed, such as occurred in states that underwent communist revolutions, all religion was banned. When these communist regimes collapsed at the end of the 1980s, the dominant pattern was reestablished. For the most part government harassment of religious minorities disappeared in Europe in the twentieth century. There were few states, however, where the hold of the national church over the churchgoing population was threatened by competing creeds.


The historian John Bossy has insisted that a distinction be made between "medieval Christianity" on one side of the Reformation and "post-Reformation Protestantism" and "post-Reformation Catholicism" on the other, arguing that the two post-Reformation creeds are discrete religious experiences that emerged from the common core of medieval Christianity. Concerning dogmatic and doctrinal issues, his point is well taken. But from the social, institutional perspective, the involvement of government made the evolutions of both Protestant and Catholic national churches remarkably similar. The Catholic retention of the sacraments and religious orders and the Protestant reliance on the Bible should not camouflage the parallels in institutional development. The national churches created in the sixteenth century were ecclesiastical organizations that were simultaneously government agencies. Their first order of business was ensuring religious orthodoxy; their second was linking local communities with the nation-state; and their third was assisting the state in providing goods and services to local populations. These shared concerns shaped the way both Protestant and Catholic national churches evolved and ensured that they evolved in the same direction.

The similarity is seen most obviously in the second way in which the social, institutional face of Christianity changed. At the close of the Middle Ages, most clerics continued to aspire to the ancient ideals of spiritual athleticism. By the modern age, the clergy had become primarily pastoral in inclination as well as occupation. At the end of the medieval period anger and disillusionment with the behavior of the clergy was widespread in European society. Beginning with the Gregorian reform movement in the eleventh century, the clergy claimed that it was engaged in a spiritual contest from which the laity, that is, all ordinary Christians, were excluded. This idea supported the development of a special set of laws, applicable only to members of the clergy, that placed the clergy outside the authority of royal, princely, and civil courts. Many clerics abused the special status the laws created for them by committing crimes and then invoking clerical privilege to escape punishment. Broad popular skepticism about the commitment of clerics to the spiritual contest in which they were supposedly engaged was fueled by the not uncommon disregard among the clergy for the clerical vow of celibacy.

Medieval Christians recognized two categories of clerics. First was the secular clergy, so called because they lived "in the world" or saeculum so as to maintain pastoral care of the laity. Clergy associated with parish churches, such as parish priests and their vicars, and clergy associated with episcopal churches or cathedrals, such as canons, vicar generals, and bishops, were members of the secular clergy. Second was the regular clergy, the clergy who lived according to some rule or order (regula). Members of religious orders all lived by a rule and thus were designated as regular clergy. The rule provided followers with a guide or pathway toward spiritual perfection or, to continue the metaphor from above, a set of weapons with which to win the spiritual contest in which they were engaged. Monks and nuns all were members of the regular clergy. Friars and members of mendicant or begging orders, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans, likewise were regulars.

Most of the complaints about clerical behavior were directed at regulars. Members of religious orders made up the majority of the clergy at the end of the Middle Ages. Monasteries dotted the European countryside, and most towns and cities had at least two or three convents. Most of the students who attended universities claimed to be members of religious orders. Many rural monasteries were the major landlords in the vicinity, and their members often maintained a luxurious lifestyle that challenged any notion of sanctity. Inhabitants of urban convents were often notorious for their loose living. Students were perceived by the communities surrounding the universities as overindulged, overprotected hell-raisers, much given to alcohol and prostitution.

Yet many were also disappointed with the secular clergy, particularly the parish clergy who likewise were castigated as immoral and alcoholic but were uneducated. More important, parish clergy were condemned as woefully incompetent and woefully negligent as pastors. The shortcomings of the parish clergy had become obvious as early as the twelfth century, when Europe's first "commercial revolution" had triggered both a rise in population and a clustering of people in towns and cities. These towns and cities needed pastors, but instead of supplying the need with parish clergy, Rome opted instead to create new religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans.

Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation sought to regulate the behavior of the regular clergy. Protestant and Catholic reformers differed in their approaches to the problem, however. Protestant reformers responded by suppressing both religious orders and the special set of laws for clerics. Monastic communities were dissolved, and monastic lands were sold. Monks and nuns were sent out into the world to live as ordinary people, and ecclesiastical courts were abolished. Catholic reformers responded in the traditional way of Roman Christianity by supporting the establishment of new religious orders and the reform of old ones. Among the masculine orders the most important new one was the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, while the most important of the reformed was the Capuchins, who were a reformed branch of the Franciscan order. Among the feminine orders the most important new one was the Daughters of Charity founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise Marillac, while the most important reformed order was the Carmelites, reformed by the spirituality of St. Teresa of Ávila. These new and reformed religious orders attracted the best and brightest of the individuals drawn to religious life, leaving the older religious orders to decline owing to the lack of new recruits.

More important than the solutions adopted for the problems of decadence among the regular clergy in the long term were the solutions adopted to address the problem of an inadequate supply of pastors. Here Protestant and Catholic reformers followed the same strategy. Seminaries, special schools for training pastors, were set up and made mandatory for men who aspired to the cure of souls, that is, to pastoral authority over laypeople. The training in these seminaries was different. The expectation that Protestant ministers were to marry and live as ordinary citizens oriented Protestant training toward involvement in the civil life of the communities in which Protestant ministers were to serve as pastors. The requirement that Catholic priests remain unmarried and limit their involvement in the personal lives of their parishioners dictated that their training emphasize learning to live in isolation away from social allurements. As the focus of Catholic seminary training suggests, with the insistence that pastors be trained came a determination that they comport themselves in public with probity. In both Protestant and Catholic lands from the sixteenth century onward, clerical social behavior came under greater scrutiny. Church and political officials worked together to identify and remove from office clerics who did not behave according to public expectations.

The reform of the clergy was the greatest and most durable achievement of the sixteenth-century religious reformations. Few significant developments in the evolution of the clergy occurred after that time. In the twentieth century the parish clergy remained the point of contact between the church and the community in both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Other types of clergy did not disappear, but their interactions with the laity declined.

Still a space remained in both Protestantism and Catholicism for clerical evangelists. Pastoral clergy help laypeople maintain and deepen their faith, but they are not as good as evangelists at firing up religious enthusiasm or prompting religious conversions. In both forms of Christianity evangelists stimulated the emergence of fringe movements, sectarian groups among Protestants and new religious orders among Catholics. These groups never succeeded in pulling in more than a minority of the devout laity, but their activities had a ripple effect, enlivening and giving meaning to the faith of ever-broadening circles of laypeople. In Britain this phenomenon was seen in the Methodist break from the Church of England in the eighteenth century and in the Oxford movement in the nineteenth century. An excellent example from the Catholic world is the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The devotion first gained a following, primarily among nuns, in the seventeenth century, but it soon became popular among elite women. Initially Rome, skeptical about the theology upon which the devotion was framed, refused the many requests for official acknowledgment of the devotion. In 1720 the future St. Paul of the Cross had a vision in which he saw the Virgin Mary holding a version of the sacred heart. He dedicated his life to preaching the devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ. In 1741 his male followers were organized into a religious order, the Passionist Fathers, and in 1771 his female followers were organized into a religious order, the Passionist Nuns. In 1765 Pope Clement XIII granted Catholics the right to celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart.


The new pastors needed new churches in which to pastor. The third way in which the social, institutional face of Christianity changed was the vitalization of the parish church and parish life. Medieval Christians did not expect to receive much spiritual edification at their parish churches, and most were not disappointed. The Christian church of the Middle Ages inherited from the Roman Empire an organizational structure that grouped the inhabitants of local communities into parishes and the regional populations in those parishes into dioceses. The official church of the community, the parish church, was where all local Christians were expected to worship and receive spiritual instruction. Even if they worshiped somewhere else, parish members were expected to pay tithes, that is, church dues, at the parish church. Parish priests were responsible for the spiritual salvation of every member of their flocks.

In the Middle Ages parish churches were often decrepit and run down. Behind this sad state of affairs was the economic fact that most of the money from tithes and from land owned by the parish was often claimed by the local landlord, the effective owner and operator of the church, who gave back a portion too small to maintain the church in good repair.

Another factor contributing to the sorry condition of parish churches was that for most medieval Christians the parish church was important solely as the location of official rites and rituals. Children were baptized there, families were joined in marriage there, and neighbors were reconciled through the rite of communion there. If they desired a more spiritual religious experience, medieval Christians looked elsewhere, to shrines, to the churches of religious orders, or to the open-air gathering places where revivals were preached.

Both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation made the renovation of parish churches a top priority, and the involvement of state governments was the key. In Protestant lands churches became explicit extensions of the state. In Catholic lands the connection was more indirect but still present. In both situations the state made parish churches the smallest, most local administrative unit. Thus parish records of births and deaths were a form of census, while government announcements were made from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Since the church was an arm of the state, governments measured loyalty by attendance at Sunday services.

The parish church took on more than just political functions. During the early modern centuries it emerged as the first locus of modern Christian communal life. As the strongest, best-constructed local building, the parish church was the place of refuge during war or times of natural disasters. In the moments before or after services on Sunday mornings, official proclamations and news were read out. New devotions and religious ideas usually were introduced locally at the parish. The first schools were usually attached to parish churches, which meant the parish church also was where most people learned to read and write. Paupers came there on feast days to receive handouts, and the plaza or place in front of the church never ceased to be the venue for local markets and festivals. The parish church continued to serve as the locale for rites of passage for parish members.

The high point for the parish church as a social and political institution was probably reached in the eighteenth century, when old regime governments also reached their height. Subsequently the role and influence of the parish church in local communities progressively diminished to the point that the church retained significance only for the faithful. Especially during the nineteenth century, new venues rivaled the place of the parish church in village life. The café appeared, where villagers could get not just coffee, tea, wine, and spirits but information from newspapers and gossip. During the French Revolution the official connection between church and state was dissolved in most nations. Even though the connection was reestablished in most places, in the nineteenth century governments took over more and more of the activities once performed at the parish church. In the twentieth century, most Europeans who still attended church did so at their local parish. The parish remained at the core of the European Christian experience but with minimal impact on the lives of local nonbelievers.


The fourth way in which the institutional face of Christianity changed was less apparent. Two sets of developments progressively shifted the spotlight away from the churches and toward the social and political movements the churches spawned. The social influence of parish churches declined in part because the social services the parishes once provided, that is, health care, education, and poor relief, were taken over by governments. Christian churches perfected these services as vehicles for social outreach. Helping the poor became the preferred way to channel the energies of pious laypeople and also the chief means of keeping the poor within the faith. The government's appropriation of social services forced churches to devise a new strategy for influencing social behavior. The most effective strategy proved to be Christian lobbying organizations.

Social service. During the Middle Ages neither the church nor the state dedicated any funds to social services. Social institutions such as hospitals, schools, and poorhouses existed, but in general they were built by wealthy patrons and maintained by pious lay brotherhoods known as confraternities. As a result the early modern centuries inherited from the Middle Ages a social welfare system based on what would much later be called volunteerism.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation appropriated the system and changed it in two ways. Both Protestants and Catholics started distinguishing between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. The deserving were those who demonstrated a willingness to work and fidelity to the local church. In addition both Protestants and Catholics used lay charity to reinforce the authority of the local church. They did so in different ways, but the social impact was the same. Both used funds from lay charity to develop new social service professionals, such as nurses, teachers, and social workers.

Medieval Christians were rewarded with indulgences for their acts of charity. Indulgences were grants from the treasury of spiritual grace maintained by the church that might be applied toward the remission of the spiritual penalties sinners had incurred in the act of sinning, grants popularly misunderstood to offer sinners a way out of spending decades or even centuries in purgatory.

Protestantism rejected the validity of indulgences and shifted the theological focus of acts of charity from the benefit for the soul of the giver to the benefit for the soul of the receiver. Nevertheless, Protestantism integrated the act of giving into parish life. Collections for the parish poor took place after the sermon every Sunday. Church deacons, usually the most prosperous and influential members of the congregation who presumably gave most of the funds for the poor, were entrusted with the task of visiting the houses of the poverty-stricken to distribute the money. Significantly, Protestant congregations also began to pay "visitors of the sick," men with some medical training, to make weekly rounds providing medical advice to the poor. Congregations also came to expect able-bodied poor women to perform nursing duties in exchange for their weekly handouts.

From the point of view of early modern European Christianity, it is difficult to make a distinction between illness and poverty since the two sources of suffering were perceived as different species of the same divine punishment. By the same token it is hard to differentiate between medicine and poor relief. During the early modern age the former had little to do with curing disease. Rather, medicine, like poor relief, was mostly concerned with easing the earthly pain of a heavenly judgment. With these points in mind it is possible to appreciate the office of visitor of the sick as the forerunner to the modern occupation of social worker. "Visitors" did not and could not offer much medical advice, but they could and did serve as intermediaries between the community and the underclass, assessing for the former the poor person's state of health and facilitating for the latter their claims to the goods and services offered by the community. Visitors of the sick investigated and validated claims of illness. Healthy or able-bodied poor people were expected to work to improve their lots. Refusal to work pushed healthy paupers into the undeserving poor category, which cut them off from community charity. Visitors also articulated the needs of those they certified as both poor and sick. Based on their professional expertise, visitors were expected to determine whether the sick poor person needed a greater share of charitable funds, some nursing assistance, or more specialized medical advice. Replace the early modern idea of illness with the twentieth-century notion of indigence and it is possible to view the vistiors' tasks as having become those of the modern social worker.

Catholicism affirmed the validity of indulgences, maintaining charity as an avenue down which sinners might proceed toward spiritual redemption. It also reaffirmed the validity of confraternities as dispensers of social welfare. But the majority of medieval lay confraternities were attached to the churches of the religious orders and thus were extraparochial. The Counter-Reformation confraternities that administered poor relief operated out of parish churches. Further, the funds these confraternities collected went less toward paying for specific acts of charity for specific individuals, such as dowries for local poor girls, and more toward paying for the upkeep of hospitals and schools.

These hospitals and schools were staffed by professionals. While the Protestant churches can be credited with creating the prototype for the social worker, Catholicism provided the models for twentieth-century nurses and teachers. Protestantism offered little spiritual reward for the physically taxing, poorly compensated labors associated with nursing. The Catholic idea of charity, however, imbued such labors with the highest spiritual rewards. Nursing became the vocation of new orders of religious women, of which the Daughters of Charity was the most influential example. While in no way as demanding an occupation as nursing, teaching, especially at the lowest level, was mentally exhausting and rarely well paid. Catholicism made this tedious task a pathway to spiritual perfection. The Society of Jesus was the first and most successful of the teaching orders.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the Christian churches had established intraconnecting networks of social services funded and directed by Christian volunteerism. By the end of that century, however, most governments realized that these networks could not meet the need for social services. Throughout the eighteenth century governments appropriated poor-relief systems, transforming hospitals and workhouses from the hostels and halfway houses they had been under the churches into the forerunners of the modern medical hospital, the modern mental asylum, and the modern prison. The nationalization of school systems occurred in the nineteenth century; governments replaced church schools with state versions of primary and secondary schools. Government control of social work was primarily a twentieth-century development. As governments attempted to provide citizens with social services "from the cradle to the grave," state-trained and state-employed social workers emerged as the point of contact between service providers and service consumers.

Through the twentieth century churches continued to operate their own networks of social services based on the idea of Christian volunteerism. But only practicing Christians used those networks, and they rarely depended on them exclusively. Heirs to the government support that previously went to church hospitals and schools, government institutions provided the bulk of social services in most European states. Their access to the population at large curtailed, churches found themselves battling to retain their social influence. In the struggle to maintain a Christian say over the cultural values communicated in government social institutions, churches discovered that the most effective way to sway government policy was through the mobilization of the Christian portion of the populace. Eventually both Protestant and Catholic churches came to appreciate that lobbying organizations were the most efficient way to mobilize the Christian population.

Lobbying organizations. The Christian lobbying organization had at least two predecessors. Missions—that is, arranged tours of traveling evangelists—were a part of European Christianity from the start. They lost some of their importance during the medieval centuries owing to the sense that the population was already Christianized and thus more in need of pastors than evangelists. Beginning in the early modern centuries, however, missions recaptured much of their importance. Churches depended on itinerant preachers, who moved across the countryside staging revivals, to shore up the faith of portions of the population perceived as leaning toward other confessions or toward religious indifference. Missions also proved the most economical way (in material if not human terms) to introduce Christianity into non-European lands. This last factor further enhanced the importance of missions during the modern centuries. European imperial conquests in Africa and Asia created stiff competition between European churches to promote their version of the creed among the conquered populations. Reliance on missions was not an innovation, however, but a rediscovered means toward an institutional end. The goal of churches in sponsoring missions remained the reinforcement of or creation of a parish church or its equivalent.

The second predecessor was the crusade, a military mobilization of a Christian population with the aim of achieving a religious objective. The Crusades of the eleventh century to the fourteenth century, sponsored by Western Christendom, aimed at freeing Jerusalem from Muslim control. By the start of the thirteenth century crusades also had become a means to force religious change within Europe. In southern France a crusade wiped out a religious heresy. Along the coast of the Baltic Sea a crusade forced the conversion of the non-Christian population. The reconquista in Spain, the centuries-long effort to retake the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, was a form of crusade. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the age of religious warfare, many European states witnessed the development of movements that could be characterized as crusades. Masses of armed sectaries moved about, offering their opponents a choice between (re)conversion to the true faith or death.

The Christian lobbying organizations that emerged from the late eighteenth century onward built on the legacies of these Christian organizational structures, but in one essential way they were different. The earlier organizations were concerned first and foremost with effecting religious change. The new organizations and the political and social movements they fostered sought to realize political agendas through political processes. In a republican age the ambition of these organizations was to influence public opinion, and through public opinion the voting public, and through the voting public government decision making. That these organizations provided practicing Christians with moral vantage points from which to view the secularism of the age is not immaterial. That they made governments reluctant to further curb the activities of Christian social institutions or to place obstacles in the path of Christian evangelical movements is important also. But their prime historical significance was the influence over public policy making they provided to church people.

The Company of the Holy Sacrament, a secret network of Catholic elites who promoted the Counter-Reformation in France, may be considered a forerunner of the type of Christian lobbying organization that appeared in the eighteenth century. The actual prototype was the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade established at the end of the eighteenth century by the "Clapham sect" of Protestant ministers in London. Using mass meetings, the news media, and church visitations in conjunction with lobbying the British Parliament, the society rallied the Christian population of Britain behind the proposition that slavery was un-Christian. The society persuaded the British government to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and to declare slavery illegal in 1834. It provided a model for cooperation on social issues for Protestant Christians of different denominations. In that sense it was the ancestor of the Protestant ecumenical movement that produced the 1910 World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland, which in turn sired the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948.

Increasingly during the nineteenth century the Catholic Church found itself in conflict with the secular republican governments of the states in which Catholicism was once the state religion. Complicating the conflict was the repudiation by many Catholic clerics of the very idea of a republic. These men and women called for the return of monarchies and rejected the legitimacy of representative government and democratic assemblies. It was only during the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (1878–1903) that European Catholics embraced the use of lobbying organizations to effect political change. In Germany the Catholic Church fought the Kulturkampf, cultural war, with the government of Prince Otto von Bismarck. At issue was the right of government officials to demand expressions of loyalty from members of the clergy. After more than a decade of stalemate, Leo brokered a solution, making significant use of the Catholic Center Party in the German Reichstag as a tool to force favorable terms for the church from the government. Leo pressured French Catholics into acknowledging the legitimacy of republican government, then directed them, through his program of ralliement (rallying to the French Third Republic), to the use of lobbying organizations to promote the church's program. These two efforts were only a prelude to his most ambitious initiative, a plan, announced in the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), to build a network of Catholic labor unions and worker's cooperatives to stand as a bulwark against the spread of international socialism. Leo's plan did not yield the desired harvest, but following his pontificate Catholic Europeans used a range of lobbying organizations to influence the political processes in their home societies.

After the end of the early modern age very few of the institutional features of European churches changed. European Christianity remained structured within the context of national churches. The vast majority of Christians experienced their faith at parish churches under the direction of parish priests. Christians wanting to do more than just participate in parish life were directed toward a spectrum of volunteer activities, from helping the poor in Europe to preaching to the unconverted outside Europe to maintaining a Christian influence over government decision making. The social message Christian churches communicated certainly evolved. The language with which the churches communicated their message, like the churches themselves, became nationalized. But the institutional context in which these changes occurred remained constant after the early modern centuries. That the portion of the European population participating in this institutional life was probably lower at the end of the twentieth century than at any other time since the fourth century, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, should not be read as a negative comment upon European churches as institutions. In late-twentieth-century Europe, there were no political penalties and few social and cultural incentives for being a Christian. That so many Europeans continued to embrace that identity is testament to the ongoing appeal of Christianity's doctrines and beliefs and the appeal of the institutional context in which those ideas were shared.

See alsoWitchcraft; Charity and Poor Relief: The Modern Period; Charity and Poor Relief: The Early Modern Period (volume 3).


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