How the Protestant Reformation Led to the Scientific Revolution
In the 16th century, preachers and theologians from across Europe came together to express their displeasure with the Catholic Church, which they believed had drifted away from the original teachings of Jesus Christ, such as are described in the New Testament. They published pamphlets using the printing press, a new invention, and translated the Bible into vernacular languages for all to read.
The Protestant Reformation, as their movement became known, proved too much for conservative popes and cardinals to contain. Just a few years after the German priest and professor of moral theology Martin Luther published his famous Ninety-five thesesthe Christian faith, unified for much of the Middle Ages, split into various factions.
Many today see the Protestant Reformation as a conflict that only took place on paper: an artificial and somewhat dismissive dispute between theologians and scholars that may have changed the organization of religious institutions but, at least in the long term, had little impact on how ordinary people lived their lives.
This is a misconception. The Catholic Church was the most influential force in the medieval world. Dismantling his age-old hegemony was no easy task, and his fall from grace ushered in a whole new era. The political and economic ramifications of the Reformation are on a par with the revolutions in France, Russia, and America, and deserve to be studied with equal interest.
The Economics of the Protestant Revolution
The economic consequences of the Protestant Reformation were first brought to the attention of the academic community by sociologist Max Weber. Living in Prussia, Weber noticed that Protestant towns tended to be wealthier than Catholic ones, which led him to ponder the possible correlations between Protestantism and prosperity.
In his 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that the Reformation and economic success were causally linked. His thesis has been confirmed by numerous studies, including one by economists Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessmanwho looked at data from 452 counties in Prussia from 1871 and concluded that Protestants had a significantly higher income than Catholics.
Although the literature agrees with the bulk of Weber’s argument, there is some disagreement about which aspects of Protestantism are conducive to higher income. Weber identified two economically beneficial qualities that the austere Luther helped inspire in his followers: a tireless work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“The capacity for mental concentration,” wrote Weber in Protestant ethics“as well as the absolutely essential feeling of obligation to one’s work, are here most often combined with a strict economy which calculates the possibility of high gains, and a composure and frugality which enormously increase performance.”
How Martin Luther Started the Book Trade
Becker and Woessman opted for a different explanation. According to them, the Protestant Reformation boosted the European economy by improving literacy rates. For much of the Middle Ages, clergymen were the only members of society who were taught to read and write, and in a language only they could understand: Latin.
This gave the Catholic Church exclusive access to Christian texts, allowing it to function as an intermediary between man and God. Luther, aligning himself with an early reformer named John Wycliffe, believed that religious wisdom should be available to everyone. To this end, he translated the New Testament into German, the same language in which he wrote his most influential work.
Luther’s impact on literacy in Germany was so great that without him the country’s printing industry might well have died in its infancy. In a conference in 2016historian Andrew Pettegree explains how the preacher’s steadily growing readership helped transform his hometown of Wittenberg from a sleepy, destitute town into an economic center, at least as far as the book trade is concerned.
“The printers got an immediate return for a minimal investment,” exclaims Pettegree. “Luther, it quickly became clear, was a safe bet for the printing industry.” his own book, Luther brand, describes the preacher as the first media personality in the world. Luther’s popularity with readers shaped the modern book trade, paving the way for many philosophers, scientists, and authors.
End the monopoly of the Catholic Church
Most contemporary economists are of the opinion that competition is essential to economic development because it encourages innovation and the efficient allocation of resources. For this very reason, they argue that governments should try to create free market economies that encourage competition and, where possible, discourage the formation of monopolies.
This was certainly not the case in the Middle Ages, a time when the Catholic Church was as prosperous as it was powerful. A political force, the Church persecuted heretics and excommunicated kings. The Church was also not required to pay taxes, meaning it could accumulate unprecedented wealth through tithes and indulgences – the absolution of sin in exchange for pennies of silver.
Like anyone who engages in rigorous Bible study, Luther came to disagree with the idea that sin could be forgiven for payment. His Ninety-five theses argued that salvation was, by definition, free, but could only be attained through personal and unmediated contemplation of the wisdom of Christ. His Thesesessentially, ended the monopoly of the Church on the beyond.
Luther’s victory over the Church introduced new degrees of religious freedom. The unimpeded exchange of ideas that flowed from this freedom laid the foundations of the scientific revolution. Economists have also determined that the Reformation “produces rapid economic secularization”, creating a “displacement of investments in human and fixed capital away from the religious sector”.
The Political Legacy of the Radical Reformation
Like any revolution, the Protestant Reformation was not a unified movement but a collection of increasingly divergent factions organized around seemingly irreconcilable beliefs. Luther, historians now agree, belonged to the Magisterial Reformation, a group campaigning for separation between church and state while maintaining good relations with secular leaders.
There was also another smaller faction. Members of this faction, now called the Radical Reformation, sympathized with the struggle of Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. However, they also believed that these relatively moderate reformers had made several concessions that had failed to resolve the issues plaguing the Christian faith. Take ideas from Luther Ninety-five theses at their extreme, the Radical Reformation came to the following conclusion: because the grace of God could only be attained through personal and unmediated contemplation, the pure concept of organized religion was absurd and a deviation from pure Christianity as described in the New Testament.
Unsurprisingly, the emphasis on self-reliance and aversion to organization sparked the Radical Reformation. However, commonalities emerged between the different subgroups. Luther and Calvin have been compared to the popes they rebelled against. Radical reformers also rejected infant baptism, saying a person should enter the faith by his or her own choice, not by accident of birth.
Protocommunism by Thomas Mützer
Some reformers sought to change not only religious institutions, but secular institutions as well. Thomas Müntzer was a preacher, theologian and, towards the end of his life, a commander in the German Peasants’ War of 1525, leading an inspiring but unsuccessful rebellion against the princes of the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity that Müntzer considered everything except sanctified. .
Müntzer’s argument was simple, even simpler than Luther’s. His only axiom, namely that “You can’t serve both God and money” was more than a denunciation of Catholic indulgences; it was a call for the destruction of class society in general. After all, in a world created by God, there was no place for feudal lords; their mere existence was a violation of his will.
While Luther, a longtime friend and ally of the ruler of Saxony Frederick the Wise, published a pamphlet entitled Against the hordes of thieving and murdering peasants, Müntzer was defeated, captured, tortured and executed for treason. Although not as influential as Luther, the radical reformer still made history, albeit several centuries after his death.
In 1850, Friedrich Engels wrote The Peasants’ War in Germany, which draws parallels between the Protestant Reformation and the 19th century revolts against European monarchies. Engels saw Müntzer as a forerunner of the communists, showing us that “peasant warfare is still not so far removed from our present struggles…and the adversaries we have to face remain essentially the same”.