17th century: Counter-reformation

The foundation of Protestant churches provoked changes in the Catholic church in response.  In 1537 a damning report drew attention to corruption and recommended substantial reform.  In Spain a former soldier called Ignatius, from Loyola, founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) which gave people a new intensity to the way they practised their Christian faith by bringing the Bible vividly to life in their imaginations.

In the middle of the 16th century high-level discussions made it seem possible that a reconciliation could take place between Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.  But when the leaders of the Catholic church met at Trent in northern Italy their attitudes narrowed instead.  They reasserted the importance of the church’s traditions, such as Latin as the language for worship.  There was to be a new assertiveness in the way dissent was dealt with.  For many centuries there had been a department of the church which rooted out heresy, but under Pope Paul IV it became a terrifying force – the Inquisition.

Alongside this renewed fervour in the Roman Catholic Church came a depth of spirituality, which can be seen in books by John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.  It led to a deep compassion for the poor, led by caring innovators such as Vincent de Paul.  And there was energy to take the message of Jesus across the world.  It took Francis Xavier to Japan and India, and the Jesuits to Central and South America.  Some of these expeditions integrated respectfully with the cultures they found, but others were undeniably oppressive.

The Orthodox Church too was experiencing growth.  Its most distinctive feature was the fact that it had changed so little during the six centuries since the Catholic Church split away.  Missions by Orthodox monks from their base in Constantinople into Russia had resulted in many new Christians.  After Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in the 15th century Christians in Moscow began to see their church as the most significant in the world, and they appointed their own Patriarch.  But its surging power became a political threat, and in 1700 Tsar Peter the Great abolished the office of Patriarch and made the church a state department.

A new group of congregations called Baptists emerged, responding to the excess they observed in long-standing churches.  They created a pattern for church life by seeking to be as close to the church in the New Testament as possible.  In particular they were firm that the right moment for baptism was when a person reached a point in life at which he or she could actively choose the Christian faith and proclaim it to others.  Baptism took place by completely immersing a person in water.

In war-torn 17th century Europe it was increasingly unclear whether battles were being fought over theological differences or political differences.  The misery of the English Civil War was heightened by the fact that Charles I was adamant that his position as king was ordained directly by God.  His opponent, Oliver Cromwell, had Baptists as leaders in his movement.  So when the defeated Charles was executed it was a profound trauma for the Church of England.  Cromwell did allow the state church to continue, but there was freedom to worship in other traditions as well.  Cromwell was extremely tolerant of Jewish people and welcomed them to England in the hope that they would convert.  But his version of Christianity was very pure.  For instance, Christmas was banned because it had pagan origins before it was a festival to mark Jesus’ birth.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660 it was quickly followed by the Act of Uniformity.  This made Anglicanism (which means the Church of England and other churches modelled on it) the state religion of England.  A time of persecution of Roman Catholics, Baptists and other small churches which were ‘nonconformist’ followed.  Victims included the preacher John Bunyan, who was in jail when he wrote the literary classic The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Another new denomination which defied attempts to suppress it was the Society of Friends.  They were and are more commonly known as Quakers.  The nickname came from the depth of emotion which shook their worship.  Their quest for a powerful and personal relationship with Jesus made them critical of other churches and they suffered at their hands.

In other lands it was different denominations who suffered.  Protestants in France (Huguenots) were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee when tolerance ended abruptly in 1685.  Many found refuge in England when the ‘Glorious Revolution’ brought William and Mary to the throne.  A certain amount of religious tolerance followed, although it didn’t extend to Roman Catholics.

Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

Oh, the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of God? …
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!  Amen.

Where to find it:

Romans 11:33-36

About these words:

At the end of a long passage describing God’s plans for the world in a letter to the church in Rome, Paul breaks into poetry about his mystical glory.

And they said…

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, 1491 – 1556:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess.  Thou hast given it all to me.  To thee, O Lord, I return it.  All is thine, dispose of it wholly according to thy will.  Give me thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

Teresa of Avila, Spanish nun, 1515 – 1582:

God deliver us from sullen saints.

John Bunyan, minister and writer, 1628 – 1688:

I have sometimes seen more in one line of the Bible than I could well tell how to stand under.  Yet at another time the whole Bible hath been to me as dry as a stick.