Monday, April 17, 2017

Did the Reformation Really Begin in 1517? Pre-Conditions of Protestantism

Later this year, the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Don't worry, if you forget there will be plenty of reminders in late October. That's all well and good. But it's not my focus here. Instead, with this post I want to highlight some of the historical factors that represent pre-conditions of Luther's posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in the fall of 1517.

From the sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, almost all interpreters agreed that the Protestant Reformation had its start with Martin Luther’s acts of “heroic individualism." As historian Bernd Moeller has described it, this now-outdated story of the origins of the Reformation pictured Luther as “a great sage, a kind of spiritual colossus, who attains his Reformation breakthrough, draws the broad consequences, and then drags people with him as he strides through history handing out his truths right and left.”[1] But sometime during the mid-1900s, scholars began to conclude that “Luther as sage and Wittenberg as Jerusalem” was an insufficient historical paradigm. Other people and places—like Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, and a number of lesser-known leaders and locations—were vital to the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.[2]

What historians sometimes call the “Luther affair”—specifically, events from the life of Martin Luther beginning in 1517 and continuing into the early 1520s—was directly related to and grew out of the long crisis of late medieval Christendom.[3] This crisis can be described as a struggle between competing ideas about the recovery of apostolic Christianity, the quest for the true church. As many interpreters have noted, the late middle ages were characterized by an absence of meaning in life, accompanied by deep anxiety over personal guilt and destiny. The consequences of sin were a deserved death and an uncertain eternal future.[4]

A common report about the young Martin Luther is that he experienced torturous dread and despair over matters of the spirit and his unanswered questions about relationship with a sovereign God. But we should add that Luther was not alone. It appears that what he called his Anfechtungen, his “afflictions” or “tribulations,” were not unique. They were typical, if not always so intense in other people.[5] However, the medieval combination of spiritual malaise and psychological disturbance were not the only preoccupations of the time. There was also in the pre-Reformation age what Lucien Febvre once called “an intense appetite for the divine.”[6] Because the character of the true church was a focal question of the time, much of the contemporary discussion included words like renovatio and reformatio. Such terms pointed to a solution in the renewal of genuine Christianity and especially in the rehabilitation of the apostolic church.[7]


One prominent and lingering vision of the apostolic church centered on the pope and the Curia Romana, the papal court. The essence of this view, commonly known as Curialism, was unmistakably expressed in a papal bull issued by Boniface VIII in 1302 titled Unam sanctum; that is, The One Holy (Church). In it, Boniface makes a comparison: in the same way that there was only one ark of safety, constructed under the leadership of only one man, so there is only one apostolic and universal church, safeguarded by a single power and presided over by only one leader. The conclusion of the document epitomizes the claims of Curialism: “We declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”[8]

But the papal crises of the fourteenth and early-fifteenth centuries did much to undermine all such pronouncements. After the death of Boniface, the so-called Babylonia Captivity (1309-1377), during which the papacy was exiled in Avignon, was followed by the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), when the loyalty of the Church was divided between two and sometimes three different popes. In short, no sooner did Boniface insist on the Curialist vision than unfortunate events practically renounced it.[9] Still, papal claims to authority did not die.


Historians have given the name Conciliarism to a competing vision for the true church. Significantly, this alternative view, which asserted that ecumenical church councils were superior to papal authority, developed directly out of the crisis of Curialism. Its claim to authority grew from the conviction that in addition to Peter and his successors, the biblical witness also provides for the authority of councils, the first of these being the so-called “Jerusalem Council” recorded Acts chapter 15.

In response to the struggles over authority that had begun over a hundred years earlier, the Council of Constance (1414-1418) deposed all three of the current popes and elected Martin V as the new pope. It also provided for future ecumenical councils and, most tellingly, decreed that the decisions of these gatherings should serve as checks to papal authority. After all, in keeping with a phrase enshrined in canon law (“unless he deviates from the faith”), the decision of a pope was not above the judgment of the church. Conciliarism did not deny the authority of the pope. It did deny that his authority was absolute and unqualified. At any rate, although the Council of Constance succeeded in its goal to rescue the papacy, it failed to establish councils as an effective alternative to the model of absolute papal supremacy.[10]

Popular Heretics and Dissenters

In addition to Curialism and Conciliarism, the late medieval period saw the rise and lingering effects of any number of dissenters and heretics. The presence of these groups—Lollards, Hussites, Waldensians, and Spiritual Franciscans, to name a few—underscored the pressing desire and need for reform. Here, space provides for the discussion of only one prominent heresy. Lollardy (sometimes spelled Lollardie) was the name given to an English heretical movement that began near the end of the fourteenth century. Its origins can be traced back to the teaching, the personal network and, above all, the writings of John Wyclif (c. 1324-1384). [11] In his early writings, Wyclif made a compelling argument for the disendowment of clerics who were not in grace but in mortal sin. In that state, he asserted, they had no divine right to position or power. This, of course, made him popular with the devout clergy who agreed with him. Most of all, it made him popular with the English Crown, eager to profit from prospective disendowments. Early on, Wyclif had a benefactor in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It was primarily Gaunt’s influence that led to his entry into royal service as a sort of schooled advocate who could help to undermine church privilege and the authority of the pope. During those years, Wyclif stayed busy writing and preaching.

On May 22, 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five papal bulls condemning the views of Wyclif. Detained for a time at Oxford, he was soon released due to popular support there. By the late 1370s, however, Wyclif was doing more than simply attacking the abuses of the church. Most significantly, he dismissed the traditional understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the doctrine of transubstantiation. Thus, in May of 1381, William Barton, chancellor of Oxford, presided over a committee that condemned such heresy, though without specifically naming Wyclif. Then, on June 13, 1381, Corpus Christi day, peasant rebels, angry over an attempt to freeze wages, came to the outskirts of London and entered the city.[12] During three days of mayhem, they killed Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his De blasphemia, Wyclif mentioned the revolt. Although he never acknowledged even an indirect contribution to the catastrophe, at least some chroniclers of the day disagreed. They saw a connection between Wyclif's influence and popular sentiment. By then, Wyclif was no longer regarded as an interesting and useful radical, but more as a dangerous and loathsome heretic. He could no longer count on the critical support of some of the clergy and aristocracy, and by October 1381 he had retreated to his out-of-the-way parish in Lutterworth where he died at Mass on the last day of 1384. The period in which Wyclif wrote his more-popular works and led a public life had lasted hardly more than a decade. But he left behind many books and treatises, in English as well as in Latin, and not a few personal associates who were still at Oxford or who had since gone out from there, providing leadership for the group now known as the Lollards. Indirectly, this heresy was the source and inspiration for the later Hussite movement in Bohemia, which is where most of the surviving Wyclifite texts have been recovered.

Renaissance Humanism

One critical pre-condition to the rise of the Reformation was Humanism. Consistent with the goals of the Renaissance, Humanism was “the movement to recover, interpret and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome.”[13] According to Charles Nauert, humanist culture began and grew from the time of Petrarch forward. As Nauert explains, it developed initially from a practical concern. In Italy, those who bore the responsibilities of civic leadership were searching for greater access to useful knowledge. In the Greek and Roman classics, they found what they believed was a superior wisdom, moral philosophy, and rhetorical theory.[14]

As most surveys relate, during the fifteenth century, humanism crossed the Alps and entered northern Europe. There, it took on a decidedly Christian form. In Italy, humanist scholars had searched for ancient wisdom, insight that could inform leaders amid changing economic times and political challenges. But north of the Alps, Christian Humanists sought ancient wisdom that was distinctively theological in content.[15] However, this distinction should not be taken too far. As R. N. Swanson points out, although Christian Humanism has been associated with the Renaissance once it had traversed the Alps, in fact virtually all Humanists, including those in Italy, were Christians. It is true, to take a prime example, that Lorenzo Valla used his skill in order to discredit the Donation of Constantine. Yet we should not conclude that Valla rejected Christianity. In fact, he “overtly accepted Christianity’s spiritual demands, producing a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer and asserting that philosophy and reason were insufficient tools for dealing with theology.”[16] And, according to the vision put forward by Marsilio Ficino around 1476, humans should achieve their potential by exercising individual will, thus becoming co-creators with God “in a re-ordering of the world, and in order to attain salvation after death.”[17]

There can be no doubt that Humanism was highly significant to every branch of the Reformation. Luther, for example, developed his views of Pauline theology while using a Greek New Testament edited by Erasmus, a signal achievement of the period. Zwingli and Calvin were likewise trained in humanistic studies before they emerged as reformers. A specific example of the connection can be identified in Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Decades earlier, Valla had shown that the Greek word metanoia did not mean “do penance,” but rather “repent.” That is, in its imperative form the word did not call for participation in the ritual of penance; instead, metanoia expected an about face, a change in heart that would lead to a change in life. According to this distinction, Luther identified a meaning, rooted in the original Greek text of the New Testament, that effectively undermined the sale of indulgences. It is no accident that the very first of Luther’s theses reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In this and in other ways, Renaissance Humanism served as part of the intellectual scaffolding that made the Reformation project a possibility.

The Printing Press and Movable Type

Any discussion of the Reformation must consider the invention of the printing press and the advent of movable type in the fifteenth century. In her ground-breaking 1979 work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein linked this invention to three movements that unfolded in early modern Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.[18] Eisenstein argued that complaints and protests like those issued by Luther were hardly new. Therefore, we should regard the novelty of the printing press and not the theology of the reformers as the critical difference. Luther himself seems to have acknowledged as much when he wrote that printing was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”[19] For example, the Ninety-Five Theses were composed in October 1517. By December, just a few short weeks later, three separate editions were printed almost simultaneously by printers located in three separate towns.”[20] Along this line, Margaret Aston remarked:

The theses . . . were said to be known throughout Germany in a fortnight and throughout Europe in a month . . . Printing was recognized as a new power and publicity came into its own. In doing for Luther what the copyists had done for Wycliffe, the printing presses transformed the field of communications and fathered an international revolt. It was a revolution.[21]

Due to the printing press, the Reformation world featured much greater access to and knowledge of the biblical text in its original languages than ever before.[22] This, combined with consumers’ appetites for printed works fed by the lucrative publishing business, means that even if Luther and Zwingli had never been born, something on the order of the Reformation we know would have occurred.

The Political and Religious Context of Germany

Coming into the sixteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was, in the words of Peter G. Wallace, “a fragmented federation with over 500 semi-autonomous jurisdictions that extended over northern Italy and much of Central Europe under the theoretical suzerainty of an elected Emperor.”[23] Among the entities claiming both autonomy and authority were seven electors, dozens of lay and ecclesiastical princes, more than sixty Imperial free cities, and hundreds of Imperial knights. Within this context, in 1514 Albert of Brandenburg, already the bishop of both Magdeburg and Halberstadt, became the new cardinal-bishop of Mainz. But in exchange for his position, Albert had made big promises to the papal Curia. Along this with his pledge to pay the annates, the first year’s income from his benefice, Albert promised to contribute to construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To finance these obligations, he incurred huge debts. This was the very reason why Johannes Tetzel, the now infamous seller of indulgences, was hawking his wares just beyond the boundaries of Saxony. Frederick the Wise, Luther’s prince and the founder of the University of Wittenberg, had not allowed Tetzel and others like him to enter his territory. When Saxons crossed the border to purchase indulgences, Luther became incensed and vehemently preached against all such dubious exchanges. This episode, inherent to the politics of the day, is precisely what triggered the Luther affair.[24]

In sum, the late-middle ages were characterized by calls for religious reform and by renewal movements. During the many decades leading up to the Reformation, the Catholic Church resisted calls to restore to Western Christendom the security and satisfaction that people desire from religion. The development of Renaissance Humanism, combined with the printing press and the advent of movable type, created the matrix out of which a long-awaited Reformation quickly grew.


[1] Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation, trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1982), 13, as quoted by C. Scott Dixon, Contesting the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 1-2.

[2] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 3.

[3] The expression “Luther Affair” is a favorite of C. Scott Dixon’s. See his Contesting the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 3, 9, 14, 25, etc. Before Dixon, Peter G. Wallace used the term “Luther affair” in his work The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 75-81.

[4] For the late medieval period as “An Age of Anxiety,” see Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 22-30.

[5] Roland H. Bainton provides a portrait of young Luther’s turmoil and desperation in Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950) ch. 2, esp. page 31, where Bainton states that Anfechtung is a word “for which there is no English equivalent. It may be a trial sent by God to test man, or an assault by the Devil to destroy man. It is all doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.” A fuller description can be found in David P. Scaer, “The Concept of Anfectung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 41, no. 1 (January 1983): 15-30.

[6] Lucien Febvre’s expression is reported in George, Theology of the Reformers, 30, n. 23.

[7] The Latin term reformatio and its cognates were commonly used during the late medieval period to speak of reform impulses or movements in any number of different areas: the law, politics, and the academy, for example Thus, when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli preached a message of reform, they were using language that was familiar. Yet, by the end of the sixteenth century the Reformation had come to mean, specifically, the well-known movement most closely associated with Luther. See Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 8-9. John W. O’Malley relates that the idea of the need and even requirement of church reformation emerged as early as the eleventh century. As the two terms were used, reformatio meant “implementation of legal norms,” whereas renovatio referred to a much wider range of meaning. See O’Malley, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 16-20.

[8] George, Theology of the Reformers, 31-32. Carter Lindberg’s discussion of this episode implies that the strong assertion of Boniface VIII was a reaction to the growing strength of secular powers and the decline of the pope’s authority. See Lindberg, The European Reformations (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 42-43.

[9] George, Theology of the Reformers, 33. On the people and events surrounding this chapter of church history, see also Patrick Collinson, The Reformation: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 23-27.

[10] Fuller accounts are provided by, for example, George, Theology of the Reformers, 33-35; Lindberg, The European Reformations, 46-51; and Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 49-51.

[11] Here I depend heavily upon Anne Hudson and Anthony Kenny, “Wyclif [Wycliffe], John,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 60: 616-30.

[12] Norman F. Cantor, The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 253-54.

[13] Peter Burke, “The Spread of Italian Humanism,” 2, as quoted in R. N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215—c. 1515 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 175.

[14] Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 8-51.

[15] See, for example, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 138-43; C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988), 15.

[16] Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, 176.

[17] Ibid., 176-77.

[18] Here, I will refer not to the Eisenstein’s massive original work of 1979, but to the late edition of her abridgment: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[19] Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 165. For this quote, Eisenstein credits M. H. Black, “The Printed Bible,” in Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 3:432.

[20] Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 169.

[21] Ibid., 171. Here, Elizabeth Eisenstein cites Margaret Aston, The Fifteenth Century: The Prospect of Europe (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968), 76.

[22] Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 179.

[23] Wallace, The Long European Reformation, 77.

[24] Wallace, The Long European Reformation, 75-77. See also Richard L. DeMolen, “The Age of Renaissance and Reformation,” in The Meaning of the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Richard L. DeMolen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1-25.

Works Cited

Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon, 1950.

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Cantor, Norman. The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Collinson, Patrick. The Reformation: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Dixon, C. Scott. Contesting the Reformation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Hudson, Anne. The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hudson, Anne, and Anthony Kenny, “Wyclif [Wycliffe], John,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 60: 616-30. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Nauert, Charles G., Jr. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

O’Malley, John W. Trent And All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Scaer, David P. “The Concept of Anfectung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 41, no. 1 (January 1983): 15-30.

Swanson, R. N. Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215—c. 1515. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wallace, Peter G. The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Non-Class, One Cup Churches of Christ

Ronny F. Wade, The Sun Will Shine Again, Someday. Springfield, MO: 1986. xvi + 208 pp.

The subtitle of this book says it all: “A history of the non-class, one cup Churches of Christ.” The author, Ronny F. Wade, is long-time, widely-regarded preacher within this group. As one might expect, the history he writes is characterized by advocacy. He is much like the sports announcer who, while calling the game, always cheers for his team.

A bit of background and explanation. The contemporary mainline non-instrumental Churches of Christ adopted the practice of having various Bible classes—sometimes called Sunday School—around the beginning of the twentieth century. They also adopted the use of individual cups for the Lord’s Supper. But not everyone went along. Ever since then, the “non-class, one cup Churches of Christ” have made up a marginal, though significant, group. Also, they are convinced that other congregations of the Churches of Christ—not to mention the rest of the Christian world—are in sin, unfaithful to the Lord. Thus, Wade refers to those outside the group as “digressives,” even those people who sympathize with the conclusions of "digressives" but who do not treat those conclusions as tests of fellowship.

Wade sometimes provides general background for the story he tells. For example, in Chapter Three he relates the rise of the Sunday School Movement, beginning in Great Britain and moving to America. At other points, Wade focuses on intimate doctrinal and personality conflicts within the non-class, one cup group. For instance, he sometimes quotes at length the correspondence between warring preachers and debaters quibbling over the terms in the propositions to be discussed. In these sections, the book seems more like a chronicle than a history.

Throughout, the author provides little in the way of social or political context for his story. Wade notes in Chapter Seven that the group he belongs to remained pacifist even during and after the Second World War. But he tells the reader very little about the group’s interactions with the federal government, which must have been a fascinating story still waiting to be told. Instead, the author focuses on what he knows so well: minute doctrinal history and the biographies of leading preachers, men like Dr. G. A Trott, Homer L. King, J. Ervin Waters, and J. D. Phillips. Consequently, his book is almost always descriptive rather than analytical.

The Sun Will Shine Again, Someday includes numerous photos of leading preachers in the non-class, one cup movement. Documentation appears at the end of each chapter. The book is missing an index, which would have been useful.

Readers will likely admire the conviction and tenacity of the group Wade has described, They might also lament what some will view as the group's narrowness and penchant for remaining small and insular. Thirty years have passed since this book was first published. It would be interesting to know what has happened since then. Perhaps the author, now in his eighties, would consider producing an updated edition of his work.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Tulia, Texas Wildfires, February 28, 2017

On Tuesday, February 28, 2017, wildfire broke out west of Tulia, Texas. Aided by parched fields and raging winds that were sometimes gusting over 50 miles an hour, the fire spread rapidly. In a short time, many homes and businesses in town were in jeopardy of catching fire. I don't know much about how this blaze was contained and extinguished. What I do know is that a large number of firefighters from Tulia and the surrounding area worked tirelessly through the afternoon and night. Thanks to them, Tulia was saved with what has to be considered minimal damage. In addition, local law enforcement did a great job blocking off streets and keeping the public safe. It was an impressive performance all the way around. After coming home from school that afternoon, Michele was evacuated. I was still driving home from Lubbock. (I was driving 85 mph north. The wind was pushing 50 mph west). Again, thanks to the hard work of many firefighters we were able to return home that night at around 9:30. Several days later, I took a walk with my camera. Here's a bit of what I saw. For a larger shot, click on individual photos:

The house top center is two doors down from ours.

All of the grass around the house I call "The Observatory" is completely charred. (On the far left, Michele's red car can be seen parked in our driveway). On closer inspection, it's obvious that this place nearly caught fire. See closeup below.

The large field just north of McKenzie Park, completely burned.

Looking north, with the Tule Creek bed in the foreground. The orange hue of the grass is due to fire retardant dropped from planes stationed at Amarillo.

A closer look at the orange residue. South Austin Avenue., next to McKenzie Park.

At the alleyway just north of McKenzie Hills housing addition, the fire was stopped.

Looking south and east towards the houses in McKenzie Hills

On the west side of Austin Avenue, firefighters scraped a line meant to stop or slow down the spread of the flames.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Demons, Baseball, Skynyrd and More! My Sweet Sixteen Books of 2016

For someone pursuing a doctorate in History, I really didn't do that much reading last year. Much of the time I was skimming books by the dozens and reading lots of reviews. Still, I did manage to read from cover to cover a good number of books that I simply should have read, some of which I actually wanted to read. On occasion, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a title I had been avoiding was much more engaging than I thought it would be. And, I wound up reading a few books that had almost nothing to do with my academic program. Anyway, out of that group of titles I thoroughly digested last year, here are sixteen of my favorites:

European History

1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon Press, 1950). Back in the day when I was hanging out at Yale Divinity School, people uttered the name Roland Bainton with something like reverence. The name plate below his giant portrait might just as well have read Solomon or Paul. After reading this book, I understand a bit more about why. Here I Stand was likely the twentieth century's best biography of Martin Luther in English. It was certainly the most popular and influential. Yes, it represents old-school historiography. More recent works, for example, rightly emphasize that Luther was no Lone Ranger of the Reformation. Without other leaders and places like Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva, nothing from Luther's legacy would ever have worked out the way it did. But in an age when Europeans and Americans were more comfortable with the idea of a singular, patrician leader like Franklin Roosevelt, this book was the perfect biography. It's still a great read.

2. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Clarendon Press, 1972). The author begins this contemporary classic with a basic assertion: "the style of pictures is a proper material of social history." In other words, paintings do not simply illustrate history once it is established by documents. Instead, paintings should be thought of and used as primary sources, along with documents. Or, as the author concludes, "the visual is  . . . the proper complementary to the verbal." This book goes a long way in establishing works of art as primary sources for understanding history. Baxandall's reflection at the end of the book about the actual primacy of the visual is by itself worth the price of admission. More historians should know this book.

3. Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006). The Very Short Introductions series keeps reeling me back in. A year goes by, I forget everything I didn't like about the last volume I read, and I wind up trying out some other title. It's not that the authors of the series aren't great scholars. They are. The problem, in my opinion, is the format. The small size of these introductions means they're more than an article, less than a complete survey. It's a tough awkward job for any author. However, with this particular volume, Jerry Brotton manages to pull it off. His coverage of the Renaissance begins with a good survey of the historiography, and then proceeds with sections on art, literature, humanism, religious reformation(s), women, exploration, etc. If you don't read any other book on the topic, read this one.

4. George Huppert, After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe, 2nd edition (Indiana University Press, 1998). Huppert specifies that his chronological coverage runs from the first outbreak of the Black Death in Europe in 1347 to its last appearance at Marseilles in 1721. Why this periodization? He explains: "After the Black Death had done its work, the survivors became more prudent. They did not allow themselves the luxury of multiplying again to the point of outstripping their resources as dramatically as they once had. To forestall famine, they learned to control population growth" (ix). This is the organizing theme for what has to be one of the most engaging social histories of the period. For students of Early Modern Europe, this is a must read.

5. Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist (University of Chicago Press, 1988). Don't be fooled by the sexy title. This book really isn't about an exorcist. It's about the complex world of a small-town priest in northwestern Italy in the 1690s. Along with a few other Italian historians, author Giovanni Levi is one of the founding fathers of a sub-discipline known as microhistory. No, that word doesn't refer to a tiny topic or bite-sized history. As Carlo Ginzburg explains it, think instead of what you do with a microscope: intense, detailed analysis. That's exactly what Levi gives the reader. If you want to learn about the history of exorcism, read something else. If you're interested in the detailed reasons why, for example, people in the early modern era sometimes got a much higher price when selling land to a family member as opposed to a complete stranger, then Inheriting Power might be for you. Just don't take it to the beach. It's not that kind of book.

6. Gary K. Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe, 1525-1600 (University of Toronto Press, 2007). According to the author, this work “examines the rhetoric used against Anabaptists and their specific treatment by churchmen, interrogators, and executioners in the light of the magical world view that we know dominated the culture of the sixteenth-century populace.” In other words, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions compares the persecution of religious dissidents with that of the largely fictitious sect of devil-worshipping, magic-performing witches. Bottom line: in the era of the early Reformation, some people treated religious devotees as though they were witches, and vice versa. Seems like that sort of thing has a way of coming back around.

American Religion

7. Paul Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837, 25th-Anniversary edition (Hill and Wang, 2004). The early-nineteenth century Protestant revivals collectively known as the Second Great Awakening have deeply influenced American religion from the antebellum period to the present day. Because of its broad, long-lasting significance, historians have raised questions about how the Awakening began, what contributed to its rise, and what its essential character was. Some time around the 1960s, historians began probing the possibility that the revivals involved something more than just religion. For example, were there social, economic, and cultural contexts to the revivals? First published in 1978, A Shopkeeper's Millennium is one of the seminal works along this line of study. We get a taste of what Johnson is up to when he writes: “Revivals were a means of building order and a sense of common purpose among sovereign, footloose, and money-hungry individualists." Some religious people who have read Johnson's work have accused him of being reductionistic. They think that Johnson has taken a thoroughly-religious episode in American history and has turned it into something else entirely. I'm not sure that that criticism will stick. Read it and see what you think. Either way, like many others, you'll probably be pulled in by this engaging book.

8. Michael J. Lee, The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). As the author describes it, this book "examines how learned Americans dealt with the new and often unsettling ideas" coming out of Europe in the early eighteenth century, and that raised critical questions about the status of the Christian Scriptures and how they should be understood. Lee argues that by taking up evidentialist challenges to conventional views and literal interpretations of the Bible, American biblical scholars "gradually became increasingly naturalistic in their understanding of revelation." In effect, they conceded "that the Bible was accountable to outside authorities and needed to be reconciled to new fields of knowledge." The majority of English rational Protestants were confident that true reason would never contradict what the Bible affirmed. They believed that, if anything, rational inquiry would always confirm the Scriptures. Their American counterparts agreed. But neither group seems to have anticipated that their latitudinarian approach would subject revelation to independent investigation to test its veracity. In effect, the assumptions and presuppositions of the debate turned out to be the sources of the decline of traditional positions during the nineteenth century.

9. Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008). On one level, Artillery of Heaven simply tells the story of American Protestant missionaries and one As’ad Shidyaq. Born in 1798, Shidyaq lived in that part of the Ottoman Empire now known as the Lebanese Republic. His life forever changed when he became the first convert to Protestant Christianity in that part of the world, and was subsequently tortured and killed. He thus became the first Protestant martyr of the American mission to the Middle East. As interesting and significant as this story is, Makdisi has received special notice for how he tells it. In general, most historical accounts of Christian missionary work are examples of institutional, denominational history. This is only natural since those producing the historiography are members of the community of faith that conceived and conducted the mission activities they describe. Makdisi presents another possibility. As he puts it, "[t]he only way to tell a story of a cross-cultural encounter involving Americans and Arabs is to enlarge dramatically the conventional scope of inquiry."

10. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. New edition (Oxford University Press, 2006). The first edition of this book appeared in 1980 and instantly became a classic of American religious history. Marsden's basic conclusion was that fundamentalists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries  "experienced profound ambivalence toward the surrounding culture." He acknowledges that such is true of many distinct groups and movements. But, he notes, conservative Protestants in the U.S. went from being respectable in the 1870s to being peripheral and a laughingstock by the 1920s. What happened? Marsden answers that historians can only respond to such questions not by proving anything—not scientifically, anyway—but by an illumination that comes by way of what he calls "sympathetic insight." In his description of fundamentalism in America, Marsden begins by insisting that the phenomenon was essentially a religious movement. At the same time, like all other religious movements, fundamentalism lived within and responded to a distinctive culture. And that has everything to do with its character.

11. Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015). This book begins with an important historical footnote: back in 1967 Lynn White Jr. published an essay in Science magazine "claiming that Christianity had caused the environmental crisis." As Stoll points out, White's idea is one that lingers "in the back of a lot of people's minds when they think about religion and the environment." The author noticed, however, that many figures in the history of American environmentalism grew up in either Congregational or Presbyterian churches, both types "in the Calvinist tradition." What was the connection? Starting with questions like that, Stoll has written a unique book, one that "overlays American environmental history on American religious history." He makes a solid case that, in fact, religion had everything to do with the rise of American environmentalism, and that a person's formative religious outlook brings with it a controlling theology and view of the world, facets of thought that always make a difference in the way a person considers nature. Our environmental crises would not improve with the disappearance of religion, but it might improve with a religious tradition that could, like the old Calvinists, bring about systemic change for the better.

12. Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). This book is an intellectual history of conservative Protestantism in America from the end of the Second World War to the early years of the twenty-first century. Worthen defends her approach by pointing out that while not all thoughts and thinkers are equally good, scholars must take into account "that all people think, and that material forces alone cannot explain human experience." Though not herself an evangelical, Worthen evinces a real appreciation for her subjects and what she calls their crisis of authority. So, what does she believe is the crisis? In order to hear her answer, we must first understand her idea that the identity of American evangelicals is revealed not so much by their beliefs, but by their struggles. Worthen insists that what unites modern evangelicals is not their doctrinal conformity--which they have never been able to achieve--but their shared questions "borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era." In other words, if we want to comprehend who evangelicals are, we should listen not to their confident affirmations, but to the questions and doubts with which they constantly wrestle.

American Political and Cultural History

13. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (Yale University Press, 1982). Ever wondered why charades is a well-known game in America? As Karen Halttunen explains, it has something to do with cultural changes that unfolded in the U.S. beginning in the 1830s. The so-called Market Revolution and the growth of cities in America generated a new social phenomenon: anonymity, the problem (and potential) of becoming a face in the crowd. In a sprawling city unknown by the young man who had recently moved there seeking a job, who could he trust? America's response to this question was to establish certain habits, manners, and clothing that would make up the look and the way of respectable people. These kinds of social and cultural markers would indicate, it was hoped, who the good people were. The weakness of the plan, of course, was that when motivated by some less-than-virtuous desire, bad people could adopt the look just as well as good folks could. There are reasons why con men often succeed.

14. Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Knopf, 2005). Grave suspicions about slave insurrections. The heartless treatment of black people: falsely accused, arrested, jailed, beaten, falsely convicted, and then burned at the stake or hanged, one after the other. It's all the stuff of the antebellum South, right? Not always. In this case, such horrors were perpetrated in pre-Revolutionary New York City! Read it and weep. The detail of this book will engage and impress you. The episode it relates will make you wonder about bigger questions: How is it that we human beings justify inhumanity? How do we legitimize incredible violence? Lepore is one of the most popular American historians of our day, and with good reason. She has an eye for great stories and tales that have yet to be really told.

15. Mark Ribowsky, Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd (Chicago Review Press, 2015). Disclaimer: If you check out the Amazon reviews of this book, you'll hear it panned and pummeled again and again. Informed fans and self-appointed sleuths love to hate it. I decided to read it anyway, as a sort of guilty pleasure. Ribowsky is a good writer, maybe a bit too "good," as he often uses sappy language and way too many words for my taste. Sometimes, reading Ribowsky is like watching a B-rate movie that you just can't pull yourself away from. Sure it's kind of cheesy, but you don't want to miss what comes next. He emphasizes the essential and central role played by Ronnie Van Zandt. The band was always his band. In fact, Ribowsky convincingly argues that without Ronnie, there would never have been anything like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

16. George Vecsey, Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game (Modern Library, 2006). If you're a long-time, well-versed fan of baseball, this book won't tell you much that you didn't already know. On the other hand, if you're more like me--someone who likes baseball, who keeps up with a certain team, but who doesn't know that much about the history of the game--then this book is for you. Vecsey is a veteran New York Times sports columnist who writes chapters as though they were long magazine articles. Some of his chapters tell stories of dark episodes (for example, "The Black Sox" and "Four Scandals"). Other chapters focus on the life and times of incredible players and personalities ("The Babe" and "Jackie Robinson"). Vecsey has a serious crush on almost all of his subjects, but he doesn't allow love to get in the way of insight. Above all, he knows how to write. The result is a book that, if you care anything about baseball, you'll wind up savoring like a good cup of coffee or a favorite dessert.

So, what were some of the better things you read in 2016? Has anyone else read the titles (or authors) I've listed here? And, what's on your reading agenda for 2017?