Christianity at the Crossroads (16th-and-17th-centuries)

Hi folks! Some of you know how poor my eyesight is, and as a result of this problem, I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks through Audible. Now, when I’m doing the washing-up, the laundry, and all the other housework, I can continue soaking up information.

A week before Christmas, I finished Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (read by the talented Michael Maloney) and I thought it was superb. I usually switch from a fiction to a non-fiction and so I then moved onto Christianity at the Crossroads: The Reformations of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. This is an 8 1/2 hour long lecture series (part of the Modern Scholar Series) written and given by Professor Thomas F. Madden of Saint Louis University, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoy listening to lectures about Early Modern topics and I’m pleased that the download came with a PDF of the lectures.

[One of the reasons I refused to get more degrees at university is because I cannot stand the politics that more often than not go hand-in-hand with academia. I just don’t want any of that drama in my life. I just want to be able to study history and maintain my passion for it. That’s the great thing about my position as an independent researcher; I don’t have to tow anyone’s agenda. And, anyway, I learn much more on my own than in a classroom…not to mention all the money I’ve saved!]

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, I finished listening to this lecture series yesterday. Whilst the course was for 16th and 17th-centuries, it focused mostly on the events of the 16th-century, which was a bit of a disappointment for me because I was hoping for more 17th-century (of course!). Obviously, however, I realise that the most important events to do with the Reformation occurred in the 16th-century, but still.

The publisher’s description is: “Esteemed history professor Thomas F. Madden explores the reformations that swept across Christendom in the 16th and 17th centuries. The impact of these reforms affected government, popes, and kings as well as commoners, for at this time the Church was an omnipresent part of European identity-and the import of Church reforms on every level of life at this time simply cannot be underestimated. Involved in this fascinating era are such notable personages as King Henry VIII, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Through every aspect of this remarkable process of reformation, Professor Madden captures the essence of the era-and imparts a true, studied understanding of just what this time period meant to the course of human events.”


Professor Madden did an excellent job of covering the various factors which led to Martin Luther’s rise. He cleared up some myths associated with the Reformation, such as:

  • The fact that Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the church was not an act of defiance, it was a normal posting of what he planned to talk about in an upcoming lecture. There were probably many other posts nailed to the door.
  • Henry VIII was a Catholic originally and, unlike what most people think, he didn’t really become a Protestant, but stayed true to much Catholic ideology.

There were fourteen lectures, and Madden spoke about the key figures of the movement, from Luther to Zwingli, Müntzer, Calvin and more. Once Luther had gained momentum, he seemed to get a little cocky (in my opinion), but also very naive. Although he had interpreted scripture in a certain way, namely that faith alone can save, he didn’t count on the fact that once you allow someone to interpret religious text differently, the flood gates open and then everyone can have a different interpretation. This is what happened. After the Protestant movement broke away from the Catholic church, many fringe groups splintered off from that – many with very different views.

Whilst Protestantism spread, the majority of Europeans remained Catholic. Madden spoke about the increasing amount of hostilities resulting in violence that broke out between those of different beliefs, and this made me think of possible parallels in modern Europe. Catholics did not like their way of life being changed and opposed the Protestants, who were increasingly spreading. In this context, King Louis XIV’s crushing suppression of French Protestants, the Huguenots, makes a bit more sense where it previously seemed absolutely horrible. It’s hard for many in the West now to understand the motivations and deeply-held beliefs of our ancestors because we now live in a largely secular, sometimes even anti-Christian, society. Many things have changed a lot since the 16th-and-17th-centuries!

In lecture twelve, he spoke about the 17th-century – namely, Charles I’s strong belief in the Divine Right of Kings – basically, the belief that a king was answerable only to God, not to any man. This view eventually gave him a world of pain as he fought against Parliament, which led to the English Civil Wars, and ultimately his beheading in 1649. One of the biggest early blunders King Charles made was forcing the Scots to include the Book of Common Prayer – which was what was used in England. Madden went on to talk about the revolutions which plagued the 17th-century, from this English Civil War to the “Glorious” Revolution, which overthrew the Catholic James II and installed the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy with William and Mary.

For the 17th-century, Madden recommends reading:

  • Doran, Susan, and Christopher Durston. Princes, Pastors and People: The Church and Religion in England, 1500–1700. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Spurr, John. The Restoration Church of England, 1646–1689. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

If you are interested in the fascinating subject of the Reformation, Madden suggests the following books as an excellent supplement for the lectures found in this course:

  • Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Chadwick, Owen. The Reformation. Reprint ed. New York: Penguin, 1990.
  • Tracy, James D. Europe’s Reformations, 1450–1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005.

As for me, I’m now listening to “Roxana” by Daniel Defoe!

Hear ye! 3 thoughts — so far — on “Christianity at the Crossroads (16th-and-17th-centuries)”:

  1. Sarah Johnson

    Andrea, does Dr. Madden mention witchcraft and … for want of a better word … superstition of the 16th- and 17th-century? My theory is that people clung to the established Church (Catholicism) because they believed in an angry vengeful God, and until science was able to explain illnesses like the plague and typhoid, the only protection people thought they had was prayer and (sometimes purchased) blessings from Bishops. Also the rulers were authenticated by the Archbishops, and the Roman Catholic Church provided a very convenient way of controlling and serving the people … no Catholic Church meant no hospitals, schools, alms for the poor, or money for fixing the roads and paying ransom to the Barbary pirates. The Protestants couldn’t offer such a network of services — especially if they abolished Bishops. The rulers didn’t want to have to provide those services if they could avoid it. Luther and Protestantism rocked all their very comfortable boats, ultimately making people take personal responsibility. Only when man is responsible can we have a loving God, like the one we worship today. I’d love to know if my theory is on the right lines.

    1. Andrea Zuvich Post author

      Hi Sarah! I don’t recall, but certainly superstition was strong and widespread. As for the rest….ah, who knows? I just hope there won’t be the kind of violence that was experienced during the 16th-and-17th-centuries again.

      1. Sarah Johnson

        It was dreadful. I’ve read a couple of books on the Aztecs who I found terribly violent, until I fell into their mind-set that cancer and the ills of old age were worse than a sudden and hopefully-swift exit at the prime of life … hopefully with some religious significance … suicide by war, so to speak. Like my hero, Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland. Out with glory. They must have all been depressed … so many early child deaths, toothache all the time … I thank God I live now.


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