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Friday, June 13, 2014

On choosing an early modern sect to join

As a natural partisan, I have long wondered, while studying things related to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on whose side I would fight were I present at this time. I find it difficult to study any event or text or epoch, no matter how long-past, without vicariously taking a side in its disputes. Often the choice is easy, as when one must decide whether to be a Greek or a Persian, or an Athenian or Spartan in the fifth century BC, or a Ciceronian or anyone else in the first century. Sometimes it's more difficult, like the for some reason ubiquitous dilemma of my undergraduate life about whether to be a Greek or a Roman during the late Republic, a dilemma centering on a mutually exclusive choice between a philosophical and poetic tradition on one side, and a legal and historical one on the other. 

But the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries present us with a unique proliferation of choices. Assuming you were not geographically constrained, would you be a Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Huguenot (or some other continental Calvinist), Catholic, Jesuit, Anglican, Jansenist, one of those weird Bohemian heretics, or something even more bizarre - Quaker, Ranter, Anabaptist? And let's be clear, you cannot be any of these things casually, but must choose on the assumption that you will be fighting for it, by means of either pen or sword. A great deal is at stake in this decision: an entire worldview, a way of life, the social and political order implied or expressly demanded by the theology you embrace. 

In college and for some time after, I assumed I would have obviously liked to be a Calvinist of some sort, most likely English, so that I could be a Puritan, but Scottish Presbyterianism would be acceptable as well. And if not that, then surely some other respectable sort of Protestant - an Anglican, if necessary. But time and study have revealed to me the hard fact that, all things considered, I would probably be happiest as a Jesuit. (Yes, I realize I would have to be male to qualify, but that's no less improbable than time travel, so I'm unperturbed by that technicality.) This realization goes against all my entrenched sympathy for Protestantism over Catholicism, which can alternately be understood as a preference for early America over everything else. It has been hard to come to terms with this new understanding of my hypothetical historical self and its implications for my previous staunch Puritan partisanship, but I am trying.

13 comments:

Flavia said...

I too have never made up my mind whether I'd be a Puritan (preferably of the Miltonic variety) or a Jesuit. But since seventeenth-century English polemic itself tends to collapse the difference between Puritan and Catholic, this isn't as rare a problem as one would think.

However, having off-loaded the problem onto my cats--one named after a Jesuit and one after a Puritan--I'm now prepared to make a ruling: in the fullness of time, the Jesuit revealed himself to be a canny mastermind and the Puritan a bumbling dumbass.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ha! Yes, that seems like a valid historical judgment. Puritanism is dead, the Jesuits persist even though prohibited from breeding.

Jacob T. Levy said...

You're at serious risk of becoming one of my heroes with posts like this.

I've always had a lot of Calvinist sympathies-- theologically, politically, and (like you) historically; and I suspect the Quakers or Anabaptists are by far the most likely to be pleasing to God, if God there be. But ultimately I think my answer has to be Jansenist. There's just enough of what I find admirable in Calvinism without the dour hostility to arts and letters.

Being a Jansenist of course makes me a mortal enemy of a Jesuit...

abrahamandsarah said...

One of my favorite novels when I was younger, Q by Luther Blissett, is about an anabaptist and a papal spy during the religious wars. It's a great.

I would have liked to be a Dutch anabaptist, preferably not one of the martyrs.

Withywindle said...

Armed Congregationalist = Oliver Cromwell. Or if you prefer an ineffective demurral from necessary tyranny, John Hutchinson. But ideally an Armed Congregationalist who has read Erasmus and Montaigne.

I have sympathies with Puritanism, Quakerism, and Catholicism, but Armed Congregationalist has always been it for me.

I discovered as an adult that I am distantly descended from Thomas Hooker (as I may have mentioned before on these blogs); which makes it all in the family.

(Also from noted rabbis--as who is not?--which brings up the possibility of being Sabbatai Zevi, James Naylor, or some other would-be Messiah. Wouldn't you rather be a false messiah than just a member of a sect?)

Miss Self-Important said...

JTL: Well, I doubt I can be your hero and your enemy simultaneously, so you may have to choose, unless you're an English Whig following Flavia's cue and adopt Catholic resistance theory against your Protestant monarch. The Jansenists remain pretty mysterious to me- I only know about their schools at Port Royal, which seem like a pedagogical endeavor parallel to that of the Jesuit grammar schools. Philippe Aries suggests they were more humane to children than the Jesuits.

A&S: Are you some sort of utopian by temperament?

Withywindle: Thomas Hooker: the lesser Hooker.

All defenders of Quakerism and its related pacifist derivations: Haven't you all read the early history of Pennsylvania and the rank hypocrisy into which Quakerism fell when it was called on to govern? How could this not appear to you as the most hopelessly anti-political of all options?

Withywindle said...

Tch, did you specify that the sect must be political? Surely the point of no end of these sects you mention is precisely that they are anti-political. After all, when you write,

And let's be clear, you cannot be any of these things casually, but must choose on the assumption that you will be fighting for it, by means of either pen or sword.

--surely you must be using "fighting" metaphorically if you include pacifist sects in your list? Or meaning to append to that sentence, "or bear witness to it by truth and endurance, though you die for it with none to know and honor you but God."

As for the Quakers, you said 16th and 17th century, which I think cuts us off before the corruptions of Quaker Pennsylvania. But even if we swallow up the 18th century, the Quakers did eventually give up power in Pennsylvania, in no small part (as I recollect the narrative) to their increasing discomfort with, precisely, the conflict between governance and their faith. Nothing became their governance as their leaving of it, or some such; which surely should count for something?--the glory of it, incidentally, being precisely that it was anti-political.

George Fox's prose style is also an essential model for the young blogger.

abrahamandsarah said...

Utopian by temperament? I'm not sure about utopian (though all Americans are a little bit utopian), but I am definitely drawn to extremes.

abrahamandsarah said...

Also, the Anabaptists are still going strong in rural Pennsylvania without the aid of electricity or internal combustion, so they figured something out.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: That's true; I'm getting ahead of myself w/ the Pennsylvania example. No, the sect need not claim to be political, but all sects are. Some are just worse at fielding political necessities than others. That's why, in choosing a sect, one (by which I mean, I) seeks not necessarily the most saintly, but that which promises a decent and sustainable political order. Pacifists must either give in to the necessity of war, or subordinate themselves to others willing to fight their wars for them. Thus B.Franklin's jibe at the PA government's contributions to colonial defense: money "for the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain," where "other grain" was understood to be that special grain known by most as gunpowder. Armed Congregationalists are perhaps preferable on this standard.

abrahamandsarah: Sort of going strong, if you consider that their existence continues entirely at the pleasure of their electrified and internally combusting neighbors. If we decide to stop tolerating their separation from us, they're toast.

abrahamandsarah said...

They've survived this long - sometimes in the face of intense persecution - so I'll take my chances.

(Curious thing: all the Amish & Mennonite women around here wear Reebok sneakers.)

Anonymous said...

You could be Jewish and choose between Sabbatean and anti-Sabbatean.

Miss Self-Important said...

A&S: But did they get by so well in their lands of origin?

Anonymous: I'm already Jewish, so that's boring. Plus, did these Sabbateans have a role in the religious wars such that selecting to be one of them would clarify anything about early modern politics as a whole, or did they just create a sub-war of their own to get in on the general warring action? (I have never heard of this guy before.)