Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform

Christina Moss

The Conrad Grebel Review 36, no. 3 (Fall 2018)

Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers, eds. Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017.

Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform, edited by Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers, makes available a series of papers originally presented at a symposium on “The Protestant Reformation and its Radical Critique, held in 2016 at the German Historical Institute in London. Topics addressed in this volume span a broad temporal and geographical range: the various chapters cover the 16th through 18th centuries and deal not only with religious movements on both sides of the English Channel but also with developments in the Americas and in India. Together, the essays form a valuable addition to scholarship on the history of early modern Protestantism in Europe and beyond.

A central question is the usefulness of the categories of Magisterial Reformation (the strains of Protestantism, such as Lutheranism or Calvinism, that received support from secular authorities and became entrenched as official state churches) and “Radical Reformation (the strains of Protestantism that lacked state sanction, subdivided into Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Evangelical Rationalists—intellectuals who questioned doctrines such as the Trinity). These categories were established by George Huntston Williams in his seminal work, The Radical Reformation, first published in 1962. The classification has become entrenched in 20th- and 21st-century literature on the Reformation(s) and, while providing an easily understandable heuristic for making sense of the messy religious landscape of early modern Europe, it has limitations, as essays in this volume attest.

Michael Driedgers chapter, Against the  Radical  Reformation’: On the Continuity between Early Modern Heresy-Making and Modern Historiography,most overtly challenges Williamss Radical Reformationand argues persuasively that it is simply a positive reframing of a category created by early modern anti-heresy polemicists, who described a broad variety of religious nonconformists as a single, interrelated threat. Kat Hills chapter on naming and identity addresses the ways in which the study of minority religious groups in early modern Europe relies on names and identities given those groups by their ideological opponents, even as it explores the names that Anabaptists chose for themselves.

Other chapters likewise highlight ongoing conversations within and between radical religious groups. Gary Waite examines Dutch Doopgezind (liberal Mennonite) debates on the relative importance of the inner word of divine illumination and the outer word of Scripture, and Alec Ryrie examines the same interplay of Scripture and Spirit in the English Revolution. Lionel Laborie and John Coffey examine relationships between radical groups in England and on the continent. Laborie analyzes how French Couflaïres [those “inflated by the Spirit in Provençal dialect] forged a relationship with English Quakers and reinterpreted the story of their origins to distance themselves from more violent groups, and Coffey examines the question of whether continental Anabaptists and Spiritualists helped to give rise to English Baptists and Quakers in the 17th century.

The concept of radicalism, moreover, is broad enough to accommodate far more than just the individuals and groups encompassed by Williamss Radical Reformation,as several chapters make clear. Thomas Kauffman addresses how Luthers own political thought, particularly in his earliest writings, was profoundly radical, and Gerd Schwerhoff examines Luthers use of invective as a form of linguistic radicalism. Ethan Shagan and Susan Royal similarly  highlight  radical  qualities  of  magisterial”  Protestants in England, while Mirjam van Veen examines how Reformed historians adopted aspects of radical interpretations of the death of Servetus, even as Anabaptists adopted aspects of magisterial interpretations. Additionally, people and groups could be radical in some ways while upholding the status quo in others, as demonstrated in Dmitri Levins chapter on John Beale and in Jon Sensbachs chapter on radical religious groups responses to slavery in the Black Atlantic.

This volume is an excellent resource for scholars of the Reformation(s) and the legacy in the early modern period. The effort to bring together scholarship from historians of Protestantism (radical or otherwise) in both continental Europe and the British Isles, and even Asia and the Americas, is particularly welcome. The scholarship advanced here is sure to spur further discussion on the various strains of Reformation-era Protestantism, their interactions with each other, and the ways they variously upheld and threatened the political and religious status quo. It has certainly caused me to reflect more deeply on how I categorize my own research subjects.

Christina Moss, Ph.D. candidate, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario.