Publication: Church History
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 29101
ISSN: 00096407
Journal code: PCHH

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Book Reviews and Notes

In 1665, the philosopher John Locke wrote to Sir Robert Boyle, describing his diplomatic mission to Cleves. Coming from an England that was busily persecuting Protestant Dissenters, Locke was struck by the peaceful coexistence of the town's Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and even "some few Anabaptists." "This distance in their churches gets not into their houses," he wrote. "They quietly permit one another to choose their way to heaven, for I cannot observe any quarrels or animosities amongst them upon the account of religion."

The monograph under review is a study of the Rhineland town of Wesel, located within the duchy of Cleves, and although it focuses on the second half of the sixteenth century, it both confirms and qualifies Lockean perceptions about the region's religious tolerance. Different confessions did indeed work out means of coexistence and even common worship, but not without some quarrels and animosities. According to the Peace of Augsburg and its principle ciuis regio, eius religio , Wesel was legally required to follow the faith of its territorial lord, the Catholic duke of Cleves. But from the mid-sixteenth century, it underwent a process of reformation, introducing communion in both kinds, the Augsburg Confession as an official standard, an evangelical church order, and Lutheran pastors for the two parish churches. Despite this, local Catholics continued to attend the parish churches, receiving communion in one kind, while also observing Mass at the chapels of no fewer than nine religious orders dotted around the town and its vicinity. To complicate matters further, there was a major influx of Calvinist refugees from the bordering Low Countries. They too attended the parish church, receiving the communion wafer in their hands rather than their mouths. And they were allowed to establish a consistory of elders to administer social discipline, charity, and education among the refugee community. Finally, there was a small number of Mennonites, who subjected themselves to the authority of the consistory while worshipping in clandestine conventicles. As Jesse Spohnholz explains, "In a strange turn of events, Mennonites posed as Calvinists, who carried themselves as Lutherans in a town in which Catholicism was the only faith permitted by imperial law" (153).

Spohnholz has done brilliant work with the state and ecclesiastical archives of the town, supplemented by further documents from the ducal seat of Dusseldorf. Using the consistorial, magisterial, and legal records, he has constructed a prosopographical database comprising over 7,600 names of individuals who lived in Wesel between 1550 and 1600. Of these, he has been able to firmly identify the confessional allegiance of around a quarter. This statistical analysis yields some fascinating results, and reveals a complex pattern of integration and separation between the religious communities. We learn that several hundred Netherlanders became citizens, that the refugee community was "remarkably interspersed throughout the town" (192), and that Lutherans and Calvinists alike celebrated weddings in front of the high altar. On the other hand, the Dutch Calvinists and the Wesel's Lutherans were endogamous, and the Calvinists were much more likely than their Lutheran neighbors to give their children Old Testament names. Alongside the quantitative analysis, there is vivid material on specific individuals, whose behavior and attitudes are patiently pieced together through a study of the official records. In particular, we learn about believers whose strict confessional identity landed them in trouble with the authorities: Calvinist purists who could not stomach Lutheran ceremonies; Gnesio-Lutherans who refused to take communion alongside Calvinists; and Mennonites who failed to bring their infants for baptism. But we also see how communities coexisted thanks to the effective cooperation of the town's magistrates, Lutheran ministers, and Calvinist elders.

Although Wesel was unusual--"one of the most confessionally diverse [towns] in the Empire" (224)--the practice of coexistence was hardly unique. Indeed, research into multiconfessional arrangements constitutes one of the most significant advances in recent Reformation scholarship. Historians of toleration used to tell a top-down story centred on the decisions of statesmen and ideas of intellectuals. But scholars have become fascinated by the view from the ground and the experience of local communities. The picture that emerges is more complex and variegated than the older historiography suggested, and it complicates linear narratives describing a progress from persecution to toleration. While it still makes some sense to talk about the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as the confessional age or "the Age of Religious War," a term that Spohnholz himself uses, it was also an age of multiconfessionalism, in which competing faiths across northern and Eastern Europe frequently found ways to compromise and coexist. Many such cases were surveyed by one of Spohnholz's doctoral advisors, Benjamin Kaplan, in Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2007). Further work has been brought together in a collection edited by Thomas Max Safley, A Companion to Multiconfessionalism in the Early Modern World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011), to which Spohnholz contributes a reassessment of religious coexistence in the Low Countries.

In his conclusion to The Tactics of Toleration , Spohnholz draws out the implications of his study for this wider field of scholarship. He suggests that the case of Wesel demonstrates that confessional coexistence cannot simply be explained by "appealing to the bonds of civic loyalty, communal memory, and family identity," since residents of the town lacked all three. Nor is he satisfied with Bob Scribner's appeal to "the tolerance of practical rationality," which risks reducing religion to the realm of the irrational. Instead, he proposes that confessional coexistence worked in Wesel because all sides had a principled commitment to "the sacred communalism of parish worship" (172) and "the institutional unity of the civic church and its ceremonies" (223). Eventually, this was ended by a Calvinist takeover of the town in 1612, and Weselers "separated into isolated confessional churches" (239). But Lutherans, Catholics, and Mennonites were still tolerated, and from the 1620s they were even joined by a small Jewish community.

This is an exceptionally rich book. It has much to offer, including one of the finest and subtlest accounts of what united and what divided Lutherans and Calvinists. It ought to be read by anyone concerned with toleration and the Reformation.

Author affiliation:

University of Leicester

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