Calvinisms

Blair Worden

  • International Calvinism 1541-1715 edited by Menna Prestwich
    Oxford, 403 pp, £35.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 19 821933 4
  • Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in 17th-Century London by Paul Seaver
    Methuen, 258 pp, £28.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 416 40530 4

1985 saw the tercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the event which banished Protestantism from France after nearly a century of precarious legal protection. The anniversary, capably bruited by the Huguenot Society, was also seized upon for an enterprising non-denominational purpose. By extracting from a distinguished team, drawn from both sides of the Channel, the essays assembled in International Calvinism 1541-1715, Menna Prestwich has brought the findings of recent European scholarship – some of them reported at first, others at second hand – to an English audience hitherto under-acquainted with them. That was a clever move, for most of the book has little to do with 1685, a date by which the decisive contribution of Calvinism to the political and intellectual history of Europe (and, if it made one, to its social history) was past. The centre of the book’s gravity is the later 16th and earlier 17th centuries. Deciding that ‘it would not have been sensible or tactful to issue detailed directives’ to leading scholars in the field, Prestwich gives them a loose rein. The result is a collection of essays which are without exception helpful but which vary disconcertingly in scope, in time-span and in polish. Some are patiently introductory, others densely sophisticated. The editor’s introduction, although efficiently panoramic, scarcely draws together such threads as the book possesses.

A subject so large and so amorphous might have profited from a firmer policy. For what was ‘Calvinism’, and how do we chart its complex development from one generation and one country to the next? Harmless as shorthand, the term becomes distorting when used as something more, especially if we form the habit of labelling all non-Lutheran Protestantism Calvinist. Gillian Lewis, in a fine essay on Geneva, shows how short-lived were the claims of that declining and divided city to a theological and administrative sovereignty which in any case Calvin never wanted for it. Alastair Duke on the Netherlands, Henry Cohn on Germany, Robert Evans on Eastern Europe, Patrick Collinson on England are all as alive to the limits as to the extent of Calvin’s influence on churches which drew eclectically from a range of Protestant and Humanist thought both native and foreign, and which were more likely to think of themselves as ‘Reformed’ than as ‘Calvinist’. The latter term may fit church discipline better than doctrine, and make better sense when applied to the presbyterian system which Calvin offered Europe as an alternative to episcopacy. Yet Calvinist ecclesiology played only a restricted part in the most potently ‘international’ (or supranational) aspect of reformed Protestantism: the creation of networks of political cooperation and sympathy during the wars of religion which convulsed Europe both before and after 1600.

Prestwich’s collection proves to be about not international Calvinism but a series of national Calvinisms, their relationship to each other sometimes glimpsed but never grasped. The phrase ‘the Calvinist international’ occasionally appears, in gingerly quotation-marks, but the contacts formed across frontiers by universities and printing-houses and merchants are barely explored (although Collinson has useful material on international Protestant fund-raising before 1640). The diplomatic context of Protestant alliances is not established. If there was a Calvinist international, it was because there was a Catholic international, led by a Papacy which urged Catholic princes to unite in the suppression of heresy. In turn, zealous reformers informed Protestant princes that unless they made common military cause the light of the Gospel would be extinguished and the triumph of Antichrist assured. Their warnings became a central preoccupation of power politics in the later 16th century, in the generation of William the Silent and Coligny and Sir Philip Sidney – and of Sidney’s mentor Hubert Languet, a leading orchestrator of Protestant cooperation in Europe but an absentee from Prestwich’s book. In the early 17th century the same international concerns produced the Evangelical Union, the eirenicism of David Pareus, and the disastrous attempt, which provoked the Thirty Years War, to annex Bohemia for the reformed cause. In the next generation they produced the globe-trotting ecumenical initiatives of Dury and Comenius. Those themes, rich and richly documented, still lack major studies.

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