Luther Ought to be Blamed Too?

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Heather Whipps
Special to LiveScience
LiveScience.com
Tue Dec 11, 8:55 AM ET

The translation of the Bible into English marked the birth of religious fundamentalism in medieval times, as well as the persecution that often comes with radical adherence in any era, according to a new book.

The 16th-century English Reformation, the historic period during which the Scriptures first became widely available in a common tongue, is often hailed by scholars as a moment of liberation for the general public, as it no longer needed to rely solely on the clergy to interpret the verses.

But being able to read the sometimes frightening set of moral codes spelled out in the Bible scared many literate Englishmen into following it to the letter, said James Simpson, a professor of English at Harvard University.

“Reading became a tightrope of terror across an abyss of predestination,” said Simpson, author of “Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents” (Harvard University Press, 2007).

“It was destructive for [Protestants], because it did not invite freedom but rather fear of misinterpretation and damnation,” Simpson said.

It was Protestant reformer William Tyndale who first translated the Bible into colloquial English in 1525, when the movement away from Catholicism began to sweep through England during the reign of Henry VIII. The first printings of Tyndale’s Bible were considered heretical before England’s official break from the Roman Church, yet still became very popular among commoners interested in the new Protestant faith, Simpson said.

“Very few people could actually read,” said Simpson, who has seen estimates as low as 2 percent, “but the Bible of William Tyndale sold very well—as many as 30,000 copies before 1539 in the plausible estimate of a modern scholar; that’s remarkable, since all were bought illegally.”

When Catholicism slowly became the minority in the 1540s and 50s, many who hadn’t yet accepted Protestantism were berated for not reading the Bible in the same way, Simpson said.

“Scholarly consensus over the last decade or so is that most people did not convert to [Protestantism]. They had it forced upon them,” Simpson told LiveScience.

Persecution and paranoia became the norm, Simpson said, as the new Protestants feared damnation if they didn’t interpret the book properly. Prologues in Tyndale’s Bible warned readers what lay ahead if they did not follow the verses strictly.

“If you fail to read it properly, then you begin your just damnation. If you are unresponsive … God will scourge you, and everything will fail you until you are at utter defiance with your flesh,” the passage reads.

Without the clergy guiding them, and with religion still a very important factor in the average person’s life, their fate rested in their own hands, Simpson said.

The rise of fundamentalist interpretations during the English Reformation can be used to understand the global political situation today and the growth of Islamic extremism, Simpson said as an example.

“Very definitely, we see the same phenomenon: newly literate people claiming that the sacred text speaks for itself, and legitimates violence and repression,” Simpson said, “and the same is also true of Christian fundamentalists.”

3 comments on “Luther Ought to be Blamed Too?

  1. Well, this at first neglects the amount of terror that was already present with Roman Catholicism. There already was a huge focus on what you had to do or be damned – it’s just that instead of the bizarre things the priests commanded, it was now an attempt to follow the law as written in the Scriptures.

    It wasn’t a change in the way things worked – but rather a change in what the big stick was going to be.

  2. This article (and the book it is based on, I presume) is baloney from the get-go:

    The translation of the Bible into English marked the birth of religious fundamentalism in medieval times, as well as the persecution that often comes with radical adherence in any era, according to a new book.

    First of all, “religious fundamentalism” is a bogus term, because “fundamentalism” means different things in the context of different religions. Strictly speaking, “fundamentalism” refers only to a specific anti-liberal movement among early 20th-century American Reformed protestants. Attempting to apply the term to other religious groups or movements only empties the term of its meaning, and reveals that the writer doesn’t really know what the word means. All it really means is “religious belief more conservative and more strict than my own”; and thus it tells us more about the writer than about the religious phenomonon he claims to be writing about.

    BTW, the writer’s use of “mediaeval times” to refer to the time when the Bible was translated into the vernacular betrays yet more ignorance and prejudice on the writer’s part. The “mediaeval period” is the time “in the middle” between Antiquity (roughly up to the fall of Rome) and the Modern Era. Since the Modern era began with the Renaissance and the Reformation, the translation of the Bible and the invention of the printing press belong to modern, not mediaeval, times. In this case the writer’s use of “mediaeval” is almost certainly intended as a pejorative, to suggest that the “fundamentalists” he is talking about were ignorant and unenlightened (which he no doubt believes was characteristic of “mediaevals”). I wonder if he would say the same about contemporaries such as Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci.

    As I said, genuine “fundamentalism” is a reaction to liberalism in religion which stresses loyalty to the “fundamentals” of Christianity. The period before Tyndale and Wycliffe (that is, the real mediaeval period) can hardly be described as a time of religious liberalism, so describing the reaction to it as “fundamentalism” is a complete anachronism. If the Reformation (and the translations of the Bible that occurred along with it) resulted in a renewed loyalty to the teachings of Christianity, that might appear to some to be a form of “fundamentalism”; but only to those who themselves are “fundamentally” hostile to the Christian faith in any form.

  3. I think what I like about Luther is that he got things wrong – sometimes quite badly so. Look at his thoughts on Jews and on war. Not edifying.

    But he was a man of his time and recognised that he was both Saint and Sinner.

    Now that I can identify with. He’s like me.

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