Alec Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, is the author of the new book Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World (New York: Viking, 2017), 513pp. This interview appeared in the History News Network (April 7, 2017), and is used by permission.
Why does the story of Protestantism matter to us today?
Historically, Protestant Christianity was decisive in forming western civilisation as we know it, especially in the United States. You can’t imagine modern individualism, democracy, or freedoms without it — and it has given us some other legacies which we might not like so much. But it’s not just a subject of historic interest. There are a billion Protestants in the world today, and in Africa, China, Latin America and other places the numbers are rising fast. Protestantism is going to be one of the key forces shaping the world this century, and we’d better understand it.
What do you mean when you say that Protestants ‘made the modern world’?
The first Protestants didn’t set out to create the world we live in now, but some key features of that world come directly from them. The ideal of free enquiry and free speech; the assumption that we’ve got a right to challenge our rulers, and that in spiritual terms we’re all equal; and the notion of limited government, that there are freedoms of conscience over which no political authority has any jurisdiction. If you want, you can push that to say that Protestants created modern democratic capitalism, though they didn’t do it alone. More to the point, if you look at all the really decisive ideological conflicts of the modern age — for and against religious toleration, slavery, colonialism, nationalism, fascism, Communism, women’s rights, civil rights — in all of those you’ll find Protestants at the heart of the argument: and on both sides. Protestants love to argue. The world we live in is the world their arguments made.
Who counts as a Protestant in your telling of the story?
I think you’ve got to be inclusive. Ever since Martin Luther in 1517, the movement has been divided, sometimes viciously, but a family that quarrels is still a family. That tendency to split and argue is one of the things that makes Protestantism such a dynamic force. So the story I tell includes pretty much anyone who claims a Christian identity and descends from that first moment of Reformation protest: Quakers, Unitarians, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, as well as ‘mainline’ Protestants. I’m not expecting those people to like each other, but there’s a real kinship: the same kind of spirituality, the same unmediated encounter with God’s grace. Incidentally, that’s why I think Mormonism is a special case. It’s obviously got Protestant roots, but it’s gone in such a radically different direction that I think we have to see it as a new religion.
At different times Protestants have been accused of being political revolutionaries, of supporting tyrannies, and of withdrawing from politics altogether. Which of those accusations do you think is fairest? In social terms, is Protestantism a conservative or a progressive force?
All of the above! Part of Protestantism’s strength is its adaptability, so it can make itself at home in societies as different as apartheid South Africa or Maoist China. But the reason its political effects can seem so contradictory is that it’s not a political movement. It’s a spiritual one, and that’s what shapes Protestants’ politics. They will work with kings or dictators if they think that’s going to be good for the Protestant cause as they understand it. Or they’ll resist and overthrow them if that’s what seems necessary. So they’ll make alliances with political progressives or conservatives, but they’re always provisional alliances: the political goal is subsidiary to the spiritual one. That’s why we’ve got that third theme, of withdrawal: Protestants’ main political ambition, very often, is just to be left alone, to worship and preach freely. Sometimes that itself is pretty revolutionary.
OK, but which side is Protestantism on in our modern political divisions?
Both sides, obviously. Liberals and conservatives each want to lay exclusive claim to it, but the only way a deeply Protestant country like America gets to be split down the middle is if there are Protestants on both sides.
One of the fundamental things that both sides share is that Protestant rejection of authority: a refusal to kowtow to establishments. Ever since Martin Luther declared that every believer is a priest, Protestants have kicked against exclusive priesthoods. It used to be the churches. In the early United States, it was lawyers and medics; now it’s scientists and economists — experts who think they know best. Protestants, who know they stand equal before God, have always bristled at claims that other people understand things better than they do — and are ready to suspect that ‘experts’ are self-serving and corrupt. It’s an attitude that can go badly wrong when expertise is really necessary, and it can let wishful thinking shout down inconvenient truths. But I prefer it to subservience and just taking things on trust.
The flip side is the readiness to defy government. Ever since the Reformation era, Protestants who don’t like what their rulers are doing have felt that it’s their responsibility to take action. They stand equal before God, and so they can’t shrug off the duty to challenge things that they think are wrong. It’s an attitude which in the past has led to revolutions and wars — and it was one of the drivers of the Civil War. In modern times, that restless Protestant conscience has fired anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa and pro-democracy campaigns in Taiwan. In America it’s been at work across the political spectrum, from civil-rights to anti-abortion campaigners. Right now it looks like the defence of migrants and refugees, a classic Christian cause, might be stirring it up again.
Why is the end of the world such an important theme for so many Protestants?
Ever since the Reformation there have been Protestants who have been convinced that the end is just around the corner, and multiple disappointments haven’t shaken that. Of course it’s only rational to suspect that this world — or at least humanity — might come to an end before too long, but I wish more Protestants were also open to the other possibility: that they are still the ‘early Church’. I think it comes, again, from that sense that we each stand directly before God, mixed with a dose of typically human self-importance. It makes us ready to believe that the place we stand just happens to be the very crux of history.
Very, very occasionally, a few fanatics try to hurry things along. But it’s much more common for Protestants who think the end may be coming just to withdraw from the world around them — if the ship’s sinking, no point trying to repaint it, better just to get people to the lifeboats. And at least as common as that is the opposite attitude: if the voyage is nearly over, we want the ship and its crew to be in tip-top condition, gleaming and ready for inspection. So I think the important question is not, do people think the end is coming, but, what are they going to do about it?
Why have women had such prominent positions in Protestant history, even though most Protestant churches have not allowed women to take leadership roles?
The pattern holds good right round the world, and as far back in history as we have decent statistics: about 60% of Protestant congregations, give or take, are women. Protestant churches emerged in very patriarchal societies, and many of them still make a theological case that only men can preach or be chief pastors. That’s made it easier to ignore the fact that Protestantism is a majority-female movement, and the critical roles that some remarkable women have played in its history. I hope my book will help redress that. Why there are so many more female than male Protestants is a deep question. There’s certainly a commitment to the spiritual equality of the sexes which goes right back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that has to be significant. It’s been a revolutionary feature of Protestant missionary work. It’s also true that Protestantism has usually spread through families and the private sphere, traditionally women’s territory, rather than through workplaces and public life in the way that (say) Marxism once did. A lot of male Protestants have worried that their religion is becoming ‘feminised’, but if that’s true, it’s not a problem. It might be a really good adaptation to a fast-changing world.
How did Protestantism go from being a strait-laced, scholarly religion in north-western Europe to the dynamic world faith it is today?
It was never all that strait-laced. Protestantism has always been, at its core, a love-affair with God; that keeps bursting into the open. Yes, it started in a university, but they didn’t have our silly modern distinction between head and heart back then. But there have been times when Protestantism has been in defensive mode, digging trenches against enemies like Catholicism or secularism. There was a lot of that in the seventeenth century, and again in the twentieth, with Fundamentalism. It makes sense: sometimes you need to play defense. But when it’s expanding, like with Methodism in the eighteenth century or Pentecostalism today, it becomes much more fluid. That’s when we find Protestants trying out new tunes for the old songs.
Why is the story of slavery and abolition so important to Protestant history?
It’s important in itself: Atlantic slavery was one of the greatest crimes in human history, and Protestants were deeply implicated in it as well as, eventually, playing the decisive role in abolishing it. But it’s got a wider significance too, because it shows Protestants’ ability to change their mind. Until the 1780s almost all white Protestants thought slavery was like poverty: an unfortunate fact of life. That seems to be what the Bible teaches, after all. Less than a century later there was a very strong Protestant consensus that enslavement of any kind is an intolerable evil, and Protestantism had become decisively multiracial. So ever since then, Protestants have been open to the possibility of that sort of moral awakening: some long-accepted norm might need to be abandoned, with or without Biblical backing. That sort of instinct has given us everything from Prohibition and civil rights through to anti-abortion and gay-rights campaigns in our own time.
Why is Protestantism expanding so rapidly right now in China, Africa and Latin America?
Obviously you can’t generalise: each case is special. But there are some common themes. These are all societies which are changing incredibly fast: urbanisation, massively disruptive economic shifts. Old certainties are disappearing. Protestantism’s amazing adaptibility means it can change along with people more readily than almost any other religious tradition. It’s not a Western or colonial import any more, and hasn’t been for generations. The Pentecostal or revivalist churches that are leading the charge are especially well placed. Their focus isn’t on Heaven or Hell after death, though they certainly teach that. They concentrate on here and now, offering prayer, miracles, moral and personal renewal, social support networks and a haven in a fast-changing world. Even if they can’t always deliver, they do it often enough to change lives.
You’ve described this book more as a history of Protestants than of Protestantism. We know about Luther and Calvin, but who are some of the other key people in your story?
There are the names that people know, the political and church leaders from King Henry VIII through John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. But it’s the ‘ordinary’ believers who often turn out to be the most extraordinary of all. So I kept coming back to people like Rebecca Protten, who started life as a slave on Antigua, became a Moravian missionary, was imprisoned for refusing to renounce her faith and became one of the first ever ordained Protestant women; or Pandita Ramabai, a campaigner for women’s rights in early 20th century India who ended up leading one of the first Pentecostal revivals; or Joshua Himes, the publisher from Rhode Island who not only helped to persuade tens of thousands of people that Christ would return in 1844, but then devoted himself to helping those people pick up their shattered lives afterwards when it didn’t happen. Protestant elites usually looked down on those sorts of people, but they’re usually the ones who drove the history, not the big-name thinkers.
What have been the most inspiring or the most surprising things you have learned in the process of writing this book?
It’s mostly the individual stories that stay with me. Like Buzz Aldrin discreetly celebrating communion right after he and Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, or the North Korean security men meeting in the 1990s to pray in secret and agonising about how best to use their positions to protect fellow-Christians. People who aren’t heroic or saintly, but just ordinary believers trying to do what they think is right in their particular situation. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t.
On a bigger scale, I guess I didn’t expect World War II to be so central to the story. I now think that, in America and Europe, that war completely reset our moral compasses. The Nazis gave us all a new definition of evil, which made the old religious definitions look out of date. A big part of the problem for Christians in the West since then, especially white Christians, is that it’s really hard both to embrace those new values of inclusiveness and also to affirm that what you believe is the one true faith. Buzz Aldrin later worried that he was wrong to have celebrated a Christian sacrament on the Moon, because he was supposed to be there representing all humanity. We’re probably not ready to solve that dilemma yet, but when the time comes I’m guessing the answer will be not a Christian Right or a Christian Left, but a turn away from politicised religion towards spirituality. The old Pentecostal principle that all politics is rotten certainly seems tailor-made for our age.
You are yourself a minister in your local country church. Has working on this book changed your own relationship with your faith?
Maybe it would be better to ask my parish that. But it’s certainly given me a sense of perspective: understanding how our community’s hopes and struggles fit into a worldwide and centuries-long picture. We all tend to think that we’re normal, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not. I do now more naturally think of myself as part of this vast, quarrelsome tradition, which has enough stirring examples to encourage me when that’s what I need, and more than enough dreadful warnings to keep my feet planted on the ground. And it’s brought home to me one eternal truth, not just of religious history but of all history: whichever way you think the tide is flowing, whatever you think is going to happen next, you are certainly wrong.