Christianity in the 17th century

Christianity in the 17th century
The first page of Genesis from the 1611 first edition of the Authorized King James Version. The KJV is an Early Modern English translation of the Bible by the Church of England that was begun in 1604 and completed in 1611.[1]

The history of Christianity in the 17th century showed both deep conflict and new tolerance. The Enlightenment grew to challenge Christianity as a whole, generally elevated human reason above divine revelation, and down-graded religious authorities such as the Papacy based on it.[2] Major conflicts with strong religious elements arose, particularly in Central Europe with the Thirty Years' War, and in North-West Europe with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Partly out of weariness with conflict, greater religious tolerance developed. In the Protestant world there was persecution of Arminians and religious Independents, such as early Unitarians, Baptists and Quakers. In the Catholic world, Rome attempted to fend off Gallicanism and Conciliarism, views which threatened the Papacy and structure of the church.[3]

Missionary activity in Asia and the Americas grew strongly, put down roots, and developed its institutions, though it met with strong resistance in Japan in particular; and at the same time Christian colonisation of some areas outside Europe succeeded, driven by economic as well as religious reasons. Christian traders were heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade, which had the effect of transporting Africans into Christian communities. A land war between Christianity and Islam continued, in the form of the campaigns of the Habsburg Empire and Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, a turning point coming at Vienna in 1683. The Tsardom of Russia, where Orthodox Christianity was the established religion, expanded eastwards into Siberia and Central Asia, regions of Islamic and shamanistic beliefs; and also south-west into the Ukraine, where the Uniate Eastern Catholic Churches arose.

The century saw a very large volume of published Christian literature, particularly controversial and millennial, but also historical and scholarly. Hagiography became more critical with the Bollandists, and ecclesiastical history became thoroughly developed and debated, with Catholic scholars such as Baronius and Jean Mabillon, and Protestants such as David Blondel, laying down the lines of scholarship. Christian art of the Baroque and music derived from church forms was striking, and influential on lay artists, using secular expression and themes. Poetry and drama often treated Biblical and religious matter, for example John Milton's Paradise Lost.


Changing attitudes, Protestant and Catholic

At the beginning of the century James I of England opposed the papal deposing power in a series of controversial works,[4] and the assassination of Henry IV of France caused an intense focus on the theological doctrines concerned with tyrannicide.[5] Both Henry and James, in different ways, pursued a peaceful policy of religious conciliation, aimed at eventually healing the breach caused by the Reformation. While progress along these lines seemed more possible during the Twelve Years' Truce, conflicts after 1620 changed the picture; and the situation of Western and Central Europe after the Peace of Westphalia left a more stable but entrenched polarisation of Protestant and Catholic territorial states, with religious minorities.

The religious conflicts in Catholic France over Jansenism and Port-Royal produced the controversial work Lettres Provinciales (1656-7) of Blaise Pascal. In it he took aim at the prevailing climate of moral theology, a speciality of the Jesuit order, and the attitude of the Collège de Sorbonne. Pascal argued against the casuistry at that time deployed in "cases of conscience", particularly doctrines associated with probabilism.

By the end of the century the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique of Pierre Bayle represented the current debates in the Republic of Letters, a largely secular network of scholars and savants who commented in detail on religious matters as well as those of science. Proponents of wider religious toleration, and a sceptical line on many traditional beliefs, argued with increasing success for changes of attitude in many areas (including discrediting the False Decretals and the legend of Pope Joan, magic and witchcraft, millennialism and extremes of anti-Catholic propaganda, toleration of the Jews in society). These developments ushered in the deism of the 18th century, and signalled the beginning of the so-called Age of Reason. They were countered by the continuing strength of the Counter-Reformation and evangelical movements such as Pietism.

Polemicism and eirenicism

The 17th century inherited the divisive doctrinal and political arguments within Christian thinking, set off by the Protestant Reformation, and given shape on the Catholic side by the Council of Trent. Contentious matters gave rise to a substantial polemical literature, written both in Latin to appeal to international opinion among the educated, and in vernacular languages. In a climate where opinion was thought open to argument, the production of polemical literature was part of the role of prelates and other prominent churchmen, academics (in universities) and seminarians (in religious colleges); and institutions such as Chelsea College in London and Arras College in Paris were set up expressly to favour such writing.

The major debates between Protestants and Catholics proving inconclusive, and theological issues within Protestantism being divisive, there was also a return to the eirenicism of Erasmus: the search for religious peace. David Pareus was a leading Reformed theologian who favoured an approach based on reconciliation of views.[6] Other leading figures such as Marco Antonio de Dominis, Hugo Grotius and John Dury worked in this direction.

Heresy and demonology

The last person to be executed by fire for heresy in England was Edward Wightman in 1612. The legislation relating to this penalty was in fact only changed in 1677, after which those convicted on a heresy charge would suffer at most excommunication.[7] Accusations of heresy, whether the revival of Late Antique debates such as those over Pelagianism and Arianism, or more recent views such as Socinianism in theology and Copernicanism in natural philosophy, continued to play an important part in intellectual life.

At the same time as the judicial pursuit of heresy became less severe, interest in demonology was intense in many European countries. The sceptical arguments against the existence of witchcraft and demonic possession were still contested into the 1680s by theologians. The Gangraena of Thomas Edwards used a framework equating heresy and possession to draw attention to the variety of radical Protestant views current in the 1640s.

Trial of Galileo

Galileo before the Holy Office, a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

In 1610, Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius, describing observations that he had made with the new telescope. These and other discoveries exposed difficulties with the understanding of the heavens current since antiquity, and raised interest in teachings such as the heliocentric theory of Copernicus.

In reaction, scholars such as Cosimo Boscaglia[8] maintained that the motion of the Earth and immobility of the Sun were heretical, as they contradicted some accounts given in the Bible as understood at that time. Galileo's part in the controversies over theology, astronomy and philosophy culminated in his trial and sentencing in 1633, on a grave suspicion of heresy.

The Galileo affair—the process by which Galileo came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church over his support of Copernican astronomy—has often been considered a defining moment in the history of the relationship between religion and science.


The Protestant lands at the beginning of the 17th century were concentrated in Northern Europe, with territories in Germany and Scandinavia, England and Scotland under Protestant rule, and areas of France, the Low Countries, Switzerland and Poland also controlled by Protestants. Heavy fighting, in some cases a continuation of the religious conflicts of the previous centuries, was seen, particularly in the Low Countries and the Electoral Palatinate (which saw the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War). In Ireland there was a concerted attempt to create "plantations" of Protestant settlers in what was a predominantly Catholic country, and fighting with a religious dimension was serious in the 1640s and 1680s. In France the settlement proposed by the Edict of Nantes was whittled away, to the disadvantage of the Huguenot population, and the Edit was revoked in 1685.

Protestant Europe was largely divided into Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) areas, with the Church of England maintaining a separate position. Efforts to unify Lutherans and Calvinists had little success; and the ecumenical ambition to overcome the schism of the Protestant Reformation remained almost entirely theoretical. The Church of England under William Laud made serious approaches to figures in the Orthodox Church, looking for common ground.

Within Calvinism an important split occurred with the rise of Arminianism; the Synod of Dort of 1618-9 was a national gathering but with international repercussions, as the teaching of Arminius was firmly rejected at a meeting to which Protestant theologians from outside the Netherlands were invited. The Westminster Assembly of the 1640s was another major council dealing with Reformed theology, and some of its works continue to be important to Protestant denominations.

Puritan movement and English Civil War

In the 1640s England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland underwent religious strife comparable to that which its neighbours had suffered some generations before. The rancour associated with these wars is partly attributed to the nature of the Puritan movement, a description admitted to be unsatisfactory by many historians. In its early stages the Puritan movement (late 16th-17th centuries) stood for reform in the Church of England, within the Calvinist tradition, aiming to make the Church of England resemble more closely the Protestant churches of Europe, especially Geneva. The Puritans refused to endorse completely all of the ritual directions and formulas of the Book of Common Prayer; the imposition of its liturgical order by legal force and inspection sharpened Puritanism into a definite opposition movement.

The English Civil War (1641–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians and Royalists. The first (1642–46) and second (1648–49) civil wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third war (1649–51) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The Civil War ended with the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.

The Civil War led to the trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son, Charles II, and replacement of English monarchy with first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–53), and then with a Protectorate (1653–59), under Oliver Cromwell's personal rule. In Ireland military victory for the Parliamentarian forces established the Protestant Ascendancy.

Maps of territory held by Royalists (red) and Parliamentarians (green), 1642 — 1645

After coming to political power as a result of the First English Civil War, the Puritan clergy had an opportunity to set up a national church along Presbyterian lines; for reasons that were also largely political, they failed to do so effectively. After the English Restoration of 1660 the Church of England was purged within a few years of its Puritan elements. The successors of the Puritans, in terms of their belies, are referred to as Dissenters and Nonconformists, and included those who formed various Reformed denominations.

Puritan emigration

Emigration to North America of Protestants, in what became New England, was led by a group of Puritan separatists based in the Netherlands ("the pilgrims"). Establishing a colony at Plymouth in 1620, they received a charter from the King of England. This successful, though initially quite difficult, colony marked the beginning of the Protestant presence in America (the earlier French, Spanish and Portuguese settlements were Catholic). Unlike the Spanish or French, the English colonists made little initial effort to evangelise the native peoples.[9]

Roman Catholicism

Devotions to Mary

Pope Paul V and Gregory XV ruled in 1617 and 1622 to be inadmissible to state, that Mary was conceived non-immaculate. Alexander VII declared in 1661, that the soul of Mary was free from original sin. Pope Clement XI ordered the feast of the Immaculata for the whole Church in 1708. The feast of the Rosary was introduced in 1716, the feast of the Seven Sorrows in 1727. The Angelus prayer was strongly supported by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724 and by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742.[10] Popular Marian piety was even more colourful and varied than ever before: Numerous Marian pilgrimages, Marian Salve devotions, new Marian litanies, Marian theatre plays, Marian hymns, Marian processions. Marian fraternities, today mostly defunct, had millions of members.[11]

Pope Innocent XI

Toward the latter part of the 17th century, Pope Innocent XI viewed the increasing Turkish attacks against Europe, which were supported by France, as the major threat for the Church. He built a Polish-Austrian coalition for the Turkish defeat at Vienna in 1683. Scholars have called him a saintly pope because he reformed abuses by the Church, including simony, nepotism and the lavish papal expenditures that had caused him to inherit a papal debt of 50,000,000 scudi. By eliminating certain honorary posts and introducing new fiscal policies, Innocent XI was able to regain control of the church's finances.[12] In France, the Church battled Jansenism and Gallicanism, which supported Councilarism, and rejected papal primacy, demanding special concessions for the Church in France.[13]

France and Gallicanism

In 1685 gallicanist King Louis XIV of France issued the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, ending a century of religious toleration. France forced Catholic theologians to support conciliarism and deny Papal infallibility. The king threatened Pope Innocent XI with a Catholic Ecumenical Council and a military take-over of the Papal state.[14] The absolute French State used Gallicanism to gain control of virtually all major Church appointments as well as many of the Church's properties.[12][15]

Roman Catholic orders

Spread of Christianity

The expansion of the Catholic Portuguese Empire and Spanish Empire, with a significant role played by the Roman Catholic Church, led to a Christianization of the indigenous populations of the Americas such as the Aztecs and Incas. Later waves of colonial expansion such as the struggle for India, by the Dutch, England, France, Germany and Russia led to Christianization of other populations, such as groups of American Indians and Filipinos.

Roman Catholic missions

During the Age of Discovery, the Roman Catholic Church established a number of Missions in the Americas and other colonies in order to spread Christianity in the New World and to convert the indigenous peoples. At the same time, missionaries such as Francis Xavier as well as other Jesuits, Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans were moving into Asia and the Far East. The Portuguese sent missions into Africa. The most significant failure of Roman missionary work was in Ethiopia, where following increasing civil war in response to Emperor Susenyos's conversion to Catholicism, his son and successor Fasilides expelled archbishop Afonso Mendes and his Jesuit brethren in 1633, then in 1665 ordered the remaining religious writings of the Catholics burnt. On the other hand, other missions (notably Matteo Ricci's Jesuit mission to China) were relatively peaceful and focused on integration rather than cultural imperialism.

The first Catholic Church was built in Beijing in 1650.[16] The emperor granted freedom of religion to Catholics. Ricci had modified the Catholic faith to Chinese thinking, permitting among other things the veneration of the dead. The Vatican disagreed and forbade any adaptation in the so-called Chinese Rites controversy in 1692 and 1742.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Orthodox Reformation

The fall of Constantinople in the East, 1453, led to a significant shift of gravity to the rising state of Russia, the "Third Rome". The Renaissance would also stimulate a program of reforms by patriarchs of prayer books. A movement called the "Old believers" consequently resulted and influenced Russian Orthodox theology in the direction of conservatism and Erastianism.


  1. ^ (fascimile Dedicatorie): "And now at last, being brought unto such a conclusion, as that we have great hope that the Church of England (sic) shall reape good fruit thereby..."
  2. ^ Lortz, IV, 7-11
  3. ^ Duffy 188-189
  4. ^ W. B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (1997), p. 50, p. 86 etc.
  5. ^ Roland Mousnier, The Assassination of Henry IV: The Tyrannicide Problem and the Consolidation of the French Absolute Monarchy in the Early 17th Century, Part II (1973 English translation)
  6. ^
  7. ^ Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic
  8. ^ Michael Sharratt, Galileo: Decisive Innovator (2000), p. 109.
  9. ^ MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) p. 540
  10. ^ F Zöpfl, Barocke Frömmigkeit, in Marienkunde, 577
  11. ^ Zöpfl 579
  12. ^ a b Duffy, Saints and Sinners (1997), pp. 188–91
  13. ^ Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2004), pp. 267–9
  14. ^ Franzen 326
  15. ^ Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), p. 137
  16. ^ Franzen 323
  17. ^ Tucker, 2004, 69
  18. ^ Kane, p. 64
  19. ^ Anderson, 399
  20. ^ a b Kane, 68
  21. ^ a b Barrett, p. 27
  22. ^ Herbermann, p. 456
  23. ^ Delaney, John J. and James Edward Tobin. Dictionary of Catholic Biography, Doubleday, 1961, p. 227
  24. ^ Latourette, 1941, vol. III, p. 277
  25. ^ Henze, p. 99
  26. ^ a b Latourette, 1941, vol. III, p. 176
  27. ^ Tucker, 2004, p. 75
  28. ^ a b Kane, p. 82
  29. ^ Olson, p. 115
  30. ^ Latourette, 1941, vol. III, p. 164
  31. ^ Tucker, 2004, p. 78
  32. ^ Kane, p. 69
  33. ^ Kane, p. 76
  34. ^ Glover, 55
  35. ^ Elliot, Elisabeth. Through Gates of Splendor, Tyndale House Publishers, 1986, p. 15
  36. ^ Herbermann, p. 388
  37. ^ Gow, Bonar. Madagascar and the Protestant Impact: The Work of the British Missions, 1818-95, Dalhousie University Press, 1979, p. 2.
  38. ^ Anderson, 367
  39. ^ Latourette, 1941, vol. III, p. 189

Further reading

  • Esler, Phillip F. The Early Christian World. Routledge (2004). ISBN 0415333121.
  • White, L. Michael. From Jesus to Christianity. HarperCollins (2004). ISBN 0060526556.
  • Freedman, David Noel (Ed). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (2000). ISBN 0802824005.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan. The Christian Tradition: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). University of Chicago Press (1975). ISBN 0226653714.

External links

See also

History of Christianity: The Reformation
Preceded by:
Christianity in
the 16th century
Followed by:
Christianity in
the 18th century
BC 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th
11th 12th 13th 14th 15th 16th 17th 18th 19th 20th 21st

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