Sixteenth-century biblical nationalism was the unintended side effect of a Reformation intended to save souls.
Before Luther published almost no one in Europe actually read the Bible. they read paraphrases, epitomes and commentaries, that offer an interpretation of the Bible that is often markedly different form the plain text. Full-text Bibles were available in most European languages – except English. Christians preferred paraphrases, abridgments and commentaries that presented the complex and often contradictory text in a useful way. Until Luther gave them a reason to read the full text.
The full text presented a story previously unfamiliar to Latin Christians. The story of a people liberated from servitude, assembled to enter a covenant with God in which they accepted a distinctive law code, organized a government, demanded a king (against God’s advice), and built a rather startlingly egalitarian political and economic system. Part of the shock to the European political system in the 1500s came from the portrait of an ancient Hebrew society far more egalitarian than the ranked orders of villeins, freemen, and barons of medieval Europe. But the greatest immediate political impact that came out of the new Bibles was to introduce the idea of the nation to a mass public, and to instantiate the nation-state as a European political form.
The new, full-text Bibles offered a developed model of nationhood to readers primed to seek in the Bible models for the reform of their own societies. It offers an expansive description of a world arranged into ‘kindreds, tongues, lands, and nations’. This model had not been visible in the major paraphrases and abridgments. It overturned the ideal of a Christian world united under a single Christian Emperor, replacing it with the Biblical ideal of a world of discrete nation states within mutually-respected, defined borders: the Westphalian system.
Engaging scholarship on nations and nationalism
Scholars who have considered the origins of nationalism generally concur that it is a product of modernity that cannot have arisen before a nationalist discourse was elaborated and made available to a mass public, or before such key enabling conditions as the modern state, secularization, industrialization (Gellner), and print capitalism (Anderson). In recent decades, however, a series of studies of particular peoples and territories have described the existence of biblical nationalism during the Reformation in the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia, and Hungary , and during the proto-Reformation in Hussite Bohemia (Šmahel). The result is a literature largely divided between systemic explanations and theories of the rise of nationalism in the modern period, and a mounting body of evidence describing phenomena that appear similar to modern nationalism centuries before these theories allow for its existence. This paper offers a preliminary attempt to answer John Breuilly’s 2005 call for ‘a search for specific explanations for this cluster of cases,’ consolidating the growing body of work on sixteenth-century nationalism by proposing a causal mechanism (the rediscovery of the full text Bible) and offering a novel account of why this mechanism had a powerful and near simultaneous impact across such a large area.
Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states, National Identities, 2013