Monthly Archives: October 2013

Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

Posted by dianamuir on October 31, 2013
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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.


The biblical model of nationhood, the Bible’s programmatic political discourse on the rights of nations and its presentation of an extended narrative history of the Israelite nation, enabled the rapid development of a cluster of sixteenth-century Protestant nations. This paper brings forward three very specific reasons for the sudden advent of this cluster of nations that have not previously been considered in the extensive literature discussing the political impact of the Bible on sixteenth-century nations and nationalism.
The Bible had a powerful and sudden impact on the Latin Christian world because: (1) before the 1520s full-text Bibles were rarely read, even in Latin; (2) vernacular Bibles were rare because paraphrases were preferred until Luther gave Christians a compelling reason to read the full text; and (3) much of the text of the Bible – particularly the biblical model of nationhood – was omitted or obscured in the Bible substitutes used before 1520 and, therefore, was so unfamiliar to that it had the impact of new revelation.
Given the overdetermined nature of all historical phenomena, it is rarely possible to offer dispositive proof of the causal influence of a single variable. Nevertheless, several pieces of evidence point to the Bible as a crucial motive force in the creation of sixteenth-century nation-states: (1) the close temporal correlation between the appearance of enormous print runs of vernacular Bibles and the development of several nation-states and nationalist movements; (2) the diverse geographical loci in which these nations arose – from Hungary to Scotland; and (3) the fact that each of these nations understood itself a ‘New Israel’ and identified itself as the chosen nation of the Bible.
I do not argue that this political impact was intentional on the part of those who promoted broad access to vernacular translations of the Bible. The sixteenth-century motivation for translating and reading the Bible was salvation of the soul. Biblical nationalism and the formation of new national identities were an unintended side effect of profound and lasting significance.

Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states, National Identities, 2013

Who said God could only choose one people?

Posted by dianamuir on October 31, 2013
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“O Lord God, save Thy chosen people of England.”   These, reportedly, were the words Edward VI of England on his death bed in 1553.

England understood itself as an elect nation, as John Milton said, England was the  “Nation chosen before any other that out of her as out of Sion should be proclaim’d and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of Reformation.”    As the English poet and politician John Lyly explained in 1580,  God loved England like “a new Israel,” the English were “his chosen and peculiar people.”


England, however, was not the only chosen people in 16thcentury Europe.   At the height of the Reformation, it was one of a series of chosen peoples, Protestant New Israels.  The Scots, Danes, Swedes, Hungarians, Czechs, and Dutch each understood that they had been uniquely chosen by God.  But each also understood that other nations could be chosen as they had been,as Rev. John Dury told the English Parliament, God is “more interested in you, and in Scotland, than in any Nation whatsoever.”  

These new Israels did not merely compare themselves to the Hebrew children of the Old Testament.   They believed that God had made a new covenant with Christians, a covenant (testament) that replaced the old covenant with the Jews.   Each“New Israel” understood itself as direct heir to the Biblical patriarchs, the history of Israel was the history of each  chosen Christian people.

Christians, of course, also understood the church as the new Israel, and each Christian as entering directly into a covenant with God.   But the entry of Christians into personal covenants with God, the entry of the church as a whole into the new covenant, and the entry of Protestant nations into covenants were viewed as non-contradictory events.   The same individual could experience personal salvation, be part of a chosen people, and part of the covenant of all believers.   In the image coined by poet and Calvinist theologian  Jacobus Revius, the Church was the Bride of Christ, and the Dutch Republic “the abode of the Bride.”

Far from wasting time asserting the uniqueness of their national chosenness, the various chosen nations received one another’s political refugees, printed Bibles and shipped them clandestinely across borders, and sent armies to defend a “rival” chosen nation from Catholic armies.   They prayed not for an exclusionary prestige of chosenness, but that additional peoples would choose to be chosen.

Chosenness was a powerful tool for binding people into a sense of mutual commitment because it entails both special favor and special obligation.   “You are God’s own people to whom the Lord has come so close, and whom He has elected to his own in a special way and of whom he therefore reasonably expects more than of the rest.”  Just as God could choose a people and set it as a light unto the nations – like a candle set on a candlestick – so too could God ‘transfer his candlestick’ away from a nation.

This is deeply Biblical.  God’s covenant with Israel is a legal contract; with dire consequences for non-fulfillment.  But while the Hebrew Bible is a national chronicle, the story of the particular relationship between God and the children of Israel, it also describes God’s care for other nations.

Abraham is promised not only that Israel will be a great nation, but that “as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” (Gen. 17:20 KJV)


Nor is it only descendants of Abraham who receive God’s special care and attention, “Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7 KJV)

It would be odd to assume that an omnipotent God was limited to choosing only one people.

(References  in Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth Century States, Journal of National Identities)







The sixteenth century rediscovery of the Bible, and the advent of the modern nation state

Posted by dianamuir on October 25, 2013
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“It was in this small town (Wittenberg) that the Elector Frederick founded a university, which has since become known to all the world.  And it was in this university that the doctors began to sharpen their wits in matters of Holy Writ; they rejected the glossings and musings of interpreters and took the biblical writings to hand, preaching and writing thereof.  However, there soon arose a great tumult between them and those who did not follow their religion.  The abuses of several popes and bishops had contributed significantly to the rise of this unrest.  The originator of this reformed religion was Martin Luther, a doctor of Holy Scripture, who converted many to his opinions, learned and unlearned, princes and kings, bishops, priests and monks.  However the others, who are greater in number, hold fast to their glossings and musings and ingrained traditions, and out of this, discord has arisen, much blood has been shed, and any books have been written, and indeed on both sides.”

This succinct succinct description of the Reformation appears in the entry for Wittenberg in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia of 1544.   The translation is by C. Scott Dixon, who uses it to open his 2012 historiographical survey of scholarly work on the Reformation, Contesting the Reformation.   Dixon’s survey is at once readable and  erudite, covering the vast sea of scholarship on the social, political, cultural, and intellectual causes  of the Reformation.   Dixon’s decision to open with Münster is brilliant.   A better one-paragraph summary of the Reformation has never been written.

If contemporary historians of the Reformation have had a failing, it has been an inability to take that generation at its own word.   The Reformers said that their central objection was to the centrality of “glossings and musings and ingrained tradition,”  a state of affairs that the Reformers burned to replace with Holy Scripture.

In my article,  Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth Century State,   I show that taking them at their word reveals  that the  sudden shift from “glossings and musings” to a direct reading of scripture was powerful not only because scripture was suddenly available in the vernacular, but because full-text Bibles suddenly replaced the paraphrases of the fifteenth and earlier centuries.     Readers of full-text Bibles were exposed to narratives not visible in the paraphrases or veiled by “glossings and musings” that shaped – and often limited –  perception of the text.

One  aspect of the text first visible to sixteenth century Christians in the the new full text Bibles was the political history of Israel, as a nation that is created, unified, enters into a covenant with God, and achieves sovereignty.   Another is the idea of a world rightly divided into ‘kindreds, tongues, lands, and nations’, with each kindred, tongue and nation straitly commanded to occupy its own land and to respect the sovereignty of neighboring nations.

The new, Bible-reading, Protestant peoples of Europe, the English, Dutch, Swedes, Scots, Danes, Czechs, Hungarians, and the Puritans of New England, used read the Bible as their own history, understood themselves as heirs of the New Covenant, and attempted to behave so as to be worthy of their status as a chosen people.  (The Hapsburgs, of course, put an end to Portestantism as the dominant religion of Czech and  Hungarian lands.)

The new, Protestant peoples read the Bible as a political charter, establishing their right to national self-determination,  and leading directly to the idea that “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.”



Pasi Inhalainen’s Protestant Nations Redefined

Posted by dianamuir on October 24, 2013
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In his review of Pasi Inhalainen’s Protestant Nations Redefined Anthony Smith asks,

“Could not Ihalainen’s findings also be interpreted as lending some support to the idea of an earlier stage of Protestant biblical nationalism, which continued well into the eighteenth century? It is also clear from his study that concepts of national identity and community were well established by the seventeenth century among the English, Dutch and Swedish elites. Again, these were religious, and specifically Protestant, in character. Was there something about Protestant versions of Christianity with their strong penchant for Old Testament models, that encouraged the emergence of secular national communities”

To which I answer, yes.



A war slave attempts to keep the Sabbath

Posted by dianamuir on October 03, 2013
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“I was at this time knitting a pair of white stockings for my mistress: and had not yet wrought upon a Sabbath day; when the Sabbath came they bade me go to work; I told them it was the Sabbath-day, and desired them to let me rest, and told them I would do as much more tomorrow; to which they answered me, they would break my face.”

Excerpt from The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, a memoir written by Mary Rowlandson narrating her time as a war captive/slave to Amerindians during King Philips War, 1675-6.


1997 edition edited by Neal Salisbury, p. 79