Biblical nationalism and the sixteenth-century states

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 (Breuilly, 1982), or before such key enabling conditions as the modern state, secularization, industrialization (Gellner, 1983), and print capitalism (Anderson 1991/1983). 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 (Gorski, 2000), England (Helgerson, 1992), Scandinavia (Gustafsson, 2002), and Hungary (Murdock, 1998; Peter, 1994), and during the proto-Reformation in Hussite Bohemia (Šmahel, 1969/1970). One scholar has tied together these developments in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Ihalainen, 2005). 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 Breuilly’s (2005b, p. 86) 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 and offering a novel account of why this mechanism had a powerful and near simultaneous impact across such a large area. It argues that the key to understanding the emergence of biblical nationalism in the sixteenth-century Europe was the rediscovery of the Bible by a Latin Christian culture in which, prior to 1517, almost no one read the Bible. Before Luther, Roman Catholics rarely read complete Bibles; they preferred Bible substitutes: paraphrases, epitomes, and commentaries edited to emphasize Christological interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. The discourse of biblical nationhood visible in the suddenly popular full-text Bibles therefore came as new revelation to a Western European public who had not encountered it before.
In the decades between 1517, when Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door, and 1570, the year when, according to John Foxe, England’s ‘Babylonicall captivitie’ drew to an end, a series of Protestant states were created, each identifying itself as a New Israel. Foxe was specifically celebrating Elizabeth I’s decisive quelling of a 1569 attempt by northern earls to put Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne. This had, he felt, freed England from the threat of ‘bloudy’ Catholic persecution like that which Babylon inflicted on Israel (Guibbory, 2010, p. 25). But Foxe would have had in mind the establishment of Protestant states in the Swiss cantons and Germanies, Sweden (1531), Denmark (1536), and Scotland (1560). Protestantism in each of these states was driven by specific factors along a unique path. What they shared was a new conviction that the model of the Godly life, for whole societies as for individuals, must be sought and would be found in the unmediated text of the Bible. Some lands experienced the Reformation primarily as a top-down royal programme, some as popular revolutions, others as a reform movement harnessed by magnates. What the several sixteenth-century ‘New Israels’ had in common was the power of the biblical narrative of nationhood to generate mass political participation because the Bible not only provided both a lexicon and a discourse of nationhood, it provided those ideas with unmatched authority as the word of God.
This paper will focus on the impact of the biblical model of nationhood. Whether this discourse bore any resemblance to the actual nature of governance in ancient Judea, or even whether the authors of the Bible wrote with a clearly formed theory of nationhood in mind, is not, for our purposes, terribly salient. What matters here is that the text offered a developed model of nationhood to readers primed to seek in the Bible models for the reform of their own societies.

The Old Testament as an allegory of Christ

The impact of the Reformation on Christian understanding of the Old Testament in the Catholic West was particularly dramatic not only because it had been so little read before the Reformation, but because Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible has been shaped by Christological interpretation since the years when the New Testament was being written. The sacrifice of Isaac, for example, has been understood as an allegory of the crucifixion. Isaac stands for Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God. He carries the wood as Christ carried the wooden cross (Jensen, 1994). When the priest in the Latin Mass stretches out his hand over the wafer and the wine, he prays God accept these as He accepted sacrifícium patriárchæ nostri Ábrah. The sacrifice of Isaac, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the sacrament of communion merge into one.
The 40 years that the Children of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness, and the 40 days awaiting the return of Moses at Mt. Sinai were understood as tests of the worthiness of the Israelites to become ancestors of Christ. Christians hearing these passages knew them as foreshadows of the test Christ endured under Satan’s taunting during 40 days in the wilderness.
Because the Christian meaning of these and other passages are hidden within the text, they needed to be explicated. It was the duty and privilege of clergy to guide laypeople toward salvation by explaining what the Bible said. When John Wycliffe and his circle began to circulate English-language Bibles in the 1380s, an Augustinian canon expressed his outrage. Jesus gave the Gospels ‘to the clergy and doctors of the Church,’ while Wycliffe’s translation made the text ‘More open to laymen and women who can read than it usually is to quite learned clergy of good intelligence … the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine’ (Hargreaves, 1969, p. 388). Wycliffe Bibles had to be suppressed, and they were.
Jerome produced the Vulgate Latin translation beginning in 382, working from the Hebrew and Greek but deeply informed by long-established tradition that understood the Old Testament as deeply Christological, an understanding that Jerome’s translation often enhanced. For example, in the Hebrew Bible Joseph was sold for 20 pieces of silver, but the Vulgate states 30 pieces, the price for which Judas betrayed Christ. This change, already common in the Old Latin Bibles of Jerome’s day, transformed the sale of Joseph into an allegory of the crucifixion (Murdoch, 2003, p. 166). Jerome also altered the narrative by rearranging the books (Gordis, 2011).
Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew Bible; the final verses describe Cyrus the Great’s promise that the Judeans will return from exile. This arrangement shapes a Hebrew national chronicle that moves from origin, to statehood, exile, and the promise of return. In Jerome’s Old Testament, the Book of Malachi comes last, ending with God’s promise to send Elijah to announce the ‘day of the Lord.’ The Gospel according to Matthew begins on the next page: ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham,’ effectively turning the Hebrew Bible into a birth announcement and genealogy of Jesus.

Bible substitutes

There is a widespread misimpression that Bibles were scarce during the medieval era because they were ‘prohibitively expensive’ (Aberbach, 2005). But when Bibles were in demand, among followers of Wycliffe for example, large numbers were quickly produced and widely circulated. It was the fact that Bible paraphrases and copies of the Book of Psalms sold vast numbers of copies that incentivized Guttenberg to try and invent a printing press. But although vernacular Bibles such as Guyart Desmoulins’ 1295 French Bible historiale were freely available (Light, 2011) except at places and times where ‘heretical’ movements led to banning, the fact is that before Luther, there was not much demand for full-text Bibles.
Elite students training for careers in the higher clergy studied the Bible in the Glossa Ordinaria. In the center of a page of this learned commentary, there was a Bible text, with glosses arranged around it. The goal was to gain an understanding of the allegorical, tropological, analogical, and literal meaning of each passage. Most men training for the clergy studied Bible substitutes: abridgments including only select parts of the Old Testament and paraphrases that incorporated the accepted Christian interpretation while covering only those parts of the text that were useful or good for Christians to know.
Paraphrases usually covered most of Genesis, with highlights from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Kings, but all paraphrases were radical abridgments that omitted, rephrased, rearranged, and added a vast array of material (Morey, 1993). Priests and laymen alike preferred Bible substitutes precisely because they delivered the Bible as the Church understood it. The system of education and, therefore, the position of the Bible and its impact on shaping nations were different in the Eastern Churches, which lie beyond the scope of this paper (Bouchard, 2004).
The most authoritative and influential medieval scholarly paraphrase was Peter Comestor’s twelfth-century Historia Scholastica (Karp, 1978). In lists of books from church, palace, and monastery libraries, the word ‘Bible’ is often written when the actual book that the abbey or prince owned was the Historia Scholastica, or a similar paraphrase (Morey, 1993). The Historia was so dominant that much of its text came to be thought of as the Bible; scholars often drew not only their understanding of the Bible, but the actual biblical quotations and references that they used in their own work from the Historia, not from the Vulgate (Morey, 1993). The Historia begins: In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat principium, in quo, et per quod Pater creavit mundum, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was the beginning in which and through which the Father created the world.’ This rewrites the opening sentence of Genesis by combining it with the first sentence of the Gospel of John to produce a scholastic version of creation.
The purpose of the Historia Scholastica was to provide a complete history that, by blending material from the Old and New Testaments with Greek and Latin classics and the work of Christian scholars, offered readers the scholastic consensus on the important issues. This, not the Bible, was what the readers wanted (Hasenohr, 1994).

The popular Bible

Bible stories retold and expanded upon in sermons, essays, devotional works, plays, songs, and poetry were the body and soul of medieval literature. There were biblical comedies, biblical romances, and biblical action-adventure stories whose swashbuckling heroes ranged far beyond the borders of scripture (Murdoch, 2003). Ordinary Christians used the term ‘Bible’ to refer to this enormous literature; the Bible European Christians knew was a mosaic of stories about Jesus, Mary, miracles, heroes, and saints. The most widely reproduced compendium was the Golden Legend, a combination of Bible paraphrase and lives of the saints filled not only with miracles, but also with those stories that Christians found especially interesting: from Adam and Eve to St. George slaying the dragon. Between 1470 and 1500 there were just 128 editions of the Bible, but at least 156, and perhaps as many as 173, of the Golden Legend alone, and it was merely the most popular of the many Bible substitutes among the incunabula (Seybolt, 1946, pp. 339–342).

One window into the way that pre-Reformation Europeans understood the Bible is through the pages of the Biblia Pauperum. Cheaply printed from woodblocks long before Guttenberg, this picture book continued to top bestseller lists in the decades after the introduction of moveable type because it encapsulated the Christian understandings shared by everyone from Pope to plowboy (Labriola & Smeltz, 1990, p. viii). A page of the Biblia Pauperum is a triptych. In the middle is an illustration of a scene of key importance, usually from the Gospels. On its left and right are two more illustrations, usually scenes from the Old Testament understood as prefiguring the central scene. Along the top and bottom are small images of saints.

At the center of one page in a Biblia Pauperum from 1470 is an illustration of the Last Supper. In the illustration on the right, manna falls from heaven, an allegory of the wafers of Holy Communion. Abraham appears on the left, dressed as a medieval knight being offered the Eucharist by a mitred bishop holding a communion chalice and wafer (Labriola & Smeltz, 1990, p. 116). The bishop in the picture is Melchizedek from the Abraham story (Genesis 14:18–19). Christian priesthood descends from Melchizedek through Jesus to supersede the Jewish priesthood of the Temple (Hebrews 7). In the Latin Eucharist, Melchizedek serves Holy Communion to Abraham. The pre-Reformation world read the characters and incidents of the Old Testament as allegories of Christ, but the social structure was imagined as a mirror of medieval life; in the fifteenth-century Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, Joshua is a ‘nobyll duke,’ Aaron an ordained ‘byschop,’ and under him are ‘prestes and dekyns in their degree’ (Livingston, 2011 [~1450]). But there are no landed aristocrats in the Hebrew Bible, no liege lords, no serfs, and, unlike the medieval Church, the biblical Temple did not own farmland.

Battle was about to be joined between a Church that explained the Bible to believers, and Reformers who urged them to read it. The impact of the new, vernacular Bibles was magnified because they were read not only by scholars, but also by merchants, soldiers, farmers, aldermen, and princes. For almost all of its new, sixteenth-century readers the Bible was accepted as the word of God. They spoke of it when they sat in their houses and when they walked by the way, when they lay down and when they rose up, and they inscribed it upon their hearts.

When the Catholic Church belatedly responded by publishing an English translation of the Vulgate in 1582, the preface admonished:

We must not imagine that in the primitive Church … translated Bibles into the vulgar tongues, were in the hands of every husbandman, artificer, prentice, boys, girls, mistress, maid, man … No, in those better Times men were neither so ill nor so curious of themselves, so to abuse the blessed book of Christ … . (Daniell, 1994, p. 94)

In his introduction to the first Bible printed in English, Tyndale advised Christians to ignore priests who warn that reading scripture ‘without an allegory’ will no more profit their souls than reading ‘a tale of Robin Hood.’ Tyndale told Christians to ‘go to and read the stories of the Bible …’ (Daniell, 1992, p. 8,11).

The rediscovery of the Bible

The rediscovery of the Bible began with Christian humanists of the Renaissance, but the Reformation changed the nature of the Bible in three key ways: (1) it elevated Bible reading to the center of lived Christian experience, giving both clergy and layfolk a radically new mandate to encounter the full text of both Testaments; (2) it qualified the practice of filtering the Old Testament through Christological allegories, enabling Christians to seek the ‘plain meaning’ even as the radical, new practice of publically reading the full text aloud and in sequence from the pulpits of parish churches made the biblical model of nationhood familiar even to the illiterate; and (3) the new translations were introduced to a population that Luther rendered desperately eager to read them.

Luther gave Christians a compelling reason to read the Bible, asserting that it could guide every human endeavour. ‘There is no book on earth written more lucidly than the Holy Scripture. Compared with all other books, it is like the sun compared with artificial light.’ Luther told Christians that they did not need a paraphrase or gloss to understand what the Bible said, ‘It is itself, in itself, its own most certain, least difficult, most obvious interpreter of all things, testing, judging and illuminating all …’ (Haile, 1976).

Luther himself continued to understand the Old Testament as Christological narrative:

The entire history and word of God refer to the future Christ, who then came. It is just as Abraham saw the ram in the thicket, and sacrificed him. That means, he believed in the Christ who was in time to come, and be sacrificed. (Haile, 1976)  But when Luther told Christians to read the Bible for themselves, they did.
The desire to read the word of God was so intense that a dramatic increase in literacy and a striking increase in the production of printed matter followed Luther (Olson, 1977; Stone, 1969, pp. 17–80). About 40 titles per year had been printed in German around 1500, with press runs of about 500. Luther published his German translation of the New Testament in 1522. In 1523, 498 German titles were printed, with press runs of about 1000 (Haile, 1976). By the time the Luther’s complete translation was printed in 1534, Tyndale’s Pentateuch of 1530 had already appeared, part of a great wave of Bible translations into the languages of Catholic Europe that sparked a century-long publishing boom that would subside only when the intellectual ferment of the Reformation did. 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.

Biblical nationhood

Christians inspired by the Reformation to read or hear the Bible found a ‘developed model’ (Hastings, 1997, p. 18) of nationhood, beginning with an expansive description of a world arranged into ‘kindreds, tongues, lands, and nations’ [Tyndale [1530] Genesis 10:20 (Daniell, 1992)]. This association of nations with kin, language, and territory is part of a biblical discourse that reflects many of the desiderata identified by later scholars as characteristic of nations. The biblical world is imagined as composed of rightfully sovereign and equal nations. God Put the borders of the nations (Tyndale Deuteronomy 32:8), and generally played an active role in human history, allotting territories to specific peoples, giving, for example, ‘mount Seir unto Esau to possess,’ and ‘Ar unto the children of Loth to possess’ [Tyndale [1530] Deuteronomy 2:5, 9 (Daniell, 1992)].

Within this world of nations, the Bible tells the particular story of the children of Israel, presented as a family that traces its ancestry to Abraham. The biblical Israel is not, however, a tribe; it is a community that unites contending tribes into covenants of mutual commitment and that has both the capacity to absorb a ‘mixed multitude’ of non-kin and to protect the rights of resident aliens (Exodus 12:38). It also possesses egalitarian aspects not usually associated with pre-modern political communities but evocative of modern civic nationalism: there is no hereditary aristocracy, the priesthood and temple own no land, the land is divided among smallholders, and elaborate provision is made for the support of the poor (Berman, 2008). Several aspects of the Bible appear to prefigure modern nationalism, including rituals in which every farmer recites the national history when carrying his first fruits to the national temple, and the mandate to study Israel’s history and law and teach them to one’s children (Deuteronomy 26:1–11; 11:19). Furthermore, the right of the people of Israel to assemble as a body – or to be represented by elders – with authority to take actions including entering a covenant, renewing a covenant, instituting a monarchy against the advice of God (1 Samuel 8), and placing Josiah on the throne (2 Kings 21:24) deploy fundamental assumptions of nationalism, a political doctrine which may be defined as the idea that ‘There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character,’ and that because it has a right to preserve its ‘interests and values,’ this nation has a right to attain ‘political sovereignty’ (Breuilly, 1993/1982, p. 2).

The Hebrew Bible uses the words ‘am’ and ‘goy’ with the overlapping meanings that English gives to ‘people’ and ‘nation.’ Jerome usually translated both ‘am’ and ‘goy’ as ‘gens,’ but sometimes as ‘natio’ or ‘populo’ (Psalm 106/7:4; Isaiah 1:4). For the Greek ‘ethnos’ Jerome used natio. Where Jerome wrote, ‘cognationes et linguas et regiones in gentibus’ (Genesis 10:31), Tyndale wrote, ‘kindreds, languages, countries and nations.’ Working from Jerome’s Vulgate, the Wycliffe translators (1380s) rendered gentibus variously as folks or nations. Luther, working from the Hebrew, wrote, ‘eschlechtern, Sprachen, Ländern und Leuten.’ The Dutch used ‘volken,’ the Swedes and Danes, ‘folk.’ Older English options, ‘genge’ (Latin gens) and ‘lēode’ (German leuten), had fallen from use by Tyndale’s day, and yet, the translation choices among leuten, volken, volk, folk, people or nation are of less importance than the idea of cultural and political unity that these words represent in the Bible. I argue that it was this new story of the people of Israel as a political nation – the biblical model of nationhood – that brought mass nationalism to Europe.

Brueilly and others argue that although religious identity can be mobilized to support a political goal, it is not sufficiently structural and programmatic in nature to generate nationalism that ‘appeals to people in terms of their rights and their own identities rather than in terms of their shared beliefs’ (Breuilly, 1993/1982, p. 79–80). This idea, widely held among students of nationalism, injects the idea of religion as separable from the political, social, and intellectual life of a community into a time before ‘religion’ had been invented as a conceptual category (Nongbri, 2013). Demanding that post-Enlightenment concepts of the political and the religious be separated does more to obscure than to elucidate the motivations of sixteenth-century actors who would have been not only puzzled, but also appalled by the idea that what we call religion either could or ought to be separated from government and law. By misunderstanding the intellectual world of the sixteenth century, Brueilly misunderstands the power that sixteenth-century Protestant movements drew from the highly programmatic biblical model of nationhood (Grosby, 2002; Hastings, 1997; Roshwald, 2006; Wright, 2009), a model of national identity that lays claim to specific, actionable rights. Among these are the right to national self-determination, the right of all members to stand as equals before the law, and the right to require that the ruler or king also be subject to the law. These and other rights were embedded in the narrative of the Hebrew nation, persecuted by Pharaoh, miraculously liberated, entering into a covenant with God, accepting a law code, settling in the Promised Land, and choosing a king, a story that had been largely lost in the pre-Reformation understanding of the Old Testament as the story of Christ. Each Protestant New Israel became heir not only to the covenant, but was the direct heir to the history of biblical Israel.

Many of the non-ideational factors that produced nationalism and nation-states were already present by the 1450s: vernacular Bibles (except in England), moveable-type printing, increasing economic productivity, more efficient travel, increasing contact with the non-European world, growing administrative capacity, princes striving to centralize power, and layfolk who resented church wealth. And yet masses of dry tinder did not a fire make. The idea that the model of the good life, both for individuals and communities, was to be found in the unmediated text of the Bible did.

Proto-Reformation and Czech nationhood

Several decades before the advent of printing, the teachings of Jan Hus created a short-lived Czech nationalism by inspiring men to read the Bible in Czech and spread its teaching by means the Reformation would employ: symbolic acts, drama, sermons, and songs that formed ‘new solidarities’ (Pettegree, 2005), invigorated by Emperor Sigismund’s heavy-handed suppression of Bible-reading and execution of Hus in 1415. Within months, Czech noblemen committed themselves to mutual defence and, at the Czech Diet of 1419, demanded that all legal proceedings be in Czech (not Latin or German); that no church or secular offices be given to Germans; that no town councils include German members; and that church singing and Bible readings be in Czech (Šmahel, 1969/1970, p. 213). Hussites did not merely enact a programme very like modern nationalism, they theorized it, providing a response to Breuilly’s (2005b, p. 80) query, ‘If (medieval) nations mattered, why did political thinkers not write about them.’ In 1409, Jerome of Prague began to speak of a ‘nacio bohemica’ defined as a collective of individual Czechs who, as a community, were possessed of rights (Šmahel, 1969/1970, p. 179).

The fact that Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia had been ruled for centuries by the native Přemyslid dynasty inclined Czechs to think of themselves as a political unit. When the Přemyslids moved to develop the economy by importing skilled, German-speaking workers, Czech nativists had responded by producing one of Europe’s earliest vernacular literatures – already beginning to flourish by the late thirteenth century – and by translating the Bible into Czech before 1395 (Šmahel, 1994; Thomas, 1998).
Members of every social class participated in a revolt that seems to fulfill the idea that ‘the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship’ (Anderson, 1991, p. 7). The Hussite battle hymn called on men ‘of knightly rank’ and ‘common people’ to fight together as Czechs (Šmahel, 1994, p. 251). The 1421 national assembly at Čáslav, attended by bishops, noblemen, burghers and peasants, foreshadowed the assertion that sovereignty resides in the people. It ratified the Four Articles of Prague, ‘the will of the glorious city of Prague, the lords of Bohemia, the (military peasant commune) at Tabor, the knights and squires, towns and other communities of Bohemia [to] decide and vote’ to reject King Sigismund as ‘a deadly enemy of the honor of the people of the Czech nation.’ Although a close examination of events reveals Czech and German speakers on both sides of the Hussite conflict, Hussite nationalists used the phrase, ‘Czech tongue’ (český jazyk, lingua Bohemica) to refer to the Czech people (Šmahel, 1969/1970, p. 193). The invading armies, widely regarded as German and Catholic, were accused of plotting to ‘destroy the language of the Czech nation.’ In 1419, the city of Prague outlined its war goals as ‘securing the freedom of God’s Law, defending the honor of our kingdom and language, and repudiating the vicious charge of heresy cast against us’ (Housely, 2002, p. 40–43).

Congregation and nation

Luther taught the duty of Christians to submit to the law. But by the 1520s Calvin, Beza, Osiander, Bucer, and other theologians worried that submission would end in the burning of Protestants and began to argue that the Christians have a duty to obey legal rulers described in Romans 13, but that magistrates share with supreme magistrates a primary duty to support and maintain true religion. If a prince attempts to exterminate true religion, inferior magistrates have a right, although not a duty, to resist even to the extent of overthrowing an anointed king by force of arms. By the 1550s Huguenot scholars argued that in the extreme case of an ungodly prince the body of the people can uphold God’s law by deposing a government (Skinner, 1978, p. 240).

In Lutheran lands, the Reformation was largely top-down; princes converted, subjects followed, bishops became answerable to princes as heads of national churches, and the hierarchical authority of Apostolic Succession was maintained. Elsewhere, Christians began to perceive in the biblical discourse of covenant and congregation a mandate for authority to reside not in the authorized hierarchy of bishops and priests, but in congregations.

The Septuagint uses two different words to translate the Hebrew word brit, syntheke, an almost exact translation of the Hebrew brit (covenant, agreement, treaty, pact), and diatheke (testament, a legal will); the maker of a testament does not require the consent of the beneficiaries, whereas two parties must agree to a covenant. Jerome carried the practice of using different terms for the Hebrew brit (covenant) forward, as did Tyndale who used, ‘bond,’ ‘appointment,’ and ‘testament,’ in his 1530 Pentateuch. But by the time Tyndale translated Genesis again in 1534, he used covenant to translate brit every time it appears (Daniell, 1992, p. xxiii). He also translated diatheke as covenant in many New Testament passages where Jerome used testamentum. English translations followed Tyndale; there are 280 covenants in the King James Bible, Old and New. The political consequence of using covenant was to bring to the idea of brit as a pact between two parties to the fore, and, with it, the idea of the children of Israel as a people with the right to assemble and act politically.

Luther and Tyndale rendered the new Christians in Acts 14:23 as congregations who elect elders, ‘When they had ordained them elders by election in every congregation … ,’ rather than as churches with ordained priests as in the Vulgate, ‘et cum constituissent illis per singulas ecclesias presbyteros …  .’ Reformed churches asserted that the foundational community of Christianity is not the anointed priesthood standing in Apostolic Succession; it is the voluntary association of Christians in a self-governing congregation that enters a covenant with God. Reformed churches drew on the conciliar tradition of the sovereignty of the Church when assembled as a congregatio fidelium, but they radically redefined congregatio fidelium when they ceased to belong to a church headed by ordained priests, and, instead, they became members of self-governing congregations with ministers ordained by the congregation (Maveety, 1966, pp. 151–158). Conviction that authority resides in the congregation as a body of its members was powerful less because it was asserted by scholars, than because it was enacted by Christians. Where authorities reacted to Reform by banning vernacular Bibles, women and men gathered clandestinely to read the Bible, baptize one another, and authorize one another to teach the gospel. This was the moment when the theological construct of the congregatio fidelium, supported by Acts 14:23, met new popular interest in the Old Testament idea of the Hebrews as a people with the right to enter into a binding covenant with God, reinvigorating long-standing debates on the nature of sovereignty and resistance with a sudden, new power to mobilize broad popular support behind the nationalist claim that all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.

Scotland, a covenanted nation

The Reformation came to Scotland in the 1540s and 1550s with vernacular Bibles, an increase in book production, public psalm singing in English and Scots, scurrilous anti-Catholic ballads, and private meetings in which layfolk studied the Bible, held prayers in Scots, served communion in both kinds, and baptized one another (Goodare, 1994; Ryrie, 2006). But that is only half of the story. The position of Scotland and its great barons with their private armies was precarious. Individually and collectively, the barons wanted to retain power, but they could only do so by ceding sovereignty to England to ward off French control, or by becoming a French dependency to avoid becoming an English one. Meanwhile, the Hapsburgs were poised to intervene.

This is the context in which, in 1554, with a French regent acting on behalf of the infant Queen Mary, Scots Reformer John Knox wrote to the leading Reformed theologians Bullinger and Calvin asking:

Whether obedience is to be rendered to a magistrate who enforces idolatry and condemns true religion; and whether the lords (proceres) up to now holding towns and fortresses in arms are permitted to repel that ungodly violence from themselves and their friends? (Dickinson, 1949, p. xl)
In other words, did the Reformed lords (lesser magistrates) have the right to rebel against their ‘ungodly’ French Catholic liege lord?
Reformed resistance theory and the newly available biblical discourses of covenant and of congregation provided Scots barons who inclined toward Reform with both a legal discourse of rights and a narrative of biblical nationhood that enabled them to unify and direct a mass, popular movement to overthrow the French regent. On December 3, 1557, five leading Scots noblemen signed a political covenant written in the language of Calvinist resistance theory, ‘Our duty being well considered, We do promise …’ to defend ‘the whole Congregation of Christ, and every Member thereof at our whole powers, and warring (expense) of our lives …’ against Satan and ‘all wicked power that doth intend tyranny or trouble against the foresaid Congregation. Unto which holy word and Congregation we do join, and also does forsake and renounce … all the superstitions. Abomination and idolatry thereof …’ (Dickinson, 1949, p. 136).
Organized Protestant mobs rapidly took over monasteries and towns, forcing the Regent out of Edinburgh. England’s new, Protestant Queen, Elizabeth, sent troops that prevented French reinforcements from landing. Under the peace terms, church lands were secularized and Scotland became a Protestant state defined by the Reformed Church of Scotland.

England, a chosen people

In 1580 John Lyly wrote that that God loved England like ‘a new Israel,’ the English were ‘his chosen and peculiar people’ (Lyly, 1916/1580, p. 434). England and the other sixteenth-century New Israels regarded themselves as heirs to the covenant between God and Israel, entitled to regard the history of ancient Israel as their own. Regan (1996) argues that since Calvinists understood the international Reformed church as the new Israel, they cannot have seen a particular nation-state as a new Israel. But the entry of Christians into personal covenants with God, the entry of the church into the new covenant, and the idea of a particular Protestant nation understanding itself as God’s elect were non-contradictory events. The same individual could experience personal salvation, enter the covenant of all believers, and belong to England, the chosen nation. In the image of theologian Jacobus Revius, the true church was the Bride of Christ, but the Dutch Republic was ‘the abode of the Bride’ (Groenhuis, 1981, p. 124). God could chose England and also choose Scotland, as Rev. John Dury told the English Parliament, God is ‘more interested in you, and in Scotland, than in any Nation whatsoever’ (Guibbory, 2010, p. 112). Chosenness was a powerful tool for binding people into a sense of mutual commitment because it entails both special favour 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 that failed to meet its covenantal obligations (Groenhuis, 1981, p. 123, 125).

The question of whether the causal relationship between Bible-reading Protestantism and English national identity was negligible (Armitage, 2000; Norbrook, 1999) or central (Collinson, 1988; Green, 2000; Guibbory, 2010; Haller, 1963; Hill, 1993) has been much discussed, as has the question of when England became a nation. Greenfeld (1992) opens her discussion on May 16, 1532, the day Henry VIII boldly separated the Church of England from Rome, declaring, in the 1534 Act of Supremacy, that he was, ‘The only supreme head in earth of the Church of England,’ and that he wore an ‘imperial crown,’ not a royal crown notionally in thrall to an emperor. In separating the Church of England, Henry enacted the idea that ‘the nation must be as independent as possible’ (Breuilly, 1993/1982, p. 2). He then used language as a tool of monarchy, ordering that ‘the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria,’ and catechism should henceforth be taught in English so that children would be ‘brought up in the knowledge of their faith, duty and obedience …’ to ‘God’ and ‘their prince.’ He placed a copy of his Great Bible in every parish church, where all services were suddenly conducted in English. In yet another unprecedented extension of state power, beginning in 1538, he required every parish to record all births, marriages, and burials. Rex argues persuasively that Henry’s goal was not to create an English nation, but rather to inculcate ‘duty and obedience’ to his royal self (Rex, 1996). But there is a sense in which Henry asked for a divorce and begat a nation.

He also begat a son, who, in 1549, replaced the varied Latin service books used in England’s several dioceses with the Book of Common Prayer, read by a Church of England minister every morning in every parish in the land; Rosendale argues that the Book of Common Prayer was foundational to English identity (Rosendale, 2007). The Bible passages read in Catholic mass were brief, non-consecutive, and in Latin. The Church of England read the Bible aloud, in English, in sequence, and in its entirety; every respectable person in England, literate or not, heard every word of the Bible on annual and triennial cycles. But the discourse of nationhood not only emerged from the Bible as it was read aloud, and discussed in sermons; it was heard, memorized, and recited in the words of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer which assumes that the world is composed of ‘nations.’ With the exception of Mary’s five-year reign, everyone who grew up in England from 1549 on learned much of that book by heart, and, with it, the understanding that the world is naturally divided into nations, ‘That it may please thee to geve all nacions unitie, peace, and concorde’ (Cummings, 2011 [1549], p. 43), ‘That thy waye be known upon yearth, they saving health emong all nacions … Oh leate the nacions rejoyce and bee glad, for thou shalt judge the folke righteously and governe the nacions upon yearth’ (Psalm 49).

The biblical discourse of nations as laid out by Archbishop Cranmer in his 1549 essay ‘Of Ceremonies,’ published in the Book of Common Prayer where every English subject could read it, was highly congenial to Tudor sovereigns who had broken from Rome, ‘We condemn no other nations, nor prescribe any thing but to our own people only: For we think it convenient that every country should use such Ceremonies as they shall think best … as in men’s ordinances it often chanceth diversely in divers countries’ (Cummings, 2011 [1549], p. 216). Cranmer also conferred on the King’s subjects a new and fundamentally leveling access to the word of God, writing in the preface to King Henry’s Great Bible of 1540 that the English Bible was published for ‘all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen and all manner of persons of what estate or condition soever’ (Rosendale, 2007, p. 81). Rank and hierarchy hardly disappeared from England in 1549, but the rhetoric of the equality of all members of the nation introduced in that deeply biblical moment that would eventually play out in English an British political life had not only been planted, it had begun to dismantle the hierarchical structure of medieval life. Dismantling the rood screens and serving communion wine to the laity were physical evidence of a less hierarchical world, and the ideal of the nation as a deep, horizontal comradeship was reinforced every time the congregation rose as a body and prayed in unison and in English that ‘we’… ‘they chosen people …’ ‘should be saved from our enemies …’ because of ‘the mercy promised to our fathers … which he sware to our father Abraham’ (Cummings, 2011 [1549], pp. 12–13).

National churches, national languages, national identities

The new languages standardized by national Bibles and prayer books helped establish borders between peoples, even where, as between Denmark and Sweden, the new border divided Lutherans who spoke recently crafted, closely related languages.

Gustav Vasa, the founder of the Kingdom of Sweden in 1523, seized the biblical model of Sweden as a new Israel entered into a covenant with God as a heaven-sent tool for consolidating power (Ihalainen 146, 150). He created the Lutheran Church of Sweden in 1523, confiscated Church lands, and created a Swedish literary language, publishing a Church of Sweden New Testament (1526), a complete Bible (1541), and a national prayer book (Lausten, 1995). Vasa fits the model of nationalism as political identity constructed by the state for its own purposes put forward by Hobsbawm (1983) and Gellner (1983). Denmark is different mainly because Christian III’s sincere Lutheran convictions preceded his use of Protestantism and nationalism as political tools (Grell, 1995).

The Dutch nation is a testimony to the speed with which the Bible created new nations ex nihilo. The Bible provided a unifying narrative and a discourse of nationhood that enabled a disparate array of fiefdoms and towns that had no sense of commonality in 1500, to mount a desperately fought but successful war to defend ‘Israel our Fatherland’ (Groenhuis, 1981, p. 127) from the Hapsburg empire and establish an effective, independent nation-state.

Rowen and others argue forcefully that the Revolt was not ‘nationalism, in the modern sense,’ because it did not form a ‘party’ with a ‘formal program, formal membership and leadership’ (Rowan, 1990; Breuilly, 2005a). But the men who fought a successful war of independence and established the Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden in 1581 described themselves as Godts volck and took the biblical model of nationhood as their formal program (Duke, 1990; Dunkelgrün, 2009; Harline, 1987; Schama, 1998), enacting a national identity in which the religious and the political were not separable.


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.
Published in National Identities, September 2013