Volume III - Church History

Seventeenth Century

The West

In Western Europe, during the terribly devastating Thirty Years War (1618–1648), fought mostly in Germany between Roman Catholics and Protestants, about one third of the population of the German principalities was decimated. This war started to convince many people that creedal, “revealed” religion had to be rejected—or at least its adherents had to learn not to use force in trying to spread their faith. This realization eventually contributed much to the rise and popularity of Deism, beginning with the work of Lord Herbert (1583–1648) in England. This decidedly non-creedal, generic form of natural religion played an important role in the formation of the United States of America in the following century.

Germany also saw the rise of Pietism, a kind of heartfelt Protestant spirituality and practice that arose at least partly in reaction to the so-called Lutheran Scholasticism that developed after the initial dramatic rise of Lutheranism in the previous century. A Lutheran pastor in Frankfurt, Philip Jakob Spener (1635–1705), is considered to be the founder of the Pietistic Movement. He began holding devotional meetings twice weekly in his home, centered in prayer and Bible study. In 1675 he published his landmark Pia Desideria (Pious Considerations), in which he urged intensified study of the Bible on the part of the laity, greater encouragement of the laity to grow in faith and love and to exercise their spiritual gifts, and a revival of preaching emphasizing practical edification of the faithful rather than discourses on finer theological points. He and his close associate August Hermann Francke (1663–1727) helped to found the University of Halle in 1694 for the training of ministers along Pietist lines.

While Pietism subtly and Deism more dramatically began minimizing doctrinal differences among the various Christian groups during the 17th century, sharply delineated creedal religion still held sway in most of Europe and in the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English colonies in the New World. In the thirteen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard that would become the U.S.A., Puritan Calvinist theocracy prevailed at first in Massachusetts, Congregationalism in Connecticut and New Hampshire, the Dutch Reformed Church in New York, Presbyterianism in New Jersey, Swedish Lutheranism in Delaware, Roman Catholicism in Maryland, and Anglicanism in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

Full religious toleration prevailed first in the colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania—both of which were founded on this basis during the 17th century. Rhode Island was established in 1635 by Roger Williams (1603–1683), who championed the right of every person to worship God “according to the dictates of his own conscience.” The colony of Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods) was founded in 1682 by William Penn (1644–1718), a follower of the English mystic George Fox (1624–1691), the founder of Quakerism (officially, the Society of Friends); Pennsylvania is still known as the Quaker State. Fox emphasized experiencing through silent meditation the “Inner Light of Christ” within one’s soul.

In England, the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 was an epochal event in the history of the English Bible. In 1646 the Puritan Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) led a coup d’état against King Charles I, who was executed in 1649. Cromwell established a kind of military dictatorship in England that lasted until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The heavily Calvinistic Westminster Confession, endorsed by the Scottish Parliament in 1647 and the British Parliament a year later, became the law of the land, until 1660.

In France, the Roman Catholic Church was troubled by Jansenism, a rigorist (i.e., moralistic and legalistic) movement based on the anti-Pelagian writings of Saint Augustine—especially his emphasis on the irresistible grace of God given only to the elect. The important French theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was its most famous convert.

One of Jansenism’s most powerful opponents was Saint Vincent de Paul (c. 1580–1660). He co-founded along with Saint Louise de Marillac the Sisters of Charity, the first women’s religious order without confinement to convents devoted to the care of the sick and the poor. Vincent was partly inspired by Saint Francis de Sales (1567–1622), Bishop of Geneva from 1602, who wrote Introduction to the Devout Life, a famous book of spiritual guidance for laypeople living in the midst of worldly distractions.