25 November 2013 video “The Protestant Reformation” part 3 ‘A Reformation of the Mind’ written and presented by Tristan Hunt

The common thread with the previous episodes is the un-anticipated consequences of the freedoms enabled by the concept of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ – the Church no longer had absolute say over people’s lives.  Explored in 3 aspects.

Art: Prior to Reformation there was a large quantity of religious ‘art’ even in parish churches.  The Reformation movement in England lead by Cranmer declared all art forms – stained glass, tapestry, paintings, icons as idolatry and must be destroyed along with the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The Bible was the only route to salvation – the triumph of word over image.  As art was no long welcomed in churches, this encouraged the development in new directions especially paintings – firstly portraits and then everyday common life.  The establishment of art museums is another consequence.

Literature: As the Bible replaced images and icons, so reading became centrally important to determine whether one was on the path to salvation.  Hence the rise of the diary to confirm one’s life was on the right track and hence the autobiography – as typified by John Bunyan’s ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners’ and then an allegory of true life ‘Pilgrims Progress’ which become the forerunner of the novel, as in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the eventually into the religious satire of Dickens.

Science: The Protestant ethos of self questioning, challenging of authority had a huge impact on the progress of science and technology.  Protestantism encouraged a direct approach to God on matters of salvation and so supported a direct investigation of the natural world ie not via the Bible or though religion.  In this sense they were not in conflict and the first industrialists (James Watt and Matthew Bolton) and the first members of The Royal Society (Isaac Newton) were pious, God-fearing people. Non-conformists (rejected the authority of C of E), explored and then commercially exploited the natural laws especially physics, formed the Lunar Society with Watt and Bolton as members.  Darwin’s father was also a member.  Newton’s mathematical description of the movement of the planets, sun, moon, tides etc and Darwin’s theory of evolution, challenged the authority of the Bible and hence God’s role in the physical world, leading to increased secularism.  In the 20th century and especially in USA, this lead to a backlash by Christian Conservatives, such that it was claimed that nearly 50% of Americans believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old!  On the other hand with rapidly increasing knowledge of the genome, should there be limits on what scientists are allowed to do?  Is it anything goes?  As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams noted “The Reformation is cultural not just a religious one.” Surely an understatement.

Ian Harris

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