Though plagued by their own illiberal aspects, the early Protestant churches succeeded in breaking the Roman monopoly on European spiritual life.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

All of his life, Francois Guizot was an active and devout Protestant fortunate enough to live at a time in French history when deviations from Catholic worship and doctrine were tolerated and even vibrant. It may not be surprising, then, that his interpretation of the Reformation is both sympathetic and measured. With nearly two hundred years of hindsight into Europe’s disastrous “Century of Iron,” an historian like Guizot could afford a deal of detachment from old controversies. The struggles over religion liquidated huge portions of the population and destroyed much of the progress generated through the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. Despite the religious wars’ large death tolls, the Reformation did introduce a permanent division of spiritual power into European civilization. After more than a century of warfare between developing Catholic and Protestant nation‐​states and empires, a decidedly new sort of statecraft emerged under which the freedom of thought was given greater latitude than ever before. In Guizot’s estimation, then, “The impulse which was given to human thought, and the abolition of absolute power in the spiritual order, constituted…the essential character of the Reformation, the most general result of its influence, the ruling fact in its destiny.”

Against the Reformation’s critics, Guizot concedes that Protestantism, too, had its problems. While many of the new churches busied themselves “laboring for the destruction of absolute power in the spiritual order, the religious revolution of the sixteenth century was not aware of the true principles of intellectual liberty.” Once Protestant clerics and political leaders replaced their Catholic counterparts in any given area, they generally redounded to their own version of absolutism, dogmatism, and illiberality. But in Guizot’s calculus the competitive element now introduced into European spiritual life proved healthful over the long term. During the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), the great powers of the age exhausted themselves to the point of grand compromise. In the Peace of Westphalia, signatories recognized the right of each nation‐​state to determine its own state religion; and while this result was far from the (near) complete freedom of inquiry Guizot and contemporaries enjoyed, it permanently divided the powers once monopolized by the pope in Rome. In our next selection, we will proceed from the de‐​monopolization of spiritual life to the similar process by which civil society interrupted and redistributed the powers of absolute monarchs.

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)

New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.


We have now to consider the religious revolution of the sixteenth century…

The precise date which may be assigned to the Reformation is not of much importance. We may take the year 1520, when Luther publicly burnt at Wittenberg the bull of Leo X, containing his condemnation, and thus formally separated himself from the Romish church. The interval between this period and the middle of the seventeenth century, the year 1648, when the treaty of Westphalia was concluded, comprehends the life of the Reformation. That this is the case, may be thus proved. The first and greatest effect of the religious revolution was to create in Europe two classes of states, the Catholic and the Protestant, to set them against each other and force them into hostilities. With many vicissitudes, the struggle between these two parties lasted from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth. It was by the treaty of Westphalia, in 1648, that the Catholic and Protestant states reciprocally acknowledged each other, and engaged to live in amity and peace, without regard to difference of religion. After this, from 1648, difference of religion ceased to be the leading principle of the classification of states, of their external policy, their relations and alliances. Down to that time, notwithstanding great variations, Europe was essentially divided into a Catholic league and a Protestant league. After the treaty of Westphalia this distinction disappeared; and alliances or divisions among states took place from considerations altogether foreign to religious belief. At this point, therefore, the preponderance, or, in other words, the career of the Reformation came to an end, although its consequences, instead of decreasing, continued to develop themselves…

In the inquiries which have been made into the causes which produced this great event, the enemies of the Reformation have imputed it to accidents and mischances, in the course of civilization; for instance, to the sale of indulgences having been intrusted to the Dominicans, [which] excited the jealousy of the Augustines. Luther was an Augustine; and this, therefore, was the moving power which put the Reformation in action. Others have ascribed it to the ambition of sovereigns—to their rivalry with the ecclesiastical power, and to the avidity of the lay nobility, who wished to take possession of the property of the Church. In this manner the Reformation has been accounted for, by looking at the evil side of human nature and human affairs; by having recourse to the private interests and selfish passions of individuals.

On the other hand, the friends and partisans of the Reformation have endeavored to account for it by the pure desire of effectually reforming the existing abuses of the Church. They have represented it as a redress of religious grievances, as an enterprise conceived and executed with the sole design of reconstituting the Church in its primitive purity. Neither of these explanations appears to me well founded. There is more truth in the latter than in the former; at least, the cause assigned is greater, and in better proportion to the extent and importance of the event; but, still, I do not consider it as correct. In my opinion, the Reformation neither was an accident, the result of some casual circumstance, or some personal interest, nor arose from unmingled views of religious improvement, the fruit of Utopian humanity and truth. It had a more powerful cause than all these; a general cause, to which all the others were subordinate. It was a vast effort made by the human mind to achieve its freedom; it was a new born desire which it felt to think and judge, freely and independently, of facts and opinions which, till then, Europe received, or was considered bound to receive, from the hands of authority. It was a great endeavor to emancipate human reason; and to call things by their right names, it was an insurrection of the human mind against the absolute power of spiritual order. Such, in my opinion, was the true character and leading principle of the Reformation.

When we consider, on one hand, the state of the human mind, at this time, and, on the other, the state of the spiritual power of the Church, which had the government of the human mind, a double fact presents itself to our notice.

In looking at the human mind, we observe much greater activity, and a much greater desire to develop its powers, than it had ever felt before…The labors of the human mind, whether in the sphere of religion or of philosophy, had been accumulating from the eleventh to the sixteenth century; and the time was now come when they must necessarily have a result. Besides this, the means of instruction created or favored in the bosom of the Church itself, had brought forth fruit. Schools had been instituted; these schools had produced men of considerable knowledge, and their number had daily increased. These men began to wish to think for themselves, for they felt themselves stronger than they had ever been before. At last came that restoration of the human mind to a pristine youth and vigor, which the revival of the learning and arts of antiquity brought about, the progress and effects of which I have already described…

The situation of the spiritual power, which then had the government of the human mind, was totally different; it, on the contrary, had fallen into a state of imbecility, and remained stationary. The political influence of the Church and Court of Rome was much diminished. European society had passed from the dominion of Rome to that of temporal governments. Yet in spite of all this, the spiritual power still preserved its pretensions, splendor, and outward importance. The same thing happened to it which has so often happened to long established governments. Most of the complaints made against it were now almost groundless. It is not true, that in the sixteenth century, the Court of Rome was very tyrannical; it is not true, that its abuses were more numerous and crying than they had been at former periods. Never, perhaps, on the contrary, had the government of the Church been more indulgent, more tolerant, more disposed to let things take their course, provided it was not itself implicated, provided that the rights it had hitherto enjoyed were acknowledged even though left unexercised, and that it was assured of its usual existence, and received its usual tributes. It would willingly have left the human mind to itself, if the human mind had been as tolerant towards its offences. But it usually happens, that just when governments have begun to lose their influence and power, just when they are comparatively harmless, that they are most exposed to attack; it is then that, like the sick lion, they may be attacked with impunity, though the attempt would have been desperate when they were in the plenitude of their power.

It is evident, therefore, simply from the consideration of the state of the human mind at this period, and of the power which then governed it, that the Reformation must have been, I repeat it, a sudden effort made by the human mind to achieve its liberty, a great insurrection of human intelligence. This, doubtless, was the leading cause of the Reformation, the cause which soared above all the rest; a cause superior to every interest either of sovereigns or of nations, superior to the need of reform properly so called, or of the redress of the grievances which were complained of at this period.

Let us suppose, that after the first years of the Reformation had passed away, when it had made all its demands, and insisted on all its grievances,—let us suppose, I say, that the spiritual power had conceded everything…—Can we believe that the religious revolution would have been satisfied with these concessions, and would have stopped short in its course? I cannot think so; I firmly believe that it would have continued its career, and that after having obtained reform, it would have demanded liberty. The crisis of the sixteenth century was not merely of a reforming character; it was essentially revolutionary. It cannot be deprived of this character, with all the good and evil that belongs to it; its nature may be traced in its effects…

Well then, wherever the religious revolution of the sixteenth century prevailed, if it did not accomplish a complete emancipation of the human mind, it procured it a new and great increase of liberty. It doubtless left the mind subject to all the chances of liberty or thraldom which might arise from political institutions; but it abolished or disarmed the spiritual power, the systematic and formidable government of the mind. This was the result obtained by the Reformation, notwithstanding the infinite diversity of circumstances under which it took place. In Germany there was no political liberty; the Reformation did not introduce it; it rather strengthened than enfeebled the power of princes; it was rather opposed to the free institutions of the middle ages than favorable to their progress. Still, in spite of this, it excited and maintained in Germany a greater freedom of thought, probably, than in any other country. In Denmark, too, a country in which absolute power predominated in the municipal institutions, as well as the general institutions of the state, thought was emancipated through the influence of the Reformation, and freely exercised on every subject. In Holland, under a republic; in England, under a constitutional monarchy, and in spite of a religious tyranny which was long very severe, the emancipation of the human mind was accomplished by the same influence. And lastly, in France, which seemed from its situation the least likely of any to be affected by this religious revolution, even in this country, where it was actually overcome, it became a principle of mental independence, of intellectual freedom. Till the year 1685, that is, till the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Reformation enjoyed a legal existence in France. During this long space of time, the reformers wrote, disputed, and provoked their adversaries to write and dispute with them. This single fact, this war of tracts and disputations between the old and new opinions, diffused in France a greater degree of real and active liberty than is commonly believed; a liberty which redounded to the advantage of science and morality, to the honor of the French clergy, and to the benefit of the mind in general. Look at the conferences of Bossuet with Claude, and at all the religious controversy of that period, and ask yourselves if Louis XIV would have permitted a similar degree of freedom on any other subject. It was between the reformers and the opposite party that the greatest freedom of opinion existed in the seventeenth century. Religious questions were treated in a bolder and freer spirit of speculation than political, even by Fenelon himself in his Telemachus. This state of things lasted till the revocation of the edict of Nantes. Now, from the year 1685 to the explosion of the human mind in the eighteenth century, there was not an interval of forty years; and the influence of the religious revolution in favor of intellectual liberty had scarcely ceased when the influence of the revolution in philosophy began to operate.

You see, then, that wherever the Reformation penetrated, wherever it acted an important part, whether conqueror or conquered, its general, leading, and constant result was an immense progress in mental activity and freedom; an immense step towards the emancipation of the human mind…

Let us now test this fact by the opposite mode of proof; let us see what happened in those countries into which the Reformation did not penetrate, or in which it was early suppressed. We learn from history that, in those countries, the human mind was not emancipated; witness two great countries, Spain and Italy. While, in those parts of Europe into which the Reformation very largely entered, the human mind, during the last three centuries, has acquired an activity and freedom previously unknown;—in those other parts, into which it was never allowed to make its way, the mind, during the same period, has become languid and inert: so that opposite sets of facts, which happened at the same time, concur in establishing the same result.

The impulse which was given to human thought, and the abolition of absolute power in the spiritual order, constituted, then, the essential character of the Reformation, the most general result of its influence, the ruling fact in its destiny.

I use the word fact, and I do so designedly. The emancipation of the human mind, in the course of the Reformation, was a fact rather than a principle, a result rather than an intention. The Reformation, I believe, has in this respect, performed more than it undertook,—more, probably, than it desired. Contrary to what has happened in many other revolutions, the effects of which have not come up to their design, the consequences of the Reformation have gone beyond the object it had in view; it is greater, considered as an event, than as a system; it never completely foresaw all that it effected, nor, if it had, would it have completely avowed it.

What are the reproaches constantly applied to the Reformation by its enemies? Which of its results are thrown in its face, as it were, as unanswerable?

The two principal reproaches are, first, the multiplicity of sects, the excessive license of thought, the destruction of all spiritual authority, and the entire dissolution of religious society; secondly, tyranny and persecution. “You provoke licentiousness,” it has been said to the Reformers,—“you produced it; and, after having been the cause of it, you wish to restrain and repress it. And how do you repress it? By the most harsh and violent means. You take upon yourselves, too, to punish heresy, and that by virtue of an illegitimate authority…”

These charges gave great embarrassment to the reform party. When they were taxed with the multiplicity of their sects, instead of advocating the freedom of religious opinion, and maintaining the right of every sect to entire toleration, they denounced sectarianism, lamented it, and endeavored to find excuses for its existence. Were they accused of persecution? They were troubled to defend themselves; they used the plea of necessity; they had, they said, the right to repress and punish error, because they were in possession of the truth. Their articles of belief, and their institutions, they contended, were the only legitimate ones; and if the Church of Rome had not the right to punish the reformed party, it was because she was in the wrong and they in the right.

And when the charge of persecution was applied to the ruling party in the Reformation, not by its enemies, but by its own offspring; when the sects denounced by that party said, “We are doing just what you did; we separate ourselves from you, just as you separated yourselves from the Church of Rome,” this ruling party were still more at a loss to find an answer, and frequently the only answer they had to give was an increase of severity.

The truth is, that while laboring for the destruction of absolute power in the spiritual order, the religious revolution of the sixteenth century was not aware of the true principles of intellectual liberty. It emancipated the human mind, and yet pretended still to govern it by laws. In point of fact it produced the prevalence of free inquiry; in point of principle it believed that it was substituting a legitimate for an illegitimate power. It had not looked up to the primary motive, nor down to the ultimate consequences of its own work. It thus fell into a double error. On the one side it did not know or respect all the rights of human thought; at the very moment that it was demanding these rights for itself, it was violating them towards others. On the other side, it was unable to estimate the rights of authority in matters of reason. I do not speak of that coercive authority which ought to have no rights at all in such matters, but of that kind of authority which is purely moral, and acts solely by its influence upon the mind. In most reformed countries something is wanting to complete the proper organization of intellectual society, and to the regular action of old and general opinions. What is due to and required by traditional belief, has not been reconciled with what is due to and required by freedom of thinking; and the cause of this undoubtedly is, that the Reformation did not fully comprehend and accept its own principles and effects.

Hence, too, the Reformation acquired an appearance of inconsistency and narrowness of mind, which has often given an advantage to its enemies. The latter knew very well what they were about, and what they wanted; they cited the principles of their conduct without scruple, and avowed all its consequences. There never was a government more consistent and systematic than that of the Church of Rome. In point of fact, the Court of Rome made more compromises and concessions than the Reformation; in point of principle, it adhered much more closely to its system, and maintained a more consistent line of conduct. Great strength is gained by a thorough knowledge of the nature of one’s own views and actions, by a complete and rational adoption of a certain principle and design: and a striking example of this is to be found in the course of the religious revolution of the sixteenth century. Everybody knows that the principal power instituted to contend against the Reformation was the order of the Jesuits. Look for a moment at their history; they failed everywhere; wherever they interfered, to any extent, they brought misfortune upon the cause in which they meddled. In England they ruined kings; in Spain, whole masses of the people. The general course of events, the development of modern civilization, the freedom of the human mind, all these forces with which the Jesuits were called upon to contend, rose up against them and overcame them. And not only did they fail, but you must remember what sort of means they were constrained to employ. There was nothing great or splendid in what they did; they produced no striking events, they did not put in motion powerful masses of men. They proceeded by dark and hidden courses; courses by no means calculated to strike the imagination, or to conciliate that public interest which always attaches itself to great things, whatever may be their principle and object. The party opposed to them, on the contrary, not only overcame, but overcame signally; did great things and by great means; overspread Europe with great men; changed, in open day, the condition and form of states. Every thing, in short, was against the Jesuits, both fortune and appearances; reason, which desires success,—and imagination, which requires éclat,—were alike disappointed by their fate. Still, however, they were undoubtedly possessed of grandeur; great ideas are attached to their name, their influence, and their history. The reason is, that they knew what they did, and what they wished to accomplish; that they were fully and clearly aware of the principles upon which they acted, and of the object which they had in view. They possessed grandeur of thought and of will; and it was this that saved them from the ridicule which attends constant reverses, and the use of paltry means. Wherever, on the contrary, the event has been greater than the design, wherever there is an appearance of ignorance of the first principles and ultimate results of an action, there has always remained a degree of incompleteness, inconsistency, and narrowness of view, which has placed the very victors in a state of rational or philosophical inferiority, the influence of which has sometimes been apparent in the course of events. This, I think, in the struggle between the old and the new order of things, in matters of religion, was the weak side of the Reformation, which often embarrassed its situation, and prevented it from defending itself so well as it had a right to do…

Before concluding, I pray you to remark, what a striking resemblance of destiny there is to be found, in the history of modern Europe, between civil and religious society, in the revolutions they have had to undergo.

Christian society, as we have seen when I spoke of the Church, was, at first, a state of society perfectly free, formed entirely in the name of a common belief, without institutions or government, properly so called; regulated, solely, by moral and variable powers, according to the exigencies of the moment. Civil society began, in like manner, in Europe, partly, at least, by bands of barbarians; it was a state of society perfectly free, in which every one remained, because he wished to do so, without laws or powers created by institutions. In emerging from that state which was inconsistent with any great social development, religious society placed itself under a government essentially aristocratic; its governors were the clergy, the bishops, the councils, the ecclesiastical aristocracy. A fact of the same kind took place in civil society when it emerged from barbarism; it was, in like manner, the aristocracy, the feudalism of the laity, which laid hold of the power of government. Religious society quitted the aristocratic form of government to assume that of pure monarchy; this was the rationale of the triumph of the Court of Rome over the Councils and the ecclesiastical aristocracy of Europe. The same revolution was accomplished in civil society; it was, in like manner, by the destruction of the aristocratic power, that monarchy prevailed, and took possession of the European world. In the sixteenth century, in the heart of religious society, an insurrection broke out against the system of pure ecclesiastical monarchy, against absolute power in the spiritual order. This revolution produced, sanctioned, and established freedom of inquiry in Europe. In our own time we have witnessed a similar event in civil society. Absolute temporal power, in like manner, was attacked and overcome. You see, then, that the two orders of society have undergone the same vicissitudes and revolutions; only religious society has always been the foremost in this career.

We are now in possession of one of the great facts in the history of modern society—freedom of inquiry, the liberty of the human mind. We see, at the same time, the almost universal prevalence of political centralization. In my next lecture I shall consider the revolution in England; the event in which freedom of inquiry and a pure monarchy, both results of the progress of civilization, came, for the first time, into collision.