Approaching Religious Belief and Practice in Modern Intellectual History

by Emily Rutherford

Two weeks ago, I attended a concert of seventeenth-century German music. The theme was the liturgical season of Lent, with a number of pieces meditating somberly on death. They meant Jesus’s crucifixion, of course, but I found myself thinking of the death, destruction, and political upheaval that characterized the period in which most of the program’s composers were active. Was the emotional pain evident in vocal pieces like Samuel Capricornus’s setting of “O Traurigkeit” related to Capricornus’s experience of fleeing Bohemia at the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War? Or do such secular explanations indicate an unwillingness really to explore the content of religious belief and practice, figuring religion as significant only when resulting in sectarian political violence and not as something that might inform affect, action, and art in its own right?

This is easy to do, when European politics seems to have been so shaped by the considerable violence and instability of the seventeenth century: monarchs deposed and killed, new systems of international order formed. It’s easy to see how it is that so many historians of modern political thought are drawn to the Thirty Years War and the transition it marks (or so the traditional story goes) from sectarian religious divides to a pragmatic, “Enlightened” politics of European balance of power. In Steve Pincus’s highly successful retelling of Britain’s 1688 (the so-called “Glorious”) revolution, the choice of the Dutch prince William of Orange as monarch in preference to the Stuart king James II involved two competing visions of the modern British state and its relationship to its empire. In his discussions of James’s Catholicism versus William’s Protestantism, Pincus shows Catholic-Protestant, High Church-Low Church distinctions largely to be political labels; they map—perhaps a little too neatly—onto the Whig-Tory divide. Like the modernizing story about Westphalia, Pincus’s account of 1688 has more to do with polities—the alternative constitutions and philosophies of empire modeled by the Netherlands and France—than with cultural divides suggested by the differences in Catholic and Protestant belief and practice that had previously shaped England. It’s a compelling story, but it might miss out too much. It’s true that politics were entwined with the church: bishops could be elevated to positions of political authority, deviance from the established church had long been associated with political radicalism (Pincus pays little attention to the fact that republican Dissenters had, all too recently, actually killed a king), the head of the state and the head of the church were (and are still, in Britain) formally the same person. Taking religion seriously on its own terms doesn’t mean ignoring the Realpolitik ways in which the powerful maneuvered around it in order to stake their claims to governance. But it does mean, perhaps, moving away from a way of understanding European history in which the “modern,” pivoting on a series of crucial moments in the seventeenth century, can best be apprehended as a body of secularized political thought. Perhaps it also means apprehending that when James II proposed to re-Catholicize Britain, this was something that would have consequences for belief and practice (re-emphasizing the Mass, returning to non-vernacular worship) that were central to many people’s lives, powerful/educated and not.

In nineteenth-century Britain, it is more possible to speak of a politics not fundamentally intertwined with theology. But as biology, geology, and archaeology changed how people understood the Biblical past, debate raged about how to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution or whether the Bible could be read metaphorically and allegorically. On June 30, 1860, huge crowds turned out to watch “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley debate evolution with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, at the Natural History Museum. One member of the crowd may have been the undergraduate John Addington Symonds, whose letters are filled with commentary on how theological controversies of the period raged within Oxford. As he recalled in his autobiography, “Theology penetrated our intellectual and social atmosphere. We talked theology… wherever young men and their elders met together” (244). Years later, on holiday in France with his young family, Symonds experienced a nervous breakdown—what his friend and early biographer Horatio Brown termed “the crisis at Cannes,” and attributed to the catastrophic implications of Symonds’ loss of faith.

From the 1960s on, as Symonds has become recognized as a pioneer of homosexuality, scholars have taken a different tack: a man as ahead of his time as Symonds is not so likely to have been deeply shaken by loss of faith; the breakdown must have been a result of his struggle to repress his true sexual orientation. But is it so impossible to believe that a man who evidently thought deeply about theology, who wrote about the relationship between religion and science throughout his life, might have been paralyzed by the thought of a world without God? Is it so difficult for the historian to imagine how a change in formal patterns of worship (whether their sudden absence in Symonds’ life, or a shift from Protestantism to Catholicism brought on by a regime change) might have affected someone’s life as much, or more than, sex? Is it so strange that thinkers of the age of science and industry, grappling with radical new ideas, might also have asked questions that had troubled others for many centuries?

Belief is a tricky thing to grasp—it’s not always as well-documented on paper as the decisions of statecraft—but it’s important to try. For me, apprehending the complex relation of theology to more earthly matters, and the ways in which the formal rituals of religious observance can structure societies very differently to my own pluralist society of twenty-first-century Manhattan, flexes my muscles of historical empathy. But more importantly, it troubles the connection many of us instinctively draw between secularism and the modern west, and challenges us to think critically about the intersections of religion, politics, thought, and art in both the past and the present.


  1. Emily, thanks for this wonderful post. “Belief” is a bedeviled landscape for the historian (though of course the concept has its own story, which I’m looking forward to seeing set out, for the EM period at least, in Prof. Ethan Shagan’s work!). You map out some intriguing paths to follow. I was at a conference on “ecclesiastical history” last week, and the faculty panel at end discussed some recent trends (including the utter extinction of ‘ecclesiastical history’ in any meaningful sense). The medievalists stressed how religious history was inseparable to any other form of history in their period–the same is nearly as true of the early modern period. By wondering about the Thirty Years’ War coloring Capricornus’s sound, for example, I don’t think you were in danger of making a secular explanation for religious sentiment. Nonetheless, at least in the early modern period, historians often don’t take into account religious dogma and devotion the same way they consider religious identity and conflict. Your observations on Symonds lead me to think that modern historians, too, make a distinction between different manifestations of belief. Are modern historians eager to oppose religion to other aspects of modern identity, or do they merely ignore the potential centrality of theology and religious practice to many modern men and women’s lives?


  2. I’m fascinated by this post, Emily, and by Maddy’s comment. Clearly, medievalists know from devotional life and theology. I think early modernists give some space to theology–though perhaps not so much as they should (calling Brad Gregory); more space than they used to to visions of the Christian past and their impact on the early modern present; and relatively little to liturgy and devotional life except when they are obviously controversial–as in Laudianism and the like. Yet I’ve always found it hard to separate religious identity, in the early modern period, from those daily and weekly textures of devotion, of prayer and song and meditation. Christians might call Spinoza an evil Jew. But once he was banned by the Amsterdam congregation and ceased to worship, he also ceased being Jewish in any way that mattered to him or that Jews would have recognized. In the 19th century, possible lives become more varied: I think of the great Jewish scholar Jacob Bernays, the close friend of Mark Pattison, who kept kosher, studied a leaf of Talmud every day, and refused to practice higher criticism of the Bible, all very much as a matter of identity–he wrote a great letter to Theodor Mommsen, who had urged Jews to convert just to save trouble, explaining that Jesus himself would not have converted if subjected to the treatment meted out to Jews in Germany–but not as a matter of belief. In fact, Spinoza was one of his heroes. I haven’t encountered a lot of people like Bernays (or, for that matter, Pattison) in the early modern world. On the other hand, I suspect that Newman–to take a random example–can’t be understood without serious attention to his devotional life, as well as to his much-discussed idea of doctrinal development. And I’m sure that those sudden shifts that could take place in the 19th century–as you fell out of Christianity itself, not just from one form of it into another–must have been racking existential experiences that are hard to grasp in retrospect. “Mark Rutherford” (William Hale White) told this story with great power.

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  3. The wheel of memory just turned. It’s spring 1978, my first graduate course, on late Renaissance Italy. An amazing group of students, with whom I had an amazing time–this must have been the first seminar in the USA to read The Cheese and the Worms, in an as yet unpublished translation. They lined up from the first, boys against the girls, on the 64-ducat question: was the Catholic culture of Counter-Reformation Italy a hegemonic, oppressive orthodoxy imposed from above or a world of deeply felt spirituality? No prizes for guessing which team held which view. The arguments were amazing, and almost all of those who waged them–I remember great contributions from Jim Amelang, Richard Landes, Laurie Nussdorfer, Jodi Bilinkoff–went on to historians’ glory. Non uno itinere perveniri potest ad tam grande secretum.

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  4. Many thanks to you both, Maddy and Tony, for your thoughtful comments. I was nervous about straying as far back as the seventeenth century and am glad it doesn’t look merely ignorant! I struggled as I was writing it to nail down what “belief” is (Maddy’s comment alludes to that slipperiness), and one of the things I want to do a better job of capturing in my work is just how, as Maddy writes, it’s not possible to separate out “belief” from “statecraft”. I know from my own dalliances with Anglicanism that when you go through the motions of ritualistic liturgical observance they find a way into the rest of your life, and it isn’t typically possible to compartmentalize the secular part of your mind from the (say) Catholic, or CoE, part. That must be so much more the case for those who lived and live in more religious societies than mine–I was thinking about Disraeli, whose well-meaning Jewish parents had him baptised an Anglican to give him a better start in life, and who, whatever he believed about the cosmos, must have been affected in some way by the omnipresence of the language of Anglican liturgy. This tells me, as you both say, that it isn’t possible to draw a line at the Enlightenment and declare, “These people in the dark ages couldn’t separate their politics from their religion, but our immediate ancestors thought differently.” That’s just bad history. More interesting is, as Tony says, “possible lives”–what a fantastic phrase, descriptive of many aspects of life other than religion (I think a lot about what constituted possible lives for educated Victorian and Edwardian women, for instance).

    Thanks again! I’m pleasantly surprised by the interest this post has generated (on the JHIBlog editors’ private email thread, if nothing else) and it makes me want to try to write about belief more (and better).

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  5. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    “Taking religion seriously on its own terms doesn’t mean ignoring the Realpolitik ways in which the powerful maneuvered around it in order to stake their claims to governance. But it does mean, perhaps, moving away from a way of understanding European history in which the “modern,” pivoting on a series of crucial moments in the seventeenth century, can best be apprehended as a body of secularized political thought”


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