03.12.07, Gregory, Salvation at Stake

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Anne Thayer

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.007


Gregory, Brad S.. Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi, 528. ISBN: 0-674-00704-2.

Reviewed by:
Anne Thayer
Lancaster Theological Seminary

Brad Gregory has set himself a challenging project-- to demonstrate effective historical method (and thus lay bare the weakness of contemporary theory-laden "presentist" scholarship) on a problem that generally affronts contemporary western sensibilities, early modern martyrdom. He succeeds remarkably well. Gregory writes with great clarity and energy. He draws on a huge range of primary sources. Major confessional martyrologies play a central role, but these are well-supported with images, songs, sermons, letters, pamphlets, and devotional treatises. His extensive reading in secondary literature is judiciously presented, with massive footnotes at the back. By the time one reaches the book's end, the logic, nurturing practices, communal commemoration, and intense passion of Protestant, Anabaptist, and Catholic martyrs in early modern Europe have been compellingly presented.

As Gregory states, he aims "to make not only a historical contribution to our understanding of early modern Christianity, but also a methodological contribution to how historians approach it" (2). By focusing on martyrdom, Gregory believes that he is probing the heart of the "searing crucible" of early modern Christianity. Citing the crucifix as the central image of late medieval Christianity and the fundamental example and inspiration for martyrs, Gregory describes his topic as a wedge to get inside early modern Christians. Martyrdom, Gregory argues, presents in intense form, values and practices, which were widely shared by early modern Christians. Did he choose martyrdom as a case because it is so resistant to (atheistic) theory? Or did he realize in the course of his study, how little he was helped by the various theoretical approaches currently available? In either case, the focus on martyrdom serves his methodological agenda well.

Gregory works from a self-consciously sympathetic reading of his sources. He discusses this at some length in his opening chapter, addressing the sources' credibility, purposes, and functions within and across confessional boundaries. Despite his disparagement of theory, he is sensitive to the issues raised by various hermeneutics of suspicion -- he pays attention to gender, power dynamics, demographics, and social location. Yet he comes down hard in favor of taking with ultimate seriousness the religious motivations of martyrs, those who killed them, the communities that encouraged and supported them, and the writers who memorialized their witness. Beliefs mattered terribly; salvation was at stake. Martyrs physically removed abstraction from theological controversy and demonstrated that many ordinary Christians understood well the implications of their faith.

The flow of the book brings the reader gradually into the details of early modern martyrological communities and their literature. The demonstration of the "collective dynamic" (3) of early modern martyrdom is fundamental. The first section of the book explores the commitments and practices associated with martyrdom that were common across confessions. Martyrological values were embedded in late medieval Christianity, even though opportunity for martyrdom had been transmuted into patient endurance of suffering. Especially important was a good death, well-prepared for and calmly endured. "The Reformation would arrive in a Christendom not devoid of martyrdom, but replete with its possibility" (73). Willingness to die and willingness to kill were also vital to the early modern "renaissance of martyrdom." Secular authorities believed they had an obligation to prosecute religious criminals. Those who persisted in heresy after vigorous attempts to return them to the faith were to be killed for the protection of the salvation of the rest of the populace. Protestants, Anabaptists, and Catholics facing judicial execution all understood scripture to be true, having "dramatic applicability" to their situations, teaching sure doctrine, demanding of fidelity in the face of death, and promising eternal blessedness to those who endured. Across confessions, similar forms of communal support and devotional preparations yielded similarly joyful and confident deaths. Thus, understood from within, as revealed by the writings of the martyrs and their communities, martyrdom made perfect sense.

Building on this shared foundation, the second section of the book deals with Protestant, Anabaptist, and Catholic martyrological traditions, highlighting the differences between them and the chronological developments within each tradition. In all the sources, doctrines and deaths are linked. Martyrs were asked litmus test questions on characteristic doctrines, such as infant baptism, papal authority, and justification by grace alone. While these never embodied the full content of the faith for the martyrs, they served to underline the importance of the distinctive understandings of salvific Christian truth in developing martyrological communities.

Early Protestant martyrological sources reveal an apocalyptic understanding; in the ongoing struggle between good and evil, the gospel attracts persecution and martyrs were dying for their evangelical doctrines, trusting in God's providence. With the rise of Reformed Protestantism, anti-Nicodemite teachings were stressed, exhorting the faithful never to dissemble in matters of faith. In the middle of the sixteenth century, Protestants produce their large martyrologies, displaying a sense of international Protestant solidarity against Catholic adversaries. These massive works sought to strengthen Protestants, evangelize others, and warn persecutors of the wrath of God. By the 1560s and 70s, national contexts become predominant for Protestant valuation of martyrdom, with martyrs maintaining their relevance most significantly in regions where the threat of persecution remained real.

Anabaptists had the strongest martyr mentality in the sixteenth century as most of these believers faced genuine risk of martyrdom and their confessional teachings stressed that martyrdom was simply part of the calling to Christian discipleship. Songs played a prominent role in the telling of their martyr stories. Whether sung in clandestine meetings or later published and read, these helped to strengthen Anabaptist separatism and console congregations. Turning his attention to Dutch Anabaptism, Gregory traces the development of Thieleman Jans van Braght's massive Martyrs Mirror (second edition, 1685) from its origins in Jan Hendricks van Schoonrewoerd's small 1562 The Sacrifice unto the Lord. Within this growing collection, one sees the emerging schisms among the Anabaptists, each with its own martyrs.

Catholics were slower than either Protestants or Anabaptists to begin widespread memorialization of their contemporary martyrs because the significance of their deaths was not immediately clear. But after Trent, martyrs emerged as new saints in the ongoing establishment of Christianity in continuity with the martyrs of the early church. Martyrological sensibility was especially high among missionary priests to England, those most likely to be killed. In addition to the biblical verses cited by Protestants and Anabaptists facing and interpreting martyrdom, Catholics also used the notion of completing the sufferings of Christ in Christ's body, the church (Col. 1: 24). By the 1580s and 90s, many Catholic martyrological sources were in circulation, though no single compilation dominated the scene. Both via Latin and religious orders, these sources were well able to cross linguistic and national boundaries. Catholics saw martyrdom as a glorious suffering, empowered by a special gift of grace. Martyrs' relics were collected and they were approached as intercessors. They strengthened the enduring and more voluminous presence of early church martyrs in Catholic devotional life.

In the final section of the book, Gregory takes up the mutual incompatibility of the early modern martyr traditions. All the Protestant and Catholic martyrological sources include denunciations of false martyrs. Anabaptists are an exception here; for them, by definition a true Christian would not kill. Thus they did not need to defend the making of any one else's martyrs. Gregory stresses that doctrinal criteria were the only ones that the early modern world could use to distinguish between true and false martyrs, for all parties asserted, following Augustine, that the cause rather than the fact of death made one a martyr. Other criteria such as how steadfastly one died, the relative numbers of martyrs, their social status, or the performance of miracles are inadequate. Historians, therefore, cannot "keep" the valuation of martyrs as victims while "discarding" the repudiation of false martyrs; they are inextricably linked in the sixteenth-century martyrological sources. Doctrinally divided communities valued their martyrs and were not likely to turn aside from the price of their witness. "As a result, collectively and over the long term, martyrdom militated against conversion and reinforced confessionalization" (340).

Thus, in the end, there was no opportunity for religious toleration in the sixteenth century. Even so, these martyrs significantly contributed to the world in which we now live. "By adamantly rejecting religious pluralism, they helped make religious pluralism a prerequisite for the stable ordering of society. By insisting that religious truth was more important than all temporal concerns, they helped render all religious considerations irrelevant to the secular preoccupations of the modern state. Through their willingness to die for contrary doctrines, which they understood as the very expression of God's will, they helped to render problematic the knowability of his will and to call into question the value of religion. Incompatible, deeply held, concretely expressed religious convictions paved a path to secular society" (352).

If I have a question about the book, it has to do with the depth to which the "wedge" of martyrdom opens early modern religious sensibilities. Does the spectacular tell us as much or more about religion in a society than the ordinary? By Gregory's own admission, martyrs were small in number; many people backed away from martyrdom when they had the chance. Many more, except perhaps among the Anabaptists, did not have the opportunity for martyrdom. Those who capitulated in the face of torture are said to have "baffled and dismayed fellow believers" (111). In discussing an Anabaptist source, written by one imprisoned and facing death, and encouraging others to expect similar treatment, Gregory writes, "Prescription and self-understanding fused, as they did so often for imprisoned Christians" (205). I think he is right for the martyr(s) discussed here, but for many historical people, caution about such a fusion is well-warranted. Many ordinary Christians attended Sunday worship. How did these services shape martyrological understandings? In the early church, a powerful model for early modern martyrs, the developing penitential system was given great impetus by the problem of those who recoiled in the face of persecution. How did the systems of ongoing discipline and forgiveness function here? Would they provide an illuminating connection between martyr ideals, failed martyrdoms, and ordinary persons' beliefs and practices?

Salvation at Stake is a book which will endure, becoming a standard work in early modern Christianity and Reformation historiography. Scholars, teachers, and students will find it worth the effort of a complete reading, and will also find it a rich resource for specific information and examples. Those interested in the history of tolerance and intolerance in Christianity will find the book, especially the first and last chapters, extremely useful. Wary as Gregory is of attempts to "construct a usable past," he has presented us a very usable past, precisely because it strenuously seeks to be respectful of and faithful to the historical people it presents. It is vital to historians of many persuasions as a check on our assumptions and to contemporary Christians of ecumenical sensibilities by demanding a recognition of our rootedness in "the searing crucible of early modern Christianity" (350).

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Anne Thayer

Lancaster Theological Seminary