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The idea and the ideal of religious poverty exerted a powerful force throughout the Middle Ages. “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff,” Christ had commanded his apostles. He had sternly warned, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God.” And he had instructed one of the faithful, who had asked what he needed to do to live the most holy sort of life, “if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Beginning with these biblical injunctions, voluntary poverty, the casting off of wealth and worldly goods for the sake of Christ, dominated much of medieval religious thought. The desire for a more perfect poverty impelled devout men and women to new heights of piety, while disgust with the material wealth of the church fueled reform movements and more radical heresies alike. Often, as so clearly illustrated by the case of the Spiritual Franciscans and fraticelli in the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the lines separating devout believer from condemned heretic shifted and even reversed themselves entirely depending on how one understood the religious call to poverty. Moreover, the Christian ideal of poverty interacted powerfully with and helped to shape many major economic, social, and cultural trends in medieval Europe. As Lester Little demonstrated over two decades ago, for example, developing ideals of religious poverty were deeply intermeshed with the revitalizing European economy of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries and did much to shape the emerging urban spirituality of that period.
In the early part of the fourteenth century, a parish priest in Brussels came into the possession of a manuscript containing the vernacular letters, visions, and poetry of a woman known only as “beata Hadewijch.” The priest prized the manuscript, even recommending it to his fellow conventuals decades later, and included its primary tropes of courtly love mysticism (Minnemystik) as an essential part of many of his writings on the active, interior, and contemplative ways to mystical union. This local priest turned canon regular, Jan van Ruusbroec (1292–1381), has been celebrated for centuries for his Trinitarian theology, for his speculative or essence mysticism, and for his negative theology—but Ruusbroec's reliance on Hadewijch's metaphor of courtly love has only recently become a subject of scholarly study. An examination of the parallels between Hadewijch and Ruusbroec's theology, a heavily Trinitarian theology conveyed by means of the metaphor of Minne, not only serves to expand our comprehension of their theologies, but also provides a unique perspective on the religious experience of medieval men and women.
Horst Kunze, the contemporary German authority on indexing, writes, “An index is not a tool that has its own independent existence. It is an aid for the use of another literary object. It is like a signpost. Like a signpost it has no other purpose than to point the way in certain directions.” Indices seldom attract scholarly investigation. Casual users accept the index as a more or less objective guide to the contents of a book. However, the index prepared in 1580 for the initial publication of the Book of Concord, appearing in several of its first printings, was designed to point in specific directions, to cultivate a particular way for its primary audience to read the volume and put it to use. It took the form of loci communes—topics—as they had been developed a generation earlier by Martin Luther's Wittenberg colleague Philip Melanchthon for the proper, fruitful, study of theology. By selecting the doctrinal topics and categories into which pastors and teachers were to organize the content of this volume for their own use, this index offers one of the first theological commentaries on the Book of Concord. The index also reveals how Melanchthon's theological method continued to dominate the way the heirs of the Wittenberg Reformation thought—in spite of the fact that it directs readers away from and against the theology of some of Melanchthon's followers whom scholars have dubbed with his name, “Philippists.” (In fact, some contemporaries objected to the Book because they believed it to be anti-Melanchthonian.)
Reflections on historiographical developments in the history of Christianity tend to be a rather dry matter. Though dry, however, such reflections are important, since historiographical emphases not only tell us where scholarship has been in the past, but also—since we are directed to look at the longe durée—why we are where we are. Historians tend to be, alas, a herd of independent minds, and there are vogues in scholarship no less than there are in haute couture. A generation ago, few historians used such terms as “discourse,” “construction,” “close reading,” “intertextuality” even as monographs—even splendid monographs—on a burgomaster's daughter would have issued only from the pen of a secondary school teacher in Germany.
The proposition that, to paraphrase Carl Degler, Christianity came to British North America in the first ships, has long enjoyed popular and scholarly currency. The popular account, sometimes found today in evangelical Christian circles, holds that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries colonists erected a mighty kingdom of God whose gates the humanist barbarians have unfortunately breached. The scholarly variation derives from Perry Miller's eloquent melodrama about Puritanism's rise and fall. Miller anatomized Puritanism as a carapace of Ramist logic, covenant theology, and faculty psychology surrounding the visceral vitality of Augustinian piety, an intellectual body that grew in health and cogency in Tudor-Stuart England and then suppurated on the American strand, corrupted by internal contradictions, creeping secularism, and periwigs. Miller understood that he was describing one single Christian tradition—Reformed Protestantism of a particularly perfervid variety—but such was his narrative's majesty that his tale of New England Puritanism ramified into the story of Christianity in the colonies; in the beginning, all the world was New England, and, at the end, the extent to which the colonists had created a common Christian identity owed mightily to Puritan conceptions of the national covenant. Miller was too good a scholar to miss the pettiness of Puritan religious politics and the myriad ways in which even the founding generation of Saints failed to live up to their own best values, but his chronicle of Puritan decline parallels the popular vision that the colonial period represented the “Golden Age” of Christianity in America: the faith began on a fortissimo chord but has decrescendoed ever since. The logic of this declension scheme spotlights some historical issues while ignoring others. The central problem for declension theory is to explain how and why Christianity's vigor ebbed, whereas the creation of a Christian culture in the colonies—the erection of churches, the elaboration of governing apparatuses, the routinization of personal devotion and moral order—is made unproblematic: it just spilled out of the Mayflower and the Arbella onto Plymouth Rock and Shawmut.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, who achieved international fame for her 1852 antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is best known to historians of American religious thought as a critic of New England Calvinism and its leading light, Jonathan Edwards. But in airing her frustrations with the Puritan tradition, Stowe also singled out a much earlier source of the problem: Augustine, the fifth-century bishop of Hippo. At his worst, Augustine typified for Stowe not only theological rigidity but also the obdurate refusal of the male system-builders to take women's perspectives seriously. Consequently, in the New England of the early republic, when “the theology of Augustine began to be freely discussed by every individual in society, it was the women who found it hardest to tolerate or assimilate it.” In leveling such criticism, Stowe echoed her elder sister Catharine Beecher, a prominent educator and social reformer, whose well-known writings on the role of women in the home have often overshadowed her two companion volumes of theology, in which she devotes more attention to Augustine than to any other figure. Yet for all her extended critiques of Augustinian themes, Beecher buried her most provocative rhetorical flourish, as one might conceal a dagger, in the last endnote on the last page of the second volume. Seizing upon the African context of Augustine's career as a metaphor for his deleterious influence on Christian theology, she concluded that reasonable people have a duty to resist the “African enslavement of Anglo-Saxon minds” no less than to combat the “Anglo-Saxon enslavement of African bodies.”
The emerging fundamentalist movement made its first foray into extra-ecclesiastical politics during the League of Nations controversy of 1919–20. Both of the two main wings of fundamentalism—dispensational premillennialists and conservative Calvinists—took part in this controversy because both of them regarded the proposed League as an important, inherently religious issue. Both kinds of fundamentalists opposed the League, and both used the ratification debate to articulate their own types of Christian anti-internationalism. In the process they lent much Christian rhetoric to the political opponents of the League, the “Irreconcilables,” who were interested in exploiting it for their ostensibly purely secular critiques. Despite the fundamentalists' success in preventing League ratification, the controversy made them acutely aware of the political power and appeal of their liberal Protestant rivals. These had exerted themselves on behalf of the League, imparted their own religious complexion to the pro-League argument, and, not least, had managed officially to enlist almost all denominations to their side.