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Evils of religion: The brutality of the early Protestants

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After my last column someone wrote: “Love your articles about the awful Catholic Church, but isn’t it a bit like shooting fish in a barrel?’

He’s right. With the exception of most (but not all) practicing Catholics, people love to hate The Church. It’s not just the mind-boggling atrocities of the Crusades and the Inquisition; not simply the pedophile priests; not even the excesses of adulterous and murderous popes. It’s also that The Church has proclaimed herself THE one holy representative of God, then dressed her priests up in clothes that would embarrass Lady Gaga. Furthermore, they have amassed more money than God while doing these awful things then told their adherents: ‘Do as I say not as I do.’

So Protestantism looks good by comparison. However, harder to dig up as it may be, when you look closely their history reveals that the various Protestant religions are guilty of the same hypocrisy, the same unscriptural beliefs, the same perversions, and the same (though better hidden) ill-gotten wealth.

Thanks to Catholicism, on the whole people tend to think less badly of Protestants. Let’s see whether we can shake up that complacency.

It’s been said that timing is everything. 60 years after Gutenberg’s printing method began moving Europe into the communication age, Martin Luther nailed his 95 ‘theses’ to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, demanding that The Church stop selling indulgences. Without the press, his protest might have passed unnoticed. But his complaints got printed and copies were passed out. Within two months the protest had spread across Europe. The Lutheran Church began.

Some protestors are heroes. Luther, not so much. While he supported some Bible teachings, he also advocated attacking Jews, destroying their homes, synagogues and businesses and - of course - confiscating their wealth. His anti-Semitism influenced Germans clear down to Hitler’s day. 20th century German bishop Martin Sasse published a collection of Luther's anti-Semitic rhetoric shortly after Kristallnacht, that infamous night when the glass of Jewish shop windows spread across German streets like crystals. He gleefully applauded how, "on November 10, 1938, on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany...”

In addition to his attacks on Jews, however, Luther turned his back on the revolution he had started. When the common people, fired by his writings, revolted against the aristocracy and began destroying churches and monasteries, he was livid. How dare these peasants rise up against their betters? He wrote:

“Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.”

Luther’s protest inspired other protesters.

A Zurich reformer named Zwingli agreed with much that Luther taught, but disagreed on the subject of trans-substantiation - Luther claimed that the communion wafer turned into the actual flesh of Christ in a person's mouth, Zwingli didn't. Zwingli and Luther agreed on the (unscriptural) Catholic doctrine of infant baptism. A new group of protestants, who came to be called Anabaptists (today called Baptists) believed, correctly, that the Bible did not condone infant baptism, and that baptism was a sign of repentance that should only be carried out on consenting individuals.

That may seem like a minor disagreement. However, as Leonard Robbins wrote:

How a minority,
Reaching majority,
Seizing authority,
Hates a minority!

Luther and Zwingli, having successfully rebelled against Catholicism, were not going to allow anyone to rebel against them! Zwingli had a baptist, Balthasar Hubmaier, stretched on the rack until he recanted his beliefs. After that, Zwingli issued a decree that, if baptists were all that fond of water, they should be executed by drowning. He made good on his threat: In 1527 he arranged the execution by drowning of three men for their refusal to recant their belief in adult baptism. A Baptist pastor had his tongue cut out by followers of Luther for speaking against infant baptism.

Another rebel against the Catholic Church was John Calvin. He founded a Protestant version of Christianity based on his belief that people needed strict moral policing to behave. He is praised to this day for creating the "protestant work ethic." However, he also set up mandatory Church attendance in Geneva, banned musical instruments and taverns, and he tolerated no dissent. When Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian, fled to Geneva to avoid persecution by Catholics for his anti-Trinitarian teachings, Calvin, instead of protecting him, had him arrested and burned at the stake. Others were also put to death at Calvin’s orders. At the council of Geneva in 1632, Nicholas Anthoine was condemned to be first hanged and then burned for opposing the doctrine of the Trinity.

Some other Calvinists came up with the idea that God had decided before the World's creation on a chosen few who would be saved, and everyone else was to be abandoned to their fate. In Holland Calvinists beheaded a man for preaching against predestination. And the Reformation was just getting warmed up:

  • In 1535 in England, fourteen Hollanders were burned to death by order of the Church of England for the ‘crime’ of denying that Christ was both God and man. That same year, 19 others were executed in England for being Baptists.
  • In 1546 the Church of England tortured on the rack a Baptist woman named Anne Askew. When she refused to recant, she and three of her friends were burned alive.
  • In 1575 two Dutch Baptists were burned alive at the orders of Queen Elizabeth I in her role as head of the Church of England.
  • In 1612, barely a year after the publication of the King James Bible, Bartholomew Legate was charged with “arianism,” that is, denying that Christ is God. Another man was also burned alive for being a Baptist. The burning alive stopped after that, but not the persecution. Hundreds more were arrested and most spent the rest of their lives in prison, simply for disagreeing with the Church of England.

In every case, those who fell out with the state religion had their property confiscated. When Lutheranism and Calvinism began, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany became extremely wealthy confiscating Catholic properties and treasure. By the time James was king of England, few of the persecuted had much in the way of wealth or property; but what they had was grabbed and distributed to supporters of the King and the Church of England.

The Puritans, those early Americans famous for founding Massachusetts and Turkey Day, originally fled England because they disagreed with the Church of England’s adoption of so many Catholic traditions. What they are less well known for but were nevertheless guilty of was intolerance of other points of view.

The pilgrims cut off the noses and ears of Quakers who refused to become puritans. They considered Indians as godless heathens and squashed between gigantic stones Indians they found guilty of any crime. They executed in horrible fashion people they deemed to be witches, many of whom were guilty of nothing more than disagreeing with the Puritans way of worshiping God.

Roger Williams, an Anglican minister who read Greek and Hebrew disagreed with the Puritans watchdog ethic of combining Church and State. He wasn’t executed; he was simply banished… kicked out of his home, and Massachusetts, in the dead of winter, forced to travel over 100 miles through a snowstorm. Fortunately for Williams he - unlike the puritans – had treated the Indians with respect, so they took care of him. He founded Rhode Island on freedom of thought and worship and separation of Church and State.

A good guy, right? Well… two years later, in 1637, he helped persuade those same Indians to join an attack on the defenseless women and children of another Indian tribe in Mystic, Connecticut. The puritan captain in charge of the massacre and his sidekick, the ‘reverend’ Cotton Mather, called it – big surprise – ‘The Lord’s judgment on the heathen,’and the governor of Massachusetts instituted the actual first Thanksgiving feast to thank God for annihilating those 700 pesky Pequot Indians.

I know, I know, it’s all ancient history, right? Easy to throw stones, we weren’t there; we don’t know how we would have behaved in the same circumstances… BUT: These folks were the forerunners of the modern day Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. We’ll look next at what those early Protestant movements have grown into.

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