The sociologist Guy Swanson claims here to have explained the appearance of Protestantism, and why it took hold in some countries and not in others. An ambitious enterprise, which unfortunately does not make good on its claims. I say unfortunately, but there are some historians who will relish his failure; they would rather leave the Reformation a mystery than see it explained by a poacher from sociology. In their view, the historian deals with change and particular events, the sociologist with static phenomena and general patterns; and there is a barbed wire fence between the two fields. When the historian wants to find a “pattern” in the facts which he has painstakingly collected, he will consult his “reason” or “his understanding of the humanly possible” (I quote here G. R. Elton, who has written recently both on the Reformation and on the practice of history1 ). Somehow this understanding is unable to benefit from what sociologists or anthropologists have found about human behavior. Better that the historian trust his own safe knowledge of what is humanly possible.

This position is losing favor. Mr. Elton himself has become concerned over “the willingness of historians to worship the graven images set up by the sociologist.” More simply, historians are impressed by the relevance to their own work of quantitative studies on such matters as population growth and of concepts like “urbanization,” which offers wide possibilities for the analysis of a common feature of historical change. Using such tools does not prevent the historian from relating the “great or wonderful actions” of a particular group or country, the historian’s goal since Herodotus. Rather the tale should be a better one and the findings more amenable to historical generalization. Perhaps they will modify the models of the sociologists in turn.

Religion and Regime is the work not of a historian using sociological insights, but of a sociologist using historical materials. This, too, represents a current trend in sociology, one which increases enormously the range of cases available for the control of sociological theories. Clearly, the sociologist must be expected to work as carefully and imaginatively with historical sources as he should with current statistics, surveys, and computers. Charles Tilly’s study of the Vendée shows it can be done.

Religion and Regime thus appears at a moment when it can be judged without resort to the clichés of professional monopolies. The weaknesses of Mr. Swanson’s book will be taken as establishing, not that sociologists should leave the Reformation alone, but that historians should work with them so as to avoid the methodological disasters of Mr. Swanson’s solo effort: we must induce them to formulate their questions on Reformation Europe so they fit the conditions of the time; we must see that they identify and understand the kinds of data applicable to proving their case.

Mr. Swanson has written an important book even if it does not deliver the total explanation for Protestantism which it promises. It reminds us that anthropological and sociological studies of primitive and non-European religions can yield fresh hypotheses for the study of the Reformation. For too long Reformation historians have had Max Weber as their token sociologist. Not even Max Weber, but merely “the Weber thesis,” which makes Calvinism the indispensable condition for the “spirit” of capitalism and which has been effectively refuted by numerous writers. We should be reading instead Weber’s Sociology of Religion, with its wide-ranging suggestions on religious life and doctrine. We should be using Clifford Geertz and Robert Bellah; M. E. Spiro and S. N. Eisenstadt; Emile Durkheim, who is Mr. Swanson’s master, as well as Mr. Swanson’s own examination of primitive religions, The Birth of the Gods.

Mr. Swanson also sets his goals right. Any convincing explanation of the Reformation must be European in scope. It must use comparative analysis to isolate the factors peculiar to societies which became Protestant. And it must attempt to answer why the new theology seemed true to its supporters. This is what G. R. Elton and Jean Delumeau mean when they say the Reformation is essentially a spiritual phenomenon. It is not enough to examine the appeal of Protestant teachings on serfdom, wages, commerce, and politics, which in any case do not always differ significantly from Catholic teachings. It is doctrines of man, God, worship, and the Church about which most of the sermons were written, insults and abuses exchanged, swords drawn.

Mr. Swanson is mistaken in supposing there has been little previous progress in this direction. Luther himself told us that his theology was born of experience, a “theologia experimentalis.” Erik Erikson has argued that new tensions within the family made unbearable the psychological strain of traditional Catholic teachings on merit; out of this situation Luther projected new images of the merciful God, of the work of His perfect Son, and of the circumstances under which He forgave men their sins. Looking beyond the circle of the reformers, R. H. Tawney and Lucien Febvre have suggested that the experience of social mobility led men to feel with Luther and Calvin that, however depraved men were, they needed no undeserving intermediaries between themselves and Christ.


Changes in family life or in patterns of social mobility have not yet been used in a comparative European study of the roots of Reformation thought. Bernd Moeller’s Reichsstadt und Reformation,2 however, anticipates Religion and Regime directly in deriving the religious commitments of several states from their political arrangements. Moeller examined the sixty-five free imperial cities of Germany. He found that Lutheranism flourished where craftsmen and guilds had been effectively excluded from city government and the sense of community loyalty was weak. Luther ruptured the tie between the civil community and the Catholic parish, but did not replace it with strong institutions for the religious community. The individual believer was left relatively alone with God, even during the Lord’s Supper, where previously institutional guarantees and external ritual had been all-important. Moeller found in contrast that the doctrines of Zwingli and Bucer had been “fertilized” by towns with an energetic community life involving a significant number of city-dwellers. There new communal institutions with lay participation became essential to the life of the church and to the efficacy of the sacraments.

Whereas Professor Moeller remained uneasy about how well differing views of the Eucharist fit into his scheme, these are of central concern to Mr. Swanson’s treatise. Not only were they the subject of the most highly charged doctrinal struggles of the Reformation, but they relate to Mr. Swanson’s long interest in “immanence” and “transcendence.” By “immanence” he means the indwelling of the divine (or whatever is considered sacred in a society) in certain events, such as the Catholic Mass; in certain institutions, such as the Holy Mother Church; and even in persons. In Catholic thought, God is not fully immanent in human beings; but at least they can please Him a little by their works, so their nature is not in total opposition to His.

Transcendent deities, on the other hand, stand outside the world, even though they may be interested in it and control it. Such is the Protestants’ God, Mr. Swanson argues. Holding to the doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and the founding of truth on the Scriptures alone, Protestants perceive the Lord in the visible Church only in a limited way. Christ is present at Luther’s Holy Supper, but only for the believer, and the bread and wine are no longer magically transformed into His body and blood; while for Calvin the divine presence at the Supper is purely spiritual. As for man, his nature is wholly alien from that of the divine.

Immanence and transcendence are important in the study of the institutions of any society, for they have a bearing on the rate at which changes occur there and on secularization. But here Mr. Swanson wants to use them as the measure for Reformation controversy, the doctrine around which virtually all others hinge. Theologically minded readers may object that matters are not so neat. Hadn’t the Occamists held since the fourteenth century a transcendental view of the Lord (his unknowability by human reason) while maintaining an immanental view of the mass (transubstantiation)? And what of the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, in which are found the Anabaptists and various kinds of Spiritualists? Such sects rejected Christ’s immanence in the Holy Supper, but insisted upon the divine presence in other ways such as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul of the elect, which makes it possible for him to know divine truth even if he can’t read the Bible. Mr. Swanson solves this last problem by not considering the radical Reformation sects at all. Nevertheless, on the whole magisterial Protestantism tends to be more transcendental than Catholicism, and there is an important, but not all-inclusive, group of doctrines concerning the character of worship and the significance of the clergy which cluster around the question of the Eucharist.

As a follower of Durkheim, Mr. Swanson believes that the sacred realm is a projection of the ways in which society encourages, frightens, and controls its members. Religious symbols are a reflection of social experience. We might have expected Mr. Swanson to examine several kinds of group activity (political, economic, child-rearing, education, etc.) to see which correlated with the new Protestant doctrines. This is the procedure he used for refining Durkheim’s theory in his interesting study of primitive religions. It is also the procedure which bore fruit for Moeller, who in addition was able to hold certain economic and demographic variables constant by limiting himself to cities. But Mr. Swanson shrugs off this task by reeling off a long list of factors (like the growth of a money economy) which he alleges are “equally prevalent in countries that remain Catholic” as in those that go Protestant. How does he so quickly discard all independent considerations except a narrowly defined political one? The answer is that he has transferred his conclusions from The Birth of the Gods to European society of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries!


In his earlier study Mr. Swanson found that monotheism ordinarily appeared in primitive societies when they were run by a hierarchy of at least three groups (such as families, clan elders, and village councils) with independent powers to make decisions. The supreme god reflected the way in which the top group unified the purposes and activities of the groups beneath. (The Iroquois Indians, for instance, had six decision-making groups, with a king at their head; their supreme deity was the grandmother of the major gods.) This suggests, says Mr. Swanson, that the characteristics of Christian deities of the sixteenth century are a reflection of certain features of their central government, which he decides shall mean just their secular central government. From a suggestion, this rapidly becomes a premise for the study.

Secondly, Mr. Swanson decided (on somewhat unconvincing evidence) that the primitive belief that the soul was immanent in the body was a reflection of the view that individuals are autonomous, that they decide all their goals strictly by themselves. This suggests to him “by extension” that one should look at sixteenth-century governments as though they were individuals and ask what kind of government will seem to contemporaries to be deciding all its goals by itself. The answer would be a regime administered only by a single ruling body, such as a king or a council, and its agents. In a regime whose central governing body is limited by constituted bodies like parliaments or groups of guild representatives, political goals will seem to citizens to be defined by diverse and special groups.

Mr. Swanson then predicts that people who live under a political regime administered by a single ruling body—or at least the rich and powerful who do so—will be led to view God as immanent in certain institutions and events. That society will remain Catholic. (Why He will be immanent in the church or in religious ritual rather than in the state, Mr. Swanson does not know and feels that he does not need to know [p. 24]; that’s just the way it is in Christian Europe.) Experience of the second, more limited, kind of political regime will make it natural for citizens to think of God as removed from the world, and that society will turn Protestant—the less limited regimes going Lutheran or Anglican, the more limited ones going Calvinist.

The ladder of assumptions Mr. Swanson constructs to lead to his tour de force is a shaky one. He never asks whether relations between doctrine and central governments in primitive societies can be expected to hold in the same way in Reformation Europe, where a single regime may govern 15,000,000 people dispersed over a large area with inadequate and slow communications. He does not notice that the Catholic Church, with its international government and claims to sovereignty, is so much more independent than the religious institutions he studies that, by his own criteria, it would be expected to influence religious symbolization. He makes no allowances for altering a theory about single individuals to fit governmental groups of hundreds of individuals.

It is hard to understand Mr. Swanson’s willingness to oversimplify in this way. Certainly Durkheim did not urge such a program; even Claude Lévi-Strauss and other enthusiastic structuralists believe that the character of a society influences the position of myths operating within it. Perhaps Mr. Swanson would reply that any inadequacies in his deduction would show up in the failure of his conclusions to agree with “experiment,” or in the susceptibility of his evidence from Reformation Europe to different interpretations of the relation between politics and religious doctrine. So they do, they show up both ways.

Most of the book is devoted to classifying regimes—Mr. Swanson considers forty-one of them—a few decades before the Reformation and at the time of their “final Reformation settlement” (i.e., their final commitment to either Protestantism or Catholicism). He then notes whether the predicted religious choice was made. His political categories are not the old-fashioned ones of monarchy and republic, aristocracy and democracy, but ones that measure more carefully the character of participation in central government, for this decides whether governmental purposes are immanental or transcendental. France and Ireland are “centralist” because, Mr. Swanson explains, France is ruled by a monarch and his bureaucracy and the Irish septs are ruled by chieftains and their kin. Venice and Poland are both “commensal,” for they lack on effective central governor or governing body, and all members of the political elite participate in government, not as representatives of some group, but just as themselves—as landlords or citizens. England, Saxony, and Sweden are considered “limited centralist”; while Geneva and Hungary are “balanced,” because the Small Council or the king had to share considerable power with councils or diet. Finally, “heterarchic” Zurich (Zwingli would have thought this a papist abomination) and the United Provinces have no central governor, as with commensal regimes, but instead they are run by councils which represent groups in the population.

At first glance, it may seem he has proven his thesis. Nineteen of the twenty-one centralist and commensal regimes stayed Catholic (the exceptions: Calvinist Appenzell and Glarus). All eight of the limited centralist regimes became Lutheran or Anglican. The twelve balanced and heterarchic regimes all became Calvinist or Zwinglian. But it seems to me that this impressive score is the product of poor selection, evaluation, and interpretation of data. Even the “sample” is odd, with no provision made for considering the relationship of imperial institutions to other governments within the Holy Roman Empire; with not one of the free imperial cities included; with places like Belgium and the Kingdom of Naples omitted because they were “under the effective control of other powers” (can one believe that the Netherlanders’ sense of purpose in government was defined by those hated Spanish rulers against whom they revolted?).

The research, too, is disappointing. No one expects Mr. Swanson to go digging in forty-one European manuscript collections, and indeed his regret that the archives of Solothurn were burned seems disingenuous. What is essential is that a classification of regimes be based in part on political behavior, political sensibility, and political thought, and not as Mr. Swanson does merely on formal constitutional structures and tiresome chronologies of political events. Many studies and documents have been published over the last twenty-five years which show how politics really worked in Reformation Europe; the small number that Mr. Swanson used seem to have made little impression on him.

Few historians of European political life would classify any kingdom, principality, or duchy as “centralist” in the sixteenth century, as Mr. Swanson does, or would expect a contemporary observer to view it this way. All rulers and their bureaucracies still had to share power with diets, parliaments, cortes, or local or national estates, and with independent provincial or municipal bodies. Sometimes the ruler’s own agents were not really his at all, but owed their office and loyalty to aristocratic power blocs or family groups. Mr. Swanson says that England is “limited centralist” by 1490 and throughout the sixteenth century; that Spain and France are both “centralist” during those years. In reality, despite some differences, all three should be “limited centralist” regimes in the middle decades of the sixteenth century. Their different religious histories, their different relations with immanental doctrine, cannot be due only to the specific feature of political life which Mr. Swanson has chosen to measure.

Mr. Swanson’s treatment of Geneva shows that he has problems with urban classifications, too. The city is coded on Mr. Swanson’s chart as “commensal” in 1490. Is this a typographical error? Geneva was then a commune of limited power, ruled by a Prince-Bishop of the House of Savoy, who granted its privileges, tried most civil cases, coined its money and collected most of its taxes. It is true, as Mr. Swanson says, that the city had become a “balanced” regime at the time of the Reformation; but this was not the result of decades of slow change which he describes. Rather, as E. W. Monter has shown, it was the result of a revolution on the eve of the Reformation, consolidated by a Protestant war against Bishop and Duke. And the men who engineered the revolution were young wholesale merchants, as against the respectable officials and lawyers who had participated in the Bishop’s government. Thus the regime changed in ways and at a tempo which must have affected the perception of governmental purposes, but which are not considered by Mr. Swanson.

Indeed, there are several other examples of political regimes which were brought into being by religious settlements where Mr. Swanson would have it the other way round. The destruction of the Estates of Bavaria, that is, of “limited centralism,” was the consequence of Catholic victory there; the creation of a (temporarily) “heterarchic” regime in the United Provinces, the result of national and religious revolution. The changes in England’s religious life in the seventeenth century, which of course bear on the “immanental” character of the sacraments, the clergy and the church, led to experiments with her political regime. Though Puritan views were undoubtedly influenced by Parliamentary experience and political aspiration, they were not the product of a regime structurally different from that in which Anglicanism had flourished.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. It is not merely that Mr. Swanson has failed, by errors of classification and dating, to establish a correlation between political life and religious change. More seriously, he has given no documentation for the causal relations which he alleges for the sixteenth century: between regime and the contemporary perception of the sources of purpose in government, and between such political perception and the religious conceptualization of the period.

Now the sources on these subjects are very rich indeed, from coronation rites to peasant slogans, from governmental correspondence to the letters of conspirators against government, from theological tracts to popular hymns and woodcuts. Their exploitation would turn up frequent disparities between experience with government and attitudes toward it—even within the political elite. Most people did not have very full information about what was going on in government, and what they did not know they did not always like, preferring to view government as they thought it had been or as they wished it would become. The sixteenth-century French provincial lawyer Guy Coquille believed that “the people make the law”; it’s not that he couldn’t see the royal efforts to modify the customary law—he inveighed against them. His older contemporary Charles du Moulin believed that governmental authority belonged to the king alone and could not be divided, while all around him was the hum of people selling governmental posts.

When we turn to the use of political imagery to describe God’s relation to the world, we also find ideas that would be hard to predict from Mr. Swanson’s theory. The transcendent God of the Protestants is described by theologians as an absolute monarch; He shares His power with no one, certainly not the papacy, which falsely claims in its doctrine of the keys to know His purposes. The Catholic belief that man can save himself in part by his own works is an infringement on God’s absolute sovereignty—“as if worms like us could constrain God by our merits and storm Paradise.” Thus Protestantism broke down the distinction between clergy and laity by making them all equally distant from a transcendent God, as in seventeenth-century France the Catholic monarchy wished to make men equally subject to a quasi-divine king.

I am not denying here that there are any correlations between political life and religious change in the Reformation, or connections between political thought and religious symbols. But they are more complex than Mr. Swanson has realized, and need more refined and imaginative measurement. The character of political participation should be examined, of course, by the somewhat differing criteria of Swanson and Moeller, but so should the nature of elites, the duration of the regime, and the extent and organization of political discontent. Municipal, village, and provincial political life should be looked at too, for they had features independent of those of central governments, and often had at least as much to do with the way people felt about political structures as did remote courts and councils. The full range of Protestant and Catholic experiments and settlements should be included, and divided not only by doctrine, but also by (e.g.) ecclesiastical polity and dogmatic rigidity.

It may well be that several types of correlation between the political and the religious will appear. “No bishop, no king,” said James I in 1604, perhaps thinking how much easier his bishops were to control than the Jack-Tom-and-Wills of a Scottish presbytery, which “agreeth as well with Monarchy as God and the Devil.” This conscious manipulation of religious institutions by kings and councils is to Reformation scholars the manifest connection between regime and religious settlement, and may still be a key one. So may the well-known connection between religious movements and political dissatisfaction. In these cases, we will continue to see how religious doctrine or organization is “functional” in certain political situations, or how certain political institutions and ideas are “suitable” to certain religious movements. That original work can still be done is illustrated by Michael Walzer’s Revolution of the Saints and Gottfried Schramm’s masterful study of the Polish nobility during the Reformation.3

Deeper connections between political concepts and religious symbols may also emerge in certain societies, especially in smaller units like city-states, where there is more integration between political, social, and religious life, and relatively good communications. Here, of course, Swanson’s study as well as Moeller’s will help point the way.

On the other hand, I don’t see why we should follow Mr. Swanson in seeking the roots of religious doctrines only in political life. In the differentiated societies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, experiences in guilds, counting-houses, and workshops, in schools and in the family, had much to do with how men and women separated the sacred from the profane in their lives. The new theology of Luther and Calvin was not generated by their contacts with dukes and kings.

But Luther and Calvin are ignored in Religion and Regime, as are religious life and religious institutions. One could even argue against Mr. Swanson that theological doctrine is as much a reflection of the way of life of monks, friars, and priests as it is of society at large. The immanental doctrine of transubstantiation was confirmed in 1215 when the “centralism” of the papal regime was assured. When it came to overthrowing papal jurisdiction, to ending the spiritual tyranny of the clergy, the doctrine of the mass was immediately attacked as the cornerstone of clerical authority. “Never was there suche an invention founde,” said one French reformer of transubstantiation, “so subtylly as to lyve wythout takying payne.” The more Christ’s presence was drained from the Lord’s Supper in the new churches, the more laymen participated in spiritual jurisdiction—either through the state or through lay membership in consistory, presbytery, or congregation. Thus we find a correlate of “immanence” which seems more promising than the one Mr. Swanson provided.

This is just the value of Mr. Swanson’s book. In spite of faulty method and unproven conclusions, it provokes speculation and research. It points to anthropology as a possible source of insight into theology and suggests new connections between organizational structure and historical change. But if sociologists and historians are going to strike new paths together, they must respect the existing terrain. In Mr. Swanson’s book it has been obliterated by a bull-dozer.

This Issue

April 10, 1969