Brad S. Gregory


On his book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

Cover Interview of January 24, 2012

The wide angle

Although I make no claims to comprehensiveness, The Unintended Reformation is an ambitious book: It seeks to explain the historical formation of some of the dominant beliefs, assumptions, practices, and institutions of the contemporary Western world.

I assume that the most consequential historical realities in this formation have the most explanatory power for historians.  This principle underlies the choice of the six domains of human life mentioned above.  Even though Western Christianity since the late Middle Ages is at the heart of the book, modern science, capitalism and consumerism, sovereign states, and individual autonomy are critically important in The Unintended Reformation.  No credible account of the making of the contemporary Western world could leave them out.

The emergence of each of these historical realities entailed their disembedding from Christianity.  The unintended foundations for this process were the doctrinal disagreements and religio-political conflicts of the Reformation era, from the 1520s through the 1640s.

Doctrinal controversy paralyzed explicitly Christian claims about divine revelation and God’s relationship to the natural world, leaving only empirical investigation and supra-confessional reason as the means for its investigation, whether in modern science or philosophy.  The causal explanation of natural regularities in the sciences turned out not to require any recourse to God or theology.

Avarice reinvented as benign self-interest provided ideological support for the self-colonization of early modern Christians by capitalism in what Jan de Vries has called the industrious revolution.  Individual acquisitiveness in pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment provided an ideology about which antagonistic Christians could agree, pioneered especially in the Golden Age Dutch Republic.

By the late sixteenth century, sovereign rulers and territorial princes controlled churches no less in Catholic than in Protestant regions.  Only those forms of Protestantism with political support could have a sustained social and cultural influence, namely Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism, including the Church of England.

Because individuals disagreed about the meaning of God’s truth, the freedom to believe and worship—or not—would have to be protected at the individual level, by sovereign states which in effect thereby functioned as incubators of modern individualism.  Freedom of religion, by separating the rest of life from religion, proved to be critical to the secularization of society and religion.

In many respects, The Unintended Reformation seeks to elaborate on a claim made at the end of my first book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe: “incompatible, deeply held, concretely expressed religious convictions paved a path to a secular society.”

The Unintended Reformation combines two of my long-standing scholarly preoccupations: the attempt to reconstruct and understand early modern Christians on their own terms, and the criticism of modern reductionist theories of religion.  The deadlocked early modern doctrinal controversies set the stage for the emergence of the secular beliefs and ideas underpinning the modern theories, beginning in the Enlightenment.