James Simpson


On his book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2019

In a nutshell

Protestants won in Northern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The narrative produced by the winners was and largely remains triumphalist: Protestantism won because it foreshadowed the liberal order. It promoted the growth of individuality, now that each Christian had unmediated access to a personal God; liberty of conscience; rationality; the right to interpret scripture for him or herself; equality through the democratic priesthood of all believers; toleration; constitutionalism, and national independence. Winners make history.

In Permanent Revolution I argue that this argument is both wrong and right. It is wrong because most varieties of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism were the opposite of liberal. They were illiberal in remarkably extreme, soul-crushing, violence-producing ways.

The triumphalist argument is right insofar as the 150 years following 1517 witnessed a historical process whereby many Protestants ended up repudiating the initial, founding doctrines of Luther and Calvin. Democracy; division of political powers; separation of church and state; free-will; toleration for minorities; liberty and privacy of conscience; artistic liberties; liberty of textual interpretation: all these cardinal features of the Enlightenment emerge from Protestant polities. They do so, however, by repudiating Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism.

In sum, Protestant triumphalism is wrong with regard to the beginning of the Reformation centuries, and right with regard to the end of that historical period.

How did the process of repudiation occur? I make sense of that historical process by defining three broadly applicable periods of the Reformation centuries in Britain: (i) 1517-1560, the revolutionary, carnivalesque, fun period of smashing the Catholic Church and all its practices; (ii) 1560-1625, the decidedly unfun period when many Protestants discover that they are violence-producing, iconoclastic hypocrites likely damned by predestination; and (iii) 1625-1688, the period in which Protestantism divides into its illiberal, Presbyterian, Calvinist wing on the one hand, and its proto-Enlightenment, proto-liberal wing on the other.

I substantiate the argument with sections devoted to the following topics: despair; hypocrisy; iconoclasm; theater and the pursuit of “witches”; reading; and liberty.