Confessionalism: The Second Reformation

European Protestantism underwent significant development after the death of John Calvin in 1564, partly in response to the changing political context. European monarchs became increasingly aware of the threat of destabilization of their nations and regions through religious controversies. It became increasingly common for European nations to impose religious uniformity as a means of containing these tensions. As we saw earlier, this was the situation that developed in England under Elizabeth I. There would be one “official” or “established” church, with Elizabeth as its “supreme governor.” No religious alternatives would be permitted.


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A similar process can be seen taking place elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany during the 1560s and 1570s. The terms “Confessionalization” or “the Second Reformation” are often used to refer to this process of aligning religious beliefs and practices with the objectives of the state. The basic idea was that of a territorial religion based on an author- ized declaration of doctrines (usually referred to as a “Confession of Faith”), which would be binding on all subjects and enforced by an established church which was accountable to the prince or the magistrates.

This led to growing demand for a legally defined and enforceable system of beliefs and practices. As a result, “state churches” began to develop, leading to greater social cohesion. In many ways, this can be seen as a redevelopment of the medieval idea of Christendom, but now implemented at the regional, rather than continental, level. Each region was a mini-Christendom, governed by its own particular understanding of what Christianity actually was. Although these regional churches regarded the Bible and creeds as having



198 Competing Visions of Reform, c. 1500–c. 1650

supreme importance, they also recognized the importance of local “Confessions of Faith,” which identified the specific beliefs or practices of these regional churches.

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