Divided By Faith

In a world of diversity and religious pluralism, this book can show the lessons that history can teach us about living together with and tolerating people different than ourselves. 

Benjamin J. Kaplan, Divided by Faith:  Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Get the book on Amazon here for $18.76

Traditional histories of early modern Europe portray the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre as epitomizing the century between 1550 and 1650 as one wracked by religious violence and intolerance.  Not until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was tolerance passed down from intellectuals and likeminded rulers.  While Benjamin Kaplan does not deny the existence of religious violence, in Divided by Faith, he asserts that the picture of the naturally intolerant and violent citizen is not one drawn with truth.  He also argues against the notion that tolerance was implemented in a top-down manner.  Instead, he claims that institutions of toleration existed among the lower classes for more than a century before the Enlightenment.

In the introduction, Kaplan is careful to explain what he feels is the difference between tolerance and toleration.  Tolerance is the abstract concept which began to take root during the Enlightenment, that is, the acceptance of religious plurality out of a respect for differences.  On the other hand, Kaplan defines toleration as “the peaceful coexistence of people of different faiths living together in the same village, town, or city” (8).  In this sense, toleration is not the lofty ideal modern readers may associate it with, but instead a pragmatic system of social interaction with the goal of achieving a peaceful cohesion of the community.  It is with these definitions that Kaplan precedes into his discussion.

In the first part of his book, Kaplan addresses the obstacles to peaceful toleration.  The religious diversity brought by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century caused both Protestants and Catholics to undergo a process aimed at redefining themselves in relation to the other, a process which Kaplan calls confessionalism.  Confessionalism included a strict redesign of religion itself; each church implemented new means of internal organization, and doctrine became defined with extreme precision.  As a result, religion meant belief in one particular and uncompromising creed.  Thus, as confessionalism became more rigid, the number of violent acts rose.

Kaplan is quick to point out, however, that even in the face of more stringent church doctrine, these acts of violence were not natural or inherent within the citizenry.  Instead, they needed “flashpoints” or triggers.  For instance, a lively festival held by a particular religious affiliation in the public square could spark violence, as it did in Donauwörth in 1606.  Kaplan argues that such ostentatious public rituals acted as triggers to violence not only because they accentuated the doctrinal differences, but also because their public occurrence was seen as a claim of possession over the public space.

With the deepening polarized divisions created by confessionalism and the violence that it triggered, it quickly became apparent to citizens that some form of coexistence with their religiously diverse neighbors was needed.  Kaplan provides several means of toleration which sought to provide this peaceful coexistence.  One such provision was the designation of certain physical areas as “Catholic” or “Protestant.”  Kaplan provides the example of late sixteenth century Vienna, which had been officially designated as Catholic.  As a result, the Protestants would, in a process known as an Ausluaf, gather together and leave the city on the days of worship.  The Catholics, well aware of what the Protestant “dissenters” were doing, chose not to punish them in order to keep peace.  Another form of toleration took hold in the Dutch Republic and eventually spread to much of Europe: the Schuilkerken was a secret church located in the home of an individual, in which followers of the unofficial religion could meet and worship.  Again, Kaplan argues that the followers of the sanctioned religion were oftentimes aware of such clandestine churches, but chose to tolerate them in an effort to keep violence to a minimum.  Finally, Kaplan offers a third example of systematic toleration.  In officially biconfessional cities, such as Biberbach in the late 1600s, the central church was shared by Catholics and Protestants; this official status also granted both confessions legal worshiping rights.

By presenting localized efforts of toleration from everyday citizens and local leaders, Kaplan hopes to show that tolerance was not simply dispersed from the ideas of intellectuals.  “Elites are not all-powerful,” he claims.  “Other sorts of people…played an active role, too, in shaping the past” (7).  But readers may question whether, in repudiating the elite-centered histories, he has taken his own work too far in the other direction.  He designates only his final chapter, entitled Enlightenment?, to questioning what extent the later ideals of Enlightenment affected society.  Kaplan’s approach in this book is one that perhaps does not take into full account that the worlds of the elite and the lower classes are never so separate.

This criticism aside, Kaplan’s Divided by Faith is very well written.  His opening of each chapter with an anecdote is not only entertaining, but provides a background for his general concepts as well.  He also ends each chapter with a succinct summary, making sure that readers take away the most important points of the topic.  The information Kaplan includes, along with his accessible writing style, opens the book up to an audience beyond academia, assuring that everyone is able to enjoy this valuable contribution to the history of early Modern Europe.

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