How Protestants Changed the World

Ryrie probes the minds and spirits of Protestants themselves.

Ryrie is most compelling when he connects Protestant behavior with underlying religious beliefs. For example, Protestants tend to question and reject authority, because they believe with Martin Luther that every believer is a priest before God. Ryrie shows how this tendency gave rise to anti-apartheid initiatives in South Africa, advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees, and anti-abortion campaigns. At times, however, this instinct bears negative fruit, such as when Protestants distrust rightful authorities.

 

In some quarters, Protestant is a dirty word.

According to Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation [read TGC’s review], Protestant movements undermined Christianity in the West by throwing open the floodgates of secularism. For Gregory and those who share his reading of history, most of Western culture’s decline can be laid at the door of Protestantism.

But Alec Ryrie reaches a more favorable conclusion in his new book, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World. Ryrie, a historian of Protestant Christianity at Durham University, surveys 500 years of Christian history in the West to highlight its influence.

This thick book is divided into three sections. In the first, Ryrie examines the consequences of Protestant reformations in Europe and the New World, showing how seeds of renewal took root and grew. He then focuses on these movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, tracing their philosophical developments and reactions to millenarianism, liberalism, and slavery, as well as the two world wars. His third section considers global Protestantism.

Protestant Belief and Behavior

Ryrie does more than simply repeat the landmarks of Protestant history; he probes the minds and spirits of Protestants themselves. This faith, he contends, grows out of three dynamic tenets: free inquiry, democracy, and apoliticism. The first two, he suggests, have been tempered by the third. Concerning this apolitical impulse, Ryrie concludes, “Protestants might have sometimes confronted or overthrown their rulers, but their most constant political demand is simply to be left alone” (3).

The other components of the Protestant cocktail—free inquiry and democracy—provided impetus for the Enlightenment. This roiling spirit of innovation and reform was responsible for yet another feature of Protestant identity: fragmentation. Where the Roman Catholic Church held its reform movements on a magisterial tether, no such leash restrained agents of Protestant reform.

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