A Bulwark Never Failing; or, How We Learned to Stop Killing Each Other


Miranda—The Tempest, John William Waterhouse, 1916.

by Ed Simon

But I suppose even God was born
too late to trust the old religion –
all those settings out
that never left the ground,
beginning in wisdom, dying in doubt.
—Robert Lowell, “Tenth Muse”

I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgement for not agreeing with me in that, from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent myself.
—Sir Thomas Browne

Anne Dudley, in her father’s Northampton library, had occasion to spend many happy hours as a girl engrossed in reading the hundreds of volumes which he had collected. She read about Sir Walter Raleigh’s New World accounts of Ewaipanoma with their faces peering out from the center of their chests residing upon the banks of the Orinoco in Guyana, and that sweet hero-martyr of Dutch independence Sir Philip Sidney, felled by a papist bullet at Zutphen, and the immaculate verse of the Huguenot Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas, with his accounts of the four ages of man and the four kingdoms before the coming Monarchy of Christ. She read historians such as William Camden and advocates for colonization like Richard Hakluyt. Like Miranda in Prospero’s study, Anne had access to magical books which would prove useful upon enchanted isles. For most of all, she had the Bible.

Thomas Dudley was a staunch Calvinist who firmly believed that grace was revealed in the heart by the reading of God’s word. He held that scripture was the only authority, and that the word of God was to be interpreted by the faithful heart of any true Christian. These beliefs were a Protestant given, an inevitable gift of Martin Luther’s rebellion a century before. The Dudleys were Protestants of the “hot” variety, there was no via media for them, no halfway covenants, no room for tradition, no succour given to popish superstition.

If the Bible was the sole authority for the believer’s interpretation of God’s will, than it would hold that any competing claimants to power are usurpers, that they’re anti-Christian – that they’re antichrists. Peter’s throne in Rome was the chief domain of antichrist, and young Anne and her nonconformist father would have firmly identified whoever occupied that throne and wore the Papal tiara as an emissary of Satan. A venerable Protestant tradition, as Luther’s lieutenant Philip Melanchthon wrote in 1537 that “the marks of Antichrist plainly agree with the kingdom of the Pope and his adherents.” Luther, that same year, wrote “the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ.”

Though the Catholic response to the accusation that the Pope was the antichrist was to in large part abandon belief in a literal antichrist in favor of an allegorical one (and thus to rehabilitate the slurred reputation of the Pope), some Counter-Reformation theologians were willing to give as good as they got. That strange old Calabrian utopian Thomas Campanella, writing in 1623 a century after Reformation (when Anne Dudley was an eleven year old girl in her father’s study), claimed that Luther had been “the last precursor of the Great and Most Savage Antichrist.” Historian Bernard McGinn, writing of the years of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, claimed that “Truly, this was the age of Antichrist divided.”

Consider the great painter and engraver Lucas Cranach’s multitude of images depicting the Pope as antichrist. Reformation scholar Eamonn Duffy has written that the German artist “more or less singlehandedly invented the visual vocabulary for Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic church,” a code of images in the ironically iconoclastic movement (though Luther never gave us much credence to what the hotter Protestants would isolate out as the Second Commandment) which would firmly set in the collective consciousness of the reformed just what exactly the arch villain looked like. Cranach put woodcuts of Christ in contrast with his Papal enemy, the savior washing the feet of his disciplines set against toadies kissing the pope’s feet; he depicted the Pope as an ass-headed woman with reptilian legs; he presented us with the pope being birthed from the ulcerated sphincter of Satan. And, as shown below, Cranach depicted the Pope and his bishops kneeling in supplication before the Whore of Babylon, abreast the seven-headed dragon, a Europe laid to waste behind them.

Just as with Campanella’s interpretation of Luther, Catholics were not to be outdone, with the renegade Augustinian monk himself depicted as that seven-headed beast of Revelation in pamphlets against Protestantism, as in an engraving by Hans Brosamer made in 1529. At the height of Cranach’s career the sincerest form of flattery was how universal his iconography of polemic had become, being fully absorbed by the very institution which had been its intended target, redirecting it back towards its source.

This was the rhetoric across a harsh sectarian divide in the century between Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, to six-year old Anne Dudley in her father’s Northampton library. Christendom had wrenched itself apart at the very joists. The children of Paul, Martin and John had divided Europe into an ever malleable patchwork; Spain and Italy dyed the blue of the Virgin’s robe, Scandinavia and occupied Holland a bright Orange, and the rest of the continent shifting back and forth between them. France, the Holy Roman Empire, eastern Europe, and of course those kingdoms in that small archipelago in the North Atlantic, ever malleable between those colors, a thousand rood screened curtains falling across the sectarian lines of Europe. A century which saw the Peasant’s Rebellion, the Siege at Munster, hideous wars of religion in France, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

Anne’s century wouldn’t be less violent, the seventeenth would see almost a third of Germany’s civilian population dead in the hideousness of the Thirty Years War, and her own Kingdom destroyed in the factionalism of her civil wars. I don’t know whether that girl in the library in Northampton saw Cranach’s engravings of the papal anti-Christ, but she surely saw images that were similar. I do know that Thomas and his daughter would have discussed papists like Queen Mary, and her black-bearded, cruel Spanish husband Philip, who had invited the Inquisition to English shores and watered the field at Tyburn with Christian blood.

From Puritan exegetes her father respected, dour, black-clad men like Joseph Mede and Thomas Brightman, she would firmly come to learn that they now lived in the end of days. Puritans like the Dudleys would have known that the recusants of England held allegiance not to the English throne (which after all they had once tried to blow up) but rather to the three-crowned pontiff in a foreign land. Non-conformists like her father worried that the new king with his rakish—if fussy—manner and his French Catholic wife had invited anti-Christ into Westminster with the Queen’s private Masses. People like the Dudleys became increasingly convinced that men like Archbishop William Laud were, bit by bit, fighting a secret war of attrition against the Protestant conscience of the nation, allowing Rome to gain a toehold among the English with the importation of terroristic Jesuits hid in priest holes across the kingdom. The machinations of the Gunpowder Plot weren’t forgotten in any English home, least of all a Puritan one, and as the perfidy of the Catholics in their midst had led conspirators to once try and kill the monarch, it was ironically the case that Puritans would one day have to finish that job. Sometimes you have to kill a monarch to save him (or at least in preservations of that higher, celestial Kingdom). Such was the hatred of the antichrist, for as surely as Anne would have inherited the words of Genesis and Exodus, Jeremiah and Daniel, the Apostles and Paul, and most of all John at Patmos, she would have been raised with the hatred of Catholicism. As it also was for young Catholic girls Anne’s age who considered Protestantism.

For Anne, reading the exegetical glosses supplied by those English exiles in Geneva which identified priests as emissaries of Satan and the Pope as antichrist, it would seem as if the font of all evil in the world as clear. She would describe what she saw as the degradations of her mother country years later, and living thousands of miles to the west, writing that in England the “Gospel trodden down and hath no right… The Pope had hope to find Rome here again.” She had chance to write those words on the eve of civil war, for Charles and Laud were pushing an undesired uniformity with their suspiciously High Church prayer book, and their altars, and their kneelers. If legend is to be believed, the Bishop’s War, prelude to the civil wars which would soon result in three nations ripped apart and the first regicide of modern European history, began when a tradeswoman named Jenny Geddes, loyal adherent to the Solemn Oath and Covenant and member of the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk, threw her kneeling stool at the Bishop as he read from the hated Book of Common Prayer in the coldly dark gothic environs of St. Giles Cathedral. The English Revolution was instigated over arguments about rood screens and statues, vestments and kneelers. Can you imagine such civil strife instigated over a question of when it is appropriate to kneel and who is expected to do so? But of course you can, such is the myopic substance of wars between relatives.

Surveying the aftermath in 1647, Thomas May writes in his The history of the parliament Of England, which began November the third, MDCXL that it was “a war as cruel as unnatural; that has produced as much rage of sword, as much bitterness of pens, both public and private, as was ever known; and divide the understandings of men, as well as their affections, in so high a degree, that scarce could any virtue gain due applause, any reason give satisfaction, or any relation obtain credit, unless among men of the same side.” And so it was with the Reformation, of which the English civil wars were only a small conflagration when compared to the wider event, two centuries of warring between Catholic and various confessions of Protestantism, a terrible and divine fire which burnt across Europe, and eventually that New World which Anne read about as a child in her father’s study, imagining fantastic beasts and men on the paradisiacal shores of the Orinoco.

As it would come to be, Anne would spend the vast majority of her life in that New World, but rather than Ewaipanoma peeking out behind tropical trees she would find rocky shoals and snow squalls, festering summers and winter nor’easters, Pequod and Abenaki. From the decks of the Arbela, which had traversed the Atlantic in 1630, she first espied the Massachusetts coast, writing that she “found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston,” here at the western most terminus of the Reformation. As her fellow poetic genius Edward Taylor would describe it, Anne had arrived in America with “Plymouth on the left, and Salem on the right,” which as literal as the geographic description might be is also an apt explanation of every American’s figurative inheritance as well. For if the poetess, this tenth muse sprung up in a New World, was to be the grandmother of all American literature, than she was also a consummate daughter of the Reformation as well. On the frontier, it at first seemed as if Anne and her new husband Simon Bradstreet, were far from the apocalyptic urgency of England on the verge of civil war. Across the Atlantic, as historian Diarmaid MacCulloch describes it, the Puritans longed “to establish a truly godly state in England, which would indeed by a New Jerusalem,” yet as the fortunes of that cause rose and fell, Anne would begin to see that religion had indeed moved westward, as in keeping with the prophecy of the divine George Herbert when he wrote “Religion stands on tiptoe in our land, Ready to pass to the American strand.”

In her poetry, arguably the first in English written on the American continent, she emphasized this fortress on a hill as a bulwark never failing against the imposition of popery from Rome. Her poetry is sometime the verse equivalent of Cranach’s engravings, writing about “bloody Popish, hellish miscreants,” “dark Popery,” and agents of Catholicism who are “Rome’s whores.” A Church whose sins were “the breach of sacred laws. /Idolatry, supplanter of a nation, /With foolish superstitious adoration.” With little ambiguity, she exclaims that “These are the days the Church’s foes to crush,/To root out Popelings head, tail, branch, and rush;/Let’s bring Baal’s vestments forth to make a fire,/Their mitres, surplices, and all their tire,/Copes, rochets, crosiers, and such empty trash,/And let their names consume, but let the flash/Light Christendom, and all the world to see/We hate Rome’s whore with all her trumpery.” When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, Anne Bradstreet leaves little ambiguity as to what her opinions are.

Except either in that wood-timbered house, the kind with dimple glass windows after the old English manner, located on the site of a Starbucks and MBTA Station at the center of what was once called New Towne and is now named after an English university famed for its Puritan students, or in her thatched cabin in Ipswich which famously burnt down in that apocalyptic year of 1666, she kept a separate diary with thoughts which never made it into her published verse. A journal intended for her children, to explain the vortices and eddies of a mind in the process of thinking about itself, a testament to that most enduring Protestant invention of interiority.  Suffering a period of doubt and uncertainty, instigated by the very practice of obsessive self scrupulosity which Calvinist theology dictates for us so that the individual Christian can search the contours of their own soul for evidence of their election, Anne informs her children that she had begun to ask herself some non-orthodox questions. There, in her neat hand and sitting in an archive box of the North Andover Massachusetts library, you can see where Anne Bradstreet wrote that though she may, “admit this be the true God whom we worship, and that be his word, yet why may not the Popish religion be the right? They have the same God, the same Christ, the same word: they only interpret it one way, we another.”

This is not the story of a conversion, Bradstreet’s or anyone else’s. This is not a story of ecumenism. This is not a tale of rapprochement, reconciliation, or reconstitution. Watchwords of this narrative do not include the following – tolerance, pluralism, religious freedom. All of that would come later. Nor is this the story of Evangelicals overcoming centuries of Romish superstition, as it is also not the narrative of noble defenders of the Holy Roman Catholic Church winning back hearts from the machinations of heretical schismatics. Rather, what Anne’s story embodies is a small volley in a war against war, a faint whisper of how we began to not murder one another.

What the Protestant Reformation signaled was the division of “heresy” as separate from the Church itself. Luther and company allowed for the creation of Christians whose very views made them separate from the Church, not simply in error within the Church, as those previous “heresies” would have been understood.  The direct result was the French wars of religion, the Ninety Years War, the Thirty Years War, the English civil wars, and so on, and so on, and so on. Enmity and unspeakable violence were the result of such fractures, and yet the old, dull, aching, glowing throb of that body of the mystical Church militant could endure, because though the Reformation(s) – the Catholic one included – scrambled any idea of unity.

Yet some human bond of fraternal affection was able to still tend its wisps across those seemingly unsurmountable divisions which resulted from the fracturing of Christendom. Any coherent language of ecumenical rapprochement, and even more importantly secular latitudinarianism, would wait until the eighteenth-century and after. But for all of the deep scars and fissures of the Reformation – that ever mercurial patchwork map, the blood-soaked ground of the Holy Roman Empire and the streets of Paris, the executions at Tyburn and the accounts of Protestant and Jesuit martyrs, the horrific scenes of immolation accounted for by John Foxe in Acts and Monuments –  for all of the true scale of horrors which erupted in religious violence in a manner never seen before or since, there was always the possibility of connection and affection between those who were now theological foes. Again, Europe awaited a theory of ecumenicism, but the means for constructing it simply existed in the innate goodness which sometimes surprisingly exists somewhere in the black souls of men. We awaited the prose to write a possible theology of reconciliation, but the poetry was already in our hearts.

Even with the divisions of those early years of the Reformation, the record is replete with instances of mutual tenderness between Catholic and Protestant, instances as surprising as Bradstreet’s declared skepticism. Scholar Benjamin J. Kaplan writes that “tolerance was an issue not just for intellectuals and ruling elites, but for all people who lived in religiously mixed communities.” A chronological chain of instances of this tolerance can be traced, a metempsychosis of sympathy for enemies across the divide, from the Reformation’s infancy through its maturity. It would include examples such as Catholic Philip II mourning the martyrdom of his namesake and godson the Protestant Philip Sidney, who was felled by a bullet fighting in a war against the King himself. Or the Huguenot convert to Catholicism Henry IV, he for whom a Mass was a small issue if Paris would come along with it, and yet who after his baptism still financially supported Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva. Or the steadfastly Puritan preacher and pamphleteer Thomas Crashaw, as fulminous an anti-Catholic as ever set print block, who still drew succor from the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola, and whose reading of that Jesuit’s books perhaps led his son Richard to convert to Catholicism and become the caretaker at the shrine of Laredo, ascending to be the greatest English baroque poet along the way.

Of those same Jesuits, that poet John Milton wrote against and yet whom he stayed as their valued guest when his European tour reached Rome. Or Bradstreet’s poetic successor Edward Taylor, as Calvinist as her and Thomas Crashaw, reading the same Ignatian books as the later and drawing the same strength from those words written by one on the other side of that sectarian divide. Ecumenicism is hammered out by theologians and councils, but that which is infinitely more valuable, tolerance, finds its origin in the simple interaction of people, in their tenderness and kindness, their mutual affection and their sympathies. Tolerance is what allows the Protestant poet George Herbert and his friend Nicholas Ferrar to live monastically at Little Gidding, in imitation of that which they found valuable within Catholicism; and it’s what allowed Catholic congregants to sing their songs to the melodies of Methodist hymns.

For since Luther’s rebellion there has never been a Protestant who isn’t sometimes Catholic and a Catholic who isn’t sometimes Protestant. There is neither Catholic nor Protestant, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for we are all one in our contradictory natures, before each of our beautifully confused consciousnesses. Easy to see those divisions between celestial blue and nominalist orange as inviolate, as if those who created and tended the Reformation sprung from European soil as fully formed Protestants, and yet their religious upbringing was one of pilgrimages and icons, indulgences and sacraments. Luther’s religious anxieties were Catholic, Calvin’s theology was scholastic in origin, and even that hot Protestant Ulrich Zwingli adored the Virgin. Eras of religious discord and rupture, where even the possibility of secularity remained an intellectual impossibility, didn’t quite have the vocabulary by which to speak of ecumenicism, but they certainly were capable of the empathetic emotions which would ultimately allow for tolerance (or something that looked like it).

In that regard, the cure for the disease was within its very cause, for the careful accounting of the soul which Bradstreet and her coreligionists made their watchword was that which allowed for a skepticism which would in turn bring all theological postulates into question. And that chink of doubt within the wall of faith, as uncomfortable as it must have personally been, was also that which allowed for a space to contain a noble tolerance, a space into which a true Christian effect of mutual understanding could grow. But the first thing you must understand about this process is that it is the inevitable, common sense result of humans being humans. And common sense, far from being the metaphysics of morons as philosopher Bertrand Russell had it, is a system of a priori conclusions drawn from the observation of men and women and how they behave. And as common sense would tell us, nobody is so simple as to be all one thing or all the other. Luther’s priesthood of all believers was appropriately but also ironically that which perhaps made that truism theological axiom, but in no priesthood which admits all believers can there ever be one Church. Luther was not the founder of this concept, he merely inadvertently identified it, for the common sense reality is such that for individual humans, in all of their glorious complexity and sacred contradictions, have never been entirely reducible to any one belief or system. There has never been a theist so pious that she does not doubt God’s existence, and an atheist so irreverent that he doesn’t sometimes wonder if He is real.

We draw the distinctions too tight, we divide too starkly, not just today but especially then, and though we academically know this we sometimes still function as if the border between Catholicism and Protestantism within the individual soul were as firmly drawn as the line on the map. But as Europe’s actual geography ever shifted between that blue and orange, so too does the individual soul turn between Rome and Wittenberg. We’ve always been as a house divided, each of us individually and collectively, but the beauty of that can be that a house divided ultimately results in a room for everybody. The soul split against itself provides a model for a polity which can contain everybody, for as no mind can be consistent – we should not expect a civilization to be either. These were human lives and the soul is ever malleable in its uncertainty, hence the irony in building any theology on the mercurial basis of faith, for we always must shift between faiths. A quality perhaps as fleeting as enlightenment, for sometimes we are Protestant and sometimes Catholic, sometimes nothing at all, sometimes all in the period of a Mass. That we ever killed one another over faith is an unimaginable tragedy, that we mostly stopped is an unbelievable miracle, and that we could ever possibly begin again an incomparable horror.

About the Author:

Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.