Tribes and Sects – One Nation, Under Siege

When the Stories We Tell Ourselves get so long and involved, embellished, enshrined in ritual, and removed from the very people doing the telling that it takes longer to understand them than it does to get drunk on Bud Lite, things usually begin to change.

Sometimes they change strictly for reasons of expediency.

In the expansive saga of the Christian Church, not the Yahweh saga itself, but the story of what came after  the Game of Thorns, an English king, Henry VIII, broke with the Catholic Church and the Pope in 1534 and declared himself the head of the Church of England.

He did that not because he had a theological difference with the teachings of the Papacy.  He did it because the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.


It seems Catherine couldn’t give him sons and Henry really had the hots for Anne, so much so that he married her secretly two months before he married her publically and just over three years before he had her head chopped off so he could marry Jane Seymour, who apparently had “I can give you sons” tattooed on her ample bosom, which got Henry all hot and bothered.  (Just for the record and apropos of nothing that follows, she did give him a son and died in the process which upset old Henry so much that he married three other women in four years but only lopped the head off one of them because, you know, he was the head of the church now.)

But even when things are done out of expediency, they often have other ramifications.

Earlier, in 1517, Martin Luther had posted his Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, also known as the Ninety-five Theses, supposedly by nailing them to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, and setting off one of the most important events in western religious history, the Protestant Reformation.

Actually, posting them on a church door couldn’t have reached enough to people to set off a howling dog, but someone stole his notice off the door and had it printed up on one of those new-fangled printing presses that were all the rage and putting scribes out of work, and before you knew it, half of Europe was involved.

In the just under 1200 years since the council at Nicaea, the “Catholic” church had grown and spread across Europe.  It was “catholic” in the original sense that it was universal.  There was only the one “Christian Church.”  (That’s not exactly true, but it will suffice for this account.)

But as it grew and spread, human nature worked its insidious magic and the Church suffered from any number of corruptions and endorsed any number of questionable practices.  Aren’t we all surprised?

One of these was the availability of “indulgences.”

Essentially, an indulgence was a “get out of Purgatory (almost) free card.”  The practice had its origins in the crusades when knights might die fighting the infidels, who worshipped the same God of Abraham that they did, without a priest nearby to absolve them of their sins, thereby keeping said knights from getting to heaven.  So the Church came up with the idea of absolving them of all their sins (both previous and yet to be committed) before they went to fight in the so-called holy wars by giving them an indulgence.  They essentially “earned” this indulgence by doing the “good works” of killing Muslims.

Unfortunately, it also gave the crusaders a license to loot, pillage and kill innocents along the way.  Which they did.  Bigly.

By Luther’s time these things were being sold on the streets.  They weren’t any good for sins like murder, but if you coveted your neighbor’s wife and committed lust in your heart but didn’t confess it, you could buy an indulgence from a local priest who needed some money for beer that would decrease your time in Purgatory.  You could even buy one to reduce dead people’s time in Purgatory.

Martin Luther said that was wrong.  The Pope said Luther should recant.  Luther burned the Pope’s decree and gave him a big, fat raspberry, so the Pope laid a fatwah on his… sorry… there’s a lot to keep straight here… the Pope jerked his thumb over his shoulder and yelled, “You’re outta here.”

In response, Luther wrote some more books on how the Catholic Church ought to be changed.

Sometimes things change because some people disagree with the way they are.

Isn’t this all just fascinatingly boring?

We will eventually get to the salacious part with the porn star poking and the pussy grabbing, money laundering, election tampering and other really good reality show fare that would make Snooky blush, but for now we are going to stick with some less exciting facts that will help explain some of that. (You remember facts, right?)

When the Stories We Tell Ourselves get so complicated that you cannot wrap a human attention span around them, people have to choose what parts of the story to concentrate on.  Luther and other reformers weren’t just upset with the Roman Catholic Church’s indulgences; they also objected to the Latin Mass which most people couldn’t understand.  They objected to the whole idea of Papal infallibility and to the clerical hierarchy of priests, bishops and cardinals and the power they wielded over the people of faith.  And they objected to the Latin bible which most people couldn’t read and which kept them from the one thing the reformers wanted to concentrate on: the gospel itself.

At this point in history the Roman Catholic Church was as deeply involved in politics as it was in the matter of saving souls.  Once Luther was excommunicated, he should have been arrested by the emperor of Germany and executed.  Instead, for political reasons, he was brought before the Diet of Worms (you can’t make this stuff up), which resulted in the Edict of Worms which banned Luther’s writings and declared him a heretic.  It also said he should be turned over to the emperor so the emperor could do whatever emperors of the time did to heretics, and you can be sure it wasn’t pretty.

None of this was ever much enforced, but for Luther it was something of an inconvenience.

Now, a Diet was just a deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire which had grown out of the feudal system.  It met only in Imperial cities, those with direct allegiances to the Empire, like Worms.  It was both a secular and a religious body because it was hard to separate church and state at that point since the head of state was often also the head of the local church.

In 1526, the Diet of Speyer ruled that the Edict of Worms should be enforced as each state in the empire saw fit, but in 1529 another Diet of Speyer rescinded that decision.

A number of representatives of free cities (non-Imperial) and a number of state princes who agreed with Martin Luther protested.  They said they would not accept the ruling and that they placed their religious beliefs above those of the assembled.

The Catholic members immediately dubbed these representatives Protestants, and the name stuck.  The Holy Roman Empire divided into Protestant and Catholic states and a whole era of enmity between the Protestants and the Catholics began.  Leave it to a few protestors to change history.  Where there was once one “universal” Christian church, one tribe, the era of Christian sects had begun, as did the era of Christians killing Christians over the “correct” way to worship the same God.  You say potato…

By the time Henry VIII decided to ditch the Pope and set up shop for himself, the movement away from the Roman Catholic Church had grown rapidly.  Since Protestant was a term invented by the Catholics, and used mostly as an epithet, most of the movement referred to themselves as reformers.  Followers of Luther called themselves Evangelicals.  That’s not the Evangelicals of today’s mega churches.  Today Lutherans call themselves Lutherans.

Luther was not the only reformer.  In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli developed a following for his ideas about reforming the church.  Zwingli and Luther disagreed over the role of secular government in religion and particularly on how to interpret the Sacrament in Communion.

A new sect, known as the Anabaptists, broke off from Zwingli’s followers.  They believed that only adults should be baptized.

John Calvin shared some of Luther’s ideas but rejected others.  Calvin started out in France, but was invited to Switzerland to set up shop in Geneva.  Dutch Calvinism with its particularly austere brand of reform spread quickly to places like Scotland and France.

Elements of both Lutheranism and Calvinism existed in England before Henry’s break with Rome, but had trouble getting a good foothold so long as the king supported the Pope and England was a Catholic country.  Once Henry set himself up as head of the Anglican Church, however the reformers moved in.

Other ramifications!

What followed was a back and forth that created religious enmity across England, as it was doing across Europe.  Henry had the monasteries shut down and their wealth stripped.  Under Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Church adopted many of the ideas of the Reformation.  These were mostly Calvinistic in nature.

When Henry died in 1547 there was a brief interlude under Edward VI, that son that Jane Seymour gave Henry VIII, where England essentially became a Protestant state.  Cranmer wrote The Book of Common Prayer, still in use today, and worship became more unified.  But Edward was in ill health and died in 1553.

And that caused another crisis since Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was the obvious choice for his successor.  But she was (oh my God!) a Catholic and the Anglican Church was now essentially Protestant, and the head of the state was the head of the church, and that would just never do.

So they decided to crown Lady Jane Grey who was about fifth in line for the monarchy, but she was a Protestant and Edward’s personal choice.

That lasted for nine days before Mary marched in, had Jane Grey sent to the Tower of London and her supporters installed her as queen.  Lady Jane Grey was soon beheaded, essentially for worshiping the same God as Mary, but the wrong way.

Mary tried to reunite the English Church with that of Rome.  That didn’t go well and Mary became known as Bloody Mary.  She burned Protestant Bishops at the stake, including Archbishop Cranmer, and tried to force Catholicism on the entire population.  Apparently the part of the story that Mary concentrated on was not the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” part.

In 1558 when Elizabeth I took the throne, she once again declared the Church of England separate from the Roman Catholic Church.  Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  The parliament proclaimed that Elizabeth was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.  The Pope proclaimed that Elizabeth was a heretic, jerked his thumb over his shoulder and shouted, “You’re outta here.”

Elizabeth was a strong and popular leader, though, and she had good advisors.  Under her monarchy the Anglican Church dominated England.  The Spanish Armada was defeated, the drama of Shakespeare was popular, and the first American Colony was established at Roanoke.

But once the floodgates had opened and it became apparent that if you wanted to concentrate on a different part of the story, all you had to do was go off and say you were “reformers.”  Sects continued to arise.

One of these sects broke with the Anglican Church and became known as Puritans.  The roots of this movement go back far before Elizabeth, but it wasn’t until her reign that the term itself was used as an epithet (of course) that stuck.  They preferred the term Congregationalists.  The present day American Congregationalist Church can trace its origins directly back to the Puritans, although similarities to early non-conforming Protestants might be hard to see.

The Puritans thought that the Anglican Church had not gone far enough in erasing the vestiges of the Catholic Church.  They wished to further “purify” it.

If you grew up in the American school system, you learned that the Puritans, or Pilgrims, sailed from England to the new world in 1620 to escape religious persecution and had turkey and pumpkin pie while wearing feathers made of construction paper with some Indians on a picnic table perched on Plymouth Rock.

Actually, this group left England for Holland in about 1607.  They were separatists who did not believe their differences with the Anglican Church could be settled from within.  Other members of the Puritan sect, like the thousand that founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 remained within the Church of England.

These Pilgrims didn’t much like it in Holland, either.  Apparently those wild and crazy Dutch were perverting their kids.  So they came back to England long enough to buy two boats before they set off for the new world.  Apparently they knew more about purity of religion than boats because one of them was unseaworthy and eventually was left behind.

Did you ever wonder just who it was that was persecuting these Puritans and why?

Well, it turns out that just about everyone was.

In Elizabethan England you could be fined for not attending Anglican services.  The government could fine you for not attending the state sponsored religious services.  Since the Separatists insisted on being, well, separate, they were subject to these fines.

There were larger fines and imprisonment (or worse) for anyone holding a non-sanctioned religious service.  As a result of these, any number of Puritans had been fined, thrown in jail, or executed.  In 1593, two prominent separatist leaders, John Greenwood and Henry Barrowe were executed for sedition.

So the state was certainly persecuting this sect.

The Puritans were essentially followers of the Reformed teachings of John Calvin.  They believed in simple worship and despised the ritual and pomp of the Catholic Church.  And the Catholics were perfectly happy to despise them right back.  And while their numbers had dwindled, there were still plenty of Catholics in England, which is how we get Guy Fawkes Day.

But they weren’t all that popular among other Protestants, either.

The major complaint, according to the writings of those who opposed them, was that they were hypocrites.

An oft pointed-to example is the matter of oaths.

Just about everybody in Elizabethan England spiced their daily language with oaths.  You’ll find plenty of examples in Shakespeare.  Now, we’re not talking the “God damn you” sort of oath here.  We’re talking the “God’s bodykins, man, much better:” that you find in Hamlet, II, ii.

Such language drove the Puritans crazy.

Apparently, it was fine to swear a “Godly” oath like “I swear to God.”  That was ok.  But if you said, “By God’s wounds” (‘zounds or ‘sblood in Shakespeare), that was a major sin.

One Puritan writer, Phillip Stubbes wrote that “I am fully persuaded that it were better for one man to kill a man (not that murder is lawful, God forbid!) then to sweare an othe.”(Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., Phillip Stubbes’s Anatomy of the Abuses.)

That sort of thinking drove other Protestants crazy.  They knew hypocrites when they saw them.

The other allegation often raised was that for all their protestations of Godliness, Puritan women were guilty of “rampant” sexual immorality usually involving cuckoldry. (1)

“Despite the fact that Puritans viewed themselves as honest embodiments of God’s Word, they were routinely condemned as consummate liars, dangerous sharpers, and seditious malefactors. The perception of Puritans as hypocrites and tricksters began in Elizabethan England and gained wide currency during the Stuart monarchies. The disreputable attributes attached to Puritans followed them across the Atlantic when they settled New England. Throughout the seventeenth century the stigma of dishonesty and deceptiveness tainted perceptions of the Puritan plantations. By the eighteenth century, the English speaking world universally held New Englanders in low repute. Like their Puritan forebears, New Englanders during the decades prior to the Revolution were seen as deceptive, dishonest, and crafty.” (2)

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?

By 1618, even before the Pilgrims finally set off to have pumpkin pie with those they deemed savages, the Thirty Years War had begun in Europe.  This was the single most destructive conflict in central Europe.  Its origins go back directly to that moment when Martin Luther gave the Pope the raspberry and set Protestants against Catholics.  Over eight million people died in combat or as a result of famine and plague because the Christian tribe couldn’t agree on how to worship their God and they couldn’t agree to disagree.

It wasn’t until the end of that war with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that the idea of religious tolerance was even considered.

Those we like to refer to as the “founding fathers” were educated people.  They knew their history.  They knew this history.  They knew what happens when the state and religion co-mingle.  They saw the death and destruction one religious sect could bring on another and they did not hold “religion” in high regard.  “Faith” was one thing.  They wanted no part of “religion” in the government they were creating.  They knew hypocrites when they saw them.

John Adams said, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

And yet the Evangelical conservative right wing claims that we ARE a Christian nation because we were really founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims, not in 1787 by the signing of the Constitution.

When today’s Evangelical conservative right wing claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, these are the Christians they are talking about.  This one sect.

These are the same Evangelical right wing conservatives who claim to uphold “family values,” and then are caught having blatant affairs.

These are the same Evangelical conservative right wing males who claim being gay is a sin and then are convicted of molesting young boys.

These are the same Evangelical conservative right wing preachers who claim God told them that their congregation should buy them their fourth private jet.

These are the same Evangelical right wing nationalists who want more religion in government even though those that founded the country made it clear that they did not.

These are the same people who claim Godliness under the scriptures and then vote overwhelmingly for a man who couldn’t quote a single verse of scripture when asked, a man who had multiple affairs while married.  Some of these affairs were with women he later married.  Some were with porn stars he paid off to keep quiet.

Pat Robertson even said that he had seen this man sitting at the right hand of God in a dream.  Apparently Trump either deported Jesus, or some Evangelicals believe he IS Jesus.

These are the same people who profess a deep religious faith and then vote to place a pedophile, supported by a president, in the Senate.

These are the same Evangelical conservative right wing leaders who claim that Christians are being persecuted in America today.

Christians are NOT being persecuted in America today.

Hypocrites are being ridiculed in America today, as they were when they first came here, and as they were where they came from.

And as they should be.



Hypocrites tell themselves one story and tell others another.  Hypocrites are liars.  If you tolerate hypocrites and liars you will find that you will soon be up to your neck in them.  They will take over your churches.  They will take over your government.  They will combine the two.  They will take over your country.  They are well on their way while you are still arguing among yourselves over which part of your political story to focus on.

You either have to call them out wherever and whenever you find them, or they will prevail.  You have to expose them.  You have to shame them, if they have any shame.  Some do.  Some don’t.

If you tolerate them, if you ignore them, they will take you places you do not want to go.  Who will be the hypocrite then?

Your Humble Servant,

Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

Note:  I am well aware that the history of the Protestant Reformation is considerably more complicated than I have presented.  Many big, fat books have been written on it.  I have some of them.    I have not presented sources for most this information.  It is available (without the snark) all over the place.  I have presented sources for a few things toward the end because these ideas are not as widely available and you won’t see them in your kid’s text books.

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