Schilling, Heinz: Confessional Europe

The term “social discipline” as label for the early modern shaping of human behavior and thinking was introduced by Gerhard Oestreich to designate the incorporation of individuals and social groups into a homogeneous association of subjects, plus the stripping away of regional and particular interests in favor of a “common good” defined by the state. By a long process, begun in the later Middle Ages, the prince and his officials came to define the meaning of “the common good.” (59) At its peak in the late sixteenth century, confessionalization decisively accelerated this process, for it possessed special importance for all questions of legitimacy. The early modern state’s marked deficiency of legitimacy made the sixteenth and seventeenth-century churches indispensable agents for obligating individuals and social groups to the new system of moral, political, and legal norms. The good Christian was taught to live with the family and neighbors in fraternal peace and to exercise seriously, knowledgeably, and conscientiously the “office” God conferred on him or her in domestic and public affairs. This meant educating and supervising children and servants and fulfilling conscientiously one’s calling as civil servant, artisan, entrepreneur, or merchant. Through sermons and pastoral care, house visitations and religious societies -such as the Catholic confraternities and congregations- the confessional churches helped to routinize obedience and good behavior toward the master and mistress of the house, toward the lesser and middling magistrates and officials, and toward the ruler himself.

Whereas they collaborated with the state to impede crimes, the churches’ most important discipline, operated through special institutions aimed to curb sin. (60) Even the policing of sin by the free or underground churches, such as the Puritans in England or the Calvinists in Catholic France and the Lower Rhineland, which had no alliance with the state, strengthened the social discipline of the state, because churches and state inculcated the same norms. The churches disciplinary work was essential to modernization, because the pre-absolutist state, lacking adequate instruments of supervision and manipulation of its own, depended on religious sanctions to internalize the new values.

Long, nearly complete series of presbyterial minutes reveal the Calvinist “police of sin” that influenced European society for a very long time. It promoted a rational, sober, disciplined type behavior, which more or less spread over early modern Europe and became a prerequisite for the successful transformation of premodern Europe into the modern bourgeois society of the industrial age. The Calvinist congregations worked tirelessly against deviations from the fixed principles of belief and worldview; against neglect of religious duties to oppose contentiousness, force, and dishonesty; against excess, unconstrained luxury, excessive gambling, drinking, dancing, and pleasure-seeking; against sexual indiscipline, fornication, and adultery; and against drunkenness, uncleanliness, sloth, and all the other deviations, great and small, from the modernized code of Christian moral norms that characterized the sixteenth-century confessionalization. In all of this, the congregation showed that they were not only agents of a closed Calvinist system of belief and values, but also and above all promoters of emotional control, a rational and modern lifestyle, endurance and self-discipline, and a sober sense of responsibility for one’s own life and that of one’s own neighbor within the marriage, the family, the congregation, and the society as a whole. (61)

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