A Reformation Sourcebook: Documents from an Age of Debate

Author Michael W. Bruening explains the impetus behind his new Reformation sourcebook, the innovative structure of the book, and how it contributes to the important task of teaching empathy to today's history students.

Reformation SourcebookOver several years of teaching an undergraduate Reformation history course, I have noticed that, more than ever before, students bring to the course almost no understanding of basic Christian history or theology. As a result, most have difficulty grasping the significance of the issues at stake during the Reformation. The roots of this difficulty may lie partly in increasing secularism across the western world and in the growing number of religious "nones." Or perhaps we can attribute it to the rise of nondenominational congregations which have consciously detached themselves from the mainline Protestant churches and, consequently, from their sixteenth-century roots. Whatever the case, whether self-identified Christians or not, many students today are not equipped to evaluate the religious upheaval of the Reformation. A Reformation Sourcebook: Documents from an Age of Debate is an effort to help students understand the historical significance of the Reformation by showing them more clearly what was at stake.

The key innovation of the Sourcebook is that it places texts in pairs or groups that expose students to opposing perspectives on the contentious debates of the period. Every text stands alongside one or more documents that articulate a competing perspective. Many texts are direct responses to key arguments presented in other selections. This approach helps students see why the changes introduced during the Reformation were so controversial. For example, students can read Luther and his Catholic opponent Johannes Eck on justification and the priesthood. They can read Luther and Erasmus on free will, Calvin and Sadoleto on the Reformation generally, Thomas More and William Tyndale on the English translation of the Bible, and much more. Students will also be able to read excerpts from a number of formal disputations during the Reformation, including the First Zurich Disputation, Luther and Zwingli’s debate on the Eucharist at the Marburg Colloquy, and one of the first Christian debates on slavery at Iwie. In this way, students will be able to understand far better why what can seem like arcane theological arguments led to real tumult and cultural change all over Europe.

But there is much more to the book than erudite theological debate. Despite the fact that so much recent scholarship has focused on the social and cultural history of the Reformation, the Sourcebook is, to my knowledge, the first Reformation primary source reader to highlight these issues. Its final chapters will allow students to see the enormous impact of the Reformation on Christian rituals as well as on attitudes toward women, marriage, Jews, and religious toleration in western culture since the sixteenth century.

Each chapter begins with a general introduction and concludes with suggestions for further reading. Sections within each chapter include short introductions to the texts as well as focus questions for students to consider as they read. Many of the texts are available in the public domain, but A Reformation Sourcebook makes them more accessible by modernizing archaic spelling and language (e.g., changing thee and thou and replacing King James biblical quotations with newer translations). Several documents are original translations, including (among others) selections from Eck’s Enchiridion, the Sorbonne’s condemnations of the Meaux group, Francis de Sales’s sermon on fasting, and Theodore Beza’s The Authority of the Magistrate in Punishing Heretics.

My main hope is that A Reformation Sourcebook will facilitate students’ understanding of the Reformation and its many debates. But I also hope that in this era of increasingly partisan political rancor and hardening of ideological positions, it will help students develop a greater sense of empathy and a recognition that there are almost always more ways than one to look at controversial issues.

This is one skill that the study of history generally, and A Reformation Sourcebook in particular, can help students to develop. The study of the past—especially the distant past—forces students to confront worlds very different from their own. It requires that they practice being empathetic. To understand the Reformation era properly, one must recognize that the ideas and circumstances that have produced modern perspectives on religious freedom, democracy, gender and social equality, secularism, and relativism did not yet exist. To be sure, it was precisely during the Reformation that these ideas began to develop, but not until then and not without stiff opposition. The structure of this reader, therefore, should help students to hone their ability to understand the perspectives of authors who were in many cases vehemently opposed to one another. And they will learn that in order truly to understand the debates of the Reformation, they will need to place themselves in the shoes of the people on both sides.

Michael W. Bruening is Associate Professor in the History and Political Science Department at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

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