To understand our modern world, one must understand the Reformation.
Gregory (European History/Notre Dame Univ. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, 2012, etc.) jumps on the bandwagon of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with this uneven retelling. He opens by promising that “a major theme of this book” is the fact that “the Reformation’s influence remains indirect and unintended.” However, he waits until the last quarter of the book to expound on this conclusion. This serves to undermine one of the author’s greatest strengths: his ability to explain how the Reformation molded—unintentionally—our current, largely secularized world. Gregory instead focuses on the life of Martin Luther, the movement he sparked, and its immediate aftermath throughout Europe. He begins with Luther’s troubled faith life, leading up to his disputes with Rome over points of theology as well as church authority. The author then examines the early Reformation, including such significant figures as Huldrych Zwingli, before moving ahead to John Calvin, the religious upheavals in England, and the Thirty Years’ War. Though intermittently interesting, these chapters add few new insights to supplement the many biographies of Luther or histories of the Reformation already in print. Further, Gregory’s use of the present tense eventually becomes grating. It is at the end that the author partially redeems himself, coming to the insightful conclusion that “the long-term outcome of the Reformation era—and its ultimate irony—has been the gradual, unintended secularization of modern Western society.” Essentially, Gregory explains that as Europe grew weary of religious warfare, it found ways of separating faith from governance as a way of keeping the peace. It is an intriguing conclusion that deserves more than the pages allotted to it.
A worthwhile and understated conclusion closes an unremarkable Reformation history.