Rebel in the Ranks

Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World

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Brad S. Gregory
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brad S. Gregory is mostly known for his expansive and deliberately provocative book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard University Press, 2012). In that book Gregory attempts to explain how the past became the present, using the Protestant Reformation as the key to explaining this development. According to Gregory, the consequences of unresolved doctrinal disagreements brought on by the Reformation continue to influence the ideological and institutional realities of today. In his estimation, the Protestant Reformation, a movement designed to renew and purify religious truth, had the unforeseen consequence of creating the increasingly secular societies in which we live.

Gregory’s tome generated a massive response when it was first published, ranging from highly appreciative to acerbically dismissive. Much of the debate has played out on such forums as Historically Speaking, Church History, Catholic Historical Review, Pro Ecclesia, and The Immanent Frame. But Gregory has survived a storm of criticism and has even produced a new book, Rebel in the Ranks, a popularized version of the same complicated, sweeping, and erudite argument he gave in The Unintended Reformation. No doubt published to capitalize on the Reformation’s 500th anniversary last October, Gregory’s narrative is at times partial and exaggerated, but there is, nevertheless, a great deal of truth in it too.

It is important to note at the outset that Gregory does not treat pre-Reformation Europe as an Eden. In his introduction, he describes medieval Europe as “hard,” “dark,” and “dangerous,” a place where “wealth was distributed with radical inequality” and “epidemic diseases” were a constant threat (3-4). He also carefully observes that “for literally centuries before the Protestant Reformation, medieval men and women who were devout lamented the gap between Christian ideals and lived realities” (6). Almost all urban people resented something about the shortcomings or privileges of priests, monks, friars, nuns, bishops, or all of the above. Pre-Reformation Europe was not a happy and healthy religious society before it was rudely interrupted by the actions of a renegade Augustinian friar. There were problems, and many were clamoring for reform.

At the same time, according to Gregory, the “problem lies not in the Church’s teachings but in getting more people to live consistently by them” (32). Indeed, his constant refrain throughout the book is that people (including religious leaders) failed to follow the teachings of the Church. The problem was the abuse of such practices, not their existence (170).

While Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church, much of what happened next was unintended, including modern individual freedom and autonomy, democracy, consumer capitalism, religious tolerance, and the separation of church and state. Such modern ideas, Gregory asserts, would have horrified Luther and the early reformers.

But the history of Protestantism has always been more than the biography or theology of Luther and the other reformers. As Gregory puts it, “it’s the history of all the rival and frequently divisive interpretations of the Bible and of all the Protestant churches, traditions, and groups associated with them” (12). Indeed, the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism was just one unintended consequence of the Reformation. From the beginning, Protestantism was a fractious movement (87).

These disagreements have never been resolved. And as Gregory concludes, it was these religious disputes that inspired secularism, not Protestantism itself. Many critics have consistently misunderstood Gregory on this point. “Much of the Reformation’s influence,” writes Gregory on the first page, “remains indirect and unintended” (1). When the Protestant reformers asserted that many of the Church’s teachings were false, it introduced sustained and widespread disagreement about what, in fact, Christianity was. What emerged was essentially a redefinition of religion itself. These disagreements and redefinitions ultimately led to a series of bloody military conflicts in Western Europe from the 1520s through the 1640s. As the Reformation spread throughout Europe, political rulers opted for or against it, which resulted in the construction of new Christian traditions and identities.

The reason for this, as Gregory explains, was that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion.” He explains to the reader that “Religion today is a distinct area of life—separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life” (4). According to Gregory, “Latin Christendom” was a social, political, intellectual, and cultural totality. The Reformation had the long-term impact of gradually and unintentionally transforming Europe from a world permeated by Christianity to one in which religion would be separate from public life. In the end, the freedom of the Christian came to include the freedom not to be a Christian. “So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago” (269).

Gregory’s central thesis in Rebel in the Ranks remains unchanged from his earlier book, The Unintended Reformation: that is, the Protestant Reformation unintentionally unleashed a flood of quarreling creeds and sects, and that the only way to manage the chaos was the privatization of religion, which led to hyperpluralism and secularism.

Any attempt to condense five hundred years of history into a single book will contain some arbitrariness. Nevertheless, Rebel in the Ranks is a useful starting point for reflecting on how the Reformation helped provoke later developments in Europe and America. Gregory provides readers a philosophy of history, an attempt to give coherence and plausibility to certain intellectual developments during a period of history. Interpretations of this sort can never be certain, but my own take on Gregory’s book and other writings is overwhelmingly positive. I appreciate his eagerness to challenge prevailing social scientific or humanistic theories of the history of religion, and my own reading of sources also suggests that the Protestant Reformation redefined the sacred and the profane and thereby unintentionally helped to secularize the West.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is an Honorary Post-Thesis Fellow at the University of Queensland.

Date of Review: 
January 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brad Gregory is professor of European history at Notre Dame and the author of Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe, which received six awards, including the prestigious Phi Alpha Theta Best First Book Award and the American Catholic Historical Association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize.


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