Religion and Society at the Dawn of Modern Europe

Christianity Transformed, 1750–1850

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Rudolf Schlögl
Helen Imhoff
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Utilizing systems theory, Rudolf Schlögl writes a history of European Christianity that accounts for how religious systems developed within European societies on the cusp of modernity. Religion and Society at the Dawn of Modern Europe encompasses multiple nationalities and institutional religions in central and western Europe, accounting for the evolution of both Protestant and Catholic systems on the continent. Noting methodological limitations of both ecclesiastical history and secular history, Schlögl believes that systems theory best explains how Christianity produced meaningful, structured social realities in 18th- and 19th-century Europe. Systems theory considers how “the characteristics and actions of individuals, groups, and institutions are determined by their relationship to other people, groups and institutions” (2). English readers are indebted to Helen Imhoff for translating such a comprehensive and important work.

In the introduction, Schlögl is keen to demonstrate that the “roots of religion . . . lie with the very beginnings of human associative relationships and the formations of society” (4). While religion may, on one level, concern an individual’s relationship with a higher power, it becomes a social phenomenon—and a system—as soon as religion is deployed as a form of communication. European institutional religion, Schlögl convincingly argues, is incorporated into the way in which European societies perceive themselves, continually affecting the social order even as the role of religion in a given society evolves due to modernity. Taking the collapse of the ancien régime (old regime) as the catalyst for massive societal restructuring across Europe, Schlögl offers a comparativist analysis for how European religious systems faced ensuing challenges. Between 1750 and 1850, Christianity and Christian institutions in central and western Europe secularized, adapting alongside their corresponding social orders.

Divided into five chapters, this book broadly examines the evolving links between state rule and Christian institutions in pre- and post-revolutionary civil society. In chapter 1, “Christianity in the Ancien Régime,” Schlögl discusses pre-revolutionary civil society in Europe. Whether in Protestant or Catholic nations, religious and secular spheres tended to collectively support the ancien régime and a system of privilege. Yet, Schlögl shows that these two spheres developed tensions in the latter half of the 18th century with secular rulers increasingly meddling in the affairs of religious institutions, attempting reforms at the organizational level of Christian institutions and sometimes even extending their reach into ideas on individual piety. These infringements and tensions would continue to fester and disrupt European social systems on the cusp of modernity.

In chapter 2, “Christianity and Civil Society,” Schlögl turns to the end of the 18th century and the fallout of widespread revolution across the continent. In revolutionary civil societies in Europe, such as France, religious institutions found themselves under siege because their system clashed with new state rule, which had largely divested itself of the monarchy and the aristocracy. This was most glaringly evident during the French Revolution, but Schlögl shows similarly difficult relationships between religious and secular orders in England and the Holy Roman Empire. Schlögl meticulously documents how churches across Europe slowly ceded control of their property and their parishioners. Legal restructuring of religion reshaped how churches would participate in civil society: voluntary participation and a plurality of religious confessions would become more normative as the nineteenth century progressed. For instance, between 1750 and 1850, the Church of England managed to retain its status as a state-sponsored religious system, but its political strength greatly diminished. By 1850, the Church of England found itself for the first time competing against a plurality of other creeds and denominations. Increasingly, religion became privatized, though still politically useful to the state—“a modern guise . . . for shaping the nation as an entity based on shared experience” (8).

In chapter 3, “Christianity in Modern Society,” Schlögl more closely attends to the changes in institutional structures within religious systems. As Christian institutions became increasingly voluntary, Christianity developed new networks of associations and transformed into a social movement in an attempt to recruit and retain members. New organizational structures developed (i.e., missionary and bible societies) and new media and print technologies were galvanized on behalf of various Christian movements. Individual piety replaces state-sponsored religion as the predominant characterization of religion in Europe.

These first three chapters lead Schlögl to deal with several critical concepts in the final chapters. In chapter 4, “Religion as Culture,” he traces “tectonic shifts” in the semantics of the concept of religion in mid-19th-century descriptions. Interestingly, Schlögl finds that, between 1750 and 1850, religion continued to be a concept that signified a means for the individual to relate to itself and the world at large; however, religion as a concept ceased to be a tool for maintaining social order—and for communicating how a society perceived itself. This “tectonic shift” results in the book’s final claim in chapter 5, “Secularization: A Valid Concept?” Unsurprisingly, Schlögl believes that secularization does, in fact, occur in modern Europe.

Religion and Society at the Dawn of Modern Europe succeeds in its effort to explain religion in the 18th and 19th centuries as a social phenomenon. Schlögl takes painstaking efforts to document the complex web of relationships that work to determine the characteristics and actions of Christian institutions during this tumultuous period in Europe’s history. This book is most appropriate for advanced graduate students and scholars interested in histories of religion and modernity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Bontempo is a graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rudolf Schlögl is chair of modern history (early modern history) at the University of Konstanz, Germany. He is the author of several books in German on religion and early modern Europe.

Helen Imhoff is a freelance translator.


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