Reformation & Culture of Persuasion

Reformation & Culture of Persuasion
Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion. Andrew Pettegree. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 237 pp. $25.99. ISBN 0-521-60264-5.


Andrew Pettegree is professor of Modern History and founding director of the Reformation Studies Institute at St. Andrews University. It was his work as an editor of the St Andrews Studies in Reformation History Series that first arrested my attention and the focus of this book as expressed through its title that further engaged my interest. As he points out in his preface, the work seems to bring together a central theme of his career, in his words “the extraordinarily innovative manner in which the Reformation made its appeal for public support, and the manner, perhaps very different, in which this appeal was received.” One should note that among his administrative and otherwise scholarly duties, Dr. Pettegree is the director of a collaborative project on the French Vernacular Book, before 1601 being undertaken by the St Andrews Reformation Studies Institute.

The first chapter, which is fundamentally an introduction to the book, is entitled The Dynamics of Conversion. In what has been deemed the first chapter of this book the author ask several questions that, prior to reading the book was to me quite interesting, however, upon completing a reading of the book I learned to be of tremendous importance and perhaps taken for granted. Why did people choose the Reformation? What was it in the evangelical teaching that excited, moved or persuaded them? How, and by what process, did people arrive at the new understandings that prompted a change of allegiance, and embedded them in their new faith? He then proceeds to present the phenomenon of conversion in the opening paragraph as being conscious and in the face of great resistance. Here and throughout the book he toggles between the realities of the pre-Reformation era and those of its first generation and its latter generations. He points out that the first generation of converts to this “new order which was untested and largely unknown” would be confronted impudently with a painful decision not akin to the haphazard changing of churches that the twenty-first century Occidental would be familiar with. Pettegree makes his reader very much aware of the isolation, persecution and threat associated with first generation conversion to Reformational ideals, something he devotes a paragraph length to at least three times in the chapter alone. Pettegree then provides an interesting figure depicting the Protestant conversion process along with several examples of Reformers who emphasized and perhaps dramatized their personal conversion experiences as a means of transferring the focus of the movement from the inherent ramifications of accepting this new paradigm to the “motivating power of theology, particularly Luther’s teaching of Justification by Faith Alone.” Prior to closing out the introductory chapter the author summarizes the chapters that will follow.

In the next three chapters Pettegree deals with three modes of communication that were very closely related in many respects. Chapter two, which the author entitles ‘Preaching’, he administers the fundamental place of the sermon in the new evangelical community as well as its significance to the conversion and development of its adherents. One might question the preeminent place of the genre as over against the printed word; however, Pettegree seems to deemphasize the influence of the book, instead “relocating it as part of a broader range of modes of persuasion.” It is preaching that represents the primary form of mass communication to the wider public, increasing in significance as the need for pastoral care presents itself. That is to say, the central locus of the sermon was necessary to transition the movement into a religious community. In this chapter he outlines stunning statistics regarding the amount of sermons preached by the reformers. He catalogues the sermons rise from an occasional and largely urban phenomenon to something “very regular.” He also clarifies the dramatic performances that were medieval preaching, its expository nature, and the incredible lengths of the sermons and the rise of political scrutiny surrounding these public events. Ultimately Pettegree argues that the sermon was the central mode of communication “around which the churches harnessed other communication media.” Chapter three, which he interestingly entitles ‘Militant in Song’, catalogues the phenomenon of communal singing. He points out early on that along with regular preaching, communal singing was among the most distinctive elements of the new evangelical community. He puts light on the transition from a pre-Reformation reality in which congregational singing was largely sacramental but never necessary to a new evangelical reality in which congregation singing is encouraged. The chapter informs that the Reformers recognized the persuasive power of music, its ubiquitousness (incidentally a word used frequently by Pettegree) in pre-industrial society, and its ability to complement teaching: and in this later sense music in the new evangelical community assumed a catechismic duty. However, it is not long after transitioned again from worship music into a more militant lyric of revolution. However, it is this aspect that help mold the Protestant identity as distinctly not Catholic; as Pettegree points out at the end of this chapter “many people held their new church in great affection, and felt an equal and profound dislike of Catholicism.” Finally in Chapter four, entitled ‘Reformers on Stage’, Andrew Pettegree explains the almost natural use of drama by the reformers due to its use of the afore mentioned genres – spoken word and music – as well as its popular engagement of biblical narratives. However, the author ultimately asserts that the significance of drama on conversion seems not as forceful as the previous genres, only finding significant use in places and times in which the theological and political shared values and the drama enjoyed official sponsorship.

By this time the ready has been informed that drama remained an occasional, special event while preaching evolved into something very regular and essential while communal singing became an engrained part of public worship. “All helped ensure that the challenge of the new evangelical movement would touch all members of society, both those who had access to the new Protestant teachings through reading – the literate – and those who had not.” The next three chapters administer modes of communication and persuasion that are not particularly communal and interactive in nature. In chapter five he administers the special locus enjoyed by visual imagery – in particular, woodcuts. He informs that while these woodcuts were widely used and went a long way to illuminate the printed media, Pettegree cautions not to think to presumptuously with regard to its effectiveness since one can not assume that the public would have readily unlocked the complex messages of the printed work simply by viewing the image. He argues that while one can better understand the use of imagery to express this new evangelical identity, he remains unconvinced of the significance of Reformation art to conversion and public understanding of the evangelical message. In chapter six and seven he comes to the book, opening chapter six by saying “we come, at last, to the book.” He proceeds to exhaust all of chapter six – perhaps his most technical – cataloguing the book industry and chapter seven placing the significance of the book upon conversion into its context. While he acknowledges the overall social impact of the book and addresses the reformers admiration for the printing industry, he again cautions against assumptions. He points out that the book was effective prior to the Reformation and that Catholic authors routinely out published their evangelical counter parts. Pettegree then challenges the assumption that a proper analysis of the public can be made by an examination of the books that have been written for them. Touching this, Pettegree makes a most poignant point, saying, “perhaps unconsciously, by elevating the book in this way as a primary instrument of change, we are promoting a view of reading that is essentially modern (and academic).” He pulls back from arguing that making any radical claims about the relevance of print, suggesting only that our classic approach is based largely on assumptions that have need of testing. He ultimately argues that the primary mode of conversion was word of mouth and print only reinforced what was said in a more communal context. He however, closes chapter seven shedding light on how print may have well instigated the increasing religious hostility of the times.

It is upon this backdrop of increasing religious hostility being instigated by print media that Pettegree opens the final two chapters, ‘New Solidarities’ and ‘The Culture of Belonging.’ In chapter eight Pettegree speaks about the dust of religious unrest finally settling in Europe and acceptable confessional boundaries established. He cautions that the relative stability maintained an undercurrent of fear which kept alive the proselytizing zeal of the evangelicals. A phenomenon that further developed what Pettegree calls “an increasingly comprehensive Protestant culture that reached into every aspect of life: the school, the home, the everyday commerce of sociability.” He closes the final chapter explaining that a culture of belonging that contrast with the initial emphasis of chapter one in which people faced threat, persecution and isolation.

Overall I was impressed with the author’s fluid writing style and respectful tonality. His writing style is inviting and easy to read: although there are locations that can become bogged into technicality or reference historical items that require an informed reader, overall one can easily become carried away with interest complimented by his prosaic style. Pettegree generally opens each chapter with a brief summary of the matters discussed in the previous chapters then paints a picture of the pre-Reformation reality as it relates to the particular genre he is administering. The reader may judge him to be redundant in his attempt to emphasize the drastic distinctions and peculiar characteristics of the state of affairs. As I pointed out earlier, at least three times in one chapter he devotes a paragraph length to depicting the painful consequences of conversion. I found his uses of imagery to be perfectly complementary. He used ten images that I remember appearing at the most appropriate moments and always exactly when I needed an oasis of visual imagery after having fixed ones eyes upon blunt black letters imposed upon the bright contrast of a white backdrop. The author did a particularly good job unfolding the books title and the cover illustration faithfully reproduced the author’s intended message that the sheer effectiveness of person to person, communal word of mouth modes of communication was the primary and most forceful means of persuasion.