Does Liberalism Have Its Roots in the Illiberal Upheavals of the English Reformation?

Does Liberalism Have Its Roots in the Illiberal Upheavals of the English Reformation?

Calvinism’s Discontents

Does liberalism have its roots in the illiberal upheavals of the English Reformation?


To understand Liberalism, we need to understand early modern Calvinism.” This is the central claim made by Harvard professor James Simpson in his idiosyncratic but challenging new book, Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism. As its dust jacket proclaims, Simpson means to rewrite the history of liberalism by uncovering “its unexpected debt to evangelical religion.” His aim is to show how the English Reformation, so authoritarian in its beginnings, culminated in the “proto-liberal” Glorious Revolution settlement of 1688–89 and led to the English Enlightenment.

The key feature of that settlement, Simpson argues, was the Toleration Act, which gave “ease to scrupulous consciences in the exercise of religion” by allowing Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England freedom of worship and exemption from the penalties previously attached to nonattendance at Anglican services. This exemption was not extended to Roman Catholics, Unitarians, or Jews, and public office continued to be confined to those who worshipped in the Church of England. Many of the legislators saw toleration less as a matter of principle than as an unpleasant necessity, a pragmatic way of avoiding further strife. Nevertheless, Simpson insists that this was a “foundational” moment for “the English liberal tradition.” The Toleration Act was accompanied by a Bill of Rights declaring “the rights and liberties of the subject” and was followed by statutory provision for the annual meeting of Parliament, the independence of the judiciary, and qualified freedom of the press.

Whether or not this was the foundational moment of English liberalism, one might also ask in what sense this was all a consequence of Calvinism. The conventional answer is that, by making the vernacular Bible accessible to all, the Protestant reformers encouraged people to think for themselves and claim the right to do so. In addition, their doctrine of the priesthood of all believers generated a belief in human equality and encouraged respect for personal religious experience, private judgment, and individual conscience. Out of this came notions of individuality and human rights.

Many historians of political thought agree that, in this way, liberalism grew out of evangelical religion. Simpson toys with this interpretation in his discussion of the poet John Milton’s radical thought, which he suggests was “hammered out of, and bore powerful traces of…illiberal Protestantism.” But in every other respect he categorically rejects the notion that the Reformation led inexorably to liberalism, describing the idea as unacceptable “Whig triumphalism.” He twice quotes Herbert Butterfield’s observation in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) that religious liberty was not the natural product of Protestantism but emerged “painfully and grudgingly…out of the tragedy of the post-Reformation world.” Following Butterfield’s lead, Simpson argues that the liberal tradition is “the younger sibling of evangelical religion” but that “it derives from Protestantism by repudiating it.” Early Protestantism, he asserts, was so “punishingly violent, fissiparous and unsustainable” that it eventually led its adherents to invent a political doctrine “to stabilize cultures after 150 years of psychic and social violence”; the result was “nascent liberalism.” Unfortunately, the suggestion that it was not until 1688 that quasi-liberal sentiments were widely voiced in England flies in the face of the evidence. So does the notion that it was only in a religious context that they emerged at all.

Simpson’s claim that liberal ideas were a by-product of the Reformation—one unintended by its original makers—is by no means new, though it has never been so relentlessly pursued. Two hundred and thirty years ago, in a little-noticed section of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon observed that the Reformation taught each Christian “to acknowledge no law but the scriptures, no interpreter but his own conscience. This freedom, however, was the consequence, rather than the design, of the Reformation. The patriot reformers were ambitious of succeeding the tyrants whom they had dethroned. They imposed with equal rigour their creeds and confessions; they asserted the right of the magistrate to punish heretics with death.” The same point was made by the great liberal historian G.P. Gooch in his 1898 The History of English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century and by the quasi-Marxist philosopher and social theorist Harold Laski in his 1936 Rise of European Liberalism, both of whom argued that liberal ideas were an unintended consequence of the Reformation and thus anathema to its makers. More recently, Berkeley historian Ethan Shagan has maintained that Protestantism was an authoritarian project, not a liberal one, and that the Enlightenment was a reaction against the habits of mind the Reformation had generated. But if that is all that Simpson means by “the illiberal roots of liberalism,” one might equally well speak of “the Catholic roots of Protestantism” or “the capitalist roots of Marxism.”

Simpson could have made a different and much stronger case for the Protestant origins of liberalism had he not completely passed over (Milton’s writings excepted) the astonishing ferment of ideas that erupted between 1642 and 1660, the years of the English Civil War and Interregnum. In a brilliant essay, British historian Blair Worden took this ferment seriously and, as a result, offers a far more sophisticated approach to the question of liberalism’s Protestant roots. John Calvin, he notes, maintained that spiritual liberty—by which he meant emancipation from the bondage of sin and complete submission to God’s will—is perfectly compatible with the absence of civil liberty. But as Worden points out, this view was rejected in the 1640s by many radical English Protestants, who, faced with Presbyterian intolerance, realized that their spiritual goals could not be attained if they were denied the freedom to practice their religion. Congregationalists, Levellers, and army leaders therefore claimed that liberty of conscience and worship was a “civil right,” even though, paradoxically, they thought of it as the right to become God’s slaves. They extended the same plea of conscience to include other civil liberties, such as the right to form separatist congregations or to withhold the payment of tithes. By stressing this new kind of Protestant political thought, Worden was able to conclude that it was from within Puritanism, not in reaction to it, that the demand for civil liberty and thus liberalism emerged.

In a valuable recent study, Stanford historian David Como further illuminates the process by which, in the 1640s, liberty of conscience—sometimes even for Jews, Muslims, and atheists—came to be seen by many Protestant separatists in England as a fundamental political right, indivisibly connected to other inviolable civil liberties like freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and freedom to vote in parliamentary elections. As the century wore on, he argues, “the theological trappings tended to be clipped away,” and these claims were sometimes presented as “the natural Right of Mankind.”

Simpson not only misses this emergence of liberal ideas in the 1640s; his preoccupation with Protestantism also leads him to give insufficient space to the many historians of political thought who have pointed to the nontheological origins of liberalism. He recognizes the influence of the humanistic neo-Roman theory of liberty, but he says little about the medieval vogue for natural law theories, though it was from this tradition that the idea of human rights emerged in the 17th century, starting with the universal right to self-preservation postulated by Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. He also makes only the vaguest reference to the resistance theories formulated by Protestant authors in the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor, which gave the people both the right and the duty to remove tyrannous or idolatrous rulers. Instead, having explained liberalism as a simple reaction to what preceded it, Simpson devotes most of his book not to charting its rise but to following the illiberal progress of Protestantism over the same period, painting a vivid, indeed passionate, picture of what he sees as its devastating contribution to human unhappiness.

Echoing political theorist Michael Walzer’s 1965 The Revolution of the Saints, which portrayed Puritanism as a revolutionary ideology and the Puritan saint as the first active, ideologically committed political radical, Simpson identifies Protestantism as a revolutionary movement. His original contribution to this insight is to extend the boundaries of the revolution. He argues that the break with Rome was only the first stage in a state of permanent revolution, as Protestants repeatedly and compulsively repudiated previous forms and generated new ones, only to abandon them in due course for yet another nostrum, eventually clearing the path for a new liberal politics.

This is in many respects a useful way to characterize the shifts from the 1530s to the 1640s, from King Henry VIII’s break with Rome to Edward VI’s Protestantism, from the Lutheran belief that Jesus Christ was substantially present in the Eucharist to the view of the rite as purely symbolic, from Episcopalianism to Presbyterianism, and from Presbyterianism to sectarianism. Simpson could have found striking corroboration for this process of permanent revolution in the spiritual odysseys of figures like the ex-tailor Laurence Clarkson (1615–1667). Never satisfied with his religious condition, Clarkson moved from the established church to Presbyterianism, which he rejected in turn to become an Independent, then an antinomian, then a Baptist, then a Seeker, then a Ranter, then a white witch, and finally a Muggletonian. This spiritual restlessness is what Simpson calls English Protestantism’s “kinetic” process of endless movement, yet it was most intense in the years he puzzlingly neglects. He never even mentions the appearance in the 1650s of the Quakers, whose total rejection of a separate priesthood and formal liturgy took Protestantism to its logical and most revolutionary conclusion.

As a way of characterizing English Protestantism, the concept of permanent revolution, with its suggestion that people move to ever more extreme positions, has its limitations. Indeed, some of the makers of the early Reformation were far more radical than most of those who followed them. The Lollards of the 15th century were closer in their views to the sectaries of the 1640s than they were to the leaders of the Elizabethan church. The early reformer Robert Barnes, who was burned for heresy in 1540, declared that no day was holier than the rest, not even Christmas or Easter, while William Tyndale, the biblical translator martyred in 1536, was a “mortalist” who believed that the soul slept until the general Resurrection. Not until the 1640s were such views publicly ventilated.

One might also question Simpson’s insistence that the progress of Protestantism was as relentless as the notion of permanent revolution might suggest. As he admits, it went into reverse in the early 17th century with the rise of Arminianism, which asserted free will against Calvinism’s predestination, and with the capture of the Anglican Church by the Laudians, who embraced this new doctrine and introduced elaborate church ceremonial in place of Puritan simplicity. Yet as Simpson rightly notes, it was Arminianism that pointed “most powerfully to the liberal future,” since its belief in free will became a necessary precondition for liberalism’s attachment to individual liberty.

It is also hard to accept Simpson’s claim that Protestantism was more concerned with combating earlier versions of itself than with challenging Catholicism. For all the differences between different brands of evangelicalism, the hatred of “popery” far exceeded the internecine quarrels among Protestants. Catholic priests were classified as traitors by the government in 1585. The Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot were central to Protestant mythology. The fear of Catholic conspiracies played a crucial role in the origins of the English Civil War and was still present after the Restoration. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was blamed on Catholics, the rumored Popish Plot resulted in a major political crisis in 1679, and James II’s Catholicism played a large part in his downfall.

Simpson takes a dim view of early Protestantism. He is a specialist in late medieval English literature and, unsurprisingly, is partial to the writers of the 14th and 15th centuries. In an earlier work, he contrasted the rich varieties of genres and sensibilities found in the mystery cycles and the writings of William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Thomas Malory with the centralized uniformity and dreariness of the literature of the early Tudor period. He also remarked on “the profound delusions” of the evangelical theology that took root in this latter era. He regrets the Protestant destruction of medieval sculpture, wall paintings, and stained glass. But his main objection to the evangelical theologians is that they left no room for human agency. Regarding God’s arbitrary grace as the sole source of redemption, they denied any possibility of achieving it through a life of good works. The fate of all individuals was predetermined, and there was no certain way of knowing if one was saved. For Simpson, this was an “absolutist, cruel, despair-producing, humanity-​belittling, merit-denying, determinist account of salvation,” and only through its rejection could liberalism come into its own.

To make his case, Simpson devotes the great bulk of his book to describing what he sees as the five key features of the Calvinist Protestantism that stood in the way of a liberal outcome: despair, hypocrisy, iconoclasm, distrust of performative speech, and biblical literalism. He chooses to demonstrate their regrettable human consequences by drawing most of his evidence from the imaginative literature of the day. Milton, in particular, gets a disproportionate amount of space, presumably because his writings pose the problem of how the poet, born into a culture of Calvinist predestination, came to express proto-liberal sentiments. But as examples of despair and the “vicious psychic torture” of not knowing whether or not one was saved, Simpson also cites Thomas Wyatt’s Paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He comments on the “Kafkaesque…quality of this theological world, in which despair is simultaneously the surest sign both of election and of damnation.”

To illustrate Protestant hypocrisy, Simpson turns to Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair and the Puritan Angelo in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, two obvious examples of the duplicity generated by the Puritan tendency to prescribe humanly impossible standards of godliness. To capture Calvinist iconoclasm, which moved from the destruction of images in churches to proposals that the churches themselves be destroyed and finally to a “psychic iconoclasm” against incorrect imaginings, Simpson cites Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which portrays mental images as much worse than physical ones.

Next on Simpson’s list of evangelical horrors is the Calvinist attack on “performative language,” by which he means the attempt to achieve physical effects by words, whether in the ritual of the Catholic Mass or in the curses of supposed witches. He accuses the reformers of inventing (or, alternatively, reinventing) the idea of black magic—a bizarre suggestion, since witch trials were well underway in 15th century Europe: As Simpson himself recognizes, Malleus Maleficarum, the notorious treatise providing the rationale for such prosecutions, appeared in 1487 and was the work of a papal inquisitor. He also examines the Calvinist attacks on the theater, culminating in the parliamentary ordinance of 1648 abolishing stage plays. In his desire to give that act an exclusively religious explanation, however, Simpson omits its stress on the “disorders” and “disturbance of the peace” with which the theaters were associated. Instead he cites Milton’s virtuous “terrorist” Samson, who pulls down a theater and kills the audience, though he does not remind us that Samson Agonistes was itself a play or that the poet’s original idea was to make Paradise Lost one, too.

Simpson’s final theme is the dominance of biblical literalism in evangelical culture. “Every aspect of Church doctrine, governance and practice,” he points out, “was potentially vulnerable to being rejected as idolatrous if it did not find justification in a set of texts at least 1,400 years old.” The literal reading of such biblical texts as “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) could, he claims, make scriptural reading “an experience of existential anguish.” He cites the paraphrases of Psalms by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, betrayed by his friends and despairingly awaiting execution in 1547, and Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding (1666), which suggests that the author’s persecution by the authorities paled to nothing when compared with the way that the biblical text persecuted him as a reader. Returning to his favorite analogy, Simpson remarks that we must look to Kafka to find anything remotely comparable.

Throughout his account of Calvinism and its discontents, Simpson’s sympathies lie with the era’s anti-literalists, notably Shakespeare, whose Shylock, insisting on the letter of his bond, resembles less the Jews than the Puritan divines “in their eager readiness to inflict the arbitrary, inhuman literal sense on their fellow Christians.” He admires Milton as another anti-literalist who invoked intention and context in order to produce a self-interested, nonliteral reinterpretation of Christ’s pronouncement on divorce and whose Paradise Lost bears only the most skeletal relationship to the words of Genesis.

Simpson’s study of English Calvinism leaves the reader with a deeply depressing and somewhat overheated view of evangelical religion in the period, which he calls a “state-sponsored cultural extremity of a singular, soul-crushing and violence-​producing kind.” If he had gone beyond his chosen literary sources, he could easily have matched his examples of despairing evangelicals with an equal or perhaps even larger list of readers who claimed to have derived real comfort from the Scriptures. Personal temperament did as much as religious allegiance to determine whether an individual emerged from reading the Bible cheered or depressed. He concedes as much when he remarks that Bunyan “clearly manifests the symptoms of chronic depression.” Simpson would also have found that many ordinary Protestant clergy were surprisingly tolerant of their unregenerate parishioners’ belief that they could earn salvation by their own efforts.

Despite what he sees as its horrors, Simpson concludes that Calvinist theology was “by far the most powerful expression of early European revolutionary modernity.” It paralleled the administrative centralization carried out by Tudor monarchs by portraying God as invested with “massively concentrated” executive powers “at the center of a purified, utterly homogeneous True Church of the Elect.” In due course, the unsustainable violence of the Calvinist revolution produced “the great counter narrative of modernity,” namely the decentralization of theological and political power and the shift to a more liberal order.

Permanent Revolution is a rich work, abounding in challenging assertions and acute aperçus, but at times it is also an infuriating one to read. Simpson’s sentences can be convoluted; he employs arcane neologisms like “dramicide” and is capable of making statements like “liberal modernity retrojected its abject onto premodernity.” His text is marred by repetitions, careless proofreading, and some embarrassing factual errors. Yet he is extremely well read in modern historical writing as well as early modern literature, and his argument is punctuated by many original insights.

At the end of the book, Simpson returns to his opening theme of “the liberal tradition,” its origins, and its future. Here he encounters an obvious problem: No one in the 17th century gave the word “liberal” a political meaning, and the concept of liberalism as a political ideology did not appear until the second decade of the 19th century. So the early modern “liberalism” of Simpson’s book is liberalism avant la lettre. When the concept did appear in the early 19th century, it was rapidly appropriated by politicians of very different hues, as historian Helena Rosenblatt brilliantly demonstrated in her 2018 The Lost History of Liberalism. Yet Simpson uses the word unselfconsciously, as if this notoriously elusive term had only one meaning. Writing as “a committed liberal,” he defines the tenets of modern liberalism as he sees them. They include the separation of church and state, equality before the law, toleration for minorities, freedom of association, liberty and privacy of conscience, and acceptance of the democratic judgment of the majority. (He does not say whether in the American context this means a majority of voters or a majority of states.) But this is essentially a version of what political philosophers call “classical liberalism,” the kind inaugurated by John Locke.

Simpson does not seem to recognize that liberalism since the 1680s has taken many different forms, according to who or what is perceived as liberty’s enemy, and therefore cannot be so narrowly defined. There is the economic liberalism of Adam Smith, whose attack on protectionist legislation and belief in the efficacy of the free market has been resurrected in modern times in an exaggerated form by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and there are the “new liberals” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who drew inspiration from John Stuart Mill, T.H. Green, and L.T. Hobhouse and whose central aim was to diminish the social and economic constraints on the personal freedom of the population at large by having the state intervene in the market. In the United States today, all the major political groupings, from Republicans to communitarians, make an appeal to liberty, though they give it very different meanings.

Although Simpson recognizes the slipperiness of the concept, he sticks to his own ahistorical definition of liberalism. His final verdict is that liberalism is an essential guardian of our freedom but that it is currently “in global retreat before evangelical religion”—no longer Protestant this time but manifested in the rise of “populist religious forces” in India, Algeria, Israel, and Turkey. Liberalism, he warns, has serious weaknesses. It can be ineffective, as in the United States, the “land of the free” but also “the nation with by far the world’s highest gross and per capita prison population.” Like the Puritan elect, liberals can be “intolerant,” “virtue-parading,” “exclusivist,” and “identitarian.” They, too, are subject to the logic of permanent revolution, for there is always a new cause that directs their energies away from the classical liberalism that Simpson regards as their core commitment.

However, liberals’ greatest mistake, he insists, is to regard liberalism as a “worldview” that, like Christianity or Marxism, can offer a guide to salvation. In his opinion, liberalism is merely a second-order belief system, designed to preserve a plurality of worldviews by reminding their holders of the constitutional proprieties they should observe when pursuing their goals. Just as early Protestantism caused so much pain by extending its all-embracing tentacles into domains unconnected with spirituality, so liberalism exceeds its brief when it attempts to reshape the world on what Simpson describes as the “shallow” grounds of abstract, universalist human rights as a set of absolute virtues, and he sees it as particularly odious in its “more recent, militantly secularist form.”

Implicit in this argument seems to be the notion that, provided all the world’s different cultures and religions tolerate minorities and observe democratic constraints, they should be respected, however much their cultural practices might pose threats to liberal values. This would not have persuaded the late philosopher Richard Rorty, who held that “some cultures, like some people, are no damn good: they cause too much pain and so have to be resisted.” Which of these views, one wonders, is the more “liberal” one?

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