On the question of whether Christians killed those who left their religion, the time of the Reformation is instructive. The answer is a big yes.
Thomas More argued for the burning of heretics in his Dialogue on Heresies and Matters of Religion (1528). Defenders of More have argued that he limited burning of heretics to cases of seditious heresy (cases leading to public rebellion), and only after a state trial, keeping in mind in More’s day the tens of thousands killed in rebellions in continental Europe in politicized religious conflict. In any case, More has often been described as the precipitator of anti-Protestant violence, and his vile language against the reformers shocks the modern ear. But More was not a mass murderer. Four executions for heresy are usually associated with his tenure as chancellor.
More’s own original death sentence went something like this–
“That he should be carried back to the Tower of London and from thence drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn there to be hanged till he should be half dead; that then he should be cut down alive, his privy parts cut off, his belly ripped, his bowels burnt, his four quarters set up over four gates of the City, and his head upon London Bridge.” (There are differing accounts of this original sentence.)
This sentence, although commuted by Henry VIII in More’s case to beheading, was carried out on many other Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I, who by the way, has benefited from the longest-running PR campaign glossing over the violence of her reign of perhaps any monarch in history.
In the case of many Catholic priests executed in the 16th and early 17th century in England, their privy parts were sometimes stuffed into their mouths, going back to an execution of a hapless group of monks reportedly attended by Henry VIII incognito. The drawing and quartering of priests continued past Elizabeth I’s time. And I left out a lot of the really bad stuff.
So, to be a bit more ecumenical about the darker side of Christianity, one should always include “the English Reformation” on the usual list with “Crusades, Inquisition, and Holocaust.”
If you have any doubts, see the recent–
God’s secret agents : Queen Elizabeth’s forbidden priests and the hatching of the Gunpowder Plot / Alice Hogge, 2005, Harper Collins.
John Paul II, in naming Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen on 10/21/2000, took care to disassociate Catholicism from More’s position on the burning of heretics, by stating, “in his actions against heretics . . . he reflected the limits of the culture of his time.”
That he did. More was in many ways the bridge between the medievals and the humanists. In his Apology, More mentions how as a judge he had a madman–with the recurring annoying habit of sneaking up on women in church and lifting their skirts high above their heads–tied up and beaten into his senses until he gave up the practice. That was not the age of Prozac.
More’s account (in his History of Richard III) of “Shore’s wife”–the former concubine of Edward IV who was cast out to live as a beggar in the streets of London and was later met by the young More, has inspired over 200 books, plays, poems, and other works. Popularly called Jane Shore, it is now known her first name was Elizabeth. More describes how Mrs. Shore was forced into public penance, presaging and arguably bettering a later similar scene in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter–
More was executed on July 6th, which is also the date of the later death of young Edward VI, Henry VIII”s son. Shakespeare’s Benedick on Much Ado About Nothing responds to playful teasing about the significance of this July 6th date:“Mock not, mock not, ere you flout old ends any further, examine your consciences.”
Many do not know More’s contemporary Martin Luther as the “spiritual father of the Holocaust,” but there is no erasing the fact that Luther wrote some of the most viciously anti-Semitic words in print–
The Nazis were avowedly pagan, but Luther sowed the seed of hate in the German-speaking world that bore a terrible fruit centuries later. The infamous Kristallnacht, November 9 to 10th, 1938, took place on the eve of Luther’s birthday, November 10 (b. 1483).
Lutherans also famously opposed Hitler. A most noted Lutheran pastor who opposed the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was executed on Hitler’s personal orders.
Lutheran leaders have issued several apologies for Luther’s anti-Semitism. Here’s the link to one such apology from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community in 1994.
The above being said about the Christian origins of sectarian violence, deaths from religious conflicts pale against deaths due to Nazis, Soviets, and Maoists, all atheistic movements (although the Nazis established pagan rituals). The Nazis, Soviets, and Maoists are way, way ahead on the body count. Let’s hope no one catches up.
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