In the Fourteenth Century
the bubonic plague left roughly one third of Europe’s population dead. The
plague brought to light the proximity of death and the fragility of life, which
left the remaining two thirds of the population with countless questions about
life, death, and, perhaps most importantly, life after death.  Religion was used to answer these questions.

Yet by 1775 in France, later in Europe’s early modern period, people were
turning to political and social revolution in response to similar, albeit less
serious, worries about death—this time stemming from a lack of food due to
failed harvests and ridiculously high flour prices. One of the many reasons for
this different response was the change in the role religion played in the early
modern European’s lives. Although it is fair on a simplistic level to claim
that religion played a less significant role in people’s lives during the
“late” early modern period compared
to the “early” early modern period, this hardly tells the whole story. It is
more accurate to suggest that although religion continued to play an important
role in people’s personal lives many factors—such as religious reformation,
scientific revolution, and increased political structure—made religion an
obsolete way to organize society by the end of the early modern period.

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In the beginning
of the early modern period religion played an all-encompassing role. Not only were
religious leaders there to answer any and all questions one had about the
natural world, but they also held secular power and even acted as judges. The organizational
influence religious figures possessed is well exemplified in a particular scene
from Gene Brucker’s Giovani and Lusanna; Archbishop Antonious calls for
the pedasta (the secular investigators) to cease their investigation out of
fear that it will negatively affect the accuracy of his court case threatening,
“You are hereby warned that unless you desistyour investigation immediately
you will incur the penalty of excommunication”(Brucker 45). The archbishop had
asked the pedesta to stop their investigation twice before threatening to kick
them out of the church but only after he threatens excommunication do they obey
his request.

Their response
highlights the social implications of excommunication. The church was the
center of life in early modern Europe, and being excommunicated not only
affected your connection with god (interestingly enough, the notion of a
personal connection with god as we understand it didn’t exist yet despite
religion’s prominence), but was frowned upon by the entire community.  Religion wasn’t a private matter, but a
communal one.

Yet despite the
substantial role the Roman Catholic Church played in societal organization once
Luther proposed alternative religious viewpoint it became clear that people
didn’t support the secular-administrative role the church had taken on.  Despite the fact that many were fed up with
the Church’s corruption, it wasn’t until Luther that they had another viable
religious option. People didn’t become Protestants purely because of the
changes Luther made to the Christian faith, but rather because they supported
Luther’s attack on the “Romanist’s” power, especially his claim that the church
didn’t have the right to put “spiritual power over the temporal”(Luther 94).  Not only did Luther’s ideas lead to a decline
in the church’s power—to a decline in the organizational role the church
played—but to a spreading of the notion that every body can have a personal
connection with god: “since all Christians were of the spiritual estate they
could all connect to god” (Luther 95). The latter notion would form the
foundation for how people a couple hundred years later would view religion.

This new personalized
view of religion would also be substantially influenced by the scientific
discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.  Despite the fact that Copernicus attempted to
use his findings—that the sun was actually the center of the universe—to
justify god’s creation of the universe his ideas were still rejected by the
church. This undoubtedly proved to those familiar with Copernicus’ work that
church feared new knowledge could take away their monopoly on explanations of
the unknown. Luckily for the church, not many were familiar with Copernicus’s
work. A much larger audience, however, read Galileo’s The Starry Night;
the book spoke about imperfections exhibited by both the moon and the sun and
therefore dismantled the churches idea that the sun, moon and planets were
perfect heavenly spheres.   The book turned
Galileo into somewhat of an early modern European celebrity, which ensured that
when the church arrested him for heresy after the publication of another of his
books some years later, people took note. They saw that publically having views
that differed from the church in areas where the church still held secular
power (at the time the Roman Catholic church held little power in the Germanic
lands and England, for example) wasn’t completely safe and were pushed to keep
their views, opinions and beliefs more private because of this lack of safety.

It was therefore
necessary for the emerging political powers of the time  to protect various religious view points.

This took longer in some areas than it did in others.  Namely areas where the Church had been
historically less influential, England for example, had political structures
emerge sooner and ergo began to protect people’s religious rights earlier. In
countries like France though, where the Church wouldn’t lose power until the
revolution, it took much longer for them to listen to enlightened men such as
Voltaire who’d claim: “it is not a question of giving immense privileges to
minority religions but of allowing a peaceful people to live and moderating
the laws once, but no longer, necessary”(Hunt 39).  Eventually though, however, all the major
powers in Europe did grant equal political rights to religious groups.

The reason that they could do this and not worry
about their social structure collapsing was because the role of religion had
changed so significantly. Luther and other religious reformers showed that the
secular power the church held didn’t need to be adhered to because since “all
Christians were of the spiritual estate” and therefore didn’t need to rely on
the church’s “spiritual power” to maintain a connection with god(Luther94, 95).

This allowed for people to have their own ideas about god and religion, but
because of wide spread inquisitions—of which Galileo fell victim—people were
unsure about if they should practice religion publically. Luckily, the emerging
political structures passed the adequate laws to allow for freedom of religion,
because by this stage sufficient government was in place to ensure that  religion was no longer needed to organize
society.  Yet despite the fact that it
was “unneeded” religion was still was important to people and continued to play
a role in there personal lives, as it does till this day.  In fact by the end of the early modern period
the role religion played in people’s life was very similar to the role it plays
today, which is why a paper like this, which re-examines how religion came to
play this role has any relevance whatsoever. It is important for us to
recognize how religion came to take on this role it currently has if we are to
understand that role, and to ensure that the we don’t allow some of the
historic  ills of religion to repeat themselves
in modernity.