Conversion and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Germany

By Dixon, C. Scott | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Conversion and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Germany


Dixon, C. Scott, The Catholic Historical Review


Conversion and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Germany. Edited by David M. Luebke, Jared Poley, Daniel C. Ryan, and David Warren Sabean. [Spektrum: Publications of the German Studies Association, Vol. 3 ) (Brooklyn, NY: Berghahn Books. 2012. Pp. x, 206. $70.00. ISBN 978-0-85745-375-4.)

This collection of essays draws on specialist knowledge to shed light on a broad theme. Composed of nine essays together with a foreword and an afterword, the purpose of the collection is to examine the issue of conversion in the German lands in the early-modern period and not only in the sense of how it was conceived during the age of confessionalization; the authors also are concerned with how the act or the language of conversion intersected with other aspects of early-modern life, from notions of identity and boundaries to power politics. Although no single thread ties the contributions together, the authors seem to share the premise that the traditional spiritual or theological explanations of conversion theory will no longer suffice to capture the full spectrum of meaning behind a change of faith. There is thus a turn toward the secular aspects, a shift noted by David M. Luebke in his introduction when he declares that the common concern of the volume lies "between conversion and the reconfiguring of politics" (p. 3). But this focus on politics is itself situated in a broader historiographical framework more interested in coaxing out contexts and contingencies than piecing together the spiritual biographies of self-professed converts. As Luebke writes, "Taken together, the contributions to this volume recommend a departure from interpretations of conversion in early modern Europe that stress rupture over continuity and the primacy of individual experience over social and political contingencies" (p. 10).

The volume opens with a contribution by Duane J. Corpis, which makes a series of etymological and methodological distinctions that run through the entire volume. Early-modern conversion (conversio) can be understood in two ways-it can refer to a spiritual change within the individual, a type of intrareligious conversion that denotes an increase in personal faith or conviction that did not necessarily mean a change in affiliation; and there was conversion in the interreligious sense, which entailed a switch from one religious community to another. The former implied an increase in spiritual awareness, the latter the crossing of boundaries. Over the course of the confessional age, as Corpis reveals, there was a shift from the original notion of intrarelgious conversion-that is, the model of the Pauline metanoia-to the idea of a change from one church to another, as the various confessional groupings "had come to see one another as institutionally, theologically, and historically separate religions" (p. 27). Eric-Oliver Mader takes up this discussion in his study of the different meanings of conversio during the period-its different theological and philological nuances with the passage of time, its use by the different confessions (the Lutheran concept, for instance, "was completely different from the Catholic" [p. 35]), and the historical conse- quences of these different meanings such as those relating to church politics or missionary activity. Drawing on the test case of the city of Wesel, Jesse Spohnholz examines some of these ideas in context. Conversion, as he points out, might occur for a wide range of reasons, both spiritual and secular; and indeed it might not occur at all in the strict sense, for in Wesel, which was "confessionally ambiguous" (p. 51), Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists lived together in close proximity in something of a " supraconfessional " or"non-dog-matic civic church" (pp. 53,55) that prompts Spohnholz to question whether it is correct to use "confessional categories to describe events that took place during a period when confessions remained undeveloped" (p. …

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