Today marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther unwittingly kicked off the earthshaking event by posting his 95 Theses (historians debate whether he actually nailed the theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg; he may have simply posted them by mail).
The Reformation was not only a religious revolution; it also sparked a revolution in law, and some of its tenets were fundamental to the American Founding. Here are some resources on how Western law—and American law in particular—has been shaped by the Protestant Reformation.
Harold J. Berman’s Law and Revolution, Volume II explores “The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition.” “Reformations” is plural in the subtitle because the book explores the impact of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany separately from that of the Calvinist Reformation in England. Both reformations transformed Western law as it had developed from Roman times and through the canon law.
John Witte, Jr. is a law professor at Emory and Director of its Center for the Study of Law and Religion. His book, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation, explores the “[p]rofound changes in legal theory, political organization, marriage, education, and social welfare [that] were inscribed in the legal and confessional systems of that period and have had an enduring effect on the modern Protestant world and beyond.” In another book, The Reformation of Rights, Witte explores “Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism.”
Books on religion and American law commonly discuss the influence of Protestantism on the development of American law—including the Constitution—and institutions. See, for example, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, by Witte and Joel A. Nichols. Colonial and Founding-era documents also make this influence clear; see, for example, the documents in Church and State in American History, edited by John F. Wilson and Donald L. Drakeman. It is noteworthy that James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was taught by John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, at the College of New Jersey; Presbyterianism is the Scottish variation on the Reformed or Calvinist branch of the Reformation.
Alan Crippen has an op-ed in The Hill about Martin Luther’s American Legacy, 500 Years Later. He discusses the little-known fact that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was named for the reformer. The Civil Rights leader was born Michael King, Jr., but after his father took a trip to Germany where he was inspired by Luther’s legacy, he changed his own and his young son’s names to Martin Luther King. The younger King, like his namesake, defended the rights of conscience, especially in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Religious liberty and the rights of conscience continue to be important and disputed themes in American law.
Barton Swaim writes in The Weekly Standard about “the continuing reverberation of Luther’s 95 Theses.” He argues that Protestant assumptions are so deeply embedded in American culture that we don’t even realize that many of our beliefs (notably beliefs about the right to resist unjust authority) have their roots in the Reformation.
These are just a few of the many resources out there discussing Protestantism and law. Happy reading!