America: Birthed from the Marriage of the Renaissance and the Reformation
The Renaissance (1300 – 1500’s) ushered a rebirth of knowledge reminiscent of the golden ages of Greece and Rome. Emphasizing classical learning in every academic discipline, it produced achievements in art, science, literature and thought that transformed the world. Inventions, discoveries and explorations of new lands emerged and political and religious thought began to demolish the boxes they had occupied. Renaissance humanism celebrated the individual. Writings about the balance needed between state authority and individual rights emerged. From these thinkers came Englishman John Locke who went further than all others in declaring the equality of all people and the necessity of the state to protect the rights of the individual. From his pen, more than from any other, came the great political and social thinking of our founding Fathers that forged our Constitution and Declaration of Independence and carved out the Bill of Rights; a governing framework that was and is the wonder of the world. Thomas Jefferson’s eloquence on individual rights and the obligations of government to protect them is the signature of the Renaissance and of Locke’s refining influence.
America is the only child of the Renaissance. It is the only nation conceived and birthed from the womb of the Reformation. As these two great rivers converged in the New World they created something never before seen: a nation based upon individual freedoms with guaranteed protections of those who openly disagree with it; and founded upon an abiding belief and acknowledgment of God.
Unlike the Renaissance, the Reformation emphasized community. It required signal figures to risk their lives but such risk was for the body of Christ. Though separate from the Renaissance, the Reformation was stirred by it. In the latter part of the 14th century, Wycliff pushed for reform of the Catholic Church in England as did Zwingli in Switzerland. John Hus was burned at the stake in 1415 for beliefs that opposed those of the Catholic Church. A century later Luther broke from the Church and the floodgates of reform and separation, of persecutions and martyrdom ensued.
[Though other like figures preceded him, Erasmus (1467 – 1536) was a seminal blend of Renaissance Humanism and reform Catholic. As such this Dutch Clergyman became the signal figure that bridged the Renaissance and the Reformation. Known as a Christian Humanist, he greatly influenced Zwingli and other Reformers. His writings challenged both the excesses of the Catholic Church and Luther’s theology.]
The New World beckoned beleaguered pilgrims with possibilities of freedom, though the quest for personal religious freedom often did not extend to others who worshipped differently. European persecutions not only pushed the religious to our shores, it drove many who valued free expression of individual thoughts and ideas. It was these – more of the Renaissance than of the Reformation – that wove freedom of religion and expression into the fabric of our lives. In America, Renaissance individualism and the community of Reformation created a tapestry of faith and freedom unique in human history.