On the economic power of God’s invisible Church

Brethren in Christ‘Brethren in Christ’ was the common form of address in correspondences among Calvinist elites in early modern Europe as they asked for each other’s support and solidarity, in particular in times of displacement and hardship caused by bouts of intolerance sparked by the Counter-Reformation. Among those forced into exile for their faith during the sixteenth century were four families from Lucca: the Calandrinis, Burlamachis, Diodatis and Turrettinis. Uprooted and displaced multiple times from Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany by such key events as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre or the Thirty Years War they travelled around Europe like the Israelites escaping Babylon and more often than not found at least a spiritual home in their ‘new Jerusalem’, the Swiss city of Geneva.

Ole Peter Grell’s most recent book Brethren in Christ: A Calvinist Network in Reformation Europe is not a work about Calvinist rhetoric, as the first half of its title might suggest. It is a work of social history dealing with networks and collective biography, or rather lots of short biographies that add up to one bigger story, showing that the aim for a grand(er) narrative does not have to go at the expense of detail, or rather that a certain amount of detail is sufficient to make a bigger point.

Thus, as we follow different generations of Calandrinis, Burlamachis, Diodatis and Turrettinis across Reformation Europe we get a sense of how things hang together, how the Counter-Reformation in Tuscany led to an exodus of wealthy merchant-bankers to Lyon and Paris, how the St Bartholomew Day Massacre in France subsequently made them move on to the United Provinces, England and Germany, and how Frederick V’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown did not just trigger the Thirty Years War, but also caused a refugee crisis in the Imperial city of Nuremberg, which was overrun by exiles from the Palatinate, and finally how Calvinist elites managed the relief effort by appealing for money and triggering collections in the stranger churches of London and elsewhere.

Grell should be commended for making so clear the connections that generations of lecturers have failed to hammer into their students, whose faces shut down by the pure mention of any of the religious conflicts on the Continent. By showing the close collaboration of continental Calvinists and English Puritans in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, he also inadvertently adds credibility to John Morrill’s thesis that the English revolution was ‘the last of the Wars of Religion’.

This book deserves to be on undergraduate reading lists for its power of synthesis alone, even though the narrow focus on four Italian families might make it a less obvious choice at first sight. On that note, the author might have done himself a favour by explaining at greater length to what extent these four families were representative for something much bigger and how their stories might be used as exemplary case studies for the collective power – both spiritual and economic – of early modern Calvinism.

With a view to the economic side of Calvinism, Grell does well to leave the compulsory discussion of the ‘Weber thesis’ to an epilogue. The question of whether or not the development of a modern financial economy was driven first by a protestant work ethic and then survived a decline of religion could easily have distracted from the main story and taken the edge of Grell’s original approach.

In the end, he suggests that the wealthy merchant-bankers he writes about succeeded economically in part because of their conversion to Calvinism. But their worldly success was less due to their faith and more to their extraordinary circumstances. It was the ‘social and cultural effects of persecution and repeated emigration’ together with the ‘insecurity of [their] minority existence’ (302) which made them work harder.

Grell meanwhile cannot find any of the anxiety about salvation that Max Weber saw as the key driving force to working hard in order to find reassurance in success. The exiles identified with their special role of the elect nation, but they seemed at all times confident about their faith and their predestination to be saved. Their ‘sense of accountability towards God and the wider Reformed community’ meanwhile ‘caused them to operate and manage their affairs in an open and transparent manner … values which form a constituent part of modern, democratic society, even if their religious rationale has long disappeared.’ (307) The first part of Grell’s conclusion appears more convincing to me though than the second.

Alas, like so many monographs these days, the volume does not have a bibliography. I keep wondering if this is due to the laziness of authors who do not like to compile one, their attempt to conceal their sources from colleagues encroaching on their turf, or a money-saving measure by the publisher that keeps the size of the book down. From a reader’s point of view it is simply annoying, especially if the reader works in a related field and might want to check up or consult some of the sources used. It might also be a publisher’s ploy to force readers to buy the entire book, instead of photocopying its bibliography from an inter-library loan. Be that as it may, in this particular case buying the book might just be worthwhile.


Ole Peter Grell, Brethren in Christ: A Calvinist Network in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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