1680: Climates of Revolt

1680: Climates of Revolt February 8, 2016

Any account of religion in the pre-Modern world has to take account of economic circumstances, and especially the way in which climate change and weather affected farming and trade. In my last post, I described the horrendous conditions of the decade after 1675,  an especially cold period within the larger framework of the Little Ice Age. I specifically looked at a couple of episodes of outrageous religious paranoia, scapegoating and persecution in England and France, and several other European lands. But I could choose lots of other examples, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In fact, much of the modern history of Protestantism worldwide has its roots in the climate catastrophe of 1675-85. That is especially true of the Calvinist heirs of the Reformation movement.

Huguenots Worldwide

Through the 1670s, the French king Louis XIV became ever harsher to his Protestant subjects. Finally in 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, ending the toleration of Protestants and driving perhaps half a million Huguenots into exile. Those exiles spread their Calvinist-derived religious traditions into many corners of the world, including Britain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, North America, and South Africa.

The Huguenots who went to Africa became crucial to the development of the Afrikaaner/Boer tradition, with its strong sense of martyrology, persecution, and the need for communal self-defense. That tradition shaped the politics of white South Africa right up to the 1990s and beyond. Although the Afrikaans language is basically Dutch in origin, most Afrikaaners have some Huguenot blood.

One early Huguenot settlement in the Americas – New Paltz, New York – dates from 1678. The name is significant, because so much of the religious tension and anti-Protestant persecution took place along the Rhine, in the regions that what we would call western Germany and Switzerland. One major center of violence and intolerance was Pfaltz, the Palatinate (modern-day Rheinland-Pfaltz). Hence, New Paltz was to be the New Palatinate, rather like “New England.”

Some diehard Huguenots fought a guerrilla campaign in France itself that continued for decades after 1685: these were the Camisards. At the start of the eighteenth century, some ex-Camisards came to London, where they formed a prophetic, apocalyptic-minded and millenarian sect called the French Prophets. That movement left a long-running underground influence, which we see among other things in the later Shakers. (I published on this French Prophet movement some years ago in Christian History magazine).

The Road to Vienna

Besides France, the other great European power was the Holy Roman Empire. Like Louis, the Emperor Leopold violently persecuted Protestants through the 1670s, to the point of sending Calvinist pastors into galley slavery. Even so, Leopold faced major religious and national resistance in his Hungarian lands. The Hungarians revolted repeatedly, and that in turn had enormous long term religious consequences. Matters came to a head in the mid-1670s, the time of famine and plague throughout the Empire, and of peasant revolts in Bohemia and elsewhere.

In 1678, the Transylvanian  noble Imre Thököly took command of the revolt: although he was the son of a Calvinist nobleman, he himself was a Lutheran Protestant. At its height, he commanded some thirty thousand rebels, who were kuruc, “Crusaders.” His movement culminated in an alliance between these “Crusaders” and the (Islamic) Ottoman Empire, against the Catholic Empire. That in turn gave the Ottomans an excuse to launch a massive invasion of the Empire, a hundred thousand strong, and to besiege Vienna.

Christian forces saved the city, and the Empire, by a decisive victory that broke Muslim power in Central Europe. The ensuing Great Turkish War (1683-99) pushed Christian military strength deep into the Balkans. The 1683 victory at Vienna is famous enough, but again, those events cannot be understood except in the broader atmosphere of discontent, revolt and inter-Christian religious persecution.

It is an interesting might-have-been: if the Turks had won, presumably Hungary would have emerged as a Protestant-dominated statelet, albeit under Islamic sovereignty.

Dissenters and Sects

In Britain, the persecution of Catholics in the Popish Plot was followed by a pro-Stuart and monarchist revival in the 1680s, what we might today call a Right-wing reaction. That in turn led to the persecution of Protestant Dissenters, especially the most radical groups, notably Quakers and Baptists.

Many fled to the new Quaker-founded colony of Pennsylvania (1682). To take one example, this movement largely uprooted the old radical centers in Wales, as local Quakers migrated en masse to Pennsylvania, to the Welsh Tract (1684). Many of the Welsh-sounding place-names found along the Philadelphia mainline are in fact of nineteenth century origin, but plenty of authentically older names survive to commemorate a lost radical heartland – Radnor, Haverford, Merion, and so on. Also in the 1680s, Pennsylvania Baptists formed the pioneering churches that would be so significant in shaping the later history of that tradition on American shores.

German Exiles

I have already noted that elsewhere in Europe too, particularly in German-speaking lands, the 1670s were a time of ferocious persecution. Major victims were the Mennonites and Anabaptists, who likewise sought refuge in Pennsylvania. The key settlement of Germantown was founded in 1683, as a magnet for German believers of all shades and denominations.

By 1700, German immigrants constituted a third of the people of the Pennsylvania colony, with the Welsh making up another third.

Mennonites in these same years debated at length how to respond to persecution, and how strictly to discipline weaker members and fellow-travelers. That split led directly to a schism in the 1690s. The stricter believers, who followed the Swiss reformer Jacob Ammann, became known as the Amish. To say the least, both these stories – German settlement and the Amish – would have a notable and lasting impact on Pennsylvania.

Covenanters and Camp Meetings

Here’s another long term American connection.

In 1679, the radical Scottish Presbyterians – the Covenanters – launched a revolt, and among other actions, they assassinated the Archbishop of St Andrews. Their movement was defeated in in the Battle of Bothwell Brig, in June 1679,  but violence continued through the savage repression and executions of the next decade. In Scotland, the 1680s were notorious as the Killing Time, an era of persecution that shaped Presbyterian thought and attitudes for two centuries afterwards.

The Covenanters ultimately triumphed in Scotland itself, but many of their descendants emigrated to the American colonies, alongside their Scotch-Irish allies. They brought with them the custom of mass field-preaching meetings that they had developed during the years of persecution, when they had to stay away from the centers of royal authority. There is a direct line of continuity from those field preaching meetings to later revivals and camp meetings, especially those of the Second Great Awakening in the 1790s. Those great camp meetings were especially common along  the western borders of states like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, which were heavily populated by Scotch-Irish migrants.

Those same Presbyterians also carried the martyrologies they had acquired in the 1680s, together with a strong sense that such official repression should never again be tolerated. You may recall that some observers at the time of the American Revolution referred to that event as the Presbyterian Rebellion, or the Presbyterian War. Much like the Afrikaaners, Calvinist Scots and Ulstermen alike have long historical memories.

I note by the way that New Paltz is located in Ulster County!

Faith, Persecution and Exile

The post-1675 decade therefore marked a crucial landmark in the history of several groups who would be so important in making colonial America and the United States itself – Germans, Scots, Scotch-Irish, Welsh – not to mention all their churches and religious traditions. If circumstances had been different, if weather, crops and germs had acted differently, perhaps those religious exiles and population movements might never have occurred. More on North America in a future post.

Apart from its relevance for religious history, the late seventeenth century experience also speaks to contemporary debates about climate. We have here a catastrophic climate change event that owed nothing to human action or intervention.

And yes, I am stealing my title from Sam White.


One recent book on the Hungarian dimension of all this is Ian Almond, Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians across Europe’s Battlegrounds (Harvard, 2011). On Scottish affairs and mindsets in that era, by far the best account is still Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel Old Mortality, a magnificent piece of historical reconstruction by someone who knew the relevant documentary sources inside out. He actually published most of them in the first place. There is a good account of Scottish and Scotch-Irish continuities in North America in David Hackett Fischer’s 1989 book Albion’s Seed.

On the French Prophets, see now Lionel Laborie, Enlightening Enthusiasm: Prophecy And Religious Experience In Early Eighteenth-Century England (Manchester University Press 2015).


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