Nicodemites and Night Disciples

Nicodemites and Night Disciples July 22, 2019

Call it a guilty secret of Christian history: a secret about secrecy.

As I have been describing over several recent posts, a great many Christian believers have held their faith in secret, even to the point of denying that they were really Christians. On the one hand, we think of the martyrs who stood up and proclaimed their faith at risk of torture and death, but there were also plenty of others who remained private and clandestine. In the modern world, we might be looking at tens of millions of such cases. And they have a name, one that resonates through long periods of Christian history, but which is largely forgotten today, at least by non-specialists. They were Nicodemites.

Nicodemus appears in John chapter 3, as a leader [archon] of the Jews: “he came to Jesus at night [nuktos]” (compare John 7.50, 19.39). That chapter is among the most celebrated in the New Testament, as the source of Jesus’s language about being born again. Through the centuries, Nicodemus was also among the most famous figures of the whole New Testament because of his association with the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which reports Jesus’s visit to liberate the souls in Hell after his Crucifixion. Unlike many such texts, that remained popular and beloved long after the Reformation, and was much reprinted by Protestants and Catholics alike.

So Nicodemus was famous for things he had never said or done. But what made him so distinctive was that he was  a secret believer, one who was afraid to confess his faith openly. He came to Jesus, but only at night – as “the night disciple.” During the Reformation, this made him a controversial object lesson for believers, a prototype of those who would not come out and frankly avow where they stood in the great religious struggles of the day. Depending on the context, that might mean people of Catholic sympathies who publicly conformed to an official Protestant faith; or vice versa; or, intriguingly, people whose Christianity did not fit with any standard orthodoxy, but who conformed nevertheless for fear of persecution or death.

The most famous work in this tradition was by John Calvin himself, who in 1544 published his widely read and cited Letter to Messieurs les Nicodémites. Over the following century or two, Nicodemites and Nicodemism were a standard component of European religious polemic, and some of the works on the subject became something like popular classics. One was Nicodemus, or, A treatise against the fear of man by the Halle Lutheran August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), published in 1701, and regularly reprinted in multiple languages through the nineteenth century.

For all his calls to stand up publicly, Francke wrote quite sympathetically of the two hidden disciples, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who were the ones responsible for burying Jesus’s body. Perhaps, he wrote, God had a special purpose for those seemingly weaker brothers, as vessels for displaying his power when appropriate. Incidentally, there is a fine account of Francke’s influence on Bach’s religious music in Eric Chafe’s J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology (2014). Bach composed several cantatas based on Jesus’s exchange with Nicodemus.

And there really were Nicodemites to argue with. On the other side from Calvin and Francke, we find someone like Otto Brunfels in Strasburg, a monk turned Protestant preacher (and a pioneer botanist), whose popular and much reprinted Pandects (1528) offered a full scale justification for dissimulation under a hostile regime. For Brunfels, the true church consisted only of an elect minority selected before birth, so that you couldn’t convert the reprobate majority anyway. Therefore, just go along with their foolish ways in this transient world. If you need to fake it in order to survive – by attending Catholic Mass in a seemingly reverent way – then go ahead. The way of Nicodemus was the right one. Other later writers were even more explicit in advocating Nicodemism where necessary: hence Calvin’s furious reaction.

There is an interesting parallel here with Islam, especially in its Shia forms. Believers are allowed to follow “precautionary dissimulation” (taqiyya) or outward conformity where appropriate, particularly to avert persecution or religious compulsion. That included dissimulation by silence or omission – that is, by failing to proclaim faith boldly. Sunnis also adopted this position when forced to live as Christians, as with the Moriscos in sixteenth century Spain. Some of the Reformation-era Christian Nicodemites came close to such a position. Has any scholar has ever done an extensive comparison between the two traditions? (I see one passing comparison here).

It’s a fantasy, wholly unsupported by evidence, but I have this vision that somewhere around 1540, a crypto-Muslim passed a crypto-Protestant leaving a Catholic church somewhere in France or Spain, and they exchanged an embarrassed smile.

The term “Nicodemism” became obsolete, but returned as a major component of scholarly debate on the Reformation era in Carlo Ginzburg’s Il nicodemismo (Turin, 1970), with its emphases on silence, discretion and secrecy.  The book is subtitled Simulazione e dissimulazione religiosa nell’Europa del ‘500 – simulation and dissimulation in sixteenth century Europe. That’s a very important study, although Ginzburg made the controversial claim that Nicodemism was some kind of organized movement or tradition, which other dispute strongly.

This is all in my mind right now in light of a recent book I was reading, namely M. Anne Overell’s Nicodemites: Faith and Concealment between Italy and Tudor England (2018). This focuses on those many people – almost all of whom were elite believers – who tried to avoid the religious extremes of the era, but who conformed publicly as best they could. And in the process, suggests Overell, they made gradual but important progress towards religious toleration. She even sees Queen Elizabeth I as a Nicodemite.

I also see that Diarmaid MacCulloch discusses Nicodemism in the context of Thomas Cromwell, in his recent Revolutionary Life of that figure (2018). Further showing how lively a field this is in the religious history of the era, Kenneth J. Woo has a forthcoming book on Nicodemism and the English Calvin, 1544–1584 (Brill 2019).

At the time, the word Nicodemite meant almost a coward, someone who feared men rather than God, and who denied the stern New Testament demands to assert faith publicly. But in an age of fanaticism and extremism, was this such a dreadful position to hold? Was dissimulation really a path to hell? Was staying firmly ensconced in the church closet such a disreputable thing to do?

Once you discover Nicodemism, it is hard to miss in that era, and you appreciate how people valued the idea as a legitimate stance. Around 1550, for instance, Michelangelo created a stunning Pietà, a Deposition of Christ, which naturally features Nicodemus. But the face he gives Nicodemus is his own. What might that depiction be saying about his own religious loyalties? Was he too a night disciple?

In the late seventeenth century, a lady asked Lord Shaftesbury what religion he followed, to which he replied “The religion of wise men.” So which is that?, she asked. Shaftesbury replied, “Wise men never tell.” A true Nicodemite.

Here is a question I cannot answer: is there a major literature on Nicodemism in colonial America?




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