The Best Books to Read for Reformation 500

If its 500th anniversary has got you interested in learning more about the Reformation, check out one of Tommy Kidd’s recent posts at the Evangelical History blog: a Reformation reading list drawn from recommendations by historians Mark Noll, John Fea, my Anxious Bench colleague Beth Allison Barr, and Kidd himself.

I’m stronger on later centuries in European history, but I did teach a course on the Reformations my first four years at Bethel and will be offering an adult Sunday School class on the subject this fall at Calvary Church in Roseville, MN. On the basis of those very limited credentials, I’d underline several of the nominations from Kidd’s post and then add a few more that didn’t make that cut:

Eire, Reformations• If you only want to buy one survey of the Reformations in all their complexity… Carlos Eire’s new Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 is praised by Noll for its “empathetic treatment of the major Protestants, full attention to the significant Catholic reforms that had begun even before the 95 Theses, and expert situating of the era’s momentous religious developments in the context of politics, economics, family life, the supernatural, and intellectual life.” Unfortunately, Kidd’s post didn’t mention my own favorite Reformation survey, by the always provocative Diarmaid Macculloch.

• Kidd and his contributors name several good biographies of Luther and other reformers, from Roland Bainton’s venerable Here I Stand (named by both Fea and Noll) to Jane Dawson’s account of the Scottish reformer John Knox, which John Turner reviewed favorably earlier this month at The Anxious Bench. I’d just add to the list Heiko Oberman’s startling reinterpretation of Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.

• As a warmhearted Pietist, I think that Protestant church historians tend to make too much of Reformation theology and too little of how that religious revolution reshaped understandings of orthopathy and orthopraxy. So I’ll second Beth’s recommendations of Susan Karant-Nunn, The Reformation of Feeling: Shaping the Religious Emotions in Early Modern Germany and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1850. It’s not as scintillating a read as either of those classics, but to get at the theme of “religious imagination,” I’ve also assigned Peter Matheson, The Imaginative World of the Reformation.

Gregory, Salvation at Stake• While Brad Gregory’s study of early modern martyrdom — nominated by his Notre Dame colleague Noll and the single most compelling Reformation monograph I’ve ever read — includes several figures from the Radical Reformation, the absence of Anabaptist voices is the most obvious hole in the list. To fill the gap, I asked two experts for their recommendations: John Roth, history professor at Goshen College, director of the Mennonite Historical Library, and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review (MQR); and Steve Nolt, history professor at Elizabethtown College and senior researcher at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

  1. If you’ve got access to MQR, Steve suggested that you first look up John’s article (“How to Commemorate a Division? Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and Its Relevance for the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Church Today”) in this month’s issue.
  2. Otherwise, try C. Arnold Snyder’s Following in the Footsteps of Christ or John’s Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be, which he describes as challenging the conventional either/or interpretations of Anabaptism as a sharply distinct tradition (e.g., Denny Weaver’s Becoming Anabaptist) or a progressive offshoot of Protestantism (e.g., C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites).
  3. And for those who like a research challenge, Steve encouraged you to look up Cup and Cross (by a conservative Mennonite named Michael Martin) or Resurrection to Reformation and Beyond (by Ben Blank, an Old Order Amish minister).

• Beyond books, I’d also recommend the work of the Christian History Institute. The most recent issue of its flagship magazine, the third in a four-part series on the Reformation, focused on Calvinism and the councils and creeds of Protestantism. And CHI produced a new Reformation documentary, This Changed Everything, which includes interviews with Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, Mennonite, Evangelical, and other experts.


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