Christianity: From AD 1600 – 1700

Political Milestones: 1600AD to 1700AD

This period in world history saw the shrinking of the globe into a giant theatre for the acting out of European colonial greed. The British, Dutch, Spanish, French and Portuguese were all stampeding for lands, trade, people and possessions in the New World. It was a land grab, the likes of which the world had never seen, and would never see again. Here are a few of the acts in this rapidly moving drama:

Spanish: Most of the territories acquired by Spain were obtained by force the previous century in the Americas, although they had also accumulated numerous trading posts in Asia as well. In addition to its South American possessions, Spain also once ruled most of western North America independently of the French and British. The Philippines was their only long-term Asian possession. The great economic disaster of the Spanish Empire was the exportation of the Spanish feudal landholding system to the New World. It allowed a small Spanish ruling elite to accumulate vast landholdings and suppress the indigenous and slave populations, as long as they paid tribute to the Spanish crown. South America, Mexico and the Philippines have suffered to this day under this harsh economic yoke.

British: In 1600AD the British started the world’s first truly multinational corporation in the East India Company. By the end of the century its footprint would be all over the globe. In 1607AD, the first British colony in America was founded at Jamestown. Thirteen years later the Mayflower sailed to New Plymouth with a boat load Christian refugees from Europe. Maryland was settled soon after in 1634AD, Rhode Island in 1636 and Connecticut in 1639AD. All were Christian settlements and the foundation of American culture would be shaped by the Puritans for the next hundred years. British settlements in the Bahamas followed. In 1655AD they took Jamaica from the Spanish and established a lucrative sugar and slave trade. Sadly, the English would eventually be responsible for the importation of some 3.5 million of the 10 million African slaves shipped to the New World. In contrast to the Spanish feudalism, the English also exported a great talent of skilled farmers, artisans and educated settlers to the New World. They brought Protestant capitalism and technology with them and the economic destiny of the English colonies soon diverged quickly from those controlled by Spain. Same location; different culture; different destiny.

Dutch: In 1615AD the Dutch took possession of the Moluccas Islands in Indonesia from the Portuguese. In 1629 AD they were in possession of the main island of Java. The Dutch East India Company then began to generate great wealth for the Dutch by exploiting the spice trade in competition with the Portuguese in India and the English in the Caribbean. They took East Timor from the Portuguese in 1640AD. They captured Sri Lanka and Cochin in like fashion in 1658AD and 1662AD. They then settled an empty South Africa in 1651AD. They also unsuccessfully tried to take the Philippines, Brazil and Macau from other European powers. From 1639AD till 1854AD the Dutch were the only European power allowed to trade with Japan.

French: The French colonised large parts of North America, and North Africa. Several colonies were also established on the east coast of India in the second half of the century. The France would eventually lay claim to the second largest European empire, but that would come later in history.

Russia: Although land-based, Russian imperialism was just as aggressive in this era. By 1632AD they had extended their territory to Siberia. By 1643 they were on the Chinese border, and by 1648AD they had reached the Pacific Ocean, claiming the entire northern arch of the super-continent for themselves. By 1696AD they were also pushing down into the Ottoman controlled black Sea area.

The Ottomans themselves decided to have another attempt at expanding their empire into Austria, and in 1683AD they besieged Vienna again. This time European nations united in its defence and the Ottomans were finally broken at by the largest cavalry charge in history. Within five years the Ottomans were completely pushed out of Hungary and Romania’s Transylvania.

Other parts of the world were still in control of empires outside European control. The most formidable were the Moghuls in India who kept all European traders at bay. They were also busy building the Taj Mahal. In china the Ming dynasty gave way to the Qing Dynasty in 1644AD, and it too was wary of European inquisitiveness. Japan also saw what was happening with European subjugation of nearby kingdoms, such as the Philippines, so wisely began a 250 year period of protective cultural isolation from the Western world.

Europeans were not just clashing with other cultures in the far corners of the world in the 16th Century, they were also clashing with each other at home. The last great war of the Protestant Reformation began in 1618AD and lasted thirty years. With the spread of Calvinism and the breakdown of the Peace of Augsburg, a Protestant revolt against Catholic rulership in Bohemia gradually spread into a full scale continental conflict that devastated kings, nations and churches alike. What began as a religious conflict quickly became a political one between the Spanish Hapsburgs and the rest of Europe. Its conclusion was only negotiated in 1648AD via the Peace of Westphalia. This peace treaty laid the foundations of the modern European nation state. By the time the dust settled some 10 million central Europeans had lost their lives in this miserable conflict, mostly through disease and starvation. The Thirty Years War also marked the end of the of Spanish and Catholic domination in Europe.

This was also the century when science finally revolutionised our knowledge of God’s creation. Science a product of a Christian culture and most of its early pioneers were deeply Christian. This was the era of Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Pascal, Boyle and Newton. Few are aware today of the deep Christian commitment of all of these men. In fact Newton wrote more on theology than he did science, and Kepler said science was just “thinking God’s thoughts after him”. This century also saw the establishment of England’s Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge in 1660AD. Seven of its ten founders were Puritan Christians.

Spiritual Milestones: 1600AD to 1700AD

The 17th Century was one of rapid growth in cultural Christianity around the world. With the Portuguese, English, Dutch, French and Spanish occupying vast areas of the globe, there also came a rapid growth in mainly Catholic missions. The Catholic Church saw stunning results from these efforts in Asia. By 1700AD there would be 300,000 Catholics in China, up to 500,000 in Vietnam and thousands in South India. The century started with approximately 300,000 Catholics in Japan, but with the onset of the isolationist Edo period in 1603AD, severe persecution broke out against all things foreign, and some 200,000 of these Catholics had been massacred by 1650AD. This was the first widespread persecution of Christians by Buddhists.

One of the positive developments in Catholic mission strategy in this era involved, for the first time, deep cultural contextualisation in order to get the Christian message across. This was first attempted by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in China with the mastering of modern and ancient Chinese languages as well as Chinese culture, dress and customs. He was so successful that he was the first European ever invited into the Imperial court in the Forbidden City. A second Jesuit, Roberto de Nobili (1577-1658), copied his techniques in South India. He adopted so many of the customs and lifestyles of his host culture that he was able to specialize in reaching the elite Brahmin caste.

Back in Europe the Protestant movement was rapidly evolving, and suffering. The Thirty Years War saw Bohemia retaken by the Catholic Church in 1620AD with 30,000 Protestants either killed or exiled. Millions of other Christians on both sides of the theological divide soon suffered the same fate right across central Europe. We will never know the exact losses due to the complete breakdown in social order.

The utter devastation in Europe forced wave after wave of religious refugees to flee to America. In 1620AD the Pilgrim Fathers were the first to go. Over the next 20 years some 20,000 Puritans would follow them. The Puritans created a deeply religious, socially tight-knit, and politically innovative culture that is still echoed within the modern United States. Their dream was for it to be a “light on a hill” as opposed to an intolerant and spiritually dark Europe. Their vision succeeded. In the meantime the Catholic, George Calvert established nearby Maryland in 1629AD. Rhode Island was granted a charter in 1644AD, granting complete freedom of religion to all, as did Pennsylvania in 1681AD.

In 1685AD the peace provided to French Protestants under the Edict of Nantes was revoked by the deeply Catholic King Louis the 14th. As a result of his actions to try to purify France, over half a million Huguenots had to flee France immediately, taking with them many highly skilled families. The king’s grandson, Louis the 16th would pay for this mistake with his head, as France had just snuffed out its only possibility of peaceful social reform. The Huguenot refugees proved to be a boon for the European and American settlements that took them in.

It was this expulsion of the Huguenots that motivated much of Voltaire’s writings on religion. He and other Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and David Hume saw the damage religious intolerance was causing Europe, and instead of seeing truth from error, they decided to throw all religion out the window. Europe was now on a slow march to Atheism and its hideous 20th Century consequences.

By the end of the century a complete mosaic of Christian denominations had sprung up from the fertile ground of the Reformation. There were Calvinists, Puritans, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Brethren, Lutherans and Quakers to Name a few. Each was bringing something fresh from their understanding of Scripture and Christ to the religious table. Some insights were tolerated, many were not. One thing they all lacked was a desire to reach the world with the Gospel. Survival was their motive in this era. Missions would have to wait until the next century.