The Sacred in English Religion

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In his masterpiece, Religion And The Decline Of Magic (1971), Keith Thomas documented the drive of the Protestant Reformation to banish magic from English culture. [1A] That impetus was associated with something very much bigger, the drive to banish the sacred - in the sense of the supernatural being mediated in the natural world - from English culture.

Of course, the Reformers and their successors did not see the matter in those terms. They saw themselves as simply stamping out the Popish idolatry and superstition of what we now call the Catholic Church.

The Pre-Reformation Sacred

In the scheme of things of Christians before the Reformation, there had been a sacred past in Bible lands and Bible times: in the Old Testament, there was Eden and the history of God's dealings with the Jews; in the New Testament, the story of Christ and the Apostles. There was also going to be a sacred future: the Second Coming of Christ. But though the present was thought of as essentially profane, corrupted by the Fall of Adam and in need of Redemption by Christ, nevertheless the sacred was always readily available in the present, through the mediation of the Church.

Before the Reformation, the sacred could be experienced, understood and borne witness to in all kinds of ways through the formal institutions of the Universal Church: the mass, the seven sacraments, the priesthood, the major religious orders, the churches and cathedrals, the universities, the theology, the Bible, the cult of the Virgin, the saints as patrons of every conceivable occupation or occasion and intercessors for every kind of human problem, the calendar of feasts and observances and so on and so on. At the same time, there was the additional flexibility of a whole range of purely local provisions to meet specific local demands for the sacred: local saints and their cults, processions, pilgrimages, shrines, relics etc., often in continuation of previous pagan provisions for the sacred. [1]

The Rejection of the Sacred and its Reappearance

But in the basic Reformation model, everything was subordinated to the Bible. Implicit in the Bible there had been a sacred past and there would be a sacred future. Thus there had been miracles; angels and, of course, Jesus had walked in the world and would do so again, for the Bible said so. But the whole idea of the sacred in the present through the mediation of the Church was cast overboard. The only mediation in the present was the Bible itself.

However, in practice the Bible was never enough. People continued to feel a need to make contact with the sacred and to understand and bear witness to their own experience of the sacred in ways that the Bible could not mediate for them. Consequently, the history of religion in England since the Reformation may be seen as a history of the sacred present creeping back into Protestantism and of people looking ever further afield when Protestantism was not enough for them.

Inside Protestantism,

  • The Established Church may be seen as never having relinquished certain vestiges of the pre-Reformation sacred and in Anglo-Catholicism as having tried to recover a lot more.
  • The histories of the fundamentalist Protestant churches may be interpreted in terms of efforts at attaining a sacred present through the Bible. Thus millennialism may be seen as a sort of desperation to have the sacred future now.

Outside Protestantism, and apart from Catholicism and the religions of recent immigrants, religion in England may be understood as the quest for the sacred from a whole spectrum of sources ever more distant from the Bible alone of pure Protestantism.

  • One significant trend has been to look to what may be called New Revelation Christianity. By this is meant those imported American religions which have supplemented the Bible with new Bible-like revelations regarded as sacred: most notably Mormonism with the Book of Mormon and Christian Science with Science and Health.
  • Another trend has been to retreat further from the Bible alone by looking to various forms of occultism and esoteric Eastern mysticism, whilst retaining a reverence for Jesus and the Bible: as in spiritualism.
  • Finally, there has been recourse to totally non-Biblical, non-Christian religions. Thus, a generation ago the sacred was sought in Indian religions; nowadays neo-Paganism such as that inspired by the pre-historic Celts seems more popular: the sacred as ancient being preferred to the sacred as exotic. [2]


1A Weber

Dec 2006: Note Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [1904-05, Talcott Parsons's English translation, 1930], discussing Calvinism:

That great historic process in the development of religions, the elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the Hebrew prophets and, in conjunction with Helenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin, came here to its logical conclusion. [Routledge Classics edn, p 61]

[Back to Article]

1 Numinous

Numinous rather than sacred is used by a leading Catholic historian of the English Reformation. J.J.Scarisbrick, in the notable Chapter 8 of The Reformation and the English People (1984), refers to

a shift [in religion] ... from the numinous and mysterious to the everyday (p 163).

But the term numinous is a coinage of the Protestant, Rudolf Otto, to refer to the raw, unmediated experience of the sacred, as in mysticism. The Reformation was not about getting rid of that: it was about the suppression of the sacred as mediated through the institutions and practices of the Catholic Church. It is a token of the lack of understanding of the sacred in our culture that such an eminent figure as Professor Scarisbrick should be confused here. [Back to Article]

2 Ancient or Exotic

The contrast between the sacred as ancient and the sacred as exotic refers to the notion of the Protestant sacred that will be developed on this site. In a nutshell, the Protestant rejection of the Catholic sacred mediated in the here and now has led to English-speaking culture in general associating the sacred with the there and then, i.e. with exotic and ancient religions. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2001