Reformation of the refugees

by Edwin Woodruff Tait

Religious refugees chose faith over geography

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 120 in 2016 ]

A very minor play from the 1590s about the life of Sir Thomas More has one not-so-minor part: a monologue Shakespeare may have penned about a 1517 event, but sounding ripped from today’s headlines. In the play English rioters try to drive out French, Belgian, and Italian refugees, complaining that the strangers will “infect the city with the palsey” by importing their strange new diet (parsnips and pumpkins). 

The character More responds: “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, / Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, / Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation, / And that you sit as kings in your desires. … Go you to France or Flanders, / To any German province, to Spain or Portugal, / Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England, / Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased / To find a nation of such barbarous temper, / That, breaking out in hideous violence, / Would not afford you an abode on earth?”

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The sixteenth century was a century of refugees because it was (like most centuries) a century of war. Early modern rulers fought for personal glory and to forge territories into unified states. Their mercenary armies plundered and terrorized the civilian population, both to gain supplies and for the sheer fun of it. 

Raging religious conflict caused trouble too. Rulers felt a duty to, at the very least, ensure the “right” form of public worship; at worst dissenters were hunted down and killed. Each new redrawing of the religious map prompted the flight of those who didn’t want to live under the new regime. Anabaptists and other radicals were perpetual refugees, seeking a slightly less lethal place to live than the rest of Europe.

Next to Anabaptists the Reformed most frequently wound up as refugees; Lutherans often agreed to go along with prescribed forms of worship while maintaining “heretical” beliefs underground. Calvin, himself a refugee, condemned this approach as “Nicodemism” (after the member of the Sanhedrin who came to Jesus by night in John 3), saying that since the Mass is blasphemy, no true Christian could participate in it, however passively. As a result Geneva and other centers of “Calvinist” Protestantism filled with refugees. 

At Geneva itself the leading group was, naturally, Calvin’s French compatriots. But refugees from Queen Mary’s persecution of English Protestants also found their way to Geneva, with results that would shape internal English conflicts for more than a century. 

a faith they chose

Some Lutherans did flee. In the shifting fortunes of German Protestantism, prominent pastors and theologians often left one now-hostile city and took up residence in a friendlier town. German Catholics also sometimes left cities where their religion was no longer openly practiced for one where it was welcomed. 

But the most significant Catholic refugees were English. Most ordinary English Catholics simply became Anglicans, but a significant upper-class group became “recusants,” refusing to participate in Anglican worship and sheltering “foreign” priests at the risk of their own lives. Many of these priests were actually young Englishmen. Convinced that the “old Religion” was the true one, they left England for shelter in Catholic territories, returning as hunted missionaries to minister to their native country. 

Religious refugees, by definition, choose faith over geography. Most other people in the early modern world accepted, however reluctantly, the faith their communities held and the changes imposed by their rulers. Refugees pointed to a different understanding of religious identity: chosen, at great cost to oneself, rather than accepted from one’s ancestors and shared with one’s neighbors. Eventually the refugee tide flowed to the New World, where multiple denominations developed, enshrining that sense of personally chosen faith. We are all heirs of the refugees. —Edwin Woodruff Tait, contributing editor, Christian History

This article is from Christian History magazine #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions. Read it in context here!


mag coversChristian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.


Edwin Woodruff Tait, contributing editor, Christian History

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