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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2012

Department of History, Wesleyan University E-mail:


This article examines Charles Villers's Essay on the Spirit and Influence of Luther's Reformation (1804) in its intellectual and historical context. Exiled from France after 1792, Villers intervened in important French and German debates about the relationship of religion, history, and philosophy. The article shows how he took up a German Protestant discussion on the meaning of the Reformation that had been underway from the 1770s through the end of the century, including efforts by Kantians to seize the mantle of Protestantism for themselves. Villers's essay capitalized on a broad interest in the question of Protestantism and its meaning for modern freedom around 1800. Revisiting the formation of the narrative of Protestantism and progress reveals that it was not a logical progression from Protestant theology or religion but rather part of a specific ideological and social struggle in the wake of the French Revolution and the collapse of the Old Regime.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 For the French context, see Staum, Martin, Minerva's Message: Stabilizing the French Revolution (Montreal and Buffalo, 1996)Google Scholar; Rosenblatt, Helena, Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion (Cambridge, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Jainchill, Andrew, Reimagining Politics after the Terror: The Republican Origins of French Liberalism (Ithaca, 2008)Google Scholar. Jainchill puts Villers's essay in the context of French liberalism “after the Terror” and as having been motivated by opposition to Napoleon. For a brief yet insightful account of Villers see Lee, James Mitchell, “Charles Villers and German Thought in France, 1797–1804,” Proceedings of the . . . Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History 25 (1998), 5566Google Scholar.

2 Villers, Charles, Essai sur l'esprit et l'influence de la Réformation de Luther, 2nd edn (Paris, 1804 (An XII))Google Scholar. Throughout this essay I will usually cite the second edition (which is the most commonly cited and available edition) in the body of the text with page numbers in parentheses. Citations from other editions will be referred to in the notes. From what I can tell, there are no major differences between the first and second editions, with the exception of a few passages. I would like to thank Andrew Jainchill for providing me his notes on the differences between the two. All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.

3 Villers, Charles, Versuch über den Geist und Einfluß der Reformation Luthers, trans. Cramer, Karl Friedrich, pref. Heinrich Philipp Konrad Henke (Hamburg, 1805), xiiiGoogle Scholar.

4 Villers, Charles, Darstellung der Reformation Luthers, ihres Geistes und ihrer Wirkungen, trans. from the 2nd French edn by Stampeel, Niklaus Peter, with a preface by Johann Georg Rosenmüller (Leipzig, 1819)Google Scholar, vi. Rosenmüller's preface is dated Sept. 1804.

5 Israel, Jonathan, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (Oxford, 2002)Google Scholar.

6 John Robertson has made a different case for a unitary Enlightenment, albeit in the realm of political economy. Robertson, John, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples, 1680–1760 (Cambridge, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Sorkin, David, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton, 2008), 3Google Scholar.

8 Sheehan, Jonathan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton, 2005)Google Scholar.

9 Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion, vol. 1, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon (Cambridge, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Mill, James, preface to Charles Villers, An Essay on the Spirit and Influence of the Reformation of Luther, trans. Mill, James (London, 1805)Google Scholar, iv–v.

11 Heine, Heinrich, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, and Other Writings, ed. Pinkard, Terry, trans. Pollack-Milgate, Howard (Cambridge, 2007) 10, 42Google Scholar.

12 This association had other national inflections as well, especially in Victorian England. But the German case was the most pronounced, especially given the ways in which questions of theology and philosophy were often so deeply intertwined in German thought.

13 The best expression of the Wilhelmine view of the contribution of Protestantism to modern civilization was offered by Ernst Troeltsch. The title of this article alludes the English title of Troeltsch's Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus für die Entstehung der modernen Welt, first given as a lecture in 1906. The 1912 English translation by W. Montgomery is Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World. Troeltsch also put his stamp on the term “Neuprotestantismus” to distinguish the theology and ecclesiastical culture beginning in the late eighteenth century from the dominant church-civilization of post-Reformation Calvinism and Lutheranism. His fullest treatment of the distinction between “old” and “new” Protestantism is in his book Protestantisches Christentum und Kirche in der Neuzeit, first published in 1906, but revised and reissued in 1909 and 1922. See Troeltsch, Ernst, Protestantisches Christentum und Kirche in der Neuzeit (1906/1909/1922), ed. Drehsen, Volker with Albrecht, Christian, Ernst Troeltsch Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 7 (Berlin, 2004)Google Scholar. After the war theologians such as Karl Barth articulated strong critiques both of liberal theology's supposed accommodation to bourgeois culture, and of the notion that Protestant “culture” was the greatest gift of the Reformation to world civilization.

14 On the “strange alloy of theological hostility with historical dogma from which the concept of the Reformation has been forged,” see Fasolt, Constantin, “Hegel's Ghost: Europe, the Reformation, and the Middle Ages,” Viator 39/1 (2008), 350, original emphasisGoogle Scholar.

15 The biographical summary of the following paragraph closely follows the entry on Villers from the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie 39. Reprint of the 1st edn, 1895 (Berlin, 1971), 708–14, and more generally Wittmer, Louis, Charles de Villers, 1765–1815: Un intermédiaire entre la France et l'Allemagne et un précurseur de Mme. de Staël (Paris, 1908)Google Scholar, passim. Wittmer's book remains the most thorough biographical study, but is especially concerned with the French intellectual context.

16 Villers, Charles, Le magnétiseur amoureux, ed. with introduction by François Azouvi (Paris, 1978Google Scholar; first published 1787).

17 On magnetism see Darnton, Robert, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Cambridge, MA, 1968)Google Scholar; and François Azouvi's lengthy introduction to Charles Villers, Le magnétiseur amoureux.

18 Wittmer, Charles de Villers, 6.

19 Ibid., 6. Wittmer does not give any citation for the quotation.

20 Ibid., 8–13.

21 She was the first woman to hold a doctorate of philosophy in Germany. She married the prominent Lübeck patrician and businessman August Rodde, with whom she had three children.

22 Reinhold, Karl Leonhard, Briefe über die kantische Philosophie (Leipzig, 1790), 16CrossRefGoogle Scholar. “Deutschland ist unter allen übrigen europäischen Staaten am meisten zu Revolutionen des Geistes, am wenigsten zu politischen aufgelegt.”

23 Spittler listed the achievements of Johann Salomo Semler (the father of historical–critical biblical theology), as well as the work of Wilhelm Abraham Teller and Johann Joachim Spalding (the later two usually considered neologs). Spittler, Ludwig Timotheus, Grundriβ der Geschichte der christlichen Kirche (Göttingen, 1782), 465–6Google Scholar.

24 On the role of Nicolai and the ADB see Christian Nottmeier, “Aufgeklärter Protestantismus: Friedrich Nicolai, die Neologie und das theologische Profil der Allgemeinen Deutschen Bibliothek,” in Falk, Rainer and Košenina, Alexander, eds., Friedrich Nicolai und die Berliner Aufklärung (Hannover, 2008), 227–49Google Scholar.

25 See Isaiah 19:14: spirit of perverseness, confusion.

26 In 1790, Johann Georg Rosenmüller published a small book answering the question “Why are we called Protestants?”, noting that such a work had become necessary in recent times on account of confusion about the true nature of the confession. See Rosenmüller, Johann Georg, Beantwortung der Frage: Warum nennen wir uns Protestanten? (Leipzig, 1790)Google Scholar.

27 Riem, Andreas, Das reinere Christenthum, oder die Religion der Kinder des Lichts, 4 parts (Berlin, 1789–95), 1: 73Google Scholar.

28 The occasion for this comment, however, was his condemnation of the Prussian Religion Edict, which Henke saw as putting a stop to this Reformation. Heinrich Philipp Conrad Henke, Beurtheilung aller Schriften welche durch das Königlich Preuβische Religionsedikt und durch andre damit zusammenhängende Religionsverfügungen veranlaβt sind (Kiel, 1793); facsimile reprint (Königstein/Ts., 1978), 37.

29 Henke, Beurtheilung, 36.

30 Stäudlin, Karl Friedrich, Kirchliche Geographie und Statistik, 2 vols. (Tübingen, 1804), 2: 324Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., 2: 321–2.

32 The classic account of the neologs is Karl Aner, Die Theologie der Lessingzeit (Halle, 1929). A more recent overview is Beutel, Albrecht, Kirchengeschichte im Zeitalter der Aufklärung (Göttingen, 2009)Google Scholar. On the implications of these intellectual controversies for careers and the functioning of churches, schools, and universities see Vopa, Anthony La, Grace, Talent, and Merit: Poor Students, Clerical Careers, and Professional Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The term “neology” is more useful in indicating an attitude and direction in liberal theology than a concrete set of intellectual positions, given the diversity of the authors it represented.

33 Themel, Karl, “Die Mitglieder und die Leitung des Berliner Konsistoriums vom Regierungsantritt des Kurfürsten Johann Sigismund 1608 bis zur Aufhebung des königlichen preussischen Oberkonsistoriums 1809,” Jahrbuch für Berlin-Brandenburgische Kirchengeschichte 41 (1966), 52111Google Scholar; Birtsch, Günter, “The Christian as Subject: The Worldly Mind of Prussian Protestant Theologians in the Late Enlightenment Period,” in Hellmuth, Eckhart, ed., The Transformation of Political Culture: England and Germany in the Late Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1990), 309–26Google Scholar.

34 Fichte's rise to prominence in Jena in the 1790s lent further vigor to German Idealism. Fichte's sudden downfall in the wake of the Atheism Conflict of 1798–9 revealed many forceful crosscurrents in German culture. It also showed that the accusation of atheism was still enough to end a career. See La Vopa, Fichte, 368–424.

35 For the complicated history of the successive versions of this work see Karl Ameriks's introduction to Reinhold, Karl Leonhard, Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, ed. Ameriks, Karl, trans. Hebbeler, James (Cambridge, 2005)Google Scholar; as well as Martin Bondeli's extensive introduction to Reinhold, Karl Leonhard, Briefe über die Kantische Philosophie, ed. Bondeli, Martin (Basel, 2007)Google Scholar. The “letters” were first published individually in Der Teutsche Merkur from August 1786 to September 1787. They were later published with significant revisions and additions as a book (which Bondeli designates as Briefe I) in 1790. A second volume, which reflected Reinhold's changing view of Kant and evolution of his own distinct philosophy appeared in 1792 (Briefe II). Wittmer asserts that Villers remained attached to Reinhold's first series of letters (1786–7), although it is likely that he would have had access to all three iterations of the work. I have not attempted to trace Villers's specific sources for this article, as the main point is the way in which Villers took up Reinhold's attempts to cast Kant as a solution to the religious and philosophical debates of the mid-1780s. For a philosophical critique of Reinhold's project as a misreading of Kant in the context of Popularphilosophie, see di Giovanni, George, Freedom and Religion in Kant and His Immediate Successors (Cambridge, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Reinhold, Letters, 29.

37 Ibid., 32.

38 For a good overview see Beiser, Frederick, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Cambridge, MA, 1987)Google Scholar.

39 Wittmer, Charles de Villers, 97.

40 For a discussion see Printy, Michael, Enlightenment and the Creation of German Catholicism (Cambridge, 2009), 185211CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Karl Leonhard Reinhold, “Ehrenrettung der Reformation, gegen zwei Kapitel in des k.k. Hofraths und Archivars, Hrn. M. I. Schmidts Geschichte der Teutschen, 6. Band,” in Der Teutsche Merkur 1786, 2. Vierteljahr, 58.

42 Ibid., 58.

43 Ibid., 75.

44 For an overview, see Lehner, Ulrich L. and Printy, Michael, eds., A Companion to the Catholic Enlightenment in Europe (Leiden, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Reinhold, Karl Leonhard, “Briefe über die Kantische Philosophie,” in Der Teutsche Merkur 3 (1786), 99Google Scholar. Translation from Reinhold, Letters, 1.

46 Michael Sauter has recently argued that Woellner's Religious Edict (1788) was not the attack of an anti-Enlightenment conservative, but rather evidence of a split within the Prussian Enlightenment, whereby Woellner stood for those who thought that the public sphere needed to be disciplined, and that reform must proceed from the top down. See Sauter, Michael, Visions of the Enlightenment: The Edict on Religion of 1788 and the Politics of the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century Prussia (Leiden, 2009)Google Scholar.

47 Villers, Charles, Philosophie de Kant, ou principes fondamentaux de la philosophie transcendentale (Metz: Collingnon, 1801 (An IX))Google Scholar.

48 Ibid., np.

49 Ibid., x.

50 On the development of post-Kantian idealism and its relation to religious questions see di Giovanni, Freedom and Religion.

51 See Beiser, The Fate of Reason.

52 For an account of the work and its reception see Wittmer, Charles de Villers, 67–136.

53 In 1802 Joseph-Marie de Gérando's De la génération des connaissances humaines was awarded a prize by the Berlin Academy of Sciences (which likewise did not admit Kant as a member). De Gérando continued a tradition of empiricism derived from Locke and Condillac, and dismissed Kantianism in his work. Wittmer, Charles de Villers, 101. For a recent discussion of the thinkers associated with the Institut see Sonenscher, Michael, “‘The Moment of Social Science’: The Decade Philosophique and Late Eighteenth-Century French Thought,” Modern Intellectual History 6 (2009), 121–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 De Staël to Villers, 1 Aug. 1802, in Kloocke, Kurt et al. , eds., Correspondance: Madame de Staël, Charles de Villers, Benjamin Constant (Frankfurt am Main, 1993), 20–1Google Scholar.

55 Some of these themes of course re-appeared with more force in de Staël's De l'Allemagne, which borrowed heavily—and not always with acknowledgment—from Villers's work.

56 Villers, Kant, xlvi.

57 Ibid., lxvi–lxvii.

58 Ibid., lxvii.

59 Ibid., lxviii.

60 Rosenblatt, Liberal Values, 85.

61 For the context and timing see Ibid., 98; Staum, Minerva's Message, 75; Wittmer, Charles de Villers, 194. On the political context see Jainchill, Reimagining Politics, 267–75.

62 The term “radical Reformation” is of course not contemporary to Villers. Its use was established by Williams, George Hunsten, The Radical Reformation (Kirksville, 1962)Google Scholar.

63 Villers likely has in mind the Imperial Chamber Court at Wetzlar (Reichskammergericht). Although he greatly exaggerates its effectiveness, recent scholarship has indicated that the court was more effective than its image in older literature.

64 Villers, Essai, 3rd edn, 123.

65 Augustin Barruel [l'abbé Barruel], Memoires pour servir à l'Histoire du Jacobinisme, 5 vols. (Hamburg, 1800), 5: 270, original emphasis. This was originally published in 1797.

66 Immanuel Kant, “De ce que pourroit être une histoire universelle dans les vues d'un citoyen du monde,” in Le Spectateur du Nord 6 (April–June 1798), 1–39. Translator not given, notes signed V******. Presumably it was Villers.

67 Barruel, 271–2.

68 Ibid., 275.

69 Ibid., 276.

70 Michael Ignaz Schmidt suggested this in his Geschichte der Deutschen, 5 vols. (Ulm, 1778–83).

71 Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Womersley, David (London, 2000), Book LIV, 689–90Google Scholar.

72 This point is also made by Jainchill, Reimagining Politics, 270.

73 Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, 1: 4.

74 Heeren, August Ludwige, Kleine historische Schriften 1 (Göttingen, 1803)Google Scholar.

75 Heeren, Handbuch der Geschichte des europäischen Staatssystems und seiner Colonien (Göttingen, 1809).

76 Villers, 3rd edn (1808), xv.

77 See Nicholas Phillipson, “Providence and Progress: An Introduction to the Historical Thought of William Roberston,” in Brown, Stewart J., ed., William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire (Cambridge, 1997), 5573Google Scholar.

78 Robertson's Charles V was translated into French by Jean-Baptiste Antoine Suard almost immediately. It was also available in German. On his reputation in France see John Renwick, “The Reception of William's Robertson's Historical Writings in Eighteenth-Century France,” in Brown, William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, 145–63.

79 While not explicit in Villers's Essai, Kantianism itself could be said to have a “neo-confessional character,” as Hunter, Ian argues in Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Earl Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is also quite apparent from Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), in which the entire fourth section is an attack on Jewish and Catholic “legalism” and clericalism.

80 Villers admired Germaine de Staël's De la littérature considerée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800), where she makes general comments about the effect of Protestant culture on the progress of philosophy. She, in turn, learned much from Villers for her widely read De l'Allemagne (1810). For an argument on the importance of religion and Protestantism to Benjamin Constant's thought see Rosenblatt, Liberal Values.

81 Hegel, G. W. F., “Faith and Knowledge,” in idem, Faith and Knowledge, ed. and trans. Cerf, Walter and Harris, H. S. (Albany, 1977), 57Google Scholar.