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Brad Gregory argues that the collective dynamic of martyrdom helped shape the character of early modern Christianity (Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 6). Therefore, Gregory attempts to explore the meaning and significance of Christian martyrdom among Protestants, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics during the Reformation era. Gregory's book aims at analyzing (utilizing both nominalist and essentialist categories) martyrdom during the Reform era (cross-confessionally) in order to arrive at a better understanding of early modern Christianity.
Gregory begins by examining the conceptual prerequisites which provide the framework for the significance of martyrdom in the early modern era, beginning with the idea of martyrdom itself in late medieval Europe. Although the Western church was essentially free from the opportunity for martyrdom during this period, Gregory argues that the concept had been preserved especially through the canonization of the more ancient martyrs and the popular devotion to the passion of Christ (in addition to the execution of those deemed heterodox by the institutional church).
Gregory next turns to examine the readiness of authorities to kill those they deemed heretical. He argues that the civic and ecclesiastical authorities viewed religious heterodoxy as a danger not only to the soul of the individual, but a serious threat to the eternal destinies of others as well. Therefore, although Gregory argues that the goal of the enforcement of orthodoxy was corrective, the danger was viewed as substantive enough to warrant the death penalty for the recalcitrant (and Scripture itself was brought to bear to justify this extreme penalty).
Why were people willing to suffer death for their beliefs? Gregory analyzes the motivation of Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist martyrdom by carefully examining both the words and deeds of the martyrs (Gregory, p. 97). How does Gregory reconstruct the religious sentiments of the martyrs he examines? Gregory turns to the published prison letters, songs, and confessions of faith authored by the martyrs. He concludes that these people suffered death willingly because they believed in the ultimate veracity of their beliefs (i.e., they believed they were divinely revealed). Further, because they were truths with eternal ramifications, the temporal consequences (including the penalty of execution) for holding them were relativized by the martyrs (Gregory, p. 105). The martyrs of all three traditions saw themselves in historical continuity with the martyrs of the biblical record and the early church, and they identified with the plight of the unjustly persecuted, and most especially with Christ. The social context for the readiness to die was formed by friends, family members, and fellow partisans who encouraged the condemned and exhorted them to steadfastness.
Gregory then examines the final conceptual prerequisite for martyrdom by examining the way in which the various ecclesiastical traditions interpreted, memorialized, and publicized their martyrs. Although there were some differences among the different Protestant traditions (especially among the mid-century martyrologists), the Protestant traditions closely associated martyrdom with the doctrinal beliefs of the persecuted. They also interpreted their afflictions as one of the principle marks of the true church, which flowed from their conviction that preaching the true Gospel attracted persecution (and they offered an alternative reading of the Christian past in this regard). The Protestant martyrologies were the primary means of memorialization, and they effectively "put a human face on doctrinal controversy," and thus, they integrated abstract theological debates into the popular arena (Gregory, p. 176). The various Anabaptists groups interpreted martyrdom as the expected result of one's commitment to Christian discipleship (Gregory, p. 249). Unlike the widespread Protestant tendency to memorialize through the written publication, Anabaptist groups memorialized their martyrs principally through lyrical verse (although their tradition is not devoid of published martyrologies - but even in these, songs were often central). In contrast to both of the previous ecclesiastical traditions, Roman Catholics tended to interpret their martyrs (Gregory primarily examines the Henrician Catholic martyrs) as defenders of what early Christian martyrs had helped to establish (Gregory, p. 267). Additionally, they looked to these recent and "unofficial" saints for intercession and moral guidance. Roman Catholics memorializations also tended to emphasize visual representations of their martyrs more so than their Protestant or Anabaptist counterparts.
Gregory concludes his book with an examination of the controversialists - those who concerned themselves with the denunciation of rival martyrological claims (although this phenomena was limited primarily to the Catholic and Protestant communities). Because there was such a close connection between doctrine and death, the criteria employed by the Controversialists to discern true from false martyrs was fidelity to Christian truth.
Gregory's book represents an impressive achievement in bringing together the martyrological source material of the Reform era for an extensive analysis. He does not shirk the difficult problem of the competing martyrological claims of the era, but rather analyses each on its own terms, in its own context, and as each developed. Additionally, he offers an able (if somewhat limited) refutation of poststructuralist metaphysical and epistemological theories, and he rightly dismisses reductionistic historical methodologies that vitiate the very possibility of understanding historical difference - lucid insights that were much appreciated from his introduction. On the other hand, this reviewer would like to suggest that Gregory's optimism concerning the general historical reliability of highly charged ideological documents may be unwarranted. This reviewer was not convinced of the general historical reliability of these highly partisan sources - although Gregory's argumentation was clever (if ultimately unpersuasive) in this regard. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that early modern martyrologists did, in fact, use religion in deliberately manipulative ways, especially since there are contradictory accounts of martyrdom from divergent traditions (and this seems true even if Gregory's claim is true that this is the exception rather than the rule). It seems to this reviewer that the only time the reliability of these documents can be taken for granted is when divergent traditions agree in their accounts - and Gregory admits that documentation of this type of agreement is scarce (Gregory, pp. 20-21).