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The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society Hardcover – January 31, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


A strikingly brave and wide-ranging work, in which a distinguished historian of early modern Europe interprets the contemporary world. The precision and clarity with which Gregory lays out his evidence and the accuracy with which he handles materials in many different languages and of many different kinds give this original book extraordinary credibility. It's rare for a book to attain this level of scholarship nowadays. An astonishing achievement. (Anthony Grafton, author of Worlds Made by Words)

A work of deep moral seriousness. Gregory's greatest contribution is his portrayal of the Reformation of Christianity as a central moment of disturbance and creativity in the modern Western world. In this endeavor, he has no equal among living authors. The Unintended Reformation is simply the most intelligent treatment of the subject by a contemporary author. It is also the most unconventional and most stirring engagement I know with the problem of how the West has dealt with its heritage of plural religions and concepts of values and happiness. (Thomas A. Brady, Jr., author of German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650)

Gregory's insightful and compelling narrative invites us to recognize the surprising extent to which we are still what the Protestant Reformation and its heirs made us, a society of conflicting and contested truth claims. As he spells out the consequences--and the interest is in the detail--we become more sharply aware of sometimes unrecognized aspects of our present condition. (Alasdair MacIntyre, author of God, Philosophy, Universities)

A revisionist manifesto, sharp-edged and provocative, The Unintended Reformation analyzes the legacy of the Protestant Reformation with an eye firmly fixed on the present. Gregory challenges many revered assumptions and does so with verve and brilliance. Bound to stir debate for years to come, this magisterial history of the early modern era belongs on the shelf right next to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. (Carlos Eire, author of A Very Brief History of Eternity)

The Protestant Reformation is considered by many to be one of the pivotal events in the history of the Western world. No one can doubt the central role that Luther, Calvin, and other reformers have played in the lives of Christians through the years...[Gregory] approaches the continuing impact of the Reformation in what he terms a "genealogical" approach--one that sees the Reformation as the root of a tree whose branches reach into every aspect of modern life. Rejecting the "supersessionist" view, that contemporary Christendom constitutes a radically new understanding of God and of the world itself, Gregory insists that our views, even our presuppositions, must be reimagined and re-evaluated in ways that demonstrate how the Reformation continues to reach into our theologies, our laws, our lives...[A] rewarding look at the long reach of history, and how we are the poorer for ignoring it. (Publishers Weekly 2011-11-14)

[An] extraordinary new book...But however brilliant is Gregory's historical presentation (and it is brilliant), what ultimately distinguishes The Unintended Reformation is the sheer forcefulness of the narrative, which he pursues by examining the shift in perspectives on six distinct but interrelated themes since the sixteenth century: God, truth, institution, ethics, consumption and knowledge. The effect of this approach is to give the book an uncommon clarity: by going over what is essentially the single narrative in six different ways, each slight turn of the story illuminates the whole, and each new element comes across as both surprising and yet strangely familiar. The Unintended Reformation is unquestionably the most important contribution to the way we understand our present condition since Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. But it is also as a stinging rebuke to all those well-nigh fictitious accounts of the emergence of the enlightened West out of the intellectual darkness and decrepitude of the Middle Ages that now distort our collective self-perception. Let's hope Gregory's book wreaks havoc on some of these myths that we persist in telling ourselves. (Scott Stephens Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics blog 2012-02-10)

There could not be a more propitious moment for a book on greed and the historical roots of capitalism. Brad Gregory shows that historians have as much to contribute to contemporary debates about business and social ethics as most philosophers or economists...What is bold and unusual about The Unintended Reformation is that it comes from an explicitly Christian perspective and ends by arguing that only religion--properly understood as a doctrine of solidarity--can allow humanity to escape from the predicament of the modern, the material curse of poverty and the mental afflictions of prosperity. Gregory not only offers what is today a highly original combination of history and morality but also cogently explains why that combination is needed today. (Harold James Financial Times 2012-02-11)

This book is truly breathtaking in its scope, erudition and sheer nerve. There is no faulting Gregory's grasp of Reformation history, but to his analysis of what has happened since there could be many objections raised. This is relatively unimportant, however. Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was not completely right either, but it was brilliant nevertheless. Gregory's is a work not just of genuine scholarship but also of sincere moral purpose, which, even if it annoys, frustrates or fails to convince, has opened up an immensely important debate. There may yet be time to fix some of what went wrong in the Reformation. (Lucy Wooding Times Higher Education 2012-03-09)

Restrained and erudite...Apart from furnishing an interesting and well written account of the Reformation, the book is perhaps most interesting when [Gregory] grapples with his opponents...[A] thought-provoking book. (Nick Carn Financial World 2012-06-01)

A lucidly written and far-reaching analysis that shows how the contemporary Western world continues to be influenced by the complex transformations that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. (J. Werner Choice 2012-07-01)

Charts how the godly Reformation led inexorably to the secularization of western society. (Piers Paul Read The Spectator 2013-11-16)

About the Author

Brad S. Gregory is Dorothy G. Griffin Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; First Edition edition (January 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674045637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674045637
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #94,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brad S. Gregory is Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University (1996) and was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows (1994-96). Before joining the faculty at Notre Dame in 2003, Gregory taught at Stanford University, where he received early tenure in 2001. Gregory has two degrees in philosophy as well, both earned at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. He has received multiple teaching awards at Stanford and Notre Dame, and in 2005 was named the inaugural winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture as the outstanding mid-career humanities scholar in the United States. Gregory's research focuses on Christianity in the Reformation era, the long-term effects of the Reformation, secularization in early modern and modern Western history, and methodology in the study of religion.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

115 of 129 people found the following review helpful By Christian Smith on December 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a tremendously important and illuminating work that deftly discloses the deep historical roots of the character of our modern, secular world. Brad Gregory offers us here a massive scholarly achievement of great significance and insight, which deserves a very wide reading.

Modern people love to think that they are radically different from those who lived in the pre-modern age. Gregory clearly shows instead how powerfully governed are modern thinking, practices, and tendencies by assumptions and categories formed in the late Middle Ages, as mediated by the Protestant Reformation. Particularly impressive is Gregory's case for the secularizing and pluralizing logic that the Protestant Reformation set into historical motion.

Thoughtful moderns and postmoderns who want to understand the massive historical forces that have produced their own social worlds, and therefore their very lives, must read this book. Professional historians, whose work has grown ever more specialized and narrow, need to read this sweeping narrative, which pulls us all back to the big picture and the big questions. Protestant (and other) Christians today who are puzzled or distressed by the secularization of so much of the world have to confront, absorb, and digest the implications of Gregory's powerful argument.

The historical, sociological, and philosophical thought that Brad Gregory has put into this broad-ranging work is extraordinary; his historical scholarship is meticulous; his writing is lucid; and the payoff of insight for readers who take his argument seriously is huge. Gregory is to be much congratulated and thanked for producing this landmark book. I myself have already read it once, and have already started to read it again.
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62 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Michael M on March 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an important book--and a dangerous one. It comes as no surprise, then, that the reviews are so harshly divided. Much is a stake.

In the book, Gregory argues two main points: 1) That the nearly absolute secularization of Western culture is an unintended result of the Protestant Reformation, and 2) that the current power-brokers of liberal democracy and the academy like it that way and wish to keep religion marginalized in what they desire to be a "post-religious" world. Central to his thesis--and it appears that some reviewers of the book have not read enough of it to discern this--is that the medieval ideal of caritas as the core of a healthy society was during the Reformation (and after) usurped by the notion of "faith" which eventually resulted in religious belief being rendered inert and forced into an allegedly "private" sphere and disallowed in public (and certainly in the academy) almost as a mark of shame. In short, the medieval ethos of caritas and the presence of what Emmanuel Levinas described as "metaphysical desire" (the insatiable desire for goodness, truth, and beauty) has been replaced by its antithesis: consumerism and the insatiable desire for more and more "stuff."

Gregory's "genealogical" methodology serves his subject (and his purposes) well. The book is very well-researched and draws some provocative conclusions. He draws on ideas found in Alasdair MacIntyre's work and much of what he writes bears resonance with the writing of Regina Schwartz, C. John Sommerville, and, particularly, Charles Taylor. Scholars and intellectuals invested in the secularization project will find Gregory's work troubling. That's a good thing.
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68 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Thomas W. Smith, Ph.D. on January 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a tour de force by a distinguished historian of the Reformation. The thesis is that many of the significant challenges we face today in terms of politics, culture, economics, and our ability deliberate together reasonably can be traced back to the unintended consequences of the Reformation. This fact is obscured by the assumption among many contemporary historians that we have moved beyond a pre-modern past in ways that mean we no longer need to understand the world of the Middle Ages and Reformation in order to understand ourselves. The book achieves that ambitious goal because the author has mastered an astonishing variety of different approaches to knowing -- history (of course), but also theology, moral and political philosophy, and metaphysics. The erudition and scope of the book is deeply impressive and inspiring. I hope that this work will become for a new generation of grad students what McIntyre's work was for me when I started grad school in the late eighties, or what Millbank's was to many grad students in the last decade -- a book that reorients students away from conventional grad school limitations on what they should learn and how they should learn it. I hope that it will become for everyone an occasion to reflect more deeply on the ways the past has influenced our current situation.
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59 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Recordari volo on January 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My comments here build on earlier reviews, especially Christian Smith's and Thomas Smith's.

This book is a great achievement. Here I'd like to focus on what it brings to professional historians.

I am in graduate school and my experience of this book is close to what Thomas Smith said he hoped would happen to readers who are entering the academy. It's premature but this book may end up being as important as MacIntyre's After Virtue. However, it is a work of a historian rather than a philosopher and it has the particular strengths of a historian that a philosopher lacks: a great sensitivity to the details of ritual, everyday life, economic changes, political decisions, etc. Gregory's great contribution is his keen sense of how practices and thought impact each other (and some philosophical training seems evident here).

Though obviously a longish book, it seems a short book to me for how much it accomplishes. Many of the theorists of the past century and a half (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other philosophers but especially the profoundly influential Weber and Foucault) are engaged well. My profession is dominated by these thinkers and their intellectual offspring. Gregory, engaged in a critique, briefly acknowledges the good that they have contributed (naive objectivity or positivism of some 19th century historians is no longer possible) but is more concerned to describe the negative effects of their thought and to argue against them- usually it is a question of the premises of their thought rather than mistakes in reasoning. Gregory has argued for a new space in the academy. I hope that he treats these questions in greater detail, or that some other author will develop Gregory's insights here.
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