There is no shortage of works addressing the Reformation. Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand remains a must read, in addition to other standards such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation, David C. Steinmetz’s Reformers in the Wing, and Michael Reeves’ The Unquenchable Flame. The field is crowded, yet scholars continue to find insightful approaches to Reformation studies (check out Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and my review). David M. Whitford’s latest work on Philipp of Hesse is no exception.
Whitford’s A Reformation Life: The European Reformation through the Eyes of Philipp of Hesse (Praeger, 2015; source: publisher) begins with a conclusion. As Whitford states, wherever he looked he ended up running into Philipp of Hesse. The landgrave of Hesse had his hand in all matters of the Reformation. It was clear that all roads led to Philipp, but the how and why remained unanswered. A Reformation Life explores these routes.
A Reformation Life’s intended audience is generalists rather than specialists. Also, the work does not intend to replace more conventional tellings of the Reformation that center around Martin Luther. In this sense, readers will not find revolutionary insight into the Reformation, but that was never the intent.
Instead, A Reformation Life realigns the unfavorable balance of historical significance versus contemporary acknowledgment in the case of Philipp of Hesse. In doing so, it is natural that politics during the Reformation is a strength of Whitford’s study. Chapter two is particularly strong and probably a reading I would assign for a class on the Reformation.
However, the strengths of A Reformation Life does not stop there. In chapter three, Whitford traces Philipp’s actions alongside events such the Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses and the Diet of Worms. In doing so, Whitford argues that Philipp is not merely in the background as a political leader, but a major component to the historical and theological development of the Reformation. The second half of the work illustrates Philipp’s involvement in the Reformation beyond Germany, in his interactions with Ulrich Zwingli, Henry VIII, and John Calvin.
It is important to note Whitford’s balanced description of Philipp. The landgrave of Hesse may have been instrumental in many aspects of the Reformation, but he also had his faults. For instance, Philipp was not immune to use the Reformation for personal causes. Philipp sought to divorce Catherine of Saxony and marry Margarete von der Saale. To do so, he garnered the support of Martin Bucer, eventually of Luther, and weakened the Schmalkaldic League.
When understanding A Reformation Life as a supplement rather than a replacement to Luther-centric works, its merits shine. A Reformation Life provides a fuller understanding of the Reformation by examining the life of someone who was instrumental to the political and social aspects of the Reformation. A Reformation Life also corrects the misunderstanding that such matters are in the background of the Reformation by demonstrating how they intertwine with the theological development of the Reformation. You can piecemeal some of the material through other writings, but you would lose out on Whitford’s well-developed narrative. A Reformation Life offers its readers a fluent telling of an underdeveloped storyline to the Reformation.