John Lothrop Motley and the Prose Epic of the Reformation

Celebrating German founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, in 2017 is cause for reflection. There is reason to remember the book that is the epic of the Reformation by John Lothrop Motley (1814 – 1877), American diplomat and author.

Motley’s “The Rise of the Dutch Republic” (1900), the prose epic of the Reformation. Motley described the heroic resistance of the Gothic people. It was ethnically closely related to the Anglo-Saxons, against tyranny. The history of the later forming of the Republic of Holland was closely related to the Germanic early history. Although the Germanic system of government was nominally regal, it was in reality democratic. Sovereignty resided in the great assembly of the people. The early Germanics preferred gaining wealth by conquest: “Germanic”, Germann, Herr-mann, War-man. Conquest was the only useful occupation. Agriculture was despised as enervating and ignoble. The Germanics were more fitted for the roaming and conquering life which Providence was to assign to them for ages. The Germanics built his solitary hut where inclination prompted. Close neighborhood was not to his taste. These were the ancestors of Daniel Boone of the American West. Civilized by Christianity this independence was to become the virtue of the hero of liberty. It is part of the mystique of the frontiersman, who carried axe and the ark of religious-political liberty ever westward. He secured the American continent as the homeland of the chosen nation.

It is important to note that the early Germanic had a pure belief. He believed in a single, supreme, almighty God, All-Vater or All-father. This Divinity was too sublime to be incarnated or imaged, too infinite to be enclosed in temples. The Germanic is the embryonic Protestant. The Germanic was loyal. He contented himself with a single wife. The Germanic burial was simple. He was not ambitious at the grave. Only arms and the war-horse of the departed were burned and buried with him. Sometimes the war-horse equipment was buried. The turf was his only sepulcher. The memory of his valor is his only monument. It was a purely spiritual cast of mind and a brave humility. According to Motley the Germanic Batavians of Holland had disappeared but they lived a renovated existence as the free Frisians, whose name is synonymous with liberty and the nearest relation to the Anglo-Saxon. In the Batavian ashes the people developed together a fixed type of character. The great elements were love of freedom, indomitable valor, steadiness, sobriety, industry, receptivity of culture and sagacious intellectuality.

The mission of the Germanic peoples is obvious. Providence has chosen them to prepare the way for their redemptive work among the undeveloped peoples that surround them.

In 1868 Motley spoke on America’s future history (in Motley, Historic Progress and American Democracy, 1869). The determinant is destiny, a secularized term for Providence. The United States appears as the chosen nation:

“This nation stands on the point towards which other peoples are moving – the starting-point, not the goal. It has put itself – or rather destiny has put it – more immediately than other nations in subordination to the law governing all bodies political as inexorably as Kepler’s laws control the motions of the planets…The orbit of civilization seems preordained from East to West…China, India, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Rome, are successively lighted up as the majestic orb of day moves over them; and as he advances still further through his storied and mysterious Zodiac, we behold the shadows of evening as surely falling on the lands which he leaves behind him.”.

Liberation and Reformation could only go so far in the Old World. To a new and uncorrupted nation was to be given the complete emancipation of mankind. Geography, date of discovery, the origin of the settlers, all have been destined to accomplish the result. How is world liberation to be completed? England at the time was becoming a partner of its old colony in the liberation of humanity. After all their peoples were children of the ancient Germanic mother. American democracy, American inventiveness and initiative are the main influences. The steam engine, telegraph, the free school and the daily press had been waiting to appear until the new nation could show its value on an immense scale. Improvements of technology and institutions were effective means of destroying the superstition on which the mystical Babylon rested. “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge will be increased” (Daniel 12:4).


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