Age of Faith?

Earthly Powers
The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War
Michael Burleigh
HarperCollins, $29.95, 530 pp.

I wonder how many students emerge from a course on modern Europe knowing that the nineteenth century was one of the most intensely religious periods in European history. Railroads and revolutions, parliaments and parties, changes in suffrage and strategy-these are central themes in most accounts of the nineteenth century. Not much is said about the record number of vocations, the remarkable growth in church construction (five thousand churches and chapels were built in Britain alone between 1800 and 1876), or-most important of all-the extensive missionary activity that transformed Christianity into the world religion it is today. Not enough historians have taken seriously George Kitson Clark’s assessment that “probably in no other century, except the seventeenth and perhaps the twelfth, did the claims of religion occupy so large a part in the nation’s life, or did men speaking in the name of religion contrive to exercise so much power.” Kitson Clark was writing about Victorian England, but his insight applies to the rest of Europe as well.

In the nineteenth century, the process of “secularization” did not destroy religious belief and practice but rather transformed them from universally accepted parts of life into a series of problems. First, and to many contemporaries, the most vexing, was the problem of church and state. How did the international authority claimed by the papacy and the local authority claimed...

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About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.