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Everyday life is not a place for the sacred. Instead, the sacred
stands apart from ordinary, profane affairs: it nds its home in
churches, mosques and synagogues, spaces sanctied by their
connection to the world of the transcendent and dedicated to its
honour. If this seems a rather pedestrian distinction, it is not.
At the very least, it has been a distinction vital to the anthropological description of the world. In every primitive community . . ., the social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argued
in 1925, there have been found two clearly distinguishable
domains, the Sacred and the Profane.1 Despite their magically infused lives, the Trobriand islanders that he so famously
studied never lost sight of these two domains. Ask any of these
Melanesian farmers whether magic alone grew his crops and
he would simply smile on your simplicity: if elds are parched,
if fences break, he will have recourse not to magic, but to work,
guided by knowledge and reason.2 This distinction between the
ordinary world of work and the sphere of the sacred is thus primal to human existence: in anthropological terms, Malinowski
insisted, all communities, all peoples, at all times, have used it
to establish what the religious sociologist Mircea Eliade later called
a xed point to guide action, organize internal life and establish
societies.3 The French pioneer of sociology and anthropology
mile Durkheim was emphatic. In all the history of human

* Many thanks to the Center for the Study of Religion, at Princeton University,
for supporting research and writing on this topic. I am also grateful to Constance
Furey, Anthony Grafton, Jonathan Israel, Carina Johnson, Martin Mulsow, Kate
Seidl, Dror Wahrman, and audiences in Chicago and Los Angeles for their help in
thinking through these materials.
Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion, in his Magic, Science,
and Religion and Other Essays, ed. Robert Redeld (Boston, 1948), 1.
Ibid., 1112.
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard
R. Trask (New York, 1959), 21.

Past and Present, no. 192 (Aug. 2006)


The Past and Present Society, Oxford, 2006




thought, he declared, there exists no other example of two categories of things so profoundly differentiated as that of the sacred
and the profane.4
And the distinction has not gone away, either in ordinary speech
or in contemporary anthropology. Even for such a prominent
modern writer as Clifford Geertz, it is still active, if expressed
in epistemological rather than natural terms. The sacred, he
insists in a now famous essay, is what lies beyond a relatively
xed frontier of accredited knowledge that . . . sets ordinary
human experience in a permanent context of metaphysical concern. Without this frontier, without the distinction that the
frontier metaphorically represents, the empirical differentia of
religious activity or religious experience would not exist. Without
this frontier, in other words, religion would not be an object of
knowledge. On one side of the frontier are transcendent truths.
On the other side there are the common-sensical, the scientic,
and the aesthetic: precisely those aspects of human existence that
enable the researcher to differentiate, isolate and describe the
religious perspective.5 The profane operates here as an unstated
ideal, making the sacred legible to the anthropological eye.
But seen in the long term, these modern descriptions of the
sacred and profane are rather peculiar. In patristic or medieval
times, for example, the profane did not generally connote a space
of human behaviour neutral as to religion, or outside it. Instead, it
was a theological concept that described what was set against or in
opposition to (pro) the temple (fanum). Translating the Greek
bebylos (impure, unhallowed), it could be variously rendered as
irreligious, contrary to the sacred, and so on.6 This was especially true of the verb to profane, which in English and Latin alike
conveyed (and still conveys) a sense of desecration or violation of
the sacred. At times, the profane merely denoted what was for
men or human as opposed to for the gods or divine think
of the term sacred and profane letters. But even then, in the
mile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward
Swain (New York, 1915), 53.
Clifford Geertz, Religion as a Cultural System, in his The Interpretation of
Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973), 102, 98, 111, 110. For a sustained and
provocative critique of this essay, see Talal Asad, The Construction of Religion as
an Anthropological Category, in his Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of
Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, 1993).
For the complicated etymologies, see Thesaurus linguae latinae (Leipzig, 1900 ),
s.v. profanus.



Christian world, the profane carried as much of the stigma of

corruption as man himself did. Pagan or gentile letters always
stood in distinction to the word of God and were, by implication, caught in the same pollutions of paganism. Historically,
in other words, the profane was largely a force against religion,
not impartial to it.7 Early Latin renderings of Psalm 89 condemned those who profane[d] [Gods] laws, for example; while
Eusebius denounced gentiles who offered execrable sacrices
on profane and impure altars, and Cyprian described apostates
from Christs Church as foreign . . . profane . . . enemies.8
If the profane originally marked a theological distinction
between true religion and its pollution, where did what I would
call the anthropological profane come from? When and why did
it become possible to imagine there were some areas of human
life that have nothing to do with religion? Or, to ask much the
same question, when and why did it become possible to imagine something called religion that applied generically to all
people? The intention of this essay is to provide a single genealogy, or at least a prehistory, of this distinction. This story will
not offer an etymological excavation of either the sacred or the
profane. Rather the story is a historical one, grounded in the
seventeenth century, and, more specically, in the largely
Calvinist world of seventeenth-century biblical scholarship. This
scholarships obsessive zeal to dene the nature and boundaries
of true religion through systematic investigation of false religion,
what scholars called idolatry, will be the centre of the tale. In
a typically baroque and polymathic way, Calvinists and I use
the word broadly to refer to the Reformed (versus the Lutheran)
tradition of Protestantism, and thus to the English Church as
well produced scores of antiquarian treatises on ancient
deviations from the true God. Most intriguing of all was the
spectre of Jewish idolatry: the Jews deviance, and especially their
aberrant love for the Golden Calf, haunted these treatises. In
And here religion is understood, as it was for many centuries, as a rough equivalent of either true religion or Christian religion; for the full etymology and
conceptual history of religio, see Ernst Feil, Religio: die Geschichte eines neuzeitlichen
Grundbegriffs vom Frhchristentum bis zur Reformation, 3 vols. (Gttingen, 1986).
Augustine, Ennarationes in Psalmos. In Psalmo LXXXVIII Ennaratio. Sermo II,
in Patrologia cursus completus: Series latina, 221 vols. (Paris, 184464), xxxvii, col.
1131; Eusebius, De vita Constantini, ibid., viii, col. 0056d; Cyprian, Liber de unitate
ecclesiae, ibid., iv, col. 0503a. The King James Bible (1611) uses profane almost
exclusively in this sense: see, for example, Lev. 1822; Ezek. 213.




them, the Israelites functioned as the Trobriand islanders later

did for Malinowski, as parables and metaphors for exploring
the nature of religion. And this nature would shift sharply over
the course of the seventeenth century, as scholars made profane
idolatry into a species of the sacred. As antiquarians assimilated
idolatry into the heart of religion, I argue, the traditional opposition between religious truth and error broke down. The theological profane was absorbed into the heart of the sacred, paving
the way to a new anthropological distinction between the sacred
and the profane.
This distinction was forged in Christian antiquarianism, and
yet, it is a major aim of this essay to show, these scholarly
obsessions with ancient idolatry were never antiquarian in our
modern sense. That is, they were never just moved by the infatuation with obscure details, but instead were driven by the
engines of theological polemics. If orthodoxy, right belief, was
the obsession of the Lutheran seventeenth century, Calvinists
added orthopraxis, right practice, to their list. This was certainly true for Calvin, and for subsequent Calvinists it was
especially, indeed overwhelmingly, true in England, where the
politics of worship were ever present in scholars minds and
marked both the subjects and the results of their work. There,
scholars worked with uncommon assiduity to develop new
understandings of idolatry just as their entire political and religious life was being torn to pieces by the politics of worship.
The creation of an anthropological profane that part of human affairs untouched by religion and an anthropological
sacred religious behaviour ecumenically understood was a
product of this theological milieu, where societies and kings
stood and fell over the challenge of giving God his due.

Three months after the Jews escaped from their Egyptian bondage, the book of Exodus tells us, they crossed into the wilderness of Sinai. There God called Moses up to the thundering
mountain, where he remained for forty days, learning the commandments and hearing the laws that God expected his people
to obey. In the absence of their leader and fearful of their new



condition of freedom, the people of Israel grew worried and

gathered themselves together unto Aaron, the high priest, and
said to him: Up, make us gods, which shall go before us.
Aaron obeyed them, forging a molten calf and offering it to
the anxious Jews as thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up
out of the land of Egypt. Then Aaron built an altar before it,
and the people celebrated and offered sacrices. Soon, however, Moses returned from the mountain, and when he saw his
peoples deviance, he ew into a rage, rst at Aaron and later at
the rest of the Israelites. In an explosion of anger, Moses
smashed the tablets, burnt the calf and then, calling Aaron and
the Levites to his side, slaughtered the impious every man
his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his
neighbour (Exod. 32:127).
The story of the great betrayal not only of Moses but also
of God powerfully shaped the Jewish tradition, not least
because it established the ancient line of Jewish priests and gave
them a complex ceremonial law to oversee. But though it was
certainly a well-known story to early Christian writers, these
tended (for obvious reasons) to be far more anxious about the
pressing fact of gentile idolatry than about its remote Jewish
incarnations. Tertullian, for example, was profoundly antagonistic to idol worship, calling it the chief crime of mankind, the
supreme guilt of the world, but had little to say about Jews in
his De idololatria.9 Lactantius, whose Divine Institutes had an
amazing afterlife in the early modern period, railed against gentile idolatry as madness, but was mostly silent on the Hebrew
failures.10 Even the Reformation, with its notorious obsession
with idolatry, focused little on the Jewish proclivity for false
worship. In the period when Protestants essentially reinvented the
second commandment (abandoning the Latin Vulgate commandments and, like the Eastern Orthodox Church, changing the
prohibition against images from a gloss on you shall have no other
gods before me into a commandment in its own right), ancient
heathen practices, more than Jewish idolatry, preoccupied

Tertullian, De idololatria, ed. and trans. J. H. Waszink and J. C. M. van Winden
(Leiden, 1987), 23.
Lactantius, Divine Institutes, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. and trans. Alexander
Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (New York, 18909), vii, 41.




critics eager to condemn pagano-papism.11 And so the Swiss

divine Heinrich Bullinger, in his 1529 Origin of Errors, used the
pagan religion of images and the pagan tendency to worship
these images with no less reverence than they do the gods
themselves, as a stick to beat the Catholics for their idolatrous
temples.12 When Bullingers sentiments were transposed into
the 1563 Elizabethan homily book in the longest of these sets
of standard sermons a similar stress on gentile idolatry emerged:
images came in amongst Christian men by suche as were
Gentiles and Catholic rites were all one with the rites whiche the
Gentiles idolaters used in honouryng theyr idolles.13 Catholics in
turn pointed to pagan rituals as conrmation of the dissimilarity
between their religion and idol worship. Scripture, as the tireless Tridentine cardinal Robert Bellarmine wrote, never gives
the name of idols to true images, but only to the simulacra of
the Gentiles, which refer to false Gods.14 For much of the sixteenth century, idolatry was a gentile, not a Jewish disease.
But by the 1600s, things changed, as Jewish idolatry began
magnetically to attract scholars eager to understand human
deviations from the laws of God. The 1607 Papal Index neatly
marked the new concern with Jewish affairs: the rst volume on
its list was by the erstwhile Catholic, Franois Monceaux, entitled Aaron purgatus: or, On the Golden Calf.15 From all appearances, this book had a laudable goal, namely to clear Aaron of
shame and guilt and to ensure his dignity as the high priest of
Israel and brother of Moses.16 Since an offence, however small,
Margaret Aston, Englands Iconoclasts, i, Laws against Images (Oxford, 1988),
372. Calvin himself tended towards a more ecumenical condemnation of Jews as
well as Gentiles; see his Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen, 2 vols.
(Philadelphia, 1843), i, ch. 11. On idols and iconoclasm generally, see Carlos M. N. Eire,
War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge,
1986); Lee Palmer Wandel, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel (Cambridge, 1995); Phyllis Mack Crew, Calvinist
Preaching and Iconoclasm in the Netherlands, 15441569 (Cambridge, 1978).
Heinrich Bullinger, De origine erroris, in divorum ac simulachrorum cultu (Basel,
1529), Gr.
[John Jewel], The Second Tome of Homilies (London, 1574, STC 513:3), 58,
103. On the homily book, see Aston, Englands Iconoclasts, i, 322 ff.
Robert Bellarmine, Septima controversia generalis de ecclesia triumphante tribus
libris explicata, in Opera omnia, ed. Justin Fvre, 12 vols. (Paris, 18704), iii, 213.
J. M. De Bujanda, Index librorum prohibitorum, 16001966 (Montreal, 2002),
627; Franois Monceaux, Aaron purgatus: sive, De vitulo aureo libri duo, repr. in Critici
sacri: sive, Doctissimorum vivorum in SS. Biblia annotationes, 9 vols. (London, 1660).
Monceaux, Aaron purgatus, ix, 44078.



against God, or a chance error in a priest, is a mortal one,

Monceaux declared in his dedication to Pope Paul V, Aaron
needed particular exoneration if the Levitical order of priests
were to remain free of original offence.17 The question at hand,
then, was whether or not Aaron knowingly, as the common
opinion has it, made the idol.18 Monceaux declared him innocent: Aaron was neither the machinator & architectus of Jewish
idolatry, nor was he interested in reviving ancient Egyptian
cults. Instead, he insisted, Aaron sought to create a true likeness, or better, a symbol . . . of the glorious God of Israel.19
Moses brother did not sin so much as he, through error and
indiscretion, offered an occasion for anothers sin.20
If Monceauxs book marked the beginning of a seventeenthcentury obsession with Jewish idolatry, those scholars most
interested in it namely Calvinist researchers of all national
stripes refused to acquit either Aaron or the Jews and instead
indicted both for their relapse into the idolatrous practices of their
Near Eastern neighbours.21 Thus the Dutch jurist and scholar
Hugo Grotius, in his Annotations on the Old Testament, made the
connection en passant, declaring his belief that the Jews hoped
that the spirit of the God they worshipped would come into the
image just as the Egyptians (gentes aliae) felt about the spirit of
the stars.22 The Huguenot divine Andr Rivet insisted in his
commentary on Exodus that when the Jews saw that Moses
had not returned after some days . . . they wanted to establish
some divine worship in the outward manner to which they were
accustomed in Egypt.23 Rivets countryman, the scholar Samuel

Ibid., 441112.
Ibid., 4427.
Ibid., 4530.
For a general survey of the antiquarian literature on idolatry, see Guy
Stroumsa, John Spencer and the Roots of Idolatry, History of Religions, xli (2001).
Some erudite Catholics, like Athanasius Kircher, were also intrigued by these links
see his discussion of Apis and Serapis in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus: hoc est Universalis
hieroglyphicae veterum doctrinae temporum iniuria abolitae instauratio, 3 vols. (Rome,
16524), i, 201, where he derides the superstitious Hebrew people and their fascination with the cult of this idiotic god.
Hugo Grotius, Opera omnia theologica in tres tomos divisa: ante quidem per partes,
nunc autem conjunctim & accuratius edita, 3 vols. (London, 1679), i, 57. In seventeenthcentury sacred history, the Egyptians were nearly always given pride of place as the
rst worshippers of the stars.
Andr Rivet, Commentarius in Exodum, in Opera theologica, 3 vols. (Rotterdam,
165160), i, 1176.




Bochart, dedicated the longest article in his Hierozoicon: or, The

Animals of Sacred Scripture (1663) to the cow, and though he
was not sure why, given the mutual hatred between Jews and
Egyptians, the Jews had turned to calf worship, still he conceded
that the origin of the superstition came from Egypt, where calves
and cows were in many ceremonies.24
The English were no less inclined to see the shades of Egyptian
deviance in Jewish rites. Thus, in a book that went through
fteen editions in the seventeenth century, the scholarly popularizer Thomas Godwin decried the Jews for their corruptions
learned among the AEgyptians, who worshipped their Idoll
Apis, otherwise called Serapis, in a living Oxe.25 The moderate
royalist Thomas Fuller simply replaced the Golden Calf with
an image of Apis in his 1650 A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine (see
Plate).26 The Jews, declared the divine Henry Hammond, doted
on the specious Idol, and were transported with their sensual
way of worshipping it, that God was quickly almost lost, their
heart going back to Aegypt.27 And, while the English jurist and
antiquarian John Selden offered a stranger set of genealogies,
they still grounded Jewish worship in the religions of the Near
East. The Golden Calf, he thought, might be an incarnation of
Apis yet we do not know altogether whether he . . . was represented by golden statues or Osiris, whose divine image
was certainly rendered in gold. More likely, though, the calfs
ultimate origins were rooted not in Egypt but in Syria and its
host of such unfamiliar gods as Nergal, Dagon, Ur, Adad and
Mithras, since neither [its] rites nor [its] name was honoured
anywhere earlier than there.28

Samuel Bochart, Hierozoicon: sive, Bipertitum opus de animalibus sacrae scripturae, 2 vols. (London, 1663), i, 345, 338.
Thomas Godwin, Moses and Aaron: Civil and Ecclesiastical Rites, Used by the
Ancient Hebrewes, 2nd edn (London, 1625, STC 1068:1), 191.
Thomas Fuller, A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine and the Connes Thereof: With the
History of the Old and New Testament Acted Thereon (London, 1650).
Henry Hammond, Of Idolatry (1646), in The Works of the Reverend and Learned
Henry Hammond, 2 vols. (London, 1684), i, 259.
John Selden, De diis Syris syntagmata: aduersaria nempe de numinibus commentitiis in vetere instrumento memoratis (London, 1617, STC 1116:8), 50, 56; Martin
Mulsow, John Seldens De Diis Syris: Idolatriekritik und vergleichende Religionsgeschichte im 17. Jahrhundert, Archiv fr Religionsgeschichte, iii (2001), 10; see also
Peter N. Miller, Taking Paganism Seriously: Anthropology and Antiquarianism in
Early Seventeenth-Century Histories of Religion, ibid.

The Idols of the Jews. From Thomas Fuller, A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine and the
Connes Thereof: With the History of the Old and New Testament Acted Thereon (London, 1650).
Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.



But the Calf exerted more than just historical pressure on

Calvinist scholars. Instead it symbolically condensed antiquarian,
political and theological concerns. It did so, at the very least, as
a story about idolatry, probably one of the most politically
charged topics in an age saturated by the politics of religion. When
it was placed on the 1607 Index, for example, Monceauxs
Aaron purgatus was treading hard on the heels of the enormous
waves of iconoclasm that had recently swept across Germany
and the Netherlands, and would have been fresh in all readers
minds and especially those in the Roman Church. These were
only the latest in a series of idol-breaking episodes that raged
intermittently from the 1520s to the English Revolution. These
political events were intimately connected to the new Protestant
theologies: as Carlos Eire has noted, one of the foundations of
the Protestant attack on medieval piety was its sharp distinction
between . . . true and false worship and this distinction, in
turn, was intimately tied to the use of images.29
For their part, Catholics had long distinguished between
dulia (veneration) and latria (worship): the good Christian, in
their mind, venerated images (saints, crucixes, and so on) but
did not worship them. Great prot is derived from all holy
images, the Council of Trent unequivocally declared, because
through them, people are moved to adore Christ and venerate
the saints whose likeness they bear.30 Trent thus distinguished
between idols (Bellarmines simulacra of the Gentiles) and holy
images those objects of veneration that evoke the presence of
God in the mind of pious worshippers. But sixteenth-century
Protestants scoffed at these subtleties. Calvin, for example, dismissed the dulialatria distinction as a subterfuge, a mere
wordplay in the face of the very real profanation of the Divine
honour that images inevitably introduce.31 And for Calvin, and
Calvinists generally, this was no idle question. Rather, in matters
of worship, Calvin proclaimed, the whole substance of the Christian
religion is brought into question.32 God prefers Practice to
Knowledge, and honest Gentiles to wicked Israelites was one
extreme formulation of a Protestant position that afrmed the

Eire, War against the Idols, 54.

Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder (St Louis and
London, 1941), 216.
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Allen, i, 114.
Calvin, quoted in Eire, War against the Idols, 199 (Eires italics).




centrality of worship.33 It was not the case, then, that in the

Reformation correct belief was more highly valued than correct
practice.34 For Reformation thinkers, instead, worship was essential to Christianity: the ghts about the so-called adiaphora
that rocked Lutheranism in the wake of its founders death
testied to the signicance of worship;35 so did the struggles
about idolatry and the role of images in the Church struggles
that shaped the entire sixteenth-century political and religious
When Calvinists expounded on Jewish idolatry, therefore,
they did so in the service of these ongoing struggles. But the
new religious landscape of the seventeenth century made the
Golden Calf a potent polemical device in the wars over politics
and religion. This was particularly true of the second biblical
story of the Calf, which symbolically condensed a host of
religio-political problems that plagued the period. This second
appearance was in the ancient cities of Dan and Bethel, where
the Jewish king Jeroboam and the ten northern tribes of Israel
made two calves of gold . . . and appointed priests from among
all the people (1 Kgs. 12:2831). This rebellion against the
House of David set the stage for the disintegration of the Jewish
empire c.900 BCE and the subsequent loss of the ten northern
tribes.36 It also introduced an idolatrous deviation into the
heart of northern Judaism. Behold your gods, O Israel, who
brought you up out of the land of Egypt, Jeroboam declared to
initiate his new worship, and his calves were the cultic centre
for the schismatic ten tribes. Ironically, Jeroboams rebellion
was itself precipitated by idolatry-inspired revulsion. Jeroboam
took his lead from the prophet Ahijah, who accused Solomon
of worshipping Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemos
Alexander Ross, Pansebeia: or, A View of All Religions in the World (London,
1653), 534.
Talal Asad, Toward a Genealogy of the Concept of Religion, in his Genealogies
of Religion, 58. On ceremonies, see Aston, Englands Iconoclasts, i, 11; also Bryan
D. Spinks, Sacraments, Ceremonies, and the Stuart Divines: Sacramental Theology and
Liturgy in England and Scotland, 16031662 (Burlington and Aldershot, 2002).
For the literature on the adiaphora controversy (hinging on whether things
that are neither commanded nor forbidden by God, may still be regarded as
adiaphora without compromising Scripture), see Sources and Contexts of the Book
of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and James A. Nestingen (Minneapolis, 2001), 184.
On the history, see John Bright, A History of Israel, 4th edn (Louisville, 2000),



the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites (1 Kgs.
11:33). In the name of Jehovah, then, Jeroboam broke with
Jerusalem and instituted his own (idolatrous) worship.
If Aarons errors testied to the poisonous effects of idolatry
on the mind of the credulous, Jeroboams fall testied to its
poisonous effects on the political life of the nation. This was
particularly appropriate in the seventeenth century. Where the
sixteenth century had operated largely within the rhetoric of
heresy and schism (implying that Christian unity might return,
whether by violence or by reconciliation), by 1600 the diversity
of Christian churches was a stubborn feature of the political
and religious landscape. Like Israel and Judah long before, the
tribes of Europe were permanently divided. The seventeenthcentury obsession with Jewish idolatry thus had a compelling
logic in the light of the new immobility of Europes religious
division: Jeroboams deviance resonated with a period when,
perplexingly, the love of God was shared by all, but the ways to
show this love had become endishly divisive. And so, Calvinists
repeatedly noted that Jeroboams love of God did nothing to
exonerate his idolatrous behaviour. The anonymous author of
the Originall of Popish Idolatrie described how Jeroboam instituted strange Priests, corrupted the Law of God and began an
Idolatrie and corruption of sacrices that continued for more
then [sic] foure hundred yeers.37 Grotius offered a typically
laconic comment that princes are accustomed to twisting
sacred matters to their ends but declared it Gods will that
Jeroboam, like the Pharaoh, might be hardened more and
more in his idolatry.38 And Hammond insisted that the guilt
of Idolatry should be charged to Jeroboam and that the divine
censure, and character of Jeroboams sin (that stuck so close to
his posterity) importeth also.39
As an allegory, then, the story of Jeroboams crimes showed
clearly that recognition of God guaranteed neither the cohesion
of a political community nor the right practice of a religious
community. Indeed, the Jeroboam story, and Jewish idolatry
Anon., The Originall of Popish Idolatrie: or, The Birth of Heresies . . . Being a True and
Exacte Description of Such Sacred Signes, Sacrices and Sacraments as Have Bene Instituted
and Ordained of God since Adam, 2nd edn ([Amsterdam], 1630, STC 1130:8), 12.
Grotius, Opera omnia theologica, i, 1501 (commentary on 1 Kgs. 12:28,
Hammond, Of Idolatry, in Works, i, 259.




more generally, offered Protestants a powerful argument that

love of the true God did nothing to prevent false worship. Jeroboam
loved Jehovah enough to demolish the impious Solomonic state
and Aaron carried this love throughout his priestly life. Nonetheless, both Aaron and Jeroboam were indisputably and nally
guilty of idol worship. The monotheistic, yet backsliding, Jews
thus repeatedly showed that belief in God in no way ensured
orthopraxis. What looked like an expression of antiquarian
interests, in other words, was also the expression of highly confessional ones. If pious intentions could have idolatrous results,
then the Catholic separation of veneration (dulia) and worship
(latria) collapsed.40 Here as elsewhere, scholarship was working
in the service of theological polemics: the idolatry of the Jews
offered ostensibly denitive proof that only through the rigorous exclusion of images, could worship pay its due to God.


Yet the Calvinist fascination with the Golden Calf also grew from
a more uncomfortable set of concerns, ones that began to unravel
any easy distinction between the chosen people and its enemies.
Since the middle of the sixteenth century, after all, Calvinists
had identied their Church with that of the Israelites. In particular, the emergence of the Jews from captivity, their defeat of
the Pharaoh, and their later battles against the Canaanites and
the Amorites all functioned as elaborate pregurations of the
history of the Calvinist Churches as they fought their way
across Europe over the later sixteenth century. These were, as
Christopher Hill and others have noted, extremely mobile stories: different prophets, different incidents and different morals
For this reason, Matthew Poole commented that it does not please the
Romans to think that Jeroboam retained the Mosaic Law: see his Synopsis criticorum
aliorumque S. Scripturae interpretum, 5 vols. (London, 166976), ii, 517. Monceauxs
Catholic exculpation of Aaron and Jeroboam might be understood as a desperate
effort to police this distinction. His argument that the calf was actually modelled on
the cherubim from the tabernacle (Aaron purgatus, ix, 4486, 4529) would, presumably, have made it an object of pious veneration, rather than of idolatrous worship.
The fact that his work was censured by the Church may be an indication of its own
discomfort with applying this distinction to the impiety of the murmuring Jews.



were employed in this set of identications.41 If any biblical book

was indispensable to the Calvinist project, however, it was
Exodus. And yet this paradigm of revolutionary politics, in
Michael Walzers terms, was crucial not only for its hopeful
ending, but also for its internal and self-directed violence. For
Calvin, Walzer perceptively argues, it was more important that
the Levites had killed brethren than that they had killed idolaters.42 The story of the Calf was more than just an anti-Catholic
parable. It was also a tool for a disconcertingly strict self-scrutiny,
a pressing need in the seventeenth century, when Calvinism itself
began to fragment into a variety of mutually exclusive tribes.
The failures of the ancient Jews were, in other words, used as
mirrors to scrutinize the very people who most identied with
their successes. This was all the more true because the charge
of idolatry was so fantastically easy to make. The threat to the
faith that came from visualizing God was, after all, an intangible and subjective threat.43 And sixteenth-century Reformers
cast their nets widely: for them, idolatry stemmed not from the
genuection of the worshipper, but rather from his internal disposition. Any image, then, offered an occasion for sin: as long
as the images are present before man . . . they will sit deep in
his heart.44 If, as Calvin argued, the mind of man is . . . a perpetual manufactory of idols then idolatry lurked in the shadows
of every corporeal transaction with the divine.45 Criticism and
self-criticism were never closer.
Nowhere did the dialectics of reexive censure play out with
more urgency than in the English seventeenth century: in the
battles of ceremonies and sacramentals that divided the Church
under Archbishop Laud, in the schismatic tendencies of the
Revolution, and in the contentious consolidations of 1660 and
1688. During this period, as Bishop Samuel Parker later commented, idolatry and transubstantiation were

Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution
(London, 1993); Charles H. Parker, French Calvinists as the Children of Israel:
An Old Testament Self-Consciousness in Jean Crespins Histoire des Martyrs before
the Wars of Religion, Sixteenth Century Jl, xxiv (1993). See also, more generally,
Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison, 1978).
Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York, 1985), 7, 64.
Aston, Englands Iconoclasts, i, 452.
Eire, War against the Idols, 60.
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Allen, i, 104.




the Two great Kettle-drums to the Protestant Guards. They were continually beating upon them with all their Force, and whenever they
found themselves at any Disadvantage with an Enemy . . . by making a
Noise upon these Two loud Engines, they could at pleasure drown the

While transubstantiation dened orthodoxy, idolatry was used

as a Stabbing and Cut-throat Word to dene and enforce
orthopraxis.47 The Lord of Hosts is tender and jealous . . . of
every point of his instituted Worship, insisted the Puritan Samuel
Lee in 1650, and so every aspect of worship had to be scrutinized for the lingering scent of idols.48 And yet, as Andr Rivet
had argued, the only way truly to identify an idol was to know
what the worshippers attach to them in their imagination.49
Seventeenth-century Calvinists were not merely anxious about
the effects of church images or stained glass, but about the very
structures of human cognition and its ability to worship God.
This was a key reason that the Jews became objects of so much
interest: here were a people covenanted to Jehovah yet constitutionally unable to avoid idolatry. The Jews were given the rules
for what George Lawson in 1659 called the outward reverentiall acts but their inability to live up to these rules conrmed
that only the inward recognition of the Soul guaranteed genuine worship.50 If the sole criterion for an idolater was that he
dethroneth God in his imagination, and setteth up some other
object in his place, then virtually anyone was a suspect.51
Sin as a product of secret desires an internal state divorced
from outward behaviour was a central theological point of
the Reformation, so it is no surprise that it appeared here.52
But the rigorous application of this logic to idolatry was problematic, as Thomas Hobbes made clear. His effort to out-Calvin
the Calvinists began in the 1651 Leviathan, with his excoriation
Samuel Parker, Reasons for Abrogating the Test: Imposed upon All Members of
Parliament Anno 1678 Octob. 30 (London, 1688), 656.
Ibid., 81.
[Samuel Lee], Orbis miraculum: or, The Temple of Solomon, 2nd edn (London,
1659), 95.
Andr Rivet, Explicatio decalogi, in Opera theologica, i, 1249.
George Lawson, Theo-Politica: or, A Body of Divinity Containing the Rules of the
Special Government of God (London, 1659), 160.
Thomas Tenison, Of Idolatry: A Discourse in which Is Endeavoured a Declaration
of its Distinction from Superstition (London, 1678), 14.
See, for example, Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western
Guilt Culture, 13th18th Centuries, trans. Eric Nicholson (New York, 1990).



of the imagination as a dream that prodded men into the religion

of the Gentiles:
it was the generall Religion of the Gentiles, to worship for Gods, those
Apparences that remain in the Brain from the impression of externall
Bodies upon the organs of their Senses, which are commonly called
Ideas, Idols, Phantasmes, Conceits . . . And the worship of these with
Divine Honour is that which in the Scripture is called Idolatry.53

Aficted by the faculty of the imagination and thus subject to

the Phantasticall Inhabitants of the Brain, human beings in
ancient times set up their ideas as gods.54 And yet modern man
is no less plagued by these fantasies, no less subject to everyday
idolatry produced by the workings of the human brain. Idolatry
is solely dependent on internally regulated worship, granted;
but then the demons of paganism hover around all acts of devotion, no matter how sanitized of images.
Hobbess critique of idolatry was troubling, but only because
he pushed the Calvinist line to its logical limit and moved monotheism and idolatry into the same conceptual frame. By his
insistence on the ubiquitous threat of idolatry, Calvin had
already eroded the distinction between religion and idol worship.
But where the proximity of categories only enhanced, for Calvin,
the glory and faith of the sanctied, Hobbes made no exception
at all for the saints. If there is no Idea, or conception of any
thing we call Innite and if God is innite himself, than any
idea or conception about God is, by denition, idolatry.55 Correct
worship in Hobbess story became an illusion, unattainable
because of our own human nature. And, for Hobbes, the disintegration of the orthopraxis ideal had happy consequences.
After all, he argued, worship is nothing more than the sign of
inward honour and a sign is only made honourable by the consent of men, that is, by the lawful sovereign. If it were commanded to worship God in an image, before those who account
that honourable, Hobbes insisted, truly it is to be done.56 In
more dramatic terms,

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (London, 1651), 5, 7, 356.
Ibid., 359.
Ibid., 11.
Thomas Hobbes, Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Society
(London, 1651), 255, 259, 257.




if a King compell a man to [false worship] by the terrour of Death, or

other great corporall punishment, it is not Idolatry: For the Worship
which the Soveraign commandeth to bee done unto himself by the terrour of his Laws, is not a sign that he that obeyeth him, does inwardly
honour him as a God, but that he is desirous to save himselfe from
death, or from a miserable life; and that which is not a sign of internall
honour, is no Worship; and therefore no Idolatry.57

Hobbes must have been pleased to wield what was an extreme

puritanical position against those purveyors of dissent who would
split Church and State over matters of worship. It was, after all,
formally stated in 1643 by Parliament that all Monuments of
Superstition or Idolatry should be removed and demolished.58
To do so, in Hobbess argument, would be tantamount to
genocide, since the monuments of idolatry lurked not inside
churches, but inside human minds.
Was there, then, any place for external worship in the Church?
This was exactly the question faced by theological controversialists. Thus the Anglican apologist Edward Stillingeet explicitly
argued that, as a matter of principle, worship (religion) must be
meaningful regardless of the perils of human cognition (idolatry). More than the bare internal acts of the mind, worship
demands that acts are expressed in such a manner as to give
honour to that which we so esteem.59 In Thomas Tenisons
terms, meer outward shews of Adoration not only testied to
idolatrous inward states, but actually produced them.60 Just as
the Laudians had, before the Revolution, insisted that the Prayer
Book and other formal aspects of worship could safeguard
against the natural weakness of human devotion, the Arminian
Church that developed in England after the Revolution stressed
the need to ritualize external performance as a way of securing
orthodox internal states.61


Hobbes, Leviathan, 360.

An Ordinance of the Lords and Commons Assembled in Parliament for the Utter
Demolishing, Removing, and Taking Away of All Monuments of Superstition or Idolatry
([London], 1643), a2r.
Edward Stillingeet, A Discourse Concerning the Idolatry Practised in the Church
of Rome and the Danger of Salvation in the Communion of It (London, 1671), 55, 56.
Tenison, Of Idolatry, 22.
Ramie Targoff, Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern
England (Chicago and London, 2001), 5. On Arminianism and the elaboration of
Anglican ritual, see John Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 16461689
(New Haven, 1991); Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism, c.15901640 (Oxford, 1987).



Antiquarians attacked this issue differently, partly because they

realized that Hobbess tirade had the dramatic effect of setting
religion and idolatry onto the same plane. If both idolatry and
religion began with humanitys Opinion of Ghosts, Ignorance
of second causes, Devotion towards what men fear, and Taking
of Things Casuall for Prognostiques, then the semen religionis
was the very source of idolatrous worship.62 Here is a foundation laid for Atheisme, William Lucy exclaimed, It is impossible that so goodly a tree, as Religion, should grow out of such
rotten and contemptible seeds as these: how can error be a
seed of Truth, since the greater growth it hath, the greater is
the Errour, but it never grows into Truth.63 But if idolatry was
so hard to distinguish from right worship as Calvinism implied,
then perhaps the historical relationship between truth and error
was more complicated than Lucys simple contrast. As theology
and radical criticism together made the ideal of correct worship
vanish into an idealistic cognitive horizon, antiquarian scholars
responded by inquiring even more carefully into the historical
origins of religion and its relationship to ancient sacrilege. In
doing so, they began to make idolatry and religion into members of the same species, shifting the relationship between truth
and error, and helping to create new categorical distinctions
between the sacred and the profane.

The fourth chapter of Samuel Purchass 1613 Pilgrimage concerned the word Religion. Where the impious might, with the
Roman jurist Masurius Sabinus, identify religion as that which
is removed and withdrawn from us (relinquere); where the
Ciceronian would characterize it as the scrupulous study of all
the ritual involved in divine worship (relegere); where the early
Augustine might connect it to the idea of chusing again (religere):
Purchas himself offered a peculiar combinatory denition.
This is the effect of sinne and irreligion, that the name and practice of
Religion is thus diversied, else had there bin, as one God, so one religion,

Hobbes, Leviathan, 54.

William Lucy, Observations, Censures, and Confutations of Notorious Errours in
Mr. Hobbes, his Leviathan, and other his Bookes (London, 1663), 85.




and one language . . . For till men did relinquere, relinquish their rst
innocencie . . . they needed not religere, to make a second choice, or
seek reconciliation, nor thus relegere, with such paines and vexation of
spirit to enquire and practice those things which religare, binde them
surer and faster unto God.64

Purchass etymological ramble was both typical and telling: typical

for its baroque inability to settle on a single ancient authority,
but telling for its rational restlessness. Religion, in Purchass
terms, simply could not be dened categorically, because sin
had divided the original religion into parts, dissolving the one
god, one truth that stood as Purchass epigraph. If we divide the known regions of the world into 30 equall parts, wrote
the astronomer and antiquarian Edward Brerewood in 1614,
the Christians part is as ve, the Mahumetans, as sixe, and the
Idolaters as nineteene.65 In a world divided by sinne and irreligion, the denition of true religion demanded serious thought
precisely about those nineteene parts of erroneous practices.
The seventeenth centurys most monumental effort to do this,
to dene religion by contrast with error, can be found in the
Dutch polymath Gerhard Vossiuss 1641 Origin and Progress of
Idolatry, which rambled through vast gardens of learning on
everything from sun worship to the deities of ancient Gaul,
Rome, Greece, Chaldea and Babylonia. On the one hand, Vossius
insisted, to understand idolatry, we must understand religion
which consists both in the knowledge of God and in the worship of him in the most abstract of senses. On the other, real
knowledge of this religion demanded, for Vossius, an immense
elaboration of impiety in which God is ignored and superstition, in which the right worship of God is elsewhere.66 Put
more succinctly, to understand religion we must understand
Aulus Gellius, Noctes atticae, IV. 9. 89; Cicero, De natura deorum, II. 72;
Augustine, De civitate dei, X. 3; Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage: or, Relations
of the World (London, 1613, STC 1184:1), 1516. On the inability of ancient writers to settle on a single denition of religion largely because it did not play a
central role in the theological architecture of early Christianity see Feil, Religio, i.
Edward Brerewood, Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages, and Religions
through the Cheife Parts of the World (London, 1614, STC 1021:3), 118. The place
of Islam in seventeenth-century antiquarianism is interesting and complex for
introductions, see G. J. Toomer, Eastern Wisedome and Learning: The Study of Arabic
in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 1996); P. M. Holt, Studies in the History of
the Near East (London, 1973); and, for background, Norman Daniel, Islam and the
West: The Making of an Image, revised edn (Oxford, 1993).
Gerhard Vossius, De theologia gentili et physiologia christiana: sive, De origine ac
progressu idololatriae (Amsterdam, 1641), 16.



idolatry: it was only by showing what religion was not, that religion could be dened. Vossiuss 1,500-page treatise on the not,
on all the deviations from religion known to early modern scholarship, tried to crystallize the distinction between pious religion
and impious error. In his terms, then, false religion was a
meaningless idea. Either religion is true, or it is not religion.
And yet, as prodigious as Vossiuss scholarship was, this period
was largely unable to embrace this sharp distinction between
truth and error. The agitated and repetitive inquiries into the
origins of false religion testify as much. Although Adam stood
as the fount of religion among men, within a few short generations
mankinds impiety called down Gods homicidal rains. How
was God so easily forgotten? In a period sceptical of the powers
of the devil, scholars found the error in humanity itself. Thus in
1677, the jurist Matthew Hale declared as had Cicero
that religion was as connatural to Humane Nature as Reason,
and . . . as ancient as Humanity it self.67 If so, what was the
rst religion? For Hale, the question was easy:
as much as Truth is certainly more ancient than Errour, we have reason
to think that even before the ancientest Form of Idolatrous Worship in
the World, even that of the Heavenly and Elemental Bodies, there was a
True Worship of the True GOD.68

In a Platonic fashion, error and idolatry came into the world by

virtue of forgetfulness, what Hale called the gradual decay of
that true and ancient Tradition of the true Worship of the true
God.69 Other scholars in the period had different ways of
expressing the same sentiment: Thomas Fuller, for example,
declared that if truth be once casually lost . . . numberless are
the by-paths of falsehood, and Edward Stillingeet, more poetically, argued that the destructive principles of the gentiles grew
out of a substratum of necessary and important truths just as the
most pernicious Weeds are bred in the fattest soyles.70 But even
these weeds were valuable, as Stillingeet admitted. His 1662
Origines sacrae used the same method which Thales took in taking the height of the Pyramids. Just as Thales calculated the
Matthew Hale, The Primitive Origination of Mankind, Considered and Examined
According to the Light of Nature (London, 1677), 166.
Ibid., 168.
Ibid., 169.
Fuller, Pisgah-Sight of Palestine, 123; Edward Stillingeet, Origines sacrae: or,
A Rational Account of the Grounds of Christian Faith (London, 1662), 8.




height of the pyramids by measuring the length of their shadow,

Stillingeet determined the height and antiquity of truth from
the extent of the fabulous corruptions of it.71 Sacred origins were
inscrutable without the shadows of their corruption.
Precisely because it offered a reciprocal handle on true religion, this corruption and its impact on human history obsessed
seventeenth-century scholars. Particularly pressing, in this light,
was an exact chronology of corruptions appearance. In the case
of idolatry, two venerable traditions competed. The rst, offered
by that darling of seventeenth-century Christian Hebraism, the
medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, dated idolatrys
appearance to the days of Enosh.72 Rooted in Genesis,
Maimonides genealogy put the origins of idolatry nearly at the
very beginning of mankind Enosh was the grandson of
Adam, born only 235 years after his expulsion from Paradise
(Gen. 4:26, 5:36). The second, from the also popular Divine
Institutes of Lactantius, delayed idolatrys origins until after the
Flood, when the rst nation . . . ignorant of God, namely the
sons of Ham, grandsons of Noah, went into exile, and settled
in a part of that land which is now called Arabia . . . [and]
established for themselves at their own discretion new customs
and inventions.73 Of the two, Lactantius was clearly more
appealing to antiquarians. After all, if idolatry was a pre-diluvial
phenomenon, then it had always shadowed true religion: outside of Eden, truth had been free of error for a mere two centuries.
If idolatry was a post-diluvial phenomenon, however, scholars
could embrace the time before the Flood as a period of unbroken religious devotion, a Christianity avant la lettre or what
Eusebius called the most ancient organization for holiness.74
Thus, writers like Thomas Tenison and William Lucy denied
the Maimonidian genealogy, seemingly aware that, by putting
idolatry so close to the source, there was a chance that religion

Stillingeet, Origines sacrae, 14.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: The Book of Knowledge, ed. and trans. Moses
Hyamson, 2 vols. (Jerusalem and New York, 1981), i, 66a. The treatise on idolatry
was translated in 1642 by Gerhard Vossiuss son, Dionysius. On Maimonides more
generally, see Aaron L. Katchen, Christian Hebraists and Dutch Rabbis: Seventeenth
Century Apologetics and the Study of Maimonides Mishneh Torah (Cambridge, Mass.,
Lactantius, Divine Institutes, vii, 63.
Eusebius, The Proof of the Gospel, ed. and trans. W. J. Ferrar, 2 vols. (Grand
Rapids, 1981), i, 9.



might be corrupted by its evil twin.75 Matthew Hale, for one,

was explicitly aware of just such an unsettling possibility. Idolatry,
he declared, was not the rst Religion in the World, neither
did this Religion tread upon the Heels of the Origination of
Mankind . . . this Religion cannot pretend to be coeval with
Mankind, nor give us any sufcient Indication of the Recentness
of Mankind.76 But here the very tenor of his denial indicated
the potency that this argument held in the period. What if, indeed,
idolatry was the rst religion? What if, indeed, it was coeval
with human origins? At this point idolatry ceased to be a corruption of religion, but rather (in a Hobbesian sense) its very double.
These traces of erosion in the wall between religion and idolatry became holes when more iconoclastic writers turned their
attention to the same questions. The Dutch Jew, later Catholic
convert, Isaac La Peyrre, for instance, rewrote the entire religious history of mankind, and eliminated the distinction altogether. His ostensible discoveries that long before the expulsion
from the Garden, the earth had been inhabited by the so-called
pre-Adamites; that only Jews were born of Adam and Eve;
that Gentiles are not sprung from the Linage [sic] and Kindred
of the Jews; that the Gentiles in their Creation and Nature are
indeed ancienter than the Jews; and that they are different in
relation and kindred from the Jews, as those divers species of
creatures in unknown Countries are from those which we know
all these discoveries recast the relations between religious truth
and error.77
They did so by recasting the order of Christian anthropology.
The four traditional periods the pre-Mosaic times (nature),
the period after the Decalogue (law), after the coming of Christ
(grace), and after judgement and redemption (glory) were
kept, but now the law began not with Moses, but with Adam,
the father of the Jews. The Jews had never, in other words, lived
in a state of nature. Rather, only the gentiles had ever lived in a
See Tenison, Of Idolatry, 40; Lucy, Observations, Censures, and Confutations of
Notorious Errours, 125.
Hale, Primitive Origination of Mankind, 167.
Isaac La Peyrre, Men before Adam (London, 1656), 55, 89, 124. On La
Peyrre, see Richard H. Popkin, Isaac La Peyrre (15961676): His Life, Work, and
Inuence (Leiden, 1987). On poly- and monogenism, La Peyrre and Grotius, see
Joan-Pau Rubies, Hugo Grotiuss Dissertation on the Origin of the American Peoples
and the Use of Comparative Methods, Jl History of Ideas, lii (1991), 238 ff.




pre-juridical state. Once upon a time, then, there had existed an

age and a people utterly without Gods law, utterly without religion, and this age was documented only by the prophane records
. . . of the Caldeans, Egyptians, [and] Scythians.78 But here the
profane did not mean sacrilegious or deling. Rather, it meant
something very like our modern anthropological category. The
gentiles were not against God, but rather, as the men of the rst
Creation, Atheists, or without a God, they were blind in the
knowledge of the true God. Only through the Adamic law did
religion enter this profane world.79 If the Council of Trent had
declared that those who live only according to the law of nature
are dominated by the devil, La Peyrre offered a completely different version of non-religious man.80 The pre-Adamites were not
living in a state of error; indeed they were not guilty of any trespass against God because His law was still unknown.81 Sin was
not a divine offence in this period but the product of Nature, the
consequence of mans living in a state of Nature without religion.82 Early man was not, then, closest to God. Instead, in La
Peyrres hands, he was utterly profane, either without religion at
all or in an aboriginal state of idolatry. And this profane was not
antagonistic to religion, but instead prior and parallel to it.
La Pyrere was an eccentric and largely rejected by the Protestant mainstream. And yet his peculiar ideas responded to a
set of problems about truth and error, religion and the origins of idolatry that fascinated the late seventeenth-century
scholarly tradition. Only in the writings of the Anglican Hebraist,
antiquarian and clergyman John Spencer were these questions
nally given a lasting set of methodologically and conceptually
innovative answers, ones that brought out the radical implications of the wider antiquarian project without lapsing into the
full impiety of someone like La Peyrre or Hobbes.83 Like his

La Peyrre, Men before Adam, 22.

Ibid., 89, 175.
Giuliano Gliozzi, The Apostles in the New World: Monotheism and Idolatry
between Revelation and Fetishism, History and Anthropology, iii (1987), 125.
La Peyrre, Men before Adam, 30.
Ibid., 32, 41.
On Spencer, see Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in
Western Monotheism (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 5579; Francis Schmidt, Des
inepties tolrables: la raison des rites de John Spencer (1685) W. Robertson
Smith (1889), Archive de sciences sociales des religions, lxxxv (1994); Stroumsa, John
Spencer and the Roots of Idolatry.



antiquarian predecessors, Spencer was drawn like a moth to the

ame of Jewish idolatry, and his 1685 On the Ritual Law of the
Hebrews was an extended effort to understand its history and
aetiology. In Egypt and after they left Egypt, Spencer insisted,
the Israelites were a people most dedicated to idols.84 Before
captivity, the Jews had held the lamp of divine wisdom; afterwards they became an Aegypticizing people.85 Seeing this
transformation in his people, God gave the Jews the central
objects of their ritual worship and instituted the ceremonial and
moral laws that would control Jewish religious practice until the
present day. These laws, Spencer argued, were neither inherently good (the Jewish view) nor evil (the Christian view).
Instead, they were useful as tools to end idolatry among the
Jews. They worked both as sticks to threaten Jews who fell into
idolatry and as carrots to entice Israel, now addicted to Egyptian
ways, to follow the ways of God. This double function generated the many parallels between Jewish and Egyptian ritual
practice: the institution of the paschal lamb, for example, resuscitated a symbol familiar to the enslaved Hebrews namely
the ram of Ammon but by sacricing it, the Jews reenact[ed]
and reenforce[d] the separation from Egypt and from idolatry.86
Because, in the words of Maimonides, man is incapable of
abandoning suddenly all to which he was accustomed, God
had used a gracious ruse and permitted Egyptian worship to
continue but transferred [it] from created or imaginary and
unreal things to His own name.87
Spencer is often credited with inventing the discipline of comparative religions, not because of the accuracy of his antiquarian
researches but because his analysis offered a powerful functional
approach to the study of religion that later anthropology and
religious studies would claim for its own. The sacrices and festivals of the gentiles were aimed at temporal benets and the
appeasement of gods.88 God gave a Law containing carnal
rites, and promising carnal goods, declared Spencer, in order
John Spencer, De legibus Hebraeorum ritualibus et earum rationibus, libri tres
(Cambridge, 1685), 21.
Ibid., 22, 24.
Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 65.
Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963),
Spencer, De legibus Hebraeorum, 34.




that he might accommodate his teachings to the custom and use

of the people and their age.89 And the chief function of these
rites was the creation of distinctions. Nearly all of Spencers
book thus focuses exactly on rites of distinction and the rhetoric of distinction suffuses his text: circumcision intends to discriminate the sacred people of God from the idolaters; the
sabbath severs the common cares and affairs of life from God
and religion; God provided dietary laws to separate Jews and
gentiles, and so on.90 Distinctions in time, place, between and
among peoples: religion serves to mark the difference between
all. But this tool of distinction was not unique to the Jews. For
Jew and gentile alike, the ritual law was appropriate to the primeval duties of man.91 Jews were not alone in performing circumcision: so did the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Colchi,
the Ethiopians, [and] the Idumaeans, among others.92 Although
performed in the service of different gods, Jewish and Egyptian
rituals were functionally congruent.
Only this congruence made accommodation possible: the
Hebrews were willing to accept the Mosaic Law precisely because
it introduced no dissonance on the level of formal practice.
Distinction on the level of content (which animals are prohibited, which Gods are worshipped) was crucial for believers:
surely the Hebrews thought their own rituals were sacred and
those of the Egyptians profane. But for the analyst of religion,
for what I would call the anthropologist of religion, these distinctions are irrelevant. Instead, looking from outside, religion
must be analysed not in terms of truth, but in terms of its social
function as a tool for making distinctions. And this shift of analytic perspective then helps to explain the extraordinary lability
of the term profane in Spencers text. From within the Jewish
tradition, the profane marks the pollutions of gentilism its
rites separate divine and profane worship.93 But from without,
the profane marks a neutral space. In analytical terms, as when
Spencer argues that the Egyptians too distinguish[ed] between
their sacred and profane animals, it can simply designate that area


Ibid., 40, 81, 107.
Ibid., 36.
Ibid., 54.
Ibid., 40.



that religion designates as its own outside.94 Or, in descriptive

terms, it can serve as a synonym for the vulgar, the secular,
or, more generally, the common cares and affairs of life.95 At
the same moment, then, the profane is shorn of its primally
negative meaning, and that very antithesis of religion, idolatry,
is transformed into a species of religion.96
Spencers readers saw this immediately. The Calvinist John
Edwards was particularly incensed, and his 1699 Compleat History: or, Survey of All the Dispensations and Methods of Religion
railed against Spencers impiety on precisely this point. Spencer,
declared Edwards, makes the True God most diligently and
precisely tread in the steps of the false Gods and Idols.97 Or, in
a more thunderous tone:
He labours to shew . . . that the most Holy and Tremendous things in
our Religion are taken from the most prophane and impure practices of
the worst of Heathens . . . God raked up all the Vain, Ludicrous, Superstitious, Impure, Obscene, Irreligious, Impious, Prophane, Idolatrous,
Execrable, Magical, Devillish Customs which had been rst invented,
and afterwards constantly used by the most Barbarous Gentiles, the
Scum of the World, the Dregs of Mankind, and out of all these patchd
up a great part of the Religion which he appointed his own People.98

Edwardss repetitive distinction between religion and the profane, the holy and the obscene, and the true God and the
execrable, was a symptom of his deep suspicion that Spencers
analysis had, in fact, eroded these familiar oppositions. And
indeed, it had done so. Even the devilish customs of the Egyptians
were sacred, in Spencers terms, not for any prisca theologia, but
because they contained a functional structure for transacting
with the divine. True for Jews, true for gentiles and, most alarmingly, true even for Christians.99 In Spencers hands, religion
became something more than just a synonym for Christianity.
Instead, it became an anthropological category tout court, a

Ibid., 106.
Ibid., 149, 153, 82, 81.
Eire, War against the Idols, 200.
John Edwards, A Compleat History: or, Survey of All the Dispensations and Methods
of Religion (London, 1699), 249.
Ibid., 251.
Thus Edwards reacts viciously against the suggestion that one of the most
Solemn Ofces of Christianity is a pure Imitation of a Pagan Usage when Spencer
argued that Christ in Celebrating the Holy Sacrament of his Supper, referd to the
Custom of the Barbarous Scythians and other Savage Nations, who used to drink
Blood at their making of Covenants and Bargains: ibid.




category that encompassed Jehovah, Isis and Jupiter and, more

importantly, all rituals, prohibitions and rules that governed
human interactions with them.


In conceptual terms, this was a profound innovation, and one

that resonated in a Protestantism exhausted by centuries of religious conict and intolerance. Certainly this was the broader
background against which this new analytic language emerged,
a time when the language of tolerance began its journey towards
respectability. If nothing else, tolerance was a notion that even
religious error should be viewed impartially. John Lockes insistence that some [religious] opinions and actions . . . are wholly
separate from the concernment of the state implied, after all,
that some opinions and actions were wholly separate from the
concernment of religion as well.100 Though actual legal toleration was more myth than reality, the conceptual space for
toleration demanded a universalist understanding of religion in
which especially among Christian sects diverse practices
of worship would not be seen as deling true religion. Peter
Harrison attributes this new framework for classifying religious
behaviour to the deist literature of the late seventeenth and early
eighteenth centuries.101 And authors like John Toland certainly
played an important role in popularizing this view. By insisting,
for example, that the most antient Egyptians, Persians, and
Romans, the rst Patriarchs of the Hebrews . . . had no sacred
Images or Statues, no peculiar Places or costly Fashions of
Worship, Toland was not only strikingly Calvinist in his attitude
towards religious ritual but also strikingly relaxed in his parallel
of Egypt, Persia and Israel.102 Deists like Charles Blount were
revolted by ritual, comparing the Religion, that is to say, Sacrices,
Rites, Ceremonies invented by heathens and Jews unfavourably
John Locke, An Essay on Toleration, in his Political Essays, ed. Mark Goldie
(Cambridge, 1997), 150.
Peter Harrison, Religion and the Religions in the English Enlightenment
(Cambridge, 1990), 1. See also Francis Schmidt, Polytheism: Degeneration or
Progress?, History and Anthropology, iii (1987).
John Toland, Letters to Serena (London, 1704), 71.



with the rational and simple worship of God.103 Blount, Toland

and many others equated, and condemned, all religious ritual
Hebrew, Christian and gentile as identical and improper relations to the divinity.
But deism was not the only (perhaps not even the most
important) source of this argument. On the whole, deist claims
were often recycled from antiquarian scholarship: when Blount
argued that idols were at rst worshippd only in commemoration of some Hero, or gallant person as his Efgies, but then
the idol grew in time to be . . . revered as a God, he was merely
repeating a common trope from Lactantius which had circulated among all antiquarians of the century.104 Nor would any
seventeenth-century antiquarian have disagreed with Tolands
judgement that the ancient world was inhabited by an endless
rabble of Gods presiding over the foulest of Distembers [sic],
and even over Actions very barbarous and obscene.105 David
Humes suggestion in the Natural History of Religion that many
vulgar Jews seem still to have conceived the supreme Being as a
mere topical deity or national protector, was hardly shocking
in the context of a seventeenth-century scholarship that had so
systematically uncovered and displayed the errors of the ancient
Hebrews.106 Even Humes perverse insistence that polytheism
or idolatry was, and necessarily must have been, the rst and
most antient religion of mankind was only an explicit afrmation of what was already implicit (if feared) in Matthew Hale.107
Indeed, this inversion of the relations between truth and error
had been virtually advertised in the many treatises whose aims
were to prove such a sentiment wrong. And by the time antiquarian scholarship on biblical idolatry reached Spencer, this
argument for the primacy of polytheism was given serious consideration. If idolatry was not rst, in Spencers view, it was at
least contemporaneous with, and functionally indistinguishable
from, the practice of true religion. Antiquarian scholarship on

[Charles Blount], Great Is Diana of the Ephesians: or, The Original of Idolatry,
together with the Politick Institution of the Gentiles Sacrices (London, 1680), 3 (my italics).
Ibid., 8; Lactantius, Divine Institutes, vii, 41.
Toland, Letters to Serena, 91.
David Hume, A Natural History of Religion, in Four Dissertations (1757; Bristol,
1995), 48.
Ibid., 3.




idolatry, in other words, offered an analytical language and set

of conceptual tools ripe for exploitation by more radical critics.108
The emergence of this new sacredprofane distinction thus
owed its existence less to deism per se than to the polemics
about worship that so strangled seventeenth-century Calvinism
and English Calvinism in particular. The enormous interest in
idolatry, in the boundaries of true religion and the denition of
its opposite, certainly came from this milieu. It was telling,
then, that even such a vituperatively orthodox theologian as
Stillingeet saw religious error as a fundamental guide to the
discovery of religious truth. For a conforming Anglican like
Spencer, the argument for the unavoidability of ritual harmonized nicely with what John Spurr has called the elaboration of a
true Anglicanism after 1650, and what Nicholas Tyacke has
argued was an Arminian revolution begun in the 1620s and
1630s but only completed after the Restoration.109 This revolution saw the battles over worship as a particularly fruitless
enterprise. Spencers analysis thus offered an antiquarian antidote to these battles. When the bishop of Oxford, Samuel
Parker, praised Spencer for at last bringing Wit, Sense, Reason,
and Ingenuity into the Synagogue, it was not his scholarship
alone that was cherished.110 Rather, Parker embraced what he
saw as the real implications of the argument, namely that God
permitted [the Jews] to retain several of their former Rites and
Ceremonies in his new Worship and that these ceremonies
were so common to all peoples that they are calld the Elements
of the World.111 In Parkers attack against both the 1678 Test Act
and radical Calvinism more generally, then, Spencers arguments
rationalized customary ceremony: it was justiable because it was
This functional notion of religion was the ip side of that other
much-touted invention of the late seventeenth century, the intellectualist denition of true religion usually meaning Christianity in terms of interiority, belief and faith. In a sense, this
For a more detailed discussion of the decline of the older antiquarian treatise
in the face of its appropriation by more radical elements, see Kristine Haugen,
Transformation in the Trinity Doctrine in English Scholarship: From the History
of Beliefs to the History of Texts, Archiv fr Religionsgeschichte, iii (2001), 49.
Spurr, Restoration Church of England, 11213; Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists, 8.
Parker, Reasons for Abrogating the Test, 102.
Ibid., 1234.



criterion of interiority was summoned forth by anthropological

analysis. Once the formal and ritual dimensions of Christianity
were assimilated to those of the pagans, the interior life of faith
served to distinguish Christianity from its spiritual competitors.
Thus a Protestant theologian like Friedrich Schleiermacher,
much later, was to decry all forms of ritual, even those prescribed by the Bible: it is not the person who believes in a holy
writing who has religion, but only the one who needs none and
probably could make one for himself. Become conscious of
the call of your innermost nature, he declared, for only then do
you approach religion.112 But even the deists accepted, in large
part, this distinction between religion (seen as the structure of
rituals common to all) and true religion (religion shorn of custom).
This was exactly Blounts point when he contrasted Religion,
that is to say, Sacrices, Rites, Ceremonies and the worship of
God . . . in a rational way.113 The interior denition of genuine
religion was, I think, a compensatory reaction to the realization
that religion qua religion was common to all, from the basest
idolaters to the loftiest sages. The fact that contemporary scholars
of Christianity are so committed to it only conrms the power
of this new conceptual landscape.114
Even if a new space for Christianity was generated, still the
map of the sacred was profoundly changed. In the rst instance,
by embedding idolatry within the matrix of human nature and
by making religion a matter of practice, the theoreticians and
scholars of idolatry established the categories for the anthropological investigation of human religion. No longer did religion
Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers
(Cambridge, 1988), 135.
[Blount], Great Is Diana of the Ephesians, 3.
It is important, for example, that just when religious anthropology became
disciplinarily dominant, we nd people like Rudolf Otto insisting that real religion
was a numinous consciousness of the mysterium tremendum: see his The Idea of the
Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation
to the Rational, 2nd edn, trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford, 1950), 25 (originally published in German in 1917). For a classic insistence on the interiority thesis, see
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the
Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York, 1962), 42 ff. And, more recently, Ernst
Feils melancholic conclusion to his three-volume Religio: die Geschichte eines
neuzeitlichen Grundbegriffs that his analysis showed that in the course of the
seventeenth century a modern understanding of religion does not allow itself to
be proven is predicated exactly on his disappointment that this interiority did
not become the sole criterion of religion, as he had hoped to show (iii, 473). This
is exactly my point.




have to be dened with reference to truth and error. Instead, it

was possible to investigate religion entirely free of this distinction
and even to embrace error as a valuable aspect of the human
condition. What David W. Bates has called the Enlightenments
epistemology of error, in which error provides the potential conditions for a future truth, was already at work in the seventeenthcentury analysis of false religion.115 In these analyses and after,
religion began to become a relative term, a description of a certain constellation of human practices referring to an abstract god
or gods. At the same time, however, by removing the truth
from religion, the stage was set for a new problem (one that preoccupied all the great anthropologists and sociologists of religion
Edward Tylor, James Frazer, mile Durkheim, Bronislaw
Malinowski and Mary Douglas, to name just a few), that is, the
problem of determining the horizon within which sacred or
religious life can be differentiated from profane or scientic
or everyday life. Now that idolatry that quintessential spectre
of the profane had itself moved into the sphere of religion,
now that researchers had begun to imagine a time when religion
itself was absent, religion began to be understood less in opposition to error and more in opposition to a space of social behaviour outside religious ritual, that space that modern anthropology
would call profane. Just as a sphere for political life gained, in
sociologist Niklas Luhmanns terms, relative autonomy in the
eighteenth century, so too did both the sacred and the profane
begin the process of differentiating into relatively autonomous
spaces of social, cultural and intellectual production.116
When nineteenth-century anthropologists began their investigations of primitive cultures, then, they brought along an entire
intellectual armature inherited from the early modern battles
over the nature of religion. Sociology is the heir of theology, in
Philippe Bucs terms.117 When Durkheim insisted that all known
religious beliefs classify all the things, real and ideal, of which
men think, into . . . [the] profane and sacred and that these are

David W. Bates, Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France
(Ithaca, 2002), pp. x, 33.
Niklas Luhmann, The Differentiation of Society, trans. Stephen Holmes and
Charles Larmore (New York, 1982), 142.
Philippe Buc, The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social
Scientic Theory (Princeton, 2001), 194.



two worlds between which there is nothing in common, he

was thus elaborating a set of distinctions put into play in the
waning years of Europes religious conagrations.118 But this
theological inheritance does not, in my mind, debunk the distinctions. Unlike Buc, whose Dangers of Ritual (2001) ercely
attacks the use of social-scientic categories in medieval history,
or Talal Asad, whose Genealogies of Religion (1993) insists that
the specic Christian history of anthropological categories disqualies them as culturally portable analytical tools, I am not
performing a hermeneutics of suspicion here.119 On the contrary, the reductionism of such categories as sacred, profane
and ritual offers analytic distinctions useful in precisely the
ways that all reductions are, namely by the restrictions they
impose on the vast undifferentiated elds of human existence.
In Luhmanns idiosyncratic though correct terms, it is through
reductions that more complexity becomes visible than is accessible to the observed system.120 Precisely because the analytical
function and the objects it operates on do not belong to the
same logical order, we historians, anthropologists and sociologists are not obliged solely to master a cultures grammar; we
can also describe its grammar in theoretical terms unavailable
to that culture, in other words in reductionist terms.121 Indeed, it
was just this shift of analytical perspective that allowed the
seventeenth-century analysis of religion to move outside of the
confessional self-descriptions of polemical Christian theology,
and to describe a set of complexities in religion invisible to its
adherents. The reductions of social science provided, in this case,
the very tools to cut scholarship free from its religious commitments. In the end, for better and worse, the new anthropology
of religion would, in Asads words, dene religion . . . as a
transhistorical and transcultural function, at the same time as
it would circumscribe the boundaries inside which this function
could play.122 All the worlds peoples got religion, but it was a
religion divorced from the ordinary parts of daily life, bounded


Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 52, 54.

Asad, Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category, 42.
Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, trans. John Bednarz, Jr, with Dirk Baecker
(Stanford, 1995), 56.
Buc, Dangers of Ritual, 226, 227.
Asad, Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category, 28.




in its own regime, distinct from the quotidian. It is hardly surprising that the crucible of the seventeenth century, when Europes
peoples tore themselves apart trying to reconcile religion and
everyday life, rst made this distinction compelling to the scholarly imagination.
University of Michigan

Jonathan Sheehan