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Ordering Protestant Churches – Visitation and School Ordinances in the Palatinate (1556)

The Protestant reform of churches and schools produced a plethora of laws of purification, regeneration, surveillance, admonition, and correction. The laws reproduced here come from Electoral Palatinate, which experienced no fewer than four changes of religious confession within a single generation from the late 1550s to the 1580s. These Palatine laws are illustrative of legislation that aimed to establish and maintain a new ecclesiastical order among people who were only partly receptive to it. One kind of church ordinance was a visitation ordinance. The Protestant princes and cities typically assumed the episcopal duty and right to pay periodic “visits” to their dioceses’ congregations to determine what needed correction.

In 1556, Elector Palatine Ottheinrich (r. 1556-59) issued his land’s first visitation ordinance. Although the original document has been lost, a surviving account relates its contents (A). It ordered the officials (visitors) to survey local religious conditions and assess the competence of the incumbent clergy. The visitors’ long, comprehensive report sheds light on the administrative strategies that informed the process of reform and confessional consolidation.

Because reforms on this scale could never hope to gain the support of subjects who had experienced the old order, the prince and his councilors pinned their hopes on the schools. They charged the schools with instructing future generations of subjects in basic skills and in the new faith. They clearly understood that failure in the schools would mean failure in the churches. The Palatinate's first school ordinance (B), issued by the Ottheinrich in 1556, placed the organization of schools, the assessment of teacher qualifications, and the curriculum under direct princely administration.

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(A) The Palatine Visitation Ordinance of 1556

Report of the Visitation held in the Electoral Palatinate by the Church Visitors commissioned by his Electoral Grace, our most gracious Lord, the most illustrious, noble Count and Lord Ottheinrich, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Arch-Steward and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Duke of Upper and Lower Bavaria, etc., on November 2nd in the year of our Lord 1556.

[ . . . ] In the ecclesiastical district of Heidelberg, the churches are in very poor condition. With few exceptions, the pastors are either Papists or otherwise incompetent and unlearned people. They are poor as well, and must laboriously stave off hunger with the work of their hands. They have greatly angered their congregations with their inconstancy, having twice gone back and forth between the papacy and the Gospel to please men, and there are many among them who do not consider such inconstancy to be sin, but believe themselves to have acted rightly and well.

We found things to be better in Mosbach. There were three fine, learned men in the city who live together in peace and unity. They preach well, are gracious toward the people, and it is true to say that we have not found any churches in the whole of the Palatinate in which things are in better order than [they are] here. The people like to go to church and diligently send the youth to catechism classes. [ . . . ]

There is a fine pastor in Brettheim, who would like to do what is for the best. Because he was removed from office seven years ago as a result of the Interim, his replacement, who was not only an Interimist (1), but also a Zwinglian (2), left behind a bad seed so that few people attend the Sacrament and at times vexatiously drink the wine to excess and speak of the Sacraments disputatiously and with contempt.

The school has this shortcoming: the schoolmaster is on his own and must conduct school in both German and Latin at the insistence of the parents. [ . . . ]

At Germersheim [ . . . ] there were not more than ten women and the same number of men in church.

In the countryside, there are unlearned pastors (which was evident from the examination), and if a capable and zealous man were to hold the office of Superintendent, it would be a great help to the poor churches, and [is] badly needed.

[There existed as yet no guidelines for dealing with these, nor with the dissenting conventicles (Gemeinschaften), both of whom were left to be dealt with later.]

In the parish of Neustadt, the Anabaptist (3) and Schwenckfeld (4) sects and errors have begun to make an appearance. And, as may be concluded from the statements of pastors, mayors, and church jurists, these two sects have grown enormously throughout the whole area. Their adherents gather in the woods and in other corners in large numbers.

(1) The Augsburg Interim, a provisional statement of faith imposed by Charles V in 1548, accepted communion of both kinds, as well as the unions of priests who had already married, but otherwise ordered a return to traditional practices and teachings.
(2) A follower of the Zurich reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531).
(3) Anabaptists, named after their practice of adult baptism, were adherents of a reform movement whose earliest centers were in Switzerland and Upper Germany. Since 1529, adult baptism had been forbidden under Imperial law on pain of death. The movement was discredited by the reign of terror temporarily established by an Anabaptist group in Muenster (1534).
(4) Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489-1561), of Ossig in Silesia, was a theologian, mystic, and chief proponent of spiritualism. After his death, Schwenckfeld's followers formed a separate, dissident church.

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