The Contingency of Secularization in the Early Modern West: The Case of Institutional Chaplaincies

Samuel Nelson, McGill University

This paper argues that foundationally decisive processes in the secularization of institutions and public life in the early modern West did not occur through mechanisms of formal differentiation in the manner assumed in much of secularization theory. The processes explored here, that is, entailed neither an internal evolution or external imposition of secular logics within institutions traditionally subject to religious regulation. Neither were they driven by actors motivated by self-consciously secularizing incentives, though they in time yield recognizably modern patterns of secularization—indeed, one should not assume the availability of an essentially modern, and therefore anachronistic, vision of the secular as distinct from the religious. Moreover, and relatedly, the self-evident boundedness of the religious sphere vis-à-vis other institutions should not be taken-for-granted, particularly in the immediate post-reformation context in which the boundary especially between church/religion and government was far from clear. To illustrate this, I explore the development of institutional chaplaincies, i.e. pertaining to the military; the court; to public welfare, charity, education; and to commercial entities. Of importance is the fact that outset of the early modern era of state-formation, the ancient office of chaplain was subject to the relatively flexible, discretionary regulation of their host institution (e.g. army): a delimited, tolerable (if initially minor) state-of-exception to ordinary internal ecclesiastical regulation of clerical personel and functions. I argue that important secularizing processes, supposed to have occurred via the differentiating diminishment of formal religion in various institutional domains (e.g. via rationalization in the Weberian sense, or via self-consciously anticlerical policies) in fact resulted from the expansion of such public institutions, including their initially exceptional chaplaincies now outfitted for more elaborate public roles, especially amid the centralizing penetration of these institutional environments into public life amid state-building in areas of education, welfare and militarization.

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 Presented in Session 61. Religion and State Formation