Rodney Stark on “The People’s Religion”

I’ve been reading Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity, and I’m struck by what he says about one of my major interests, Christian education, during the Reformation and post-Reformation:


The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) noted that a preacher “may as well talk Arabic to a poor day-labourer as the notions” that the Anglican clergy preferred as the basis for their sermons. By the same token, Martin Luther’s efforts to provide religious education for the German peasants and urban lower classes failed so completely because the lessons were conceived by a university professor primarily far more concerned with intricate theological nuances than with basic themes….

Luther’s error was not unique. All across Europe, the established churches failed to convert and arouse the “masses,” by failing to recognize that it was a job for preachers, not professors. But the clergy seemed unable to grasp the point that sophisticated sermons on the mysteries of the Trinity neither informed nor converted….

As James Obelkevich explained, “what parishioners understood as Christianity was never preached from a pulpit or taught in Sunday school, and what they took from the clergy they took on their own terms…. Since the clergy were incapable of shaping a more popular version of the faith, villagers were left to do so themselves.”…

Although the people’s religion did often call upon God, Jesus, Mary, and various saints, as well as upon some pagan gods and goddesses (and even more frequently invoked minor spirits such as fairies, elves, and demons), it did so only to invoke their aid, having little interest in matters such as the meaning of life or the basis for salvation. Instead, the emphasis was on pressing, tangible, and mundane matters such as health, fertility, weather, sex, and good crops. (265–66)


In short: You have to meet people where they are if you want to hold their attention.