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A new religion in India: 16th century

Centuries of Muslim rule in north India prompt a reform movement within Hinduism. Nanak, son of a Hindu tax collector in the Punjab, leaves his family in about 1500 to take up the life of a wandering teacher. In doing so, he is part of a long-established tradition. He follows in the footsteps, two millennia previously, of the founders of Jainism and Buddhism.

Nanak's message is one of compromise between Hinduism and Islam. He retains the central theme of all Indian religions (that the highest achievement is to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth) but he rejects two specific characteristics of Hinduism - the Caste system, and the worship of a profusion of colourful idols.

Nanak takes from Islam the concept of monotheism. He teaches that there is only one god, an unknowable being who is manifest in all creation. The name of this being is nam. The way of achieving eventual release from this world, in keeping with Indian traditions, is through meditation and the repetition of nam, the divine monosyllable.

In formulating these ideas Nanak is influenced by mystical and anti-doctrinaire traditions within both Hinduism and Islam. The mystical strand of Hindu devotion is known as the bhakti movement. The equivalent within Islam is Sufism.

The poet Kabir, a Muslim contemporary of Nanak's, is another strong influence. Kabir, himself strongly influenced by Hindu asceticism, preaches a religion of love in which all men are equal before God.

From all these sources Nanak makes his own synthesis. His teaching brings him followers called sikh ('disciple), for whom he is guru('weighty'). Nanak is the first of the ten gurus now considered the founding prophets of Sikhism. Before his death, in 1539, he selects his own successor - a custom which continues until the fourth guru, Ramdas. The remaining six gurus follow by descent within one family.

The religion becomes a power in the Punjab under the fifth guru, Arjan. Between 1581 and 1606 he builds many Sikh temples (gurdwaras) and compiles the holy book of the religion (the Granth, consisting of the writings of the gurus themselves together with related Hindu and Muslim texts).

More conspicuously, Arjan builds Amritsar as a holy city of pilgrimage for all Sikhs. The strength of his sect is now sufficient to alarm the Moghul emperor, Jahangir. Arjan is arrested for disrespect to Islam. He dies, in 1606, after torture. His martyrdom transforms a contemplative sect into one of passionate militancy.

Devotio moderna and Erasmus: 15th - 16th century

During the 15th century there develops in northwest Europe a quiet devotional strain of Christianity so different from the pomp and ceremony of Rome that it seems, with hindsight, part of the complex thread evolving as the Reformation. But its practitioners would be horrified to see themselves in any such confrontational guise.

Known as devotio moderna, the movement derives from the Brethren of the Common Life - a group of both laymen and priests who share a simple life in imitation of the early Christians, devoting themselves to teaching and care of the poor.

A book written during the early 15th century - the Imitation of Christ, probably by Thomas à Kempis - becomes the extremely influential manual for Christian devotion of this kind. Without hierarchy and ritual, the emphasis in such a group is on the personal approach to Christ through the intense study of early Christian texts.

Such texts, originally in Greek, have in recent centuries been familiar only in the Latin of the Vulgate. In trying to go back to the early sources, these northern scholars share an interest with the pioneers of the Renaissance in Italy.

The education of Erasmus in the Netherlands in the 1470s is tinged with the influence of the devotio moderna. Like the brethren he can be seen as part of the trend towards the Reformation, though he strenuously avoids endorsing it.

His attitude to the materialistic papacy of the early 16th century (as seen in Julius Exclusus, a satirical play probably from his pen) is essentially that of the reformers. His careful edition of the Greek New Testament is in keeping both with devotio moderna and the Reformation - though one significant distinction remains. Erasmus translates the Greek in 1516 into Latin. Luther, just six years later, translates it into German.

Spark of the Reformation: 1517

Martin Luther, a man both solemn and passionate, is an Augustinian friar teaching theology at the university recently founded in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony. Obsessed by his own unworthiness, he comes to the conclusion that no amount of virtue or good behaviour can be the basis of salvation (as proposed in the doctrine known as justification by works). If the Christian life is not to be meaningless, he argues, a sinner's faith must be the only merit for which God's grace might be granted.

Luther therefore becomes a passionate believer in an alternative doctrine, justification by faith, for which he finds evidence in the writings of St Paul.

Nothing could be further from the concept of justification by faith than the widespread selling of indulgences in Germany in 1517 to raise money for the new St Peter's. Luther has often argued against indulgences in his sermons. Now he takes a more public stand. He writes out ninety-five propositions about the nature of faith and contemporary church practice.

The tone of these 'theses', as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying gist, apart from overt criticism of indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints' in Wittenberg, as Luther does on 31 October 1517, he is merely proposing them as subjects for debate.

Instead of launching a debate in Wittenberg, the 95 Theses spark off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The Reformation ravages western Christendom for more than a century, bringing violent intolerance and hatred into some Christian communities down to the present day.

No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force, the brutality and the bitterness which begins in Wittenberg in 1517. The principalities and towns of Germany are violently split on the issue of reform, from Worms in 1521 to Augsburg in 1555. Protestants suffer such atrocities as the St Bartholomew's Day massacre - but they also treat each other with equal ferocity, as experienced by the Anabaptists.

Militant Sikhs: 1606-1699

The murder of the Sikh guru Arjan in a Moghul gaol in 1606 causes his son Hargobind, the sixth guru, to begin training his followers as soldiers. The 17th century brings constant friction in the Punjab between the Moghul administration and the Sikhs.

In 1675 the ninth guru, Teg Bahadur, is executed in Delhi by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb. His son, the tenth and last guru, Gobind Rai, takes the step which finally gives the Sikh community the characteristics for which it is known today.

At the Hindu new year in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh initiates five of his followers into a fraternity which he names Khalsa ('pure'). Each of them is given a new name, to be followed by Singh ('lion') - a last name shared by Sikhs ever since.

Gobind Rai makes the K of Khalsa a ritual theme for the new group. Each of the five founding members swears to keep five Ks: he will wear his hair long and uncut (kesh), with a comb in it (kangha); he will wear shorts suitable for fighting in (kachha), will have a steel ring around his right wrist (kara), and will carry a sabre (kirpan).

In the next few days thousands of Sikhs are initiated into the Khalsa fraternity. The five Ks, and the accompanying commitment to fight physically for the faith, become the symbols of orthodox Sikhism.

Gobind Rai's four sons all die before him. With no direct heir, he proclaims in 1704 that he is the last of the ten human gurus. He is to be succeeded by an immortal guru - the holy book of the Sikhs, the Granth. Readings from the Granth become the central ritual of the religion. Influenced from the start by Islam, with its respect for 'people of the book', Sikhism develops into the religion with the most sacred book of all.

The Book of Mormon: 1823-1830

In 1823, in western New York state, the 17-year-old Joseph Smith receives a vision. As he describes it, a heavenly being appears to him and identifies himself as Moroni, a prophet from an ancient American people descended from the Hebrews. These people arrived in America across the Pacific, Moroni explains, and they have descendants among the American Indians. The prophet reveals that in about420 he buried gold tablets containing these truths at a site nor far from Joseph Smith's home.

Four years later Smith acquires the tablets. They are engraved with a text by another prophet, Mormon. Smith finds that he can read the 'reformed Egyptian' characters (Champollion has deciphered real hieroglyphics during the 1820s).

By 1830 the holy text is translated and ready. The Book of Mormon is published in Smith's home town of Palmyra in an edition of 5000 copies. It includes a preface in which several witnesses attest to having seen and even helped to lift the heavy plates. But soon after publication the angel Moroni returns to take them into safe keeping.

Upon this book, and the evidence of his own visions, Joseph Smith builds a church which he and his followers see as a reforming sect within Christianity. This is reflected in their chosen name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - though outsiders have more often called them simply the Mormons.

In Mormon theology the Old and New Testaments are the first holy texts, to which are added the Book of Mormon and various other truths later revealed to Joseph Smith. All other Christian churches have gone astray, it is argued, because a break in ordination in the line from Jesus has rendered their priesthoods invalid.

By contrast the apostles Peter, James and John are said to have returned to ordain Joseph Smith, making the Mormon priesthood the only one with any Christian validity. This doctrine has not inclined other churches to recognize the Latter Day Saints as a Christian sect.

Joseph Smith's personal charisma, together with the appeal of the Book of Mormon, brings many enthusiasts into the young church. But their attitudes inevitably lead to friction with their Christian neighbours. Within a year or two Smith considers it wise to lead his followers west from New York state in what proves to be the first in a series of forced migrations.

The Mormons settle in Kirtland, Ohio, then in Jackson county, Missouri. After an initial welcome, they are soon the victims of violence in both places. In 1839 they move on to a swampy site on the east bank of the Mississippi which they name Nauvoo. Here they rapidly create the largest town in Illinois, with a population of some 20,000.

Again things soon go wrong. Disagreements in 1844 between Smith and opponents within the Mormon community lead to legal charges being brought against him, soon followed by his arrest. But while he is in the county gaol at Carthage awaiting trial, a mob storms the building and shoots both him and his brother Hyrum.

This renewed violence prompts the Mormons, led now by Brigham Young, to move on once more. And they take a bold decision. They will build Zion in a place where no one else could possibly want to live. They have already identified a likely site, around a great salt lake west of the Rockies. Intending to make the wilderness bloom, out of harm's way, they undertake one of the great migrations of 19th-century America.

The Mormons and Salt Lake City: 1846-1896

The Mormons' great trek to the west could hardly have started in worse circumstances. In February 1846 the first groups begin to cross the Mississippi, which is about a mile wide at Nauvoo. The river is freezing but not yet frozen. Several craft capsize, drowning their passengers. A few days later the river is covered in ice and wagons and animals can be driven across.

At last the entire expedition is over the river (they are travelling heavy with all their possessions, including 30,000 head of cattle) but progress is slow through marshy regions even after snow and torrential rain have given way to summer heat. It becomes evident to their leader, Brigham Young, that they must sit out the next winter beside the Missouri.

The place which they call Winter Quarters, on the west bank of the Missouri, becomes an established staging post. Here Mormon parties in later years prepare for the last stretch of the journey. After this first winter, of 1846-7, Brigham Young sets off again. His pioneers join the Oregon Trail at the Platte river, but they keep to the north bank - safely separate from the other 'gentile' immigrants moving along south of the stream.

By July 1847 the vanguard is through the South Pass and into Salt Lake valley. Within a few months the rest of the group follow safely, some 1600 people. By 1869, when the railway arrives, about 80,000 have made the arduous journey in wagons or on foot from Winter Quarters.

Brigham Young selects the site for Salt Lake City before returning to Winter Quarters to bring out another group of Mormons in 1848. Meanwhile the ground is being marked out according to a plan for the city of Zion drawn up by Joseph Smith. The Temple is to be built at the centre of a rectangular grid of main streets forming large square lots, each of ten acres.

Founded as a religious community, the new Salt Lake City makes no distinction between church and state (in this respect even going beyond Calvin's Geneva). Districts are administered by leaders who are both bishop and magistrate. The highest executive body is the Council of the Twelve Apostles, of which Brigham Young is senior member for thirty years.

These circumstances give the Mormons of Salt Lake valley a strength unique among settlers. Those who arrive here combine the toughness of pioneers with the discipline and obedience of monks and nuns.

Under the strong leadership of Brigham Young small groups of families are sent into neighbouring regions to establish outposts of the Mormon community (similar to the settling of colonies in the early Roman republic). In these places, extending north into modern Idaho, ambitious programmes of irrigation are carried out. Riches are conjured from the desert. Non-Mormon pioneers, moving on further west, trade with the Saints for fresh produce on their journey.

Salt Lake City thrives and - as Brigham Young intends - becomes the centre of a world-wide community of Latter Day Saints. Brigham Young himself, as early as 1840-1, spends a year in England preaching the message and gathering in converts. As a result of his efforts, and of others after him, many Mormon pioneers on the trail through the Rockies are immigrants from Europe.

Mission work remains a central theme of the Mormon community, with thousands of full-time missionaries today in numerous countries. Many are young men devoting two years of their lives to the cause. In the 1990s there are some 10 million Latter Day Saints around the world.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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