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Protestant Reformation

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Why, for instance, did Martin Luther succeed, whereas other important rebels against the medieval church — like John Huss — fail? Well, Luther was successful because printing had been developed by the time he advanced his cause. So his good earthy writings were put into pamphlets and spread so far and wide that the church officials couldn't have stopped the Protestant Reformation even if they had burned Luther at the stake.
Isaac Asimov[1]

The Protestant Reformation was a religious movement begun in the early 16th Century which resulted in the founding of the various branches of Protestant Christianity. It is generally considered to have begun with the publication of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 and continued through the devastating Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648.

Luther's tract was a list of grievances against the Catholic Church regarding dubious political practices and corruption. From there, and through the efforts of other reformers such as John Calvin and John Wycliffe, the Reformation expanded to become a movement seeking a full-on transformation of Christianity itself.[2] The Reformation quickly drew a large number of people to its cause, many of whom had wildly different ideas as to what Christianity should become. The movement thus diversified and split into a variety of denominations such as Lutheranism, Unitarianism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and Anabaptism.Wikipedia

The core motivation behind the Reformation was theological, though many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism, eroding faith in the pope, the perceived corruption of the Roman Church, the impact of humanism and the Renaissance, and the rapid propagation of religious texts allowed for by the recently invented Gutenberg press. Although the Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation and the creation of the Jesuits, most of Northern Europe is still Protestant to this day.

Dance, Dance, Reformation[edit]

Jan Hus is burned at the stake.

Early schisms: a history of heresy[edit]

In Medieval times, multiple religious movements were declared heretical by the Church. Notable among them are the Fraticelli, who viewed the massive wealth of the Church as a scandalous abandonment of good Christian poverty,[3] the Cathars, who believed among other things that the Church and its members should sever itself from the material world in order to maintain purity,[4] and the Waldensians, a movement considered the Reformation's most direct forefather due to its heavy emphasis on following Christ's example of poverty and simple lifestyle.[5] The common thread of these selected heretical movements was the threat they posed to the material wealth of the Church.

Later theologians also continued this trend. Englishman John Wycliffe spoke against the privilege and power of the clergy, and also supported translating the Bible into local languages to allow the common folk to read it themselves.[6] Wycliffe went on to denounce the papacy as being illegitimate, believing that the only religious teachings should be drawn from the scriptures.[7] The Catholic Church posthumously declared him a heretic, ordering his books burned and his body dug up from its grave and also burned.[8] The heretical Lollard movement took up his torch, although it faced persecution and eventually foundered due to a lack of a printing press in its time.[9]

A similar thinker from Prague named Jan Hus preached similar things and faced a similar fate: being burned at the stake.[10] This led to the formation of the Hussite movement, which was declared heretical by the Church and resulted in the decades-long Hussite Wars.[11]

The Catholic Church was further weakened by the so-called Great Western Schism, a period between 1378 and 1417 wherein there were three popes, all of whom absurdly excommunicated each other and caused ridiculous and embarrassing conflicts.[12] This event had a greatly negative impact on the prestige of the Papacy and the Church as a whole.

Martin Luther and the early Reformation[edit]

Luther refuses to recant during the rap battle Diet of Worms.

The traditional beginning of the Reformation is tied to Martin Luther's penning and publishing of the Ninety-Five Theses. The majority of this publication centers around the idea that the sale of indulgences by the Church is illegitimate. Luther viewed repentance of sin as an internal struggle rather than something the Church could make proclamations on.[13] The Catholic Church's practice of declaring that punishment for sin in the afterlife could be lessened by purchasing certificates declaring a person's repentance was thus unacceptable to Luther.[14] The sale of indulgences greatly contributed to the wealth and power of the Church, and even financed the construction of St. Peter's Basilica.[15] His publication was intended to spark debates among fellow academics, but they instead created waves that attracted the attention of the highest Church authorities.[16] The Curia and the Papacy immediately perceived Luther as a threat.[17] The papal legate at the time reported that “All of Germany is in an uproar. Nine-tenths shout out the battle cry ‘Luther,’ and the remaining ten percent, if they are indifferent to Luther, express the slogan ‘Death to Rome.’”[18] The Church eventually demanded that he recant the Ninety-Five Theses, threatening him with excommunication if he failed to comply.[19] Luther was excommunicated.

After his excommunication, the Holy Roman Emperor declared Luther an outlaw, banned his writings, and called for either his arrest or murder.[20] However, in a stunt worthy of a heist movie, Frederick III the Elector of Saxony arranged for Luther to be intercepted by agents disguised as highway robbers and secreted away to Wartburg Castle for safekeeping.[21] During his stay at the castle, Luther translated the New Testament into German and distributed more writings attacking the Church.[22] These works went after more fundamental aspects of the Church's doctrine, including priestly celibacy and the concept of saints.

Luther's supporters made heavy use of the Gutenberg printing press to distribute his writings far and wide across Northern Europe, thus aiding in the rapid spread of his ideas.[23][24] Widespread disgust for the Papacy and its clergy was extremely prevalent in Northern Europe where the Church's influence was felt more lightly; Pope and Cardinals lived like kings, commanded armies, and became embroiled in political scandals and nepotism.[25] Meanwhile, the Holy Roman Empire was embroiled in a conflict with the Awesomeman Ottoman Empire, thus distracting imperial authorities and giving Luther's ideas more time to flourish in peace.[26]

Protestantism was also far more likely to take root in states where they received support from their crowned monarchs and governors.[27] Most monarchs were not interested in Luther's theological arguments, however; they were instead most concerned with gaining political control over their state churches and increasing their wealth by confiscating the properties owned by the Catholic Church.[28] The Catholic Church at this point in time owned vast amounts of tangible wealth and directly controlled huge swaths of territory. Soon enough, Luther's ideas were adopted by states like Sweden and Denmark, as well as most of the principalities in the northern Holy Roman Empire.

The Reformation branches out[edit]

Destruction of Catholic relics in Zurich, 1524.

Reformed Protestantism[edit]

About a year after Luther's publication, a parallel Reformation began in Switzerland, led by Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli. Zwingli's views were, for the most part, very similar to Luther's, and he even published what he called The Sixty-Seven Conclusions.[29] Despite the similarities in their beliefs, Luther and Zwingli disliked each other over a number of disagreements, most notably over the nature of the Eucharist, which Luther took literally and Zwingli dismissed as "cannibalism."[30] In order to attempt to form a united front against the Catholics, the two men met at Marburg; although they resolved many of their differences, the talks broke down and the two branches of the Reformation parted ways.[31] Zwingli's followers became the Reformed Protestants, and this religion would spread to Scotland, southern France, and the Netherlands.[32] Some of Zwingli's followers saw the rest of the Reformation as being too conservative, and they became a separate movement called the Anabaptists.


See the main article on this topic: Calvinism

Meanwhile, French reformer John Calvin found it prudent to flee his home country due to the French government's increasingly violent crackdowns on the Reformation.[33] Calvin's conversion to the Reformation was gradual, but his work in editing a French translation of the Bible and his later writings made him famous in Protestant circles.[33] Some of his colleagues were struggling to spread Protestantism to the city of Geneva, and they approached Calvin for assistance.[33] Calvin arrived in Geneva and transformed it into a totalitarian theocracy, executing a whopping 58 people in five years for the crime of "impiety".[34] Calvin's Geneva also sent missionaries to other parts of the world, giving rise to creating Presbyterianism in Scotland, the Puritan Movement in England and the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.[34] Despite his zealotry, Calvin was dismayed by the lack of unity among the Reformation's followers, and he attempted to work with Luther to sort things out.[35] It didn't work. Calvin also finalized his own religious movement which, of course, became Calvinism.

Henry VIII.

The English Reformation[edit]

England joined the Reformation under King Henry VIII, which makes it somewhat amusing in hindsight that the king was originally a devout Catholic who wrote the Defense of the Seven Sacraments, a pamphlet designed to refute Martin Luther's complaints against the Church.[36] However, England, as explained above, already had a good long tradition of anti-clericalism and anti-Catholic heresy. The beginning of the end for English Catholicism came when Henry's Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, only bore him a single surviving child: a girl named Mary. Henry became increasingly frustrated with his wife's inability to produce a male heir, something he desperately wanted in order to prevent another dynastic clusterfuck like the War of the Roses.Wikipedia[37] Henry thus had only three options for a male heir: legitimize one of his bastard children, which couldn't happen without the pope, marry off his daughter Mary ASAP and hope for a grandson, or else ditch his wife and marry a new woman, which couldn't happen without the pope. The king's appeals to the Pope for an authorized divorce were all unsuccessful, likely due to the pope being pressured by Catherine's relatives in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.[38]

Frustrated with the papacy's refusals, Henry forced the Acts of Supremacy through Parliament, which demoted the pope and placed England's monarch as the head of the Church of England.[39] Henry then went even further and began a process known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, where he confiscated Catholic Church assets and forcibly disbanded their congregations.[40]

Meanwhile, John Calvin's inroads into England helped give rise to the Puritans. The Puritans were dissatisfied with the new Anglican church, as they felt that it still had too many vestiges of Catholicism.[41] Conflict between the Puritans and the Church of England led to one of the most famous incidents in the history of the United States, where Puritan separatists fled England first to Holland and then to the New World on the Mayflower.[42] Puritan colonies were ruled theocratically for a time, and religious minorities like Catholics and the Quakers were often fatally persecuted.[43][44]

Puritanism also played a factor in the English Civil War, as it heavily determined which side people would choose. The English monarchy's persecution of the Puritans led most members of that faith to support the parliamentarians; Oliver Cromwell himself was a devout Puritan as well.[45] After Cromwell's death, however, the Restoration of the English monarchy led to the purging of Puritans from the government and the outlawing of all Puritan rites.[46]

Dance, Dance, Counter-Reformation[edit]

The Protestant Reformation did not go unanswered, and the Catholic Church sought to reform itself. However, efforts to resist and undo the Reformation unfortunately also manifested as violent purges, massacres, and civil wars.

The Council of Trent

The Counter-Reformation[edit]

The Council of Trent (1545-1563)[edit]

The Counter-Reformation began with the Council of Trent in 1545, an assembly of high-level clergy which aimed to address the concerns raised by the Protestants.[47] Despite failing to heal the religious schism in Europe, the Council did succeed in clarifying many areas of Catholic doctrine and eliminating much of the rot that had set in during the Church's decadent Renaissance days. This had the effect of revitalizing the Catholic religion and preventing the spread of the Reformation into Southern Europe.[47]

The Roman Inquisition[edit]

The Catholic Church also solidified existing offices in Italy under Papal control in order to form the Roman Inquisition, which was tasked with rooting out Protestant heresy in Southern Europe. In 1571, the Inquisition expanded to include the Congregation of the Index, which managed censorship and book controls in order to destroy Protestant writings and prevent them from reaching the peoples of Southern Europe.[48] Unlike earlier Inquisitions, the Roman Inquisition restrained itself primarily to matters of academic and theological concern and thus avoided the major public disturbances and deaths caused by its predecessors.[49]

This is also the same body that would later put Galileo Galilei on trial for his views on the nature of the solar system.[50]

The Jesuits[edit]

The Catholic Church also responded to the Reformation by creating a number of religious orders, most notably the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuit Order. The Society was focused on education and missionary work, although it did push for modernization reforms in the Church such as the elimination of regular fasts and penances.[51] Special emphasis was also placed on obedience to the office of the Papacy, and the Popes came to hold them in such high regard (for a time) that Jesuits were regularly sent into Protestant-controlled Europe to win people back to Catholicism.[52]

French Wars of Religion[edit]

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Religion of peace!

Reformed Protestantism spread throughout Southern France, and French Reformed followers were known as Huguenots. The French crown originally tolerated this until the so-called "Affair of the Placards," when French Protestants posted anti-Catholic pamphlets all over the country, including on the door of the king's bedchamber.[53] This put an end to the French crown's conciliatory policies. This led to the first great wave of repression aimed at Protestants, which notably forced John Calvin to flee the nation and travel to Geneva.

Calvin still took an interest in the religious affairs of his homeland, and he trained missionaries to preach his religion across southern France. The growing Calvinist minority in France eventually set the stage for the brutal French Wars of Religion,Wikipedia which lasted for almost forty years. This period is considered the second-deadliest religious conflict in European history, only surpassed by the Thirty Years War.[54] The French Wars of Religion were known for the many massacres and outrages, most famously the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in which between 30,000 and 100,000 Huguenots were murdered by Catholic mobs across southern France. This marked a turning point in the wars, as the Huguenots were never able to recover from the losses they took.[55]

Eventually, King Henry IV issued the highly unpopular Edict of Nantes, which granted almost complete religious freedom to French Protestants.[56] The enforcement of the Edict changed depending on which king was on the French throne, although hostility towards Protestants never truly ended.[57] This lasted until Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, leading to another great age of persecution for French Protestants.[58]

Spanish Counter-Reformation[edit]

By the time the Reformation began, the Spanish Inquisition was about 40 years old, and it was perfectly capable of suppressing yet more heterodox movements against the Catholic Church.[59] After all, Spain had already been forcibly converting the large Muslim and Jewish population it had ingested after the conquest of Granada.[60] The rulers of Spain had for a long time been enforcing and stressing cultural and religious unity. Spain would enthusiastically support the Counter-Reformation.

The Austrian Hapsburg Counter-Reformation[edit]

Despite the political disposition of the Holy Roman Emperors, both Austria and Hungary enthusiastically adopted the ideals of the Reformation. A very large Reformed following developed in Hungary, especially after they became disillusioned with the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor's inability to protect them from attacks by the Ottoman Empire.[61] A new war against the Turks in 1593 led to an uprising in Hungary, which caused significant problems for the Austrian monarchs.[62] Bohemia, meanwhile, had become solidly Protestant, which should be unsurprising when one views its earlier embracement of the Hussite revolts.[63]

With the massive numbers of Protestants in their lands, the Hapsburgs thus had an urgent incentive to begin purging them as quickly as possible. By the early 1600s, the Counter-Reformation was succeeding, and the Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire formed the Evangelical Union in order to ensure their collective safety.[62] The Emperor and his fellow Catholic princes formed the Catholic League. Things came to a head when Ferdinand II became Holy Roman Emperor, as he was fanatically Catholic and hoped to finish removing Protestantism from the Empire.[62][64] In 1618, Ferdinand dispatched troops to shut down Protestant churches in Bohemia, which kicked off a series of events which began the Thirty Years War. During the war, Ferdinand was able to enforce his rule over Bohemia and either exile or convert its Protestant population.[62]

The Reformation's extent[edit]

At its peak[edit]

The Protestant Reformation.svg

After the Counter-Reformation[edit]

The Counterreformation.svg

Intellectual underpinnings of the Reformation[edit]

Theology/doctrinal differences[edit]

The differences demanded by the Reformers include:

  • Ending of indulgences
  • Repudiation of the concept of Purgatory
  • An end to the politicization and sale of priesthoods and (more importantly) higher positions in the clergy.
  • Veneration of the Saints
  • The importance and "holiness" of the sacraments
  • Celibacy of the clergy
  • And (most controversially) the role of the Pope as God's intercessor.
  • It's not like Christianity has had enough schisms yet, eh?

Humanism and equality[edit]

Like Humanism, which immediately precedes the Reformation, the Reformation is focused on the rights of man, independent of his role in the community, his birth-right or his education. Protestants contradicted Catholic teachings by stating that each person can talk or pray directly to God without needing a priest or a Saint, and that God hears every prayer equally; this was in response to the Catholic Church favoring people who could "pay for salvation" or were heavily connected to the Church hierarchy.

Gain and loss of intellectual freedom[edit]

A common misconception is that the Reformation ushered in an era of free inquiry. In truth, it was a mixed bag that largely depended on which strain of Protestantism came to dominate. Martin Luther, for instance, was initially a strong supporter of freedom of conscience (as expressed in his book On Secular Authority), but would in actuality openly advocate the death penalty for the imagined crime of heresy as well as the slaughter of Jews in his antisemitic "classic" On the Jews and Their Lies.Wikipedia

Protestants in England were somewhat more tolerant of dissent and religious diversity than their Catholic predecessors had been, as shown, for example, when Oliver Cromwell rescinded that country's long-time ban on Jews living there. Likewise, the Catholic Church's initial reaction to Protestantism was to bring down the long arm of the Inquisition (it was during this time when Galileo Galilei was tried for heresy, for instance); in comparison to that powerful apparatus, anything seemed like a breath of fresh air.

However, for every place where the Reformation saw a flowering of intellectual freedom, there was another where it led to repression of such. For example, the puritanical regime of John Calvin in Geneva greatly limited intellectual expression in that city, which hitherto had been a hotbed of libertinism and decadence. The humanist movement, long ascendant in Renaissance Europe and subsequently squashed by the Reformation, was typified by Erasmus,Wikipedia an occasionally insightful but frequently dreadful philosopher. Often, the new Protestant sects that sprang up, such as the radical Anabaptist movements, were far more intellectually stultifying than the corrupt and inept Catholic Church of the day could ever manage to be. (For proof of this, compare the present-day Amish with the society surrounding them.)

See also[edit]


  1. Science, Technology and Space: The Isaac Asimov Interview by Pat Stone (October 1980) Mother Earth News.
  2. Reformation Britannica
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Fraticelli.
  4. Cathars & Albigenses: What Was Catharism? ThoughtCo
  5. Waldenses Britannica
  6. John Wycliffe Britannica
  7. Herring, George (2006), Introduction To The History of Christianity, New York: New York University Press, p. 230.
  8. John Wyclif Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  9. Lollards Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, 2011-02-17
  10. Oberman and Walliser-Schwarzbart Luther: Man between God and the Devil p.54–55
  11. Stephen Turnbull (2004-05-25). The Hussite Wars 1419-36. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-665-2.
  12. Western Schism Britannica
  13. Brecht, Martin (1985) [1981]. Sein Weg zur Reformation 1483–1521 [Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483–1521] (in German). Translated by James L. Schaff. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress. ISBN 978-0-8006-2813-0
  14. Peters, Edward (2008). A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching. p. 13. ISBN 9781595250247.
  15. The Role of Indulgences in the Building of New Saint Peter’s Basilica Ginny Justice, Rollins College, Master of Liberal Studies Thesis.
  16. Hendrix, Scott H. (2015). Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-16669-9.
  17. Pettegree, Andrew (2015). Brand Luther. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-1-59420-496-8.
  18. The Day Martin Luther Was Excommunicated Herman Selderhuis, Crossway, January 03, 2018
  19. Jan 3, 1521 CE: Martin Luther Excommunicated National Geographic Society
  20. The Edict of Worms (1521)
  21. Reformation Europe: 1517–1559, London: Fontana, 1963, 53; Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe's House Divided, 1490–1700, London: Allen Lane, 2003, 132.
  22. Luther, Martin. "Letter 82," in Luther's Works. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann (eds), Vol. 48: Letters I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1963, 48:246; Mullett, 133.
  23. Atkinson Fitzgerald "Printing, Reformation and Information Control" Short History of Copyright pp. 15–22
  24. Rubin, "Printing and Protestants" Review of Economics and Statistics pp. 270–286
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  40. Bernard, G. W. (October 2011). "The Dissolution of the Monasteries". History. 96 (324): 390–409. doi:10.1111/j.1468-229X.2011.00526.x.
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  61. Reformed Church in Hungary Britannica
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