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The Protestant Reformation was a religious movement of the Christian church that started in the early 16th century, with the aim of reforming the Catholic Church to end dubious political practices, address corruption, and (ultimately) to return Christianity to something that more closely reflected what Jesus practiced. Although it succeeded in the first goal — the Counter-Reformation proved a significant renewal of the Catholic Church — it failed badly in the rest, as far from restoring Christianity to its original form it included significant doctrinal innovations even with respect to the Catholicism of the time (e.g., the doctrine of the "church invisible" used to justify the split with Rome), and when the enthusiasm of the Reformation had burned itself out the Protestant countries secularized rapidly, taking the lead in the secularism characterizing the Age of Enlightenment. Today, Protestantism in Europe is a shadow of its former self (mainly because most of the fanatics among them felt too constrained by Protestant state churches and lit out to the United States, where they are still causing a spot of bother).
Humanism and equality
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
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.
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dissent and religious diversity than their Catholic predecessors had been, as shown, for example, when Oliver Cromwell rescinded that country's long-time ban on Jews living there.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, 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.)
Traditionally, the Reformation is said to have started when Martin Luther published the 95 Theses, and ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. At the time that Luther published his theses, the Holy Roman Emperor was distracted by an invasion from the Ottoman Empire, allowing more time for Luther to gain political support for his ideas.
Local rulers throughout the empire had other reasons to either support or denounce Luther, as he made a convenient weapon against their feudal ruler, the emperor. Luther also supported the idea of giving monastic lands to the local officials, creating a monetary incentive.
Though tradition asserts Luther's act as the official "commencement" of the Reformation, Luther had intellectual forebears, who wrote on all manner of corruption and misinterpretation within the Church and Church doctrine. Most of them were burned to a crisp, a notable exception being the Waldensians.
Because the Inquisition was very active in Spain, Portugal, and the Italian states Protestantism did not gain much of a foothold. Italy also failed to have a significant presence in the reformation due to the pope personally ruling half of Italy. In France a group of Calvinist-influenced Protestants, called Huguenots, managed to gain a foothold in the south. War eventually broke out between the two sides and after a series of bloody confrontations Huguenot leader Henri of Navarre claimed the throne of France. Although he had to convert to Catholicism to claim the throne, he issued the Edict of Nantes which gave them legal freedom from persecution. His grandson, Louis XIV, revoked the edict and most Huguenots fled France for the New World.
What is now Germany saw the most serious disruptions. The Habsburgs' Holy Roman Empire was tearing itself apart over religious issues, and millions died. Many of the northern provinces had accepted Lutheranism while the southern provinces remained Catholic. In an attempt to bring an end to warfare tearing apart his empire, Emperor Charles V agreed to the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. This treaty allowed the local prince to determine his province's religion. This helped speed the process of disintegrating the Holy Roman Empire into several German states. The peace, however, kept a lid on the situation in Germany, which blew off in 1618 with the start of the Thirty Years War. This war, where various European powers fought each other for both religious and territorial reasons, was finally settled with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and is arguably responsible for creating a geopolitical situation in western Europe that lasted through World War I.
A parallel, but not entirely subordinate, movement in England was the English Reformation, which was sparked off when the Pope refused to grant King Henry VIII an annulment so he could marry a younger woman and father a male heir. Henry VIII broke with Rome, seized large amounts of church property for the State, and thus was born the Church of England. Unlike the Reformation on the continent, the English Reformation was split between those who wished to keep Catholic theology within the English church and those who wished to go in a more Protestant direction (the most extreme of the latter being the Puritans who later migrated to New England in large numbers, influencing much of the untold misery for later generations). After Henry's death his son Edward VI came to the throne. Edward was largely manipulated by his radical Protestant regents into pursuing extreme Protestant religious policies. Upon his death his half-sister Mary I imposed a bloody Catholic reaction. However, she failed to produce an heir and her half sister Elizabeth chose to reconcile the competing theologies in order to prevent more bloodshed in her country. Today, this split is reflected by the "high church" and "low church" camps within Anglicanism.
Counter-Reformation and backwardness
The Counter-Reformation, the Catholics' attempt to clean up their act after the Reformation, blew the lid off their rampant corruption, ushered in an age of reaction that reached its zenith during the height of the Industrial Revolution. At one point Rome considered the telephone to be contrary to natural law, and hence the work of the devil. So in short the Reformation resulted in an infinitely more coherent and disciplined church, which led to the long-term backwardness of southern Europe in comparison to the more capitalist and innovative north, an intellectual revolution of seismic proportions in the history of the continent.
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.
- Schisms. Lots of schisms.
Violent solutions to Church doctrine
Peace may be at the core of Christianity, but like many events in its own history, the Reformation was hardly peaceful.
- France: In France, one of the single most bloody massacres was attributed to the French Wars of Religion, the St. Bartholomew Massacre. In a matter of weeks, the French Catholic government and various Catholic mobs killed between 5,000 and 30,000 to prove they and they alone "had it right".
- Scotland: Mary, Queen of Scots used the reformation as an excuse to eliminate rivals. Mary was a staunch Catholic and had many Protestants killed for their religion, making many Scots leave to Geneva.
- Hungary: Several "battles" were fought over the right to rule with "God at Our side", including the famous Battle of Mohács.
- Thirty Years War, the culmination of the Reformation.