Dictionary Definition: A religious movement of the 16th century that began as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church and resulted in the creation of Protestant churches.
The Roman Catholic Church was very powerful during the Middle Ages, not only religiously, as it was by far the most common religion in Europe, but also politically, as rulers believed that their power increased if the church blessed their reign. It was by far the most powerful institution in Western Europe and the one institution the people of Western Europe had in common. Most people in Europe believed that the only way to heaven was through the Catholic Church. This made the pope the most powerful man in Western Europe. During the Renaissance the Church was needed to finance it’s many large scale building projects and had to pay it’s many artists. The solution: The sale of indulgences. This was a piece of paper that the “faithful” could purchase to reduce the amount of time they would spend in purgatory. It was not only means of generating income but also to maintain power, as it required them to go only through the Church. This upset many, not only the land-owning nobles, but also the peasants. It made many realize how corrupt the Catholic Church was. A German monk by the name of Martin Luther in 1517 decided to nail a list of 95 theses, or complaints, on a church door. This list was widely distributed with the help of the printing press. This list outlined his issues with the Catholic Church’s practices such as the sale of indulgences, which he saw as salvation for Church profit. He also complained about how the Bible should be written in the vernacular, or the local language, and not Latin, which most Germans did not understand. He decided to then translate the Bible from Latin into German. He also questioned the Pope’s religious role. Now let’s rewind a bit to the time before he posted these complaints… Before turning against the Catholic Church, Martin Luther was a Catholic monk from Germany. He visited the Vatican in Rome, which is the home of the Catholic Church, and saw the Renaissance construction that was taking place and that it was clearly being built with the churchgoers’ money. This outraged him and he decided to proceed as he did. Pope Leo X was furious, and ordered Martin Luther to recant, or formally retract his theses. His ideas were spreading through Northern Europe like a wildfire with the help of the printing press, and when Martin Luther refused to recant, he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s followers began to refer to themselves as “Lutherans”, and began to separate form the Church. People also began to assert their own biblical interpretations. Some matched Luther’s and some were very distinct. Another leader of the Protestant Reformation would be John Calvin. John Calvin was from France and led a powerful Protestant group by preaching an ideology of predestination. He believed that God had predetermined an ultimate destiny for all people, most of whom God had already damned. Only a few would be saved, and those people were known as the “Elect”. In the 1530’s the city of Geneva, Switzerland invited Calvin to construct a Protestant theocracy in the city. His teaching became known as “Calvinism”. From there, John Calvin’s teachings spread, and much like Martin Luther’s teachings, were very influential to the successful Protestant Reformation. Over time, the Protestant Reformation spread to England, and this spread was motivated both by political and religious reasons. King Henry VIII did not have a son to be the heir to his throne and sought to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, however the pope denied an annulment of their marriage. Henry VIII was outraged and decided to renounce Rome and make himself the head of religious affairs in England. Many who were already Protestants were pleased to hear this, however there were still Catholics in England. This Church of England became known as the Anglican Church, which still exists today. Because of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church began the Catholic Reformation, also known as the counter-reformation, which occurred in the 16th century. During this reformation, the Catholic Church reformed and gained back some of the people who left the Church for different Protestant denominations. The Protestant Reformation is still very influential today. Both Calvinism and the Lutheran doctrine exist today, however they gave birth to thousands of different Protestant denominations. Today there are many Protestants around the world, but the Roman Catholic Church is still by far the largest church in the world, though it does not have the same power it once did. We also see that the Bible has been translated into almost every language and there are people with different interpretations of the Bible. The Protestant Reformation made the Catholic Church lose this power that it once had, and the influence they once had over Western Europe.