Religious causes

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Reformation was a religious movement of the 1500's that led to Protestantism. It had a tremendous impact on social, political, and economic life. Its influences are still felt today. The movement began in 1517 when Martin Luther, a German monk, protested certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church. About 40 years later, Protestantism was established in nearly half of Europe.

Before the Reformation, Europe had been held together religiously by the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, Europe had several large Protestant churches and some smaller Protestant religious groups. All of these churches competed with the Catholic Church—and with each other—for the faith and allegiance of the people.

Religious causes. During the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, missionaries had converted many European peoples to Christianity. The pope gradually took on greater importance and authority in the church and in relation to the secular (nonreligious) rulers. In the early 1200's, Pope Innocent III claimed that "Ecclesiastical liberty is nowhere better preserved than where the Roman church has full power in temporal as well as spiritual matters." But about 100 years later, in 1303, King Philip IV of France humiliated Pope Boniface VIII by having him arrested (see Philip IV). The secular rulers were growing in power, and the church was no longer a serious threat to them.

In the 1300's and 1400's, the church suffered several serious setbacks. In 1309, the French Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, a city on the border of France. The papacy remained there for about 70 years. This period was called the Babylonian Captivity. It was named for the 70 years that the Biblical prophet Jeremiah predicted the Jews would spend as captives in ancient Babylon. In 1378, after Pope Gregory XI moved the papal residence back to Rome, a small group of French cardinals elected another pope, called an antipope (see Pope [The troubles of the papacy]). For nearly 30 years, there were two popes. After 1409, there was a third pope, who lived in Pisa, Italy. This split caused great confusion in the church. Some Catholic leaders believed that the church should be ruled by church councils rather than by a pope. Such councils met in Constance, Germany, from 1414 to 1418 and in Basel, Switzerland, from 1431 to 1449. The councils called for a "reform in head and members."

Serious abuses also had appeared in the church. The large administrative structure of the church required a great deal of money to support it. To get this money, the church used many devices that hurt its spiritual nature. These devices included selling important positions in the church. In Italy, the popes and higher clergy lived like secular princes. They built lavish palaces and indulged in corrupt financial practices. The religious life of the church suffered. The sacraments were often celebrated mechanically. The church's spiritual message about God's mercy also was weakened by an emphasis on a person's good works.

Critics of the church included the religious reformers John Wycliffe in England, John Hus in Bohemia, and Girolamo Savonarola in Italy. These men protested the abuses but could not stop them. Some thinkers within the church, including Johannes Eckhart and Thomas a Kempis, emphasized a mystical approach to Christianity. But no one could restore the church's spiritual health and moral purity.

Leo X (1475-1521), was pope during the climax of the Renaissance in Rome, but he also faced the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. Leo was elected pope in 1513. He was a pleasure-loving man and a patron of the arts. He spent lavishly on papal court spectacles and on patronage for scholars, composers, and artists.

Leo was born on Dec. 11, 1475, in Florence, Italy. His given and family name was Giovanni de' Medici. His father was the powerful Florentine leader Lorenzo de' Medici. During Leo's reign, France and Spain engaged in a long conflict for dominance of Italy. Leo tried to preserve papal temporal (nonreligious) power, maintain the independence of Florence, and advance his family's interests. The Reformation began in 1517. But Leo was preoccupied with the cultural life of Rome, Italian politics, growing Ottoman power in the Mediterranean, and the election of a Holy Roman emperor in Germany. He was slow to grasp the seriousness of the Protestant challenge. His condemnation of Protestant leader Martin Luther in 1520 was too late to be effective, and the Protestant split from Rome became permanent. Leo died on Dec. 1, 1521.

Cultural causes. Beginning in the 1300's, a great revival of learning and art called the Renaissance developed in Italy and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Europe. Between 1300 and 1500, universities more than tripled in number. The Italian author Petrarch pioneered in the revival of classical studies—the literature, history, and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. Renaissance humanists believed that by returning to the classics, they could begin a new golden age of culture.

The interest in ancient civilizations encouraged by the Renaissance had an important effect on religion. The study of Hebrew and Greek enabled scholars to read the Holy Scriptures in the languages in which they originally had been written. Also, in studying early Christian times, scholars saw how the church had changed through the centuries. The invention of movable type in Europe in the mid-1400's helped spread learning and criticism through printed books. As a result, an increasing number of people outside the clergy gained an education during the Renaissance and Reformation.

Economic causes. During the Middle Ages, Europe had an agricultural economy. Most people were peasants. They lived in villages and tilled the soil with simple tools. Beginning in the 1100's, cities began to increase in size, especially in Italy and the Netherlands. Merchants traded woolen cloth, glassware, iron implements, and other manufactured goods for raw materials such as furs, wood, and wool. As the cities grew wealthy and independent, they threw off the control of local lords and prince-bishops. Many turned to kings or the emperor for protection.

Martin Luther. The Reformation began within the Catholic Church itself. On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a monk and professor of theology, wrote his Ninety-Five Theses. According to tradition, Luther posted his theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The theses were a series of statements that attacked the sale of indulgences (pardon from some of the penalty for sins). Luther later criticized what he considered other abuses in the church.

Luther believed that people could be saved only through faith in Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus could righteousness sufficient for salvation be found. Luther's view of religion placed a person directly before God, trusting God and relying on his forgiving grace. Luther taught that God justifies human beings. By that he meant that God makes them righteous through his kindness to them. This doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone was the heart of Luther's belief. It contradicted the church's teaching of grace and good works as a way to salvation.

In January 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and declared him a heretic. Emperor Charles V and members of the imperial diet ordered Luther to appear before the diet in Worms, Germany, in April. There, Luther was ordered to recant (take back) what he had said and written. Luther replied in a famous speech: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience."

In May 1521, the emperor signed the Edict of Worms. This document declared Luther to be an outlaw whom anyone could kill without punishment. However, Frederick the Wise, Prince of Saxony, feared a revolt and protected Luther. Luther continued to lead the Protestant movement until his death in 1546.

The word Protestant (one who protests) dates from the diet of Speyer, Germany, in 1529. There, princes who supported Luther protested the anti-Lutheran actions forced on them by the emperor and the Catholic nobility. In 1530, the Lutherans presented the Augsburg Confession to the diet of Augsburg, Germany. The main author of the confession was Philipp Melanchthon, Luther's chief colleague in the Reformation. The confession became the basic statement of Lutheran doctrine. In the Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555, the Lutheran churches were officially recognized in the Holy Roman Empire. Each ruler was allowed to choose the religious faith of his land. See Augsburg Confession.

The introduction of Lutheranism into Scandinavia was largely the work of the Swedish and Danish kings. In the 1520's, King Gustav I Vasa of Sweden took over much church property. He introduced Lutheranism in Sweden and in Finland, which was then under Swedish control. In 1536, King Christian of Denmark and the National Assembly made Lutheranism the state religion. They also established it in Norway, which was then a Danish province.

Zwingli and the Anabaptists. In Switzerland, Huldreich Zwingli led the movement for religious reform. Zwingli was a priest in Zurich. He was an eloquent preacher and a great Swiss patriot. Zwingli died in 1531 in a war against Catholic forces. But his ideas of reform continued to inspire the Swiss Protestant churches. In 1529, Zwingli and Luther met in Marburg, Germany. There, they discussed their disagreement over the interpretation of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper. Luther regarded this sacrament as a means by which God gave people his grace. He believed in a real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Zwingli considered the sacrament a thanksgiving to God for grace already given in other ways, especially through the Gospel. He believed the bread and wine were powerful symbols of Christ's body and blood. The quarrel between Luther and Zwingli led to the first major split in Protestantism.

In Zurich during the 1520's, a group known as the Swiss Brethren decided that the Scriptures did not teach infant baptism. Conrad Grebel led this group. The Swiss Brethren favored adult baptism. They were called Anabaptists (rebaptizers). The Anabaptists were not satisfied with Protestant efforts to reform Christianity. They withdrew from religious and secular life and formed their own communities. The Anabaptists were the ancestors of the modern-day Amish and Mennonites. The Anabaptists were persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities.

John Calvin helped establish Protestantism in Geneva, Switzerland. From there, he directed efforts to convert the people of France and other countries of western Europe. Calvin, a refugee from France, had studied law and the classics before becoming a Protestant. He had an iron will and a great gift for organization. Calvin's Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) established the structure of a presbyterian form of church government in which a council of elders rules each church. His influential Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in 1536, offers a clear, systematic presentation of Protestant teachings.

Calvin's followers in France were called Huguenots. They came from all classes of society and included some influential noble families such as the Bourbons. Supported by Spain, France's Catholic kings attempted to suppress the Huguenots in a series of religious wars from 1562 to 1598. Beginning on Saint Bartholomew's Day, Aug. 24, 1572, the pro-Catholic party murdered thousands of Huguenots in Paris and in the French provinces. But Protestantism survived as a minority religion, even in France.

In England, as in Scandinavia, the Reformation was established by an act of state. But its success was due in part to anticlerical sentiment among the people. The immediate cause for England's break with the Catholic Church was the refusal of Pope Clement VII to annul (cancel) King Henry VIII's marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had borne only one child who survived infancy—a daughter. The king wanted to marry Anne Boleyn in the hope that the marriage would produce a male heir to the throne.

In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This act made the monarch the head of the church in England. Henry VIII remained basically a Catholic. However, Protestantism made great advances under his son, Edward VI. Queen Mary I succeeded Edward in 1553. She restored Catholicism as the state religion of England, and she suppressed the Protestants.

Queen Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 to 1603. She established a moderate form of Protestantism that became known as Anglicanism. The Thirty-Nine Articles, issued in 1563, presented Anglican teachings. They were approved by Parliament in 1571. Some English people, called Puritans, wanted additional reforms. For example, they opposed Anglicanism because it was episcopal (governed by bishops). The Puritans preferred the presbyterian form of church government. Catholicism was officially banned. See

In Scotland, John Knox introduced Calvin's teachings and presbyterian system. In 1560, the Scots made Protestantism their state religion. England forced Ireland to adopt Protestantism as the state religion. However, the Irish people remained loyal Catholics. Protestants colonized northern Ireland, also known as Ulster. The conflict there between Catholics and Protestants is still a serious problem today.

Results of the Reformation

Religious influences. As a result of the Reformation, Europe was divided between the Catholic countries of the south and the Protestant countries of the north. Many Protestant denominations developed, and they were organized in different ways. In many parts of Europe, religious diversity created a need for religious toleration and a respect for the individual conscience. The Reformation also stimulated reforms in the Catholic Church. The church gained new purity and strength from the middle 1500's into the 1600's in a movement called the Counter Reformation (also called the Catholic Reformation) (see Counter Reformation).

Political and social influences. The establishment of state churches, as occurred in England, reflected the growth of nationalism. Lutheran regions tended to be conservative and supported strong central governments. Calvinist areas, where Protestants were often in the minority, tended to support democracy and argued for a citizen's right to oppose tyranny by monarchs.

Luther and other Protestants regarded life in the world as the "sphere of faith's works." They opposed celibacy (avoiding sexual relations) among monks and nuns. They also idealized family life and participation in community activities. The Protestant stress on the holiness of daily life encouraged industriousness, thrifty living, and careful management of material things. This attitude became known as the Protestant ethic. It may have contributed to the growth of industry and commerce during the 1700's and 1800's. See Protestant ethic.

Protestant leaders also emphasized education. They promoted literacy, an education based on ancient Greek and Roman literature, and a high respect for teachers and learning.


Calvinism. From its beginning in 1517, the Reformation brought religious and political opposition from the Catholic church and from civil rulers. By 1546, many Protestants in Germany, Switzerland, and France were insisting that the people—not just kings and bishops—should share in political and religious policymaking. This idea influenced Calvin and his followers in France, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands. Calvin's French followers were called Huguenots. In England, Calvin's influence was especially strong among the reformers known as Puritans..

The Calvinists developed political theories that supported constitutional government, representative government, the right of people to change their government, and the separation of civil government from church government. Calvinists of the 1500's intended these ideas to apply only to the aristocracy. But during the 1600's, more democratic concepts arose, especially in England and later in colonial America.

Calvin agreed with other early Reformation leaders on such basic religious teachings as the superiority of faith over good works, the Bible as the basis of all Christian teachings, and the universal priesthood of all believers. According to the concept of universal priesthood, all believers were considered priests. Catholic priests were set apart from lay people by their power to perform the sacraments.

Calvin also declared that people were saved solely by the grace of God, and that only people called the Elect would be saved. Only God knew for sure who the Elect were. For Calvin, however, those who believed in his teachings and were not public sinners were accepted as church members in Geneva. Calvin expanded the idea that Christianity was intended to reform all of society. He lectured and wrote on politics, social problems, and international issues as part of Christian responsibility.

Many of Calvin's ideas were controversial, but no other reformer did so much to force people to think about Christian social ethics. From this ethical concern and Bucer's ideas, Calvin developed the pattern of church government that today is called presbyterian. Calvin organized the church government distinct from civil government, though the two governments often cooperated with each other. He was the first Protestant leader in Europe to gain partial church independence from the state.

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